Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Principled Warfare II: Samurai Combat Done Right (And Wrong)

Welcome to installment 2 of our 5 part series on the Joint Operating Principles and their application to pre-modern Japanese warfare. Go here for the Introduction and Part One of the series, where I examined the Principles of Objective, Offensive, and Mass. Today we’ll look at Maneuver, Economy of Force, and Unity of Command. Since I already did the explanation of what we’re doing in the first post, I’ll just jump into it today.


(1) The purpose of maneuver is to place the enemy in a position of disadvantage through the flexible application of combat power.

(2) Maneuver is the movement of forces in relation to the enemy to secure or retain positional advantage, usually in order to deliver—or threaten delivery of—the direct and indirect fires of the maneuvering force. Effective maneuver keeps the enemy off balance and thus also protects the friendly force. It contributes materially in exploiting successes, preserving freedom of action, and reducing vulnerability by continually posing new problems for the enemy. [1]

Every military commander wants to be in the best position to attack and destroy the enemy. Sometimes that means moving around to the side or rear and surprising him; sometimes it means getting to a certain place, like the defensible high ground, first before the enemy so you have the advantage that location gives you. The way this is done is through maneuver, which as the second bullet says is moving in relation to the enemy to gain the advantage. Like in a wrestling (or judo, or whatever) match, you want to pin your opponent and prevent them from escaping while at the same time being free yourself to move how you want.

The first example for maneuver that we’ll look at is the engagements between the Uesugi and Takeda at Kawanakajima. While everyone remembers the violent and bloody 4th Battle of Kawanakajima in 1561, it is important to keep in mind that the two sides faced off at the same location three times before that (1553, 1555, 1557), and one time after (1564). In each of these other contests, the opposing armies withdrew after posturing and minimal combat. What was the difference between these four engagements and the 1561 battle? Maneuver...or rather, lack thereof.

In the first three engagements, both sides arrived at Kawanakajima (a plain in northern Shinano province, which now is the location of Nagano City) and took up defensive positions on high ground on either side of the plain. The terrain is such that neither side could venture into the center without exposing itself to attack, and neither side could determine a way to maneuver around the enemy’s flank without abandoning its defensive position. Consequently, after sitting for a while and watching each other, both Kenshin and Shingen would realize the other wasn’t going to make a mistake and move, and so they would retreat to conduct operations elsewhere.

Takeda Forces Maneuver Across the River at Kawanakajima
4th Kawanakajima, however, is different, because at the 1561 contest, one side concocted a scheme to tactically maneuver and gain an advantage. It’s interesting to note that the sides in this engagement were quite larger (20,000 Takeda vs 12,000 Uesugi, about 40% more on each side) than previous battles. Why is this important? Because with 20,000 troops, Takeda Shingen had enough that he felt he could split his force in two, maintaining some defense on the hills to the south of the Kawanakajima plain while maneuvering a force around the hills the Uesugi occupied to the north, attacking them from the rear and catching them between his two forces. He understood he needed to move his forces, or maneuver, to put them in a position of advantage relative to the Uesugi. 

Unfortunately for Shingen, Uesugi Kenshin saw what he was doing, and also maneuvered his force to take advantage of the situation. Kenshin moved under the cover of darkness from his positions on the high ground down to the valley below and attacked Shingen’s weakened position, almost overrunning it before the detached force that was supposed to surprise the Uesugi arrived to salvage what was becoming a Takeda defeat. Historians debate who was the victor in this battle (for the record, the Uesugi clearly won a tactical victory in my eyes, as they destroyed a higher percentage of the Takeda force than they lost, and defeated Shingen’s tactical plan), ultimately it doesn’t matter as the end operational and strategic result was the same as the previous battles—both sides retreated with no strategic or operational gain. The 1564 battle was a return to the previous pattern, with both sides setting up defensive positions, observing the other side, and eventually withdrawing. I guess Shingen and Kenshin had learned their lesson three years previously.

Fighting at Yamazaki, 1582
Another example of maneuver (among other things) winning a battle is the 1582 Battle of Yamazaki between Hashiba (later Toyotomi) Hideyoshi and Akechi Mitsuhide. If you’ll recall, Mitsuhide had just assassinated Oda Nobunaga, hegemon of central Japan, 13 days earlier and effectively controlled the capital of Kyoto. No rivals were in position to stop his takeover, as they were all engaged fighting Nobunaga’s campaigns in other theaters. Hideyoshi completed a hasty peace with the Mori, whom he was beating pretty badly at this point, and rushed his forces back to the capital region to engage the Akechi. While we can travers his route from the Okayama area to Kyoto now in an hour or two on the bullet train these days, for him to end fighting, negotiate a peace settlement, and turn his 20,000 man army around and march them all the way to Yamazaki to encounter Mitsuhide’s force is staggeringly impressive. His ability to maneuver completely took Mitsuhide by surprise and gave him considerable advantage.

At the tactical level, maneuver played a huge part at Yamazaki as well. The battle began as a race to the promontory of a mountain, as each side recognized that holding the high ground would be key to deciding the battle. Without going into too much detail, forces under Hideyoshi got their first, claiming the terrain and putting the Akechi forces at a distinct tactical advantage.

Economy of Force

(1) The purpose of economy of force is to expend minimum essential combat power on secondary efforts in order to allocate the maximum possible combat power on primary efforts.

(2) Economy of force is the judicious employment and distribution of forces. It is the measured allocation of available combat power to such tasks as limited attacks, defense, delays, deception, or even retrograde operations to achieve mass elsewhere at the decisive point and time.

This Principle boils down to using the bulk of your resources to accomplish those key tasks necessary for victory, and not on things that have little or no effect on the success or failure of the operation. To do otherwise is wasting your efforts. Consider attacking an enemy castle: if you have good security and are not worried about enemy forces coming from elsewhere to attack you from the rear, you would not leave half of your force to guard your supply train. A few soldiers left behind to raise any warning necessary and watch your horses would suffice, while the bulk of your army attacks the castle, to put the necessary mass (see, they all relate) in position (i.e., maneuver) to exploit the weak points in the enemy’s defenses. 

Ueda Castle, where Tokugawa Hidetada wasted time and did not practice Economy of Force!
Economy of force is perhaps best described through an example where it failed. During the 1600 Sekigahara campaign, Tokugawa Ieyasu charged ahead west with his main force to confront Ishida Mitsunari’s coalition in central Japan, meeting them in battle at Sekigahara in Mino province. Ieyasu’s son, Tokugawa Hidetada, was sent along a different route with 38,000 men to meet his father at the battlefield; together they would have had overwhelming force against the enemy. However, along the way Hidetada passed Ueda Castle, held by the Sanada family who opposed the Tokugawa, and he decided to attack it despite orders from his father to bypass it and hurry along to the main battlefield. Even though he only spent a short amount of time trying to take Ueda before he gave up and moved on, it was enough of a delay that Hidetada’s force missed the Battle of Sekigahara completely. Thankfully for the Tokugawa, due to other Principles we will discuss in a bit, the Tokugawa won the day and went on to rule Japan for over 250 years. However, Hidetada’s 38,000 troops were completely wasted, and could have been the difference between victory and defeat. You better believe Tokugawa Ieyasu let his son know this! 

Unity of Command

(1) The purpose of unity of command is to ensure unity of effort under one responsible commander for every objective.

(2) Unity of command means that all forces operate under a single commander with the requisite authority to direct all forces employed in pursuit of a common purpose. During multinational operations and interagency coordination, unity of command may not be possible, but the requirement for unity of effort becomes paramount. Unity of effort—the coordination and cooperation toward common objectives, even if the participants are not necessarily part of the same command or organization—is the product of successful unified action.

You’ve no doubt heard the phrases “Too many cooks spoil the batter” or “too many chiefs, not enough Indians”. These both allude to the fact that systems work best with one person in charge giving one vision for the rest to follow. This is why the military is not a democracy. Operations simply do not work if everyone involved gets to do their own thing. There must be one commander, and everyone has to work towards his objective for things to succeed.

Let’s return to Sekigahara for a perfect example of Unity of Command in action. On one side, you had Tokugawa Ieyasu, a clear leader. Respected by all, even his enemies, there was no doubt who was in charge of the eastern forces. Daimyo that chose to side with the eastern side were choosing to be led by Tokugawa Ieyasu; there was no challenge to his leadership.

On the western side, you had…well, you had a loose coalition. There were a variety of motivating factors for daimyo to choose the western side: loyalty to Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s memory, fear of Tokugawa Ieyasu, a vague sense of how things should be. One thing that wasn’t a motivation was strong coalition leadership. Ishida Mitsunari, the de facto head of the anti-Tokugawa, pro-Toyotomi forces, was generally disliked by most of the daimyo in the coalition. He was not seen as a strong leader, and was not even seen as an equal by many of the daimyo in the western coalition. Several prominent daimyo chose to join the Tokugawa, motivated by their hatred of Mitsunari (Kato Kiyomasa is the most notable example); changing the political leadership of the country was preferable to having to work with “that guy”. Though in command, Mitsunari wasn’t even the “head” of the western coalition; that fell to Mori Terumoto, who wasn’t present at Sekigahara, and who was a representative of Toyotomi Hideyori, the seven year old heir of the late Hideyoshi.

Shimazu Yoshihiro, as seen at Sekigahara Warland Theme Park
This lack of unity of command for the western forces seriously hampered their efforts. Several daimyo delayed their movement east towards the campaign; some, tasked to besiege and take Tokugawa held castles west of Kyoto, took their time to do so. Shimazu Yoshihiro didn’t see Ishida Mitsunari as a leader at all, and took umbrage with being gruffly ordered around. This caused Yoshihiro to sit on the battlefield and brood, waiting until after combat had been taking place for a while before committing his forces. Even more detrimental were the defections of several leading Western daimyo, most notably Kobayakawa Hideaki and Kikkawa Hiroie, whose combined 18,000 men falling on the flank of the Western force they were supposedly a part of (their actions encouraged by Tokugawa Ieyasu, of course) turned a close battle into a rout. (Edited note: this is not a blow-by-blow of tactical action at Sekigahara, which was obviously much more nuanced. I'm illustrating a point, that is all. Don't get bent out of shape because I simplify things.)

Had the western army had any unity of command, Japanese history would likely be very different. They had a number of tactical advantages (better terrain, more troops) that could have resulted in coalition victory, had there been any unity of command or unity of effort. Even a coalition can be very successful if the coalition members all strive towards the same goal. However, that didn’t happen, and the strongly-led Tokugawa forces took advantage of it.

Well, there you have it. Next time we’ll look at the Three S’s: Security, Surprise, and Simplicity. See you then!

The above comments represent the views of the author only, and should not be interpreted to represent the views or official position of the United States Army or the Department of Defense. 

MAJ Nate Ledbetter
Intermediate Level Education Class 12-002
Staff Group D
Fort Gordon, Georgia

[1] Department of Defense. Joint Publication 3-0, “Joint Operations” Washington, D.C.: 11 August 2011. Pg. A-2.

1 comment:

  1. Another example of maneuver (among other things) winning a battle is the 1582 Battle of Yamazaki between Hashiba (later Toyotomi) ...