Hubris: The Tragedy of War in the Twentieth Century. Alistair Horne. NY, New York: Harper Collins, 2015.
hubris: 1. Excessive pride or self-confidence.
(in Greek tragedy) excessive pride towards or defiance of the gods, leading to nemesis.
In Hubris: The Tragedy of War in the Twentieth Century, British historian Alistair Horne ties together five key battles in the first part of the twentieth century with one word—hubris. Horne focuses on “those conflicts that have affected future history powerfully in ways that transcended the actual war in which the conflict was set.”
The scope of his work is defined by his own interest, he called his choices “idiosyncratic and personal,” centering on Asia because it is different than his previous foci. He starts with a relatively simple premise—that hubris often leads to defeat, but he focuses more of his persuasive power on linking the examples together and creating a thematic study of hubris in warfare that becomes an overview of twentieth century geopolitics. This Horne is different from the Horne we’ve read in his two-dozen previous works. He keeps his tone light and his analysis cursory, relying on established secondary sources, peppering the narrative with anecdotes, and finally making the argument that excessive hubris on one side or the other has often decided wars and the fate of nations.
Organized chronologically, Horne starts with the Battle of Tsushima in 1905, where an untested Japanese fleet annihilated the Russian Baltic Fleet after its marathon 18,000-mile voyage from St. Petersburg. Then he chronicles the lesser-known 1939 Battle of Nomonhan, in which the Kwangtung Army of Imperial Japan blundered into Soviet-controlled Mongolia and were defeated by a young General Zhukov. Next up is the Battle for Moscow, the first major defeat of the Wehrmacht at the hands of an ascendant General Zhukov. Horne posits Moscow as the turning point in the war against Germany and follows with the Battle of Midway six months later. Midway was intended to be the knockout blow that Pearl Harbor was not, where the American carrier fleet could be lured out and decimated by the Japanese in a battle reminiscent of Tsushima in 1905. However, Japanese indecision and American luck turned the battle into a smashing victory for the Americans and decisively turned the war in their favor. Horne ends by combining the nearly concurrent Korean War and Dien Bien Phu into a single chapter, a fire-hose of history in fifty-five pages. Dien Bien Phu is the end of his saga.
Hubris is a human trait, and a study of hubris therefore becomes a study of individuals. Horne introduces us to Admiral Togo, the father of the Imperial Japanese Navy, who believed he was the reincarnation of Admiral Nelson. We meet his protege, Admiral Yamamoto, who feared a long war with the United States, his perspective influenced after spending time studying at Harvard. Yamamoto once wrote home to a friend, “Because I have seen the motor industry in Detroit and the oil fields of Texas I know Japan has no chance if she goes to war with America.” Also in his cast is Brigadier General de Castries, the French commander at Dien Bien Phu, a cavalry officer so intoxicated by the myth of Verdun that he was unable or unwilling to recognize the threat to his beleaguered garrison by the Vietnamese General Giap, a “non-commissioned officer learning to handle regiments.” Like Icarus who flew too close to the sun, their faults and decisions are the core of Hubris; intoxicated by excessive pride these men led their armies and nations to ruin. A secondary theme is the racial enmity across these conflicts, from the German concept of untermenschen, to the Western view of the Japanese “little yellow men,” and the Japanese views of the Chinese and Koreans. Racism and ignorance clouded the judgment of nations and generals alike.
To Horne, his titular theme is largely self-evident in his characters; their own belief they will prevail is enough to qualify as excessive hubris when they are met with defeat. He doesn’t argue his thesis so much as he accepts it as fact, and he uses it a way to link his chapters, following the trail of hubris from battle to battle. Horne avoids primary sources and is comfortable writing from his own authority. And he draws primarily from secondary sources: American Caesar by William Manchester supplies his portrait of MacArthur, War Without Mercy by John Dower provides his racial context for World War II, and Bernard Fall’s Hell in a Very Small Place paints the misery of Dien Bien Phu.
Horne even explores the often-taboo realm of alternate history, pausing at the end of each chapter to wonder, “What if?” This refrain lends the work a more playful tone than we are used to from him. A scathing New York Times review criticized him for this, accusing him of using the clichés of an alternate history novelist in which Russian ships are kept in the fight by the “dogged courage of simple Russian servicemen” and German soldiers are “sturdy Teutons.”
Horne made his name in 1977 with A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962, the definitive account of the French war in Algeria, notable for his heavy use of firsthand research and his balanced, impartial treatment of a conflict which was still raw. A Savage War was the acme of the writing and research style that Horne honed with works such as The Price of Glory: Verdun, 1916, and To Lose A Battle: France 1940. The work relies heavily on his interviews with people involved on all sides of the conflict for sources—the New York Times noted in their review “Guerilla leaders do not keep records…” In Hubris he has shown that he has another side, lighter, more playful. The book reads more like a bestseller than a definitive history. In Hubris, Horne has created a work that is supremely readable by the casual historian at the cost of his characteristic depth. His writing is clear and concise; Horne includes little he does not need. His leitmotif of hubris is a lesson to leaders today, if he had extended his chronology it would certainly include Vietnam and the American misadventure in Iraq. He warns of the dangers of racism in decision making and the costs of civilian leadership driving the military to war or conversely, the military dragging a nation into war, issues as relevant today as one hundred years ago. His examples lay bare the cost of miscalculation and victory disease in leadership and demonstrate how quickly fortunes can be reversed.
The last book Horne published before passing away in 2017, Hubris is the final word by a writer who spent more sixty years writing about modern warfare, a fitting epitaph for warfare in the twentieth century.
Walker D. Mills is a Marine Corps officer. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Marine Corps.
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Header Image: "The Fall of Icarus" by Jacob Peter Gowy (Wikimedia)
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