Midway between luck and skill

I’m not sure what this world is coming to (admittedly not an infrequent observation on my part), but the best book on military history I’ve read this year was written by a lawyer. Dallas Woodbury Isom is a retired law professor from Willamette University in Salem, Oregon who decided to explore the reasons for the Japanese defeat at the Battle of Midway because he found the existing explanations insufficient; the result was the book Midway Inquest: Why the Japanese Lost the Battle of Midway. I haven’t finished it yet, but I can already say it’s an excellent piece of work, as his lawyerly standards for evidence and inquiry match the standards required to do good history—and he’s a good writer, to boot. The book’s critical contribution, and the reason it will almost certainly be a major landmark in WWII history, is the significant amount of primary research Dr. Isom conducted in Japan, both in official Japanese sources and through interviews with survivors of the battle. He notes that as a result of his research, “many of my findings will be surprising to devotees of the battle, and some are bound to be controversial in the military history community”—but though his argumentation is marred somewhat by faulty assumptions (he does not, after all, have any first-hand experience of carrier operations in specific, or military operations in general), his evidence is so solid and his conclusions so carefully marshaled that I expect his work will stand whatever scrutiny it receives.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Dr. Isom’s work to me is the number of times he uses words and phrases like “fortuitous,” “miraculous,” “bizarre twist of fate,” “sheerest accident,” and “incredibly bad luck” in describing the events of the battle. At one point he notes that “the luckiest break of the entire day for the Americans came out of what could have been a disastrous blunder: an inaccurately plotted ‘interception point’ based on the erroneous PBY sighting report.” Luck plays a significant role in most battles, but at Midway, that was true to a remarkable degree. If you tried to write this in a novel, critics would complain that you were stretching the reader’s credulity beyond the breaking point; and yet, it happened in real life. The crowning irony here, though, comes in Dr. Isom’s conclusion, after he has constructed an alternate-history scenario based on a Japanese victory at Midway:

In a chronicle replete with ironies and paradoxes, the final irony is that Japan’s defeat would almost certainly have been much more horrible had it won the Battle of Midway than it was having lost it. All in all, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Japan was lucky to lose at Midway. Such are the vagaries of war.

The reason I find this all very interesting is that Dr. Isom has no stronger word to describe all this than “luck,” which is why he must repeatedly add adjectives like “incredible” and “bizarre”; though he does at one point use the epithet “miraculous,” he shows no sign of actually believing in miracles. From a Christian point of view, however, I’d call this something else: divine providence. If “coincidence is God acting incognito,” this many remarkable and improbable coincidences constitute a place where God is visible through the disguise, at least to those who have eyes to see. And as Dr. Isom carefully argues, this wasn’t merely to America’s benefit; as I would say, it wasn’t just God acting on behalf of America to ensure the US won the war because we were the good guys. Rather, in the long run, it was just as much to the good of the Japanese, given how things likely would have unfolded with a Japanese win at Midway; God was at work to bring about what was best for both sides. Such are the vagaries of war? Yes, from a human perspective; but more than that, more meaningfully than that, such is the providence of God—who is ever redemptively at work in human history, even when his hand is hard to see. So I believe, and so I affirm—and so Dr. Isom shows me in his account of the Battle of Midway, even if he doesn’t see it himself.

Posted in Books, History, Military.

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