The Real Fog of War: Assumptions


This week’s case for the Strategy & War Course at the U.S. Naval War College is the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, for which I deliver the opening lecture to our student body. I get as much out of studying this episode in Asian history and strategy as (I hope) NWC students do. For an obscure conflict that convulsed the Far East only briefly a century ago, it’s amazingly rich in insights into contemporary Asia.

The war represented part of China’s long century of humiliation, which commenced by the 1840s with the Opium Wars. Like nature, politics abhors a vacuum. The Qing Dynasty was in steep decline by the turn of the century, unable to withstand repeated foreign interventions. Its implosion sucked in ambitious outsiders. Japan turned the regional order upside down with the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895. Tokyo and St. Petersburg continually intrigued to expand their interests, and territorial holdings, at the expense of a China that could no longer hold Manchuria or dominate the Korean Peninsula. By 1904 the Japanese leadership decided it was now or never, and the war was on with a nighttime torpedo attack on the Russian naval squadron at Port Arthur, on the Liaotung Peninsula.

Probably the biggest takeaway for newcomers to this case is the degree to which strategic culture can deform perceptions of oneself and adversaries. A sort of cultural garbage-in/garbage-out effect grips many belligerents — oftentimes, sadly, including America. Few and far between are the clear-eyed net assessments proffered by Athenian first citizen Pericles and Spartan king Archidamus soon before the outset of the Peloponnesian War.

Compared to the imperial regime, the Russian military and naval establishments took a respectful attitude toward Japanese prowess. For his part, Tsar Nicholas assumed Russian forces could in effect repeal Japan’s Meiji Restoration of 1868. The army could crush Japanese expeditionary forces that ventured onto continental Asia. The navy could steam across the Yellow Sea, mounting an invasion of the Japanese home islands and forcibly returning the island nation to its pre-maritime state.

Such assumptions, compounded by difficult logistics and atrocious execution of military strategy, allowed Japan to eke out a narrow victory marked by triumphs such as the naval battle at Tsushima Strait. Wreckage from two Russian fleets strewed the Yellow Sea bottom owing to Admiral Togo’s efforts. You know what they say about assumptions.

If Russians of the day denigrated the Japanese, contemporaries like Theodore Roosevelt ridiculed the Russians, as do Dennis and Peggy Warner, who co-authored the standard work on the subject. The Warners present a Dean Wormer appraisal of the Russians: fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life, son! This is unduly harsh, but triumphalism was one Japanese takeaway from the war. It took an encounter with Soviet forces commanded by Marshal Zhukov, at Nomonhan in 1939,to restore some sobriety vis-à-vis Russian skill and resolve on the battlefield. After getting spanked by Zhukov’s forces, Imperial Japan decided it had had enough of tangling with the Soviet Army.

But that, as they say, is a story for another day. A lesson from 1905: to succeed in international competition, take off your cultural blinkers—or at least recognize that they exist.

December 17, 2012 at 02:36

Love the lines about strategic culture.  Capability changes culture.  Much like the fleet the United Sates built in the 1890's changed America's strategic culture, China's new navy is changing the outlook of the Chinese nation.  New tools rearly go unused, and the PRC has a shinny new hammer in its right hand. 
Perhaps a nuance is the tool in China's left hand: The alphabet soup of paramilitary maritime forces.  Call it a rubber mallet, rather than a hammer.  Perhaps the ability to use a less overtly aggressive tool in any given situation will have a softening effect on Chinese strategic culture.  Or perhaps it will simply free the PLAN up for other activities.    

December 16, 2012 at 13:55

So I was reading about the possiblities in the OC plan over at the Naval Acedemy Bolg or in Proceddings november edition online. The OC strategy posits that China can not possibly benefit from fighting past the first chain of islands and simply would fail to defend its shipping and thus its economy if the US built more Virginia Class subs and harrassed Chinese Shipping. The strategy presumed successful then went on to allow commerce to recommence in China after the war and similar to after Vietnam, Burma but not so much Japan, we let them think they have won, even though even they know they didnt. Isint the same thing happening now in Gaza with Hamas getting its ass kicked but among its own people its managed to gain support and now Hamas banners read Victory. So after reading the OC strategy I thought to myself even if they didnt win, but you let them think they did by not denigrating them for example are you just fighing for the sake of it! Well kids, unless we discover how to travel faster than the speed of light and move to another galaxy, is there really anything else to do? Afraid not. 

December 15, 2012 at 13:49


"Never fight a land war in EAST Asia. South Asians and West Asians are very different people."
So the U.S should fight more land wars in west asia like in Iraq and Afghanistan? 


December 15, 2012 at 01:16

Never fight a land war in EAST Asia. South Asians and West Asians are very different people.

December 15, 2012 at 01:15

Japan right now does not want conflict with China. Japan has dispute with South Korea. Not North Korea. Russia is not going to return the north islands. So, it is not up to Japan to settle the dispute with Russia either. East Indians are blinded with their obsession with China.

Devindra Sethi
December 14, 2012 at 15:44

Professor Holmes has correctly highlighted Japanese defeat against Field Marshall Zuhkov in 1939. Stalin soon thereafter brought him to the Western Front against Nazi Germany. The Field Marshall broke the back of the german army and his assault on Berlin with a thousand guns is legendary. There is a lesson in that. Will Mr Putin in his second avatar rebuild his army and navy to Soviet standards as he pivots his nation to Asia. It appears he is attempting that and considering the rising temperatures in the East Sea between Japan & China, maybe not a day too soon.
Russia has two important facets as a nation.It is not Energy dependant and it has a highly developed Military Industrial Complex.With improvement in Statecraft, Governance, Foreign exchange reserves of $500billion+, &  pmt. membership of the UN Security Council, it will emerge on the international stage in 2013 / 2014.
Japan should resolve the Kurile Islands dispute soon with Russia by proactive negotiations.That will enable it to focus on China & North Korea.

December 14, 2012 at 14:10

"A fundamental flaw among CPC leadership, is the lack of knowledge of basic world history."
Are you confusing Sarah Palin or George W. Bush with CPC leadership? Don't talk rot. I noticed you keep on making garbage baseless remarks on China. Your ignorance on China is quite deep. From your posts, I can tell that you have a very poor understanding of China and the chinese people. If you keep on read garbage neo con books on China, it won't help.

December 14, 2012 at 06:12

Home and border are two different things. For example, distance to Guam is a distance to a border, not to home. Read the books from Sun Tze and Mao.

Chuck Hill
December 14, 2012 at 06:00

The Russians had lots of problems: Transportation of religious Icons was given precidence over war material.
The single rail line bringing in supplies was not allowed to run at night because it disturbed a high official's sleep.

Leonard R.
December 13, 2012 at 13:53

Neither Japan nor Russia were 'far away from home' during the Russo-Japanese War. In fact, what was then known as 'Port Arthur' was almost exactly the same distance from both Vladivostok and Fukuoka – approximately 600 miles.  Look it up. 
 A fundamental flaw among CPC leadership, is the lack of knowledge of basic world history. That is one reason for its numerous foreign policy blunders. They don't understand how the world views their actions. There is something very wrong if Chinese are taught the Russo-Japanese War was fought far away from Russia's home territory. Manchuria was on Russia's border.
There were problems of distance for Russia. But they had nothing to do with Russia's border. They arose from the missallocation of military resources. The Russian Navy had to move a large part of its Baltic fleet around the world to the waters near Dalian. But the Russo-Japanese War was not far fought from the border of Russia itself.
I do agree about one thing. The PLA should not be mocked or denigrated. The PRC is the dangerous enemy America has faced since World War Two. It needs to be taken very seriously. 

Matt Armstrong
December 13, 2012 at 07:38

I thought it was "Never fight a land war in Asia"?
Unless you're Russia; then "Don't fight a war at sea in the Pacific".

December 13, 2012 at 01:38

The lesson should be. Never wage a war far away from your home.

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