British historian Sir Alistair Horne is the world-renowned author of more than 20 books dealing with war and diplomacy, including The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916 (1960), A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962 (1977) and Seven Ages of Paris (2002).
In his new work, Hubris: The Tragedy of War in the Twentieth Century, Horne examines six critical battles of the first half of the 20th century. He convincingly points out in each of these battles how hubris — an "attitude of supreme arrogance," egotistic "overreach" — brought about military calamity. Basically, however, Hubris is an exciting historical narrative not overly belaboring its theme.
The first conflict Horne writes about is the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, focusing on the naval battles of the Yellow Sea and Tsushima. The author tells us that because of Japan's ever-expanding population and its need for natural resources, it went to war with China in 1894. China lost and ceded the crucial city of Port Arthur to Japan.
By 1904 Japan had come into conflict with Imperial Russia, which also had designs on Port Arthur. Before two Russian naval fleets could arrive to take the port, however, the Japanese conducted a surprise torpedo attack on the Russian fleet already in the harbor, in February 1904. Pearl Harbor-like in its execution (without planes, of course), it was, the author tells us, "the earliest successful torpedo attack in the history of naval warfare."
In this attack and the subsequent battles of the Yellow Sea and Tsushima, three entire Russian naval fleets were completely destroyed and some 5,000 Russian sailors perished, as opposed to 117 Japanese sailors dead and only three torpedo boats lost.
According to Horne, it was overconfidence — hubris — bred of these victories that led the Japanese Army to underestimate Soviet strength at the 1939 Battle of Nomonhan, a little-known "border incident" in Mongolia, where the USSR abuts China. In this military fiasco — which, Horne informs us, was "the first major tank-versus-tank battle in the history of war" — Japan fielded "poorly armored, inadequately armed …. cute little toys." They were no match for the Russian 45 mm antitank guns, "which could slice through Japanese armor." Japanese tank crewmen were ordered "to share the fate of their tank, saving their last bullet to commit suicide." Although casualties reached five-digit figures on each side, the Soviets easily won.
Horne next looks at Hitler's designs on the Soviet Union in 1941. Besotted with overconfidence from his successful blitzkrieg in Poland in September 1939 and his swift occupation of France in the spring of 1940, Hitler had his armies invade the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. But by winter the invasion ground to a halt just outside of Moscow. On Dec. 2, 1941, a German reconnaissance battalion "could clearly see the spires of the Kremlin" 11 miles away. But the bitter cold temperatures that winter — sinking to -58 degrees F, "the coldest in Russia history," Horne tells us — proved too much for the hungry Wehrmacht, unequipped for weather which froze guns and tank engines, thousands of horses — and men.
The author moves on to the 1942 Battle of Midway in the Pacific. He points out that it was Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, overconfident from his experience of victory at the Battle of Tsushima way back in 1905, who was determined to repeat it against a United States carrier force — with calamitous results.
We go on to the Korean War (1950-53) and Gen. Douglas MacArthur's "overreach" into communist North Korea. Superconfident after the improbably successful landing at Inchon on Sept. 15, 1950, and, of course, being the Caesar-like victorious general of World War II, MacArthur defied a UN National Security Council memorandum delivered by President Harry Truman to not cross the 38th Parallel into North Korea. He did anyway in October 1950, prompting Chinese forces to enjoin the battle in devastating numbers by November.
U.S. officer leadership faltered. In what came to be called the mass hysterical "Great Bug-Out," one 20-year-old soldier said, "It was every man for himself, Chinese shouting everywhere …. We just ran and ran."
MacArthur's defiance, and its disastrous results, led Truman to relieve the general of his duties.
Horne concludes his work with the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in Indo-China in 1954. Three thousand French soldiers, led by commanders with visions of glory and sacrifice from World War I's Battle of Verdun (1916) in their heads, died at the hands of overwhelming Viet Minh forces. Yet another hubristic disaster.
Hubris is a marvelously illuminating book.