Book cover

This article is a preview from the Summer 2016 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.

Hubris: the Tragedy of War in the 20th Century (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) by Alistair Horne

There are few more perplexing symptoms of the human condition than the refusal to quit while one is ahead. It is clearly hard-wired into our species and this is not necessarily a bad thing. Without it, one of our first sentient forebears may have surveyed his perfectly comfortable cave, contentedly stroked his downy mammoth-fur toga, warmed his hairy hands against the flickering orange thing he had recently learned to make by banging rocks together and decided: “You know what? This’ll do.”

But the overconfidence often fanned by success can have terrible consequences and nowhere more so than on the battlefield, an arena in which the literal life-or-death stakes can have a calamitously heady effect on the victor.

Horne’s characteristically thoughtful and absorbing book focuses on five battles in which an advantage was perhaps pressed that little bit too far: the 1905 Battle of Tsushima, in which Russia’s navy was demolished by Japan’s; the 1939 Nomonhan Incident, in which Japan’s army was battered by the Soviet Union; the 1941 stalling of the Nazi advance on Moscow; the destruction of much of Japan’s Pacific fleet by the US Navy near Midway in 1942; the loss of France’s Indochinese dominions prompted by defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. It is no coincidence that all five are drawn (more or less) from the first half of the 20th century – Horne describes it in his prologue as “the bloodiest in history, and a century which indeed could be called the century of hubris”.

He makes a persuasive case, adroitly pocking his broad canvases with often excruciating detail. We witness the wretched progression of the grandly named Second Pacific Squadron of the imperial Russian navy, 50 largely knackered ships crewed by inexperienced illiterates and commanded by a maniac – Vice-Admiral Zinovy Rozhestvensky – as it spends seven agonising months sailing 18,000 miles from Saint Petersburg to the Sea of Japan, before being destroyed in 30 terrible minutes. We see the hitherto unconquerable Wehrmacht freezing to death by the thousands in a Russian November because, as Horne notes, “Hitler, in all his hubristic arrogance, had refused to consider that [Operation] Barbarossa could possibly run on into the winter, and had effectively blocked cold-weather measures.” We are also encouraged to ponder the extent to which the self-inflicted disasters chronicled here resonated: six months after the fall of Dien Bien Phu, Horne notes, “the standard of revolt against France was hoisted in Algeria ... Dien Bien Phu was to cost France not only Indochina, but the rest of its empire as well.”

Some readers may incline to the view that many of the powers defeated in these clashes had it coming – hubris is not a phenomenon that engenders much in the way of sympathy. However, Horne is far too punctilious about the cost – in life, limb and sanity – to the (largely blameless) ordinary soldier to permit this book to become a series of excursions in schadenfreude. It is, instead, a vital and urgent warning – a brief epilogue considering the Middle East, from Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six Day War onwards, argues, in essence, that the region has since been plagued by succeeding hubrises, all of them brutal lessons in such folly, from which nobody has learned a damn thing.