Rocky Reads for #Wargame – The “war game” behind Midway Inquest: Why the Japanese Lost the Battle of Midway by Dallas Woodbury Isom (Indiana Univ Press, 2007)

As I recently acquired a copy of the small solo wargame Kido Butai: Japan’s Carriers at Midway (DRK, 2016) I wanted to reread a bit about the famous battle. Having looked at Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully’s Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway (Potomac Books, 2005) within the last year I instead went to a book that in many ways was a response to it. Thus, Midway Inquest: Why the Japanese Lost the Battle of Midway by Dallas Woodbury Isom (Indiana Univ. Press, 2007) ended up coming off the shelf.

I don’t have personal insight into this matter, but based on the writings of these three authors in the early 2000’s I don’t think there was any love lost between them. During this time Isom and Parshall/Tully were both writing their books and previews of each thesis appeared in the Naval War College Review where things got a bit, uh, “interesting.” In the Summer 2000 issue (Vol. 53 Nr. 3) Isom wrote the article “The Battle of Midway: Why the Japanese Lost” where he previewed his main arguments. A year later, in the Summer 2001 edition (Vol. 54 Nr. 3) Parshall and Tully penned an essay, “Doctrine Matters: Why the Japanese Lost at Midway” which was a direct response to Isom. Not to be outdone, in the same issue Isom penned his response to Parshall/Tully in “They Would Have Found a Way.” This back and forth bickering would continue into their respective books. Parshall/Tully published Shattered Sword first in 2005 and the book went on to critical acclaim. Isom would not publish his book until 2007 and the reception was, shall we say, less boisterous. To this day Shattered Sword is held by many as the gold standard by the revised Midway history crowd whereas Midway Inquest is “just another Midway book.”

The Wargame Within

As I thumbed through Midway Inquest I scanned the chapters and appendix titles and was surprised by Appendix D. I didn’t remember this appendix but this time through the title caught my attention, “A War Game Exercise.” As Isom writes:

The following war game rules, though simpler than those used in such institutions as the Naval War College, simulate the carrier battles of 1942 with quite uncanny accuracy. This is because the values built into them—relating to hit ratios for bombs and torpedoes dropped from various types of aircraft used in 1942, and damage to the carriers of both sides—were derived largely from the statistics of the actual carrier battles of 1942.

Dallas Isom, Midway Inquest, Appendix D, p. 341

Isom uses these war game rules in his “Chapter 10: Postmortem” where he explores several what-if scenarios. Indeed, Chapter 10 is composed mostly of narrative outcomes of several war games and to wargamers appear in many ways like an After Action Report (AAR) or session report.

Isom’s war game rules number only seven and focus on combat results—there are no maneuver or flight or search rules. To me, Isom’s war game is really just the combat model for a wargame and one that uses a very operations research approach based solely on statistical analysis. If there is one lesson the past year of COVID should of taught everyone it is that there are “lies, damn lies, and statistics.” In his what-if scenarios, Isom attempts to appear authoritative by relying on the war game results when in reality he manipulates so many non-combat variables that in the end one must read his scenario as something akin to a fanciful fantasy with only a smidgen of historical grounding. Not that I enjoy them less; rather, I enjoyed reading them for the AAR aspect and it ignited my desire to get Kido Butai to the table to compare the two combat models.

Wargame to Book

Isom doesn’t provide any provenance for his rules so I cannot determine where they derived from. Given Isom’s association with the Naval War College, and even his reference to that institution, it would be reasonable to assume the rules were derived in part from there. Isom’s use of “war game” is also very Naval War College like—whereas “wargame” is used by many it seems the Naval War College has long preferred the terms “war game ” or “war gaming.” On the other hand, the lack of credit given by Isom combined with the lack of sourcing implies that Isom developed these rules on his own. Maybe Isom the lawyer is an aspiring wargame designer?

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