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The Perils of Surprise

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

“Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

The United States was at peace with that nation, and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its government and its emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific. Indeed, one hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in the American island of Oahu, the Japanese ambassador to the United States and his colleague delivered to our secretary of state a formal reply to a recent American message. While this reply stated that it seemed useless to continue the existing diplomatic negotiations, it contained no threat or hint of war or armed attack.

It will be recorded that the distance of Hawaii from Japan makes it obvious that the attack was deliberately planned many days or even weeks ago. During the intervening time the Japanese government has deliberately sought to deceive the United States by false statements and expressions of hope for continued peace.

….Japan has, therefore, undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area. The facts of yesterday and today speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our nation.

As commander in chief of the Army and Navy I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense. But always will our whole nation remember the character of the onslaught against us. . .

Indeed we have remembered. Remembered much yet learned little.

As the number of WWII veterans decreases with each year, we should recall the visceral anger most Americans felt toward Japan at the time. It was a white hot rage that caused previously powerful isolationist sentiment to vanish overnight. Only with patient difficulty did FDR, Marshall and other senior American leaders persuade an aroused public of the imperative strategic need for a “Germany First” policy. Nazi Germany was the foe Americans knew we must defeat but the Imperial Japanese were the ones we hated.

Racism is usually trotted out as the trite explanation. While it is true most white Americans of that generation harbored  racist assumptions about East Asians this prejudice hardly stood in the way of warmly embracing Chiang Kai-shek’s China, or later figures like Syngman Rhee and Ngo Dinh Diem and the countries they led. No, what galled Americans was that the Japanese had taken us by surprise! The Japanese had embarrassed America by catching us with our pants down, but more importantly that had done it by cheating! They had, you see, attacked us by surprise.

The US government probably should not have been surprised. Imperial Japan struck Tsarist Russia’s far eastern fleet in much the same way in the Russo-Japanese War. The Imperial Japanese Navy had used the question of a hypothetical attack on Pearl Harbor for thirty years in training officer cadets. We were economically squeezing Japan’s access to oil and iron in an effort to hobble their war machine and pressure them into settlement with China and regurgitating their foreign conquests, at least some of them. Conquests which in the quasi-autarkic world of managed trade and western monopolies in raw materials that Japanese militarists saw as crucial for the survival for their empire. Coupled with intelligence warnings, we might have at least been on our guard.

We were not. Japan however, paid dearly for their stupendous triumph at Pearl Harbor. They reaped the whirlwind. So too did Germany. While Joseph Stalin may have been the only person in the world who was surprised when Hitler unleashed the blitzkrieg on the Soviet Union, he was the one person who mattered most. In the long run, it meant Germany’s utter ruin. Tactical surprise is a great advantage but it is hard. Converting tactical surprise into strategic success is a lot harder. While both Sun Tzu and Clausewitz are enthusiastic regarding the potential of surprise, it is mostly on the tactical level and only rarely, as Clausewitz admitted, is it parlayed in the “higher provinces of strategy”. Instead we can expect, too often as he cautioned, “a sound blow in return”.

Why is this?

The reason is that humans are adaptive. If the blow by surprise is not lethal enough to finish them off or convince them to accept terms, after the initial shock and confusion subsides a thirst for revenge may come to the fore. Perhaps even at the expense of rational interests or self-preservation. They may be willing to change forever from what they were to become what can win.

Surprise is perilous.

6 Responses to “The Perils of Surprise”

  1. Cheryl Rofer Says:

    I have been thinking about the value of surprise in relation to Vladimir Putin’s moves in Ukraine. Surprise always gives a temporary advantage, which, as you note, vanishes and even reverses quickly.
    Something I would add to what you said is that it can’t be used twice, particularly in rapid succession. So taking Crimea was easy, the Donbas not so much.
    And now Putin seems not to know what to do next. Others have pointed out that he’s much better at tactics than he is at strategy.

  2. Lexington Green Says:

    “They may be willing to change forever from what they were to become what can win.”
    Protracted wars often lead to the brutalization of the combatants.
    There is a great scene in War and Peace, where Andrei Bolkonsky, who was always a rationalistic person influenced by the Enlightenment, says the entire French Army, which destroyed his home and killed his father, should be killed to the last man, and for the Russians to take no prisoners. A vivid example of this process.

  3. zen Says:

    Hi Cheryl,
    The Donbas is also something Ukraine is less able to concede as Crimea was Ukranian in about the same way Konigsberg is Russian and the Donbas is too economically important to give up. nor are the Russian-speakers there nearly as keen to join the Russian Federation.
    I agree with you Putin’s move into Donbas was more tactical than strategic. There’;s no natural frontier or political stopping point, or exit strategy. Had Putin done a ju-jitsu move of appearing magnaminous and patching things up quickly with Kiev, or going through such motions, the Euros would have been contented with grumbling over Crimea and the Russian economy would not be getting kicked in the gut right now.

    Hi Lex,
    Great example. I also think about the Athenians in the Peloponnesian War and their increasing ruthlessness, hubris and cruelty, having begun the war on the diplomatic-moral high ground and with a strategy of restraint. Likewise, Sparta was transformed by victory from the preeminent power of the Greek world into a hollow shell which was rolled up and humbled permanently by Thebes a few short years later

  4. larrydunbar Says:

    “I also think about the Athenians in the Peloponnesian War and their increasing ruthlessness, hubris and cruelty, having begun the war on the diplomatic-moral high ground and with a strategy of restraint.” In that context, do you also think about the CIA torture report? What do you think about the ignorance-is-no-excuse coming from the Bush Whitehouse? It should give the Conservatives a few more points from their base. Probably not enough to give the Neo Conservatives more power, but still a definite weakness to the Progressives. Makes Rand Paul and his Spartan support of committing 80,000 troops to the cause inviting.

  5. T. Greer Says:

    In 135 BC the Han court convened a war council. The topic at hand: the Xiongnu. The chanyu wanted to the renew the existing heqin treaty. The young Han Wudi was not willing to treat the barbarian chanyu as an equal anymore.


    The emperor’s will did not carry the day. Voices arose arguing that a war without he Xiongnu would be too long, too hard, too costly. The empire had nothing to gain from starting a conflict it could not finish.


    The next year the court convened again. A young official named Wang Hui came forward with a plan. A merchant friend of his had relations with the Xiongnu. H eoculd lead the Xiongnu to a Han city on the pretense that its leader had been killed and its goods would be open for the looting. Han armies would lie hidden in armies near by. When the chanyu and his forces came into the valley the trap would be sprung, the armies would rush out, and the problem would be solved. It would hardly cost anything.


    The emperor agreed to the plan. The trap was laid, and according to plan the Xiongnu and his troops appeared at the edge of the valley. They noticed something strange, however — there were no farmers tending their fields. The Xiongnu sent out scouts until they found a Han guard post. The captured soldier revealed the plan and the Xiongnu retreated back to the grassland. Wang Hui did not follow them.


    The surprise attack of Mayi was a failure. The battle that was supposed to end the war in one fell swoop never happened. The war that was supposed to be prevented was instead started. It would end eighty years later.


    And Wang Hui? Wudi ordered his head chopped clean off. He committed suicide before the executioner had the chance.


    Perilous indeed.

  6. zen Says:

    Hi T. Greer
    Most excellent story. The Chinese are often a pragmatic people.
    BTW caught your OODA request, trying to answer it in a post
    Hi Larry,
    Yes, the CIA Report – albeit drive-by, intellectually lazy and partisan (and within the Dem side, factional) – does throw a bright spotlight on the own-goal moral debacle of having the US officially approve the use of torture. And in a (very) small way that is akin to the moral decline of the Athenians.
    The problem here is the principle of the thing, not its efficacy. I would not be surprised if in some instances, torture or torture in combination with carrots and persuasion yielded some useful information. If we were able to get useful info *every* time the CIA tortured a captive it would not mitigate the self-inflicted damage, though it might explain the temptation better than the often crap results we really had. Basically, we threw away a longstanding global reputation of being different from the Russians, the Egyptians, the South Africans or even the French. It’s never coming back.
    And for what? The small positive fear reaction in some unlettered tribal goof when a red-faced Army captain threatened to “send you to Guantanamo!” ? So what? By 2009 any midlevel or higher bad guy knew that was an empty bluff.
    Stupid and malicious in a small way. If torture was the key to victory, Algeria would still be French

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