Battle of Guadalcanal: Systems and Military Culture

Battle of Guadalcanal: Systems and Military Culture

A.W. Sanders

“Machines don’t fight wars; terrain doesn’t fight wars. You must get into the minds of humans. That’s where the battles are won.”

-- John Boyd

On 07 February 1943, the Japanese completed the evacuation of over 10,000 troops from Guadalcanal, ending six months of desperate fighting for the important strip of land in the south Pacific. The Japanese surrender of Guadalcanal was a seminal moment that turned the initiative in the Pacific from Japan to America and her allies. America beat the Japanese at Guadalcanal by maximizing “open systems,” embracing joint operations, and a military strategy that enhanced the elements of operational art. In contrast, Japan’s defeat at Guadalcanal was led by its “closed systems,” the military culture of Gekukojo, and a military strategy dismissive of operational art. This argument is framed through the lens of American theorist and strategist John Boyd by comparing America and Japan’s ability to observe, orient, decide, and act (OODA) at the strategic and operational level before and during the Guadalcanal Campaign.  

Various interpretations of Boyd’s OODA loop tend to emphasize the advantage of speed in decision making[i] and getting inside or ahead of the enemy’s OODA loop.[ii] Furthermore, debate continues on the political and strategic merits of Boyd’s OODA loop and whether it is a theory or tool for command and control. In The Scientific Way of Warfare, author Antoine Bousquet describes Boyd’s OODA loop as simply a “command and control loop.”[iii] Some argue, compared to other command and control models, that Boyd’s OODA lacks detail, planning, and learning.[iv] Though the importance of speed and “getting inside” the enemy’s decision cycle, and the necessity of a critical review of Boyd’s theory are acknowledged, this essay uses Boyd’s OODA not as a framework to compare and contrast the speed of Japanese and American operational decision-making or as a critique of Boyd’s theory, but as a theoretical lens, cognitive and strategic, to evaluate the effectiveness of each belligerent’s operational approach and how each country’s cultural, political, and military lens impacted their operational art, and the outcome of the Guadalcanal campaign.

Guadalcanal required joint operations on both sides, therefore, the elements of design defined in Joint Publication 5-0 Joint Operations (JP 5-0) are used in lieu of the Army’s elements of operational art defined in Army Doctrine Reference Publication Unified Land Operations (ADRP 3-0). Additionally, for the purpose of continuity and close relationship to the theoretical lens of this essay (culture and human cognition) the JP 5-0 definition of operational art is used.[v] Lastly, “open” and “closed” systems derive from Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s interpretation of the second law of thermodynamics in which “open” systems thrive on a cycle of input and output with its environment, resulting in a dynamic change, whereas, “closed” systems are unwilling or unable to interact with its environment; “closed” systems reach a point of entropy and imminent liquidation.[vi]

OODA and the Guadalcanal Campaign

“Before Guadalcanal the enemy advanced at his pleasure - after Guadalcanal he retreated at ours.”

--Admiral William Halsey

The first phase of Boyd’s OODA is observation. In the observation phase, the actor digests data, information, and knowledge to develop initial situational awareness of the environment relative to the action of the enemy.[vii] The unfolding circumstances of World War II (WWII) and events leading up to the Guadalcanal Campaign offered both Japan and the United States (U.S.) ample opportunity to observe and shape the environment around them.

Despite the 1939 Japanese loss to Russia at Nomonhon, the victory over the Russians in 1905 lingered and remained fuel for Japanese nationalism. Japan was riding high with “victory fever.” The Japanese enjoyed the fruits of victory after the first and second Sino-Japanese Wars by occupying parts of China. The 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor made Isoroku Yamamoto an instant legend in Japan. Meanwhile, on 2 January 1942, Manila, capital city of the Philippines fell to Japanese MG Koichi Abe.[viii] Japan had finally risen to the top, and in their eyes gained the honor and respect it so desperately wanted.[ix] Even a recent loss to the Russians could not erase decades of Japanese victory and perceived superiority.[x]

In 1941, the U.S. was staggered. Pearl Harbor shocked America. Germany had reached the gates of Moscow. In Asia and the Pacific, Japan controlled parts of China, Korea, Indochina, the Philippines, and more. Axis Powers held the initiative. The Battle of Midway stemmed the tide; however, Japan did not see it that way. Much like Nomonhon, Japanese culture, norms, mores, and nationalistic pride skewed their perspective and orientation. The Washington Naval Treaty to Nomonhon and the oil embargo to Pearl Harbor were events that allowed each country to synthesize observations that would shape and determine the outcome of future events, to include Guadalcanal.

The second phase of Boyd’s OODA is orientation. In the orientation phase, actors or organizations synthesize information gained during Boyd’s observation phase. According to Boyd, during orientation, the actor is surrounded by its cultural traditions and genetic heritage. Both influence how new information and previous experience are analyzed and synthesized.[xi] In other words, orientation is the actors “genetic code.”[xii] Japan and the U.S. had two very different “genetic codes” and both “codes” influenced the outcome of Guadalcanal. Furthermore, Japan’s “closed” society and military culture calcified Japanese heuristics and hindered adaptation to the changing environment that led to entropy of aims and anticipation. The U.S. operated in a relatively “open” society and military culture that allowed for adaption and change, giving the U.S. an edge on objectives and mission command.

Since the 1895 Sino-Japanese war, Japan had been riding the wave of victory, militarism, and nationalism. Japan was feeling good about itself. Dominating East Asia (Figure 1), Japan had embraced Western technology and systems while maintaining its culture.[xiii] Through this lens, Japan saw no reason to change. John Lynn posits that Japanese dominance came with “confidence in their own superiority” which “led them to be condescending and autocratic.”[xiv] For the Japanese, their “spiritual superiority” exceeded all other countries, including the U.S. For example, Lynn cites a report from a Japanese commander prior to Midway that carried dismissiveness and a lack of respect for Americans will to fight.[xv] This overconfidence and unwillingness to adapt to an enemy with overwhelming superior numbers led to strategic, operational, and doctrinal miscalculations at Guadalcanal.

Figure 1

The initial strategic aim for the Japanese included a thrust to the resource rich south, followed by an expansion towards the Central Pacific to block an anticipated American counterattack, forcing the Americans to sue for peace (Figure 1).[xvi] However, the Japanese loss at Midway and Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto insistence on a different aim hindered Tokyo’s strategy and objectives in the South Pacific. Most striking was the Japanese refusal to acknowledge a loss at Midway and therefore, change its paradigm to adapt to an enemy with superior numbers. Instead, the Japanese relied on their “superb skill…invincibility” and fighting spirit.[xvii] Other examples of Japan’s overconfidence include at the operational level the inability to anticipate the U.S. landing at Guadalcanal despite intelligence to the contrary and the tactical arrogance of COL Kiyoano Ichiki. Ichiki, tasked with leading the first assault on Henderson Airfield believed night attacks with bayonets and swords would overwhelm the Americans.[xviii] Ichiki was dead and his unit annihilated within 48 hours of landing on Guadalcanal.

For the Americans, the relative freedom of democracy manifested in war. As an “open” society the U.S., relative to the Japanese, leveraged flexibility and freedom of thought to overcome command and control challenges, establish clear aims, and create shared understanding. While Japan dithered, the U.S. objective in the Pacific remained clear. Despite Europe as America’s first priority, Admiral Ernest King established a clear aim that enhanced situational understanding for U.S. forces in the Pacific. The strategy in the Pacific was a strategic defense to cover and hold the West Coast-Hawaii-Midway line of communication and protect the sea lanes from the U.S. to Australia.[xix] King was able to establish clear aims and strategy, despite the priority of personnel, equipment, and resources flowing to Europe. An “open” political and military culture allowed King to act with disciplined initiative.

Decide and act, the final two phases of Boyd’s OODA hold the decisive moments of the Guadalcanal campaign. In the decide phase, organizations determine a course of action in which they execute during the act phase.[xx] In these two phases, the consequences of Japan’s “closed” society and military culture increased organizational entropy and sped the organization closer to chaos. The military culture of gekukojo is a leading factor that led to Japanese defeat at Guadalcanal. Conversely, the concept of joint operations compelled the Americans toward victory.

Figure 2

Gekukojo culture allowed for disobedience by officers as long as it was for a higher “moral cause” and espoused the spirit of the offensive.[xxi] Gekukojo proved disastrous for Japanese operational art in Guadalcanal and inhibited Japanese forces to act with unified action. With gekukojo, the Japanese were unable to attain clear aims, anticipation, or shared situational understanding. Instead of direct orders by Imperial General Headquarters, “central agreements” were used between services.[xxii] Central agreements were not orders and could be changed at the whim of a commander as long as the disobedience was for a “higher” reason (Figure 2). For example, in contrast to Imperial General Headquarters, whose aim was the control of “strong points” like Guadalcanal, Yamamoto believed the aim to be the destruction of the U.S. Pacific fleet, and therefore as the operational artist Yamamoto refused to bend to Tokyo.[xxiii] Yamamoto’s popularity in Japan exacerbated the problems with gekukojo. Also, during the October 1942 battle for Henderson field by refusing to comply with orders, the irascible MG Kawaguchi and the reluctant COL Oka both undermined Imperial Headquarters aims, slowed tempo, and hindered operational reach. Without orders, Kawaguchi deviated from the initial assault plan and began prepositioning his men based on his own concept. Higher headquarters orders him to stick with the original plan, Kawaguchi refused, and he was fired.[xxiv] Oka did not attack when told to do so, entering the fray when it was too late. Additionally, Gekukojo and “superior spirituality” led many Japanese commanders to undercount battlefield losses and overcount U.S. losses, which created a lack of situational understanding and adversely affected future planning. The inability to anticipate continuous U.S. air support despite destroying “four” carriers, instead of one shows the Japanese did not have a clear understanding of the battlefield.

For the U.S., joint operations helped to mitigate personalities, inter-service rivalries, and wartime logistics, which gained for the Americans clearer objectives, better anticipation, and continued logistical support despite Guadalcanal’s extended lines of supply. While the Japanese chose not to establish a joint command, instead relying on superiority of culture, an odd juxtaposition of bushido and Gekukojo by individual commanders like Yamamoto, the principle of cooperation not orders, and the fighting spirit of the offensive, the U.S. instead operated under a joint command.[xxv] In Carrying The War to the Enemy, Mathew Maheny concludes that theater commanders conducted detailed planning and execution (Boyd’s-action); however, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) reserved the right to make strategic and operational decisions. Maheny believes “that the JCS participated in the campaign planning in the Pacific in both a directive and collaborative fashion” and understood that modern war requires “joint staffing for realistic planning.” [xxvi]

The benefits of joint command showed when personality conflicts and inter-service rivalries resulted in conflicting operational approaches and aims. GEN George Marshal, responsible for coordinating the war in both Europe and Pacific, faced two internal obstacles in the Pacific, command and operational priorities. Richard B. Frank highlights the solution in his book Guadalcanal: The Definitive Account of the Landmark Battle. According to Frank, the Army and JCS wanted GEN MacArthur as commander of the Pacific; however, the Navy was unwilling to let an Army leader command a theater that was predominately a Naval domain. Instead, the JCS chose to divide the Pacific theater, under the control of Admiral Nimitz, into four separate areas of operation: North Pacific, Central Pacific, South Pacific, and the Southwest Pacific under GEN MacArthur (Figure 3).[xxvii] The JCS plan pacified both the services; however, the plan did not satisfy competing operational aims.

Figure 3

GEN MacArthur requested Navy support, specifically carriers for operations in the Southwest; meanwhile, the Navy was planning concurrent operations in the South and refused to support MacArthur. According to Frank, the JCS remedied the friction by offering a phased operation, where priority started with the South Pacific, specifically the Solomon Islands, in which, MacArthur would cede some of his AO and participate in supporting operations. Upon success of Phase I, operational priority would turn to MacArthur. The plan pacified both services and most personalities. Unlike Geykoju, the JCS was able to settle issues of command and develop shared understanding among services. In turn, the U.S. was able to decide and act not only quicker, but better than the Japanese.

Boyd borrows from Bertalanffy’s interpretation of the second law of thermodynamics to explain his concept of entropy and confusion. Boyd believed that in “closed” societies such as WWII Japan, a degree of entropy exists and begins to manifest to confusion, chaos, and paralysis.[xxviii] According to Franz P.B. Ozinga, Boyd believed that “in any system that cannot communicate in an ordered fashion with other systems” or external environments, the organization collapses or will soon.[xxix] The Japanese military apparatus did not collapse at Guadalcanal; however, it’s strategic initiative did. JP 5-0 Joint Operations defines culmination as “that point in time and/or space at which the operation can no longer maintain momentum.”[xxx] The Japanese reached a point of entropy at Guadalcanal. The entropy was the manifestation of a closed Japanese society and military culture that precluded clear strategic and operational objectives and aims, slowed anticipation, and precluded shared understanding. Japan’s “closed” system and Gekujo culture made the practice of operational art during the Guadalcanal campaign near impossible and defeat certain. Conversely, an “open” U.S. society and flexible military culture, combined with joint operations allowed for clear objectives, heightened anticipation, and increased shared situational understanding. Victory at Guadalcanal was not the result of the U.S. being perfect operational artists, but better operational artists than the Japanese.


Asia for Educators. “Japan’s Quest for Power and World War II in Asia.” University of Columbia. Last modified in 2009. Accessed December 22, 2016.

Bousquet, Antoine. The Scientific Way of Warfare: Order and Chaos on the Battlefields of Modernity. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.

Boyd, John R. “The Essence of Winning and Losing.” Briefing, 1996.

Coram, Robert. Boyd, The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War. Boston: Little Brown & Company, 2002.

Frank, Richard B. Guadalcanal: The Definitive Account of the Landmark Battle. New York: Penguin Group, 1990.

Grant, Tim and Bas Kooter. “Comparing OODA and other Models as Operational View C2 Architecture.” Lecture at the 10th Annual Command and Control Symposium, Virginia, 2005.

Lynn, John A. Battle: A History of Combat and Culture. Boulder: Westview, 2003. 

Matheny, Mathew. Carrying the War to the Enemy: American Operational Art to 194. Norman: Oklahoma University Press, 2011.

Morton, Louis. The Fall of the Philippines. Washington D.C.: Center of Military History United States Army, 1953.

Osinga, Frans P.B. Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd. Edited by Colin Gray and Williamson Murray. London: Routledge, 2007.

Record, Jeffery. “Japan’s Decision for War in 1941: Enduring Lessons.” Strategic Studies Institute. Accessed October 30, 2016.

Paine, S.C.M. The Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Publication 5-0 Joint Operations. Washington DC, 2011.

End Notes

[i] Frans P.B. Osinga, Science, Strategy and War: The strategic theory of John Boyd, ed. Colin Gray and Williamson Murray (London: Routledge, 2007), 7. 

[ii] Robert Coram, Boyd, The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War (Boston: Little Brown &Company, 2002), 446-447.

[iii] Antoine Bousquet, The Scientific Way of Warfare: Order and Chaos on the Battlefields of Modernity, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), 188.

[iv] Tim Grant and Bas Kooter, “Comparing OODA and other Models as Operational View C2 Architecture” (lecture, 10th Annual Command and Control Symposium, Virginia, 2005).

[v] Cognitive approach by commanders and staffs—supported by their skill, knowledge, experience, creativity, and judgment—to develop strategies, campaigns, and operations to organize and employ military forces by integrating ends, ways, and means campaigns, and operations to organize and employ military forces by integrating ends, ways, and means.

[vi] Ozinga, 73.

[vii] Bousquet, 188.

[viii] Louis Morton, The Fall of the Philippines, (Washington D.C.: Center of Military History United States Army, 1953), 236.

[ix] Asia for Educators, “Japan’s Quest for Power and World War II in Asia,” last modified 2009, accessed December 22, 2016,

[x] Ibid.

[xi] John R. Boyd, “The Essence of Winning and Losing” (Briefing, January 1996).

[xii] Ozinga, 236.

[xiii] S.C.M Paine, The Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 136.

[xiv] John A Lynn, Battle: A History of Combat and Culture (Boulder: Westview, 2003), 227. 

[xv] Ibid, 237.

[xvi] Richard B. Frank, Guadalcanal: The Definitive Account of the Landmark Battle (New York: Penguin Group, 1990), 19.

[xvii] Ibid, 67.

[xviii] Ibid, 44

[xix] Frank, 6

[xx] Bousquet, 188.

[xxi] Lynn, 246.

[xxii] Frank, 18.

[xxiii] Ibid, 20

[xxiv] Ibid, 347.   

[xxv] Mathew Matheny, Carrying the War to the Enemy: American Operational Art to 1945 (Norman: Oklahoma University Press), 207-223.

[xxvi] Ibid, 207

[xxvii] Frank, 207.

[xxviii] Ozinga, 137.

[xxix] Ibid, 138.

[xxx] US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Publication 5-0 Joint Operations (Washington DC, 2011), III-34.


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This is a good piece for understanding operational art in a truly expeditionary campaign. The use of systems analysis likewise brings in perspectives that allow innovation with grounding in current military doctrine.

It is not easy easy to make a bridge between the Boyd Theories and the Guadalcanal actions by either side. It was much like Gettysburg in that its meeting engagement was an unintended consequence of Japan's strategy to move south leapfrogging airfields in the region.

The Japanese had no idea we would forcibly enter the ground. We had no idea we would either until Nimitz saw the first airfield images and concluded we had to make a stand-and then piecemeal on a shoestring. It wasn't until we were fully engaged that any semblance of a Boyd approach was taken-and that was by Halsey-the most tactical of strategists.

Entropy is probably appropriate tho myopic may be a better word-the Army and the Navy never had a joint strategy in the full meaning and cooperated only by exception whereas our services cooperated by necessity. In the Pacific, the Army made nearly as many amphib assaults under navy control as did the Marines.