By the time of his death by from U.S. warplanes on April 18, 1943, Isoroku Yamamoto, architect of Japan’s Pacific naval war strategy, could see its impending failure. Sixteen months earlier, after the successful attack on Pearl Harbor, that path had seemed promising, although he was taking a major gamble that U.S. military commitment to the Pacific would just go away. Today we would call this Magical Thinking.
The May 1942 Battle of the Coral Sea, the Battle of Midway two months later, and the Guadalcanal Campaign culminating early the following year, had shown that the U.S. would never retreat. Worse yet, unlimited industrial capacity allowed the U.S. to make good all its battle loses. Japan’s naval and air power diminished month by month leading to the inevitable conclusion of their defeat.
The Japanese could have responded by developing a new strategy. Instead, they took this as their way: We will choose death and defeat before we will change course. Japan’s leadership could see that the war effort had gone badly wrong but continued to lie to their citizens about what was happening. They persuaded the public to suspend disbelief to make them believe what could not possibly be true. The Japanese were convinced to overlook the disappearance of their military forces, the devastation of their economy, and even the bombing of their cities.
When that fig leaf finally dropped, they were convinced to support an evil, corrupt government and their attendant greed-motivated industrial corporations by an appeal to patriotism (the last refuge of all scoundrels). I don’t know for sure, but perhaps at their right-wing political conventions they mindlessly chanted, “Kill Baby Kill!”
Admiral Yamamoto could not find a way out for his country, but he may have come up with a way out for himself. Personal humiliation comes out of being found out as a liar. Propaganda can cover up lies for a long time, but not forever. Although he was needed at headquarters, he decided to fly off to make an inspection tour of an island base, a risky move given the increasing danger of American air power. He knew of this danger and no doubt was warned not to take a risk better assumed by a more junior officer.
Did Yamamoto choose his own death rather than live with the humiliation that all he had believed in was a lie? Is death preferable to admitting that a long-standing way of life is morally and functionally wrong? Is this cowardice or insanity or both?
Is it possible that an entire civilization can ignore the disappearance of our fellow creatures, the collapse of the economic well being, and the corruption of government and corporate officials? If the leadership of a country follows insane policies (even while well compensated for doing so), should citizens share that insanity?
Moral: The belief that we can continue on a path of purposeful destruction without creating dire consequences is clearly false.
<Chrysanthemum photo from Wikipedia>