Hubris: The Tragedy of War in the Twentieth Century
By Alistair Horne. 400 pages.
Harper, 2015. $28.99.
Reviewed by Michael S. Neiberg
Sir Alistair Horne is, by his own admission, more a storyteller than an interpretive historian. He has written popular narrative histories of war in the modern age, focusing mainly on bringing the French experience to English-speaking audiences. In this new book, he turns his eye to Asia, an understudied and under-appreciated arena of war in the 20th century and a not unlikely site for war in the 21st. In Horne’s periodization, the bloody total wars of the past century had their prelude in the Russo-Japanese War, culminated in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, then had their coda in the “limited” (for Europeans only, of course) wars of Korea (1950–1953) and Vietnam (1947–1954).
Horne has obviously been influenced by a lifetime of study and more recent observations of the U.S. and British wars in the Middle East. As his title indicates, he attributes the frustrations and failures of wars, not to mention their awful costs, to hubris. In terms of modern warfare, he defines hubris as relying too much on past successes (real or exaggerated), a racially or ethnically derived belief in the superiority or inferiority of the opponent, or a belief that war can be short and carefully contained.
As in ancient Greek drama, modern war has a way of punishing such hubris. Horne cites a number of examples of how hubris caused shocking military defeats and, in some cases, the end of regimes themselves: British and American unwillingness to believe that Japanese pilots were racially advanced enough to pull off an attack on Pearl Harbor; Japanese views of the racial inferiority of the Chinese; and German inability to see Slavs as fellow humans. Generals like Douglas MacArthur, in Korea, never seemed to have known when to stop, and politicians failed to understand the modern equivalent of hubris: strategic overreach.
Hubris is at its finest when showing the linkages between conflicts that spanned from Europe to Asia. The military history of the 20th century is largely about those linkages and the legacies they leave for Asia today. It was the scene of total war, atomic war, proxy war, and the modern phase of anti-colonial war. Horne’s deliberate omission of World War I and the European theater of World War II may seem unusual, given his own past writings on these subjects, but they ensure that readers will keep their focus where Horne wants it, on Asia.
The book is best read as a general introduction to the wars of Asia in the first half of the 20th century. Some of the research on which Horne relies is outdated, so specialists will find much with which they can disagree on an interpretive level. But Horne does us all a service by reminding us of the costs of believing in our own superiority. War is too serious a business to be built on a foundation of hubris, lest the gods deliver their punishment. MHQ
Michael S. Neiberg is the author of The Blood of Free Men: The Liberation of Paris in 1944. His most recent book is Potsdam: The End of World War II and the Remaking of Europe.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue (Vol. 29, No. 1) of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Reviews: The Cost of Presuming.
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