- - Tuesday, December 9, 2014


Please forgive the frustrations of an old soldier who has more in common with unemployed returning veterans than with the aging, prosperous Baby Boomers of his own generation. Who has read enough history to understand the likely fate of a nation so dismissive of God and Country that it declares war on Christmas but not on ISIS.

When the weightiest White House pronouncements mostly provoke contempt, it seems that in every capital except Washington, DC, leaders understand Santayana’s famous proverb that those who do not understand history are condemned to repeat it.

Those words are the first the visitor sees upon entering the world-class Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas, a logical destination last Sunday, December 7th. Deep in the Texas Hill Country, Fredericksburg was the boyhood home of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, one of that war’s greatest heroes. If you want to understand how his character was developed, look deeply into the earnest eyes of the bright young midshipman pictured on the wall.

But then look even more closely at the bearded grand-father proudly sitting next to him, the embodiment of German immigrant frontier culture, ramrod straight and tough-as-nails. It was a community built around churches that truly lived their faith, decent people who opposed slavery and concluded with their Comanche neighbors one of the few Indian treaties scrupulously observed by both parties. Long before his naval career began, young Chester Nimitz learned that success in life depended on character, lessons which proved crucial to the nation after Pearl Harbor.

One of the museum’s most compelling exhibits from that awful day is a sea-scarred armored hatch cover cut from the super-structure of the USS Arizona, where over a thousand sailors died. What kind of character, what prodigies of toughness did it require from a leader who first had to command himself, to cope with the enormity of that monumental defeat? In his foreword to the classic analysis of the December 7th attack, Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling put it best in words equally applicable on 9/11: “The results at Pearl Harbor were sudden, concentrated and dramatic. The failure, however, was cumulative, widespread and rather drearily familiar.” Among those drearily familiar failures was a hard-pressed intelligence effort which knew that a Japanese attack was imminent: But where and when?

While salvaging, repairing and re-fitting the wreckage of the Pacific Fleet, Nimitz also became a voracious consumer of intelligence. He told his intelligence officers to take on the personalities of their Japanese counterparts, understanding their capabilities and anticipating what their intent might be before the next attack. As always, the Japanese were the main enemy, the headquarters staff toads of the Navy Department in Washington a close second. Six months into the war, Washington feared that the next Japanese attack would come in the Aleutians or even the west coast of the United States. However, the intelligence staff under Nimitz was certain that Midway was the next target, confirming it with a brilliant deception plan still taught in our intelligence schools.

Even so, the victory at Midway depended on split-second timing, a certain amount of luck and great personal sacrifice. Among the latter: Torpedo Squadron 8. Its determined attacks disbursed the air defenses over the Japanese carriers –and left them burning after ensuing attacks by American dive bombers. Only one man of that squadron survived the battle. Several years ago, the museum re-united the American and Japanese air crews who had fought in the skies over Midway. An American tail gunner waggled his finger playfully through the hole in his flight cap made by Japanese machine gun bullets. A slight, gentle Japanese octogenarian was a charming guest until his picture from 1942 - the young samurai warrior in flight suit and rising sun head scarf - reminded the audience of why death came so suddenly and to so many.

But Pearl Harbor and Midway were only the initial battles in the long march back across the Pacific. All the American forces contending in those inaugural struggles were put in place with considerable reluctance by a political establishment that witnessed the steady rise of militarism in Europe and Asia. That institution was nevertheless seduced by the wishful thinking of appeasement and isolationism, the “soft power” of that day. Maybe that is why Nimitz - at war’s end and with Guadalcanal, Okinawa, Pelelieu, and Iwo Jima now behind him – told a joint session of Congress: “I pray that no future war will ever again find us unprepared.”

Although Chester Nimitz was a 20th century American admiral whose character was tempered by the hard school of the 19th century Texas frontier, any Roman general would have understood -and agreed.  


Ken Allard, a retired Army colonel, is a military analyst and author on national-security issues.


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