BLUF

The USA defeated the Japanese Navy at the Battle of Midway because of poor Japanese planning, groupthink, and the failure of the Japanese to allow any criticism of their flawed operational plan.

Summary

The term devil’s advocate refers to the process in the Catholic Church of creating a Saint. The church appointed lawyers whose job was to scrutinise every detail of the proposed saint’s life to make sure there were no character flaws preventing sainthood. If the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) had taken a devil’s advocate approach to planning and decision making before the Battle of Midway—the results might have been different.
Key points:
  • Japanese mariners had tactical brilliance and élan.
  • Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, in overall command, was held in such high regard few dared question him.
  • Groupthink pressures that silenced would-be dissenters resulted in the Japanese navy producing a flawed plan.
Battle of Midway May 1942.
  • Midway is a tiny island about 1000 miles west of Hawaii in the Hawaiian chain.
  • It is called Midway as it is about midway between San Francisco and Tokyo.
  • The Doolittle Raid (bombers launched from an aircraft carrier) on Tokyo in April 1942 convinced the Japanese of the urgency of drawing out and destroying American aircraft carriers.
  • Japanese industry could not compete with American industry in warship production, so a quick victory was necessary.
  • The Japanese at the time had a stronger fleet than the Americans, so it made sense to force the Americans into battle by attacking a strategically important American asset such as Midway Island.
  • In the act of doublethink, the Japanese convinced themselves the Americans had no will to fight yet would counterattack anyway.
  • The Japanese held a war gaming exercise without testing assumptions and without a devil’s advocate.
  • Groupthink allowed the Japanese to assume that the Japanese navy would easily defeat a passive US Pacific Fleet.
  • The Battle of Midway ended Japan’s run of naval victories, just as Milne Bay ended the Japanese land-based forces run of victories.
Lessons for today’s leaders
  • Leaders need to create an environment where subordinates can respectfully question decisions and judgements.
  • Military science is never settled.
  • A devil’s advocate is required to subject all proposals to penetrating scrutiny to improve the final decision or product.