Irrational Actors: The Battle of Leyte Gulf

By Robert M. Citino
6/5/2012 • Fire for Effect

Last week we were discussing the Battle of Leyte Gulf, especially the lopsided balance of forces. By now the U.S. Navy had become an all-conquering behemoth and the Imperial Japanese Navy had become the Incredible Shrinking Fleet. The Americans had more destroyers than the Japanese had carrier aircraft, U.S. destroyers at Leyte alone outnumbered all of those in the entire Japanese navy, and the Japanese had more or less lost the ability to destroy an American ship in conventional combat. If ever a moment had come for the IJN leadership to have an “agonizing reappraisal,” one of those long, dark nights of the soul when you wonder where your life is heading, this was the one.

Unfortunately, no one in Tokyo appeared to be in a reflective mood. It is easy to assume that the side losing a war decisively will see reason and try to extricate itself before being crushed. Call it the “rational actor model,” the notion that human beings are thinking creatures, that they try to seek pleasure and avoid pain, that they 1) add things up and then 2) act upon the math. The rational actor model is an appealing way to analyze historical events. Indeed, it is the bedrock principle of historical scholarship. You analyze even the craziest event of the past, and then you try to explain just what the heck the historical actors were thinking. Trying to make sense of it all is the historian’s job description.

The only problem is that all too often, it isn’t true. Things don’t make sense. Let’s be honest: In extreme circumstances, people tend to fool themselves, perhaps even lie to themselves. They engage in groupthink, a kind of communal pep talk that says if They All Simply Pull Together, things will get better. The rational actor model? Try to sell that to the Wehrmacht in 1943.

And so the Japanese responded to their brutal plight—outnumbered, outproduced, and outclassed—by launching another offensive in late 1944. “Sho Ichi Go” (Victory Plan 1) was unusual in that it was a massive engagement fought after the issue of the war had already been decided. The United States had already achieved both naval and air supremacy in the Marianas in summer 1944. The decisive battle was over. Now, in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the Japanese were seeking little more than a “fitting place to die.” Their planning documents actually use that phrase, along with an eagerness to “bloom as flowers of death.”

Which seems to make no sense at all. But perhaps that’s just me. Maybe I am just too wedded to the material world.

Or maybe not. Maybe it makes no sense at all.

Let us leave that point in abeyance for the time being. What really intrigues me about Leyte Gulf is how powerfully this non-rational strategy (“irrational” has too many overtones of “crazy”) seemed to impact the operational plan. The more you hold to Clausewitz’s notion that “even the simplest thing is difficult” in war, the more ridiculous Victory Plan 1 plan looks. Historians often lash the IJN, quite rightly, for the complexity of its operational plans throughout the war, but this one raised complexity to the level of a parody. Consider these ingredients: a continental-sized theater of operations, comprising 1000s of miles of open ocean; limited Japanese resources split up into no fewer than four task forces (Kurita’s First Strike Force, further separated into Force A under Kurita and Force C under Nishimura, sailing up from the south; Shima’s Second Strike Force, sailing down from the north; and Ozawa’s Carrier Force, carrying very few aircraft and used here essentially as a decoy); all of them carrying out a baroque series of converging and diverging thrusts.

It seems like a perfectly reasonable plan, but only if you happened to be planning an assault on a nearby hill by an infantry company. It was nearly impossible to carry out for any fleet at any time in the war. Hell, it would have been difficult to carry out as a fleet exercise in the absence of an enemy. The chance of the IJN executing it with limited resources in 1944? How does “absolute zero” sound?

The resulting battle shook out into four far-flung engagements (the difficult Japanese passage of the Sibuyan Sea, the last great battle-line action in history in the Surigao Strait, the uneven but heroic fight between Kurita and the “tin can sailors” off of Samar, and, of course, Admiral William F. Halsey’s foolhardy side trip to Cape Engaño). The resulting quadripartite structure is probably beyond any human ability to analyze properly. Even calling it the Battle of Leyte Gulf is a misnomer. It wasn’t a battle, but a massive, nearly formless melee, and it was fought in all sort of places beyond Leyte Gulf. But whatever it was, none of it worked.

Oh sure, we all know that the U.S. Navy had some bad moments, most of them courtesy of Bull Halsey. I talk to a lot of people nowadays who think he should have been relieved for cause a long time before Leyte Gulf. It is fair to ask, however, if the Navy could have busted a commander whom most Americans regarded as one of their greatest wartime heroes? Let’s just say, “the world wonders.” At any rate, any navy can afford bad moments, perhaps even a few bad commanders, when it outnumbers its opponent so decisively.

As for the Japanese, what they cooked up at Leyte Gulf may have been fascinating, but it was hardly war. Their next stop down the road seems almost logical: the kamikaze.

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