March 15, 2014

War Lite

Just a brief endorsement of the wildly successful iPad app Pacific Fleet, a sandbox naval simulation which is, if not exactly accurate, still diverting and even beautiful.  In this scene I command Battleship Yamato, which has an Essex class carrier and a heavy cruiser in its sights (they got the art so right in this game I had to take a snapshot of the scene):

The scene is just a fantasy - Yamato could never have approached so closely, if only because its top speed of 27 knots would not it allow it to catch the speedy Essex carriers, which could make 33 without much trouble.  And, of course, the Americans had good radar.  And, of course, Yamato's inferior anti-aircraft defenses meant it would have been reduced to scrap by American planes had it ever attempted such a maneuver.

Knowing, this, the Japanese generally kept Yamato operating in a ceremonial role, and it did a bang-up job hosting parties and accommodating German emissaries (the maniacs at have summarized the ship's operational record here).

The one time Yamato had a chance to put some ordnance on a U.S. aircraft carrier, at the Battle Off Samar, it scored a couple of hits on the doomed Gambier Bay, and was then gently ushered away from the action before it had a chance to pull a hamstring or something.  And that was the only ship-to-ship combat Yamato saw in the war.  In the full scope and breadth of World War II, it fired its guns at a surface target once.  Its existence changed nothing.  Its feats of arms cannot be measured with a microscope.

The supremacy of Yamato remains a compelling fantasy, however, a shared fantasy between victor and vanquished.  Just as the British venerate Bismarck (but oddly, not its sister ship Tirpitz) which in reality could not have stood toe-to-toe with a single Iowa class battleship, Americans venerate Yamato (but oddly, not its sister ship Musashi).  It is always better, when writing history, to defeat a worthy opponent, not an incompetent one.  So, for purposes of American schoolboys, Yamato was the most fearsome dreadnought ever devised, not a pretty stat-chasing novelty act crewed by the mediocre children of 2nd- and 3rd-tier aristocracy.

The Japanese obsession with Yamato approached cult-like devotion during the war, and was enlarged and nourished by the sci-fi anime Space Battleship Yamato (link) and the Japanese Saving Private Ryan, Otoko-tachi no Yamato (literally, The Men's Yamato).  Here is an excerpt, showcasing the understated narrative technique that distinguishes Japanese cinema:

I think Yamato is best understood by the same logic as the Stuka.  It was conceived and operated as a propaganda device, not as an effective weapon.  Once effective weapons were brought to bear, its weaknesses were ruthlessly exposed.  It was an effective propaganda tool, however, and remains so to this day, a ghostly relic of the imperial dreams of a failed elite.


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