James Holmes

The Real Fog of War: Assumptions

“A lesson from 1905: to succeed in international competition, take off your cultural blinkers…”

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.