Hubris made the 20th century the bloodiest in history

Alistair Horne’s survey of 20th-century warfare illustrates how often daring didn’t win

5 December 2015

9:00 AM

5 December 2015

9:00 AM

Hubris: The Tragedy of War in the 20th Century Alistair Horne

Weidenfeld, pp.304, £25, ISBN: 9780297867623

Sir Alistair Horne, like that other great knight of military history, Sir Michael Howard, served in the Coldstream Guards during the second world war. According to Clausewitz (in Vom Kriege), his judgment will therefore be invested with insight denied to those who have never been shot over:

As long as we have no personal knowledge of war, we cannot conceive where those difficulties lie of which so much is said, and what that genius and those extraordinary mental powers required in a general have really to do. . . But if we have seen war, all becomes intelligible.

So it is disappointing to read the late Sir Martin Gilbert, quoted with apparent approval in the preliminaries: ‘I’m not a theoretical historian, seeking to guide the reader to a general conclusion. I’m quite content to be a narrative chronicler, a slave of the facts.’

Except, fortunately, Horne then ignores Gilbert’s prim admonition, to give us instead a nought-for-your-comfort reflection on war in the bloodiest century ever. Indeed the book, echoing Clausewitz, might simply have been called On Twentieth-Century War, but perhaps modern publishing demands a catchier title, and thus Hubris.

And hubris is indeed the consistent theme of an otherwise eclectic choice of wars, campaigns and battles, many of them relatively obscure, though they share the characteristic that the strategic impact of defeat is far greater than the immediate and tactical. Thus, for example, the battle of Nomonhan, at which an over-confident Japanese army was worsted by the Russians in Manchuria in 1939, meant that two years later Stalin could afford to withdraw troops from the Far East to defend Moscow, without which, Horne suggests, the city would probably have fallen to the Germans, which would have been the end of Stalin. Yet the origin of Nomonhan was Tsushima in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, another of Horne’s chapters: ‘Such is the knock-on effect of history.’

The joy of this book (if joy is appropriate when reading about war) is being taken out of the usual realm of military history into less familiar theatres. The choice of Moscow rather than Leningrad or Stalingrad is instructive, and Horne pays ample tribute to the pen of a former British ambassador to Russia, Rodric Braithwaite, and his Moscow 1941: A City and its People at War (2006). A few pages of this astonishing saga are enough to explain why Putin evidently isn’t inclined to lie awake at night worrying about the West.

All Horne’s chapters are cautionary tales, but those that stand out as having the greatest relevance are on Korea (and ‘knock-on’ Dien Bien Phu in French Indo-China). If hubris is the arrogant belief that man can act like a god — indeed challenge the gods with impunity — then General of the US Army Douglas MacArthur is the 20th century’s Icarus. In 1945, after the war in the Pacific, he ranked with some of the greatest generals of all time. His recovery of the situation in 1950, by the masterly amphibious counter-stroke at Inchon after the North Koreans had overrun virtually the entire south of the peninsula, is an unsurpassed lesson in boldness and surprise. But then, apparently believing that success was his permanent habit, he decided to take on China — and thereby his own president, the failed Missouri haberdasher Harry S. Truman. The 50-odd pages alone on MacArthur and his legacy should be studied at every war college.

There is a problem with cautionary tales about hubris, however. William Manchester called his biography of MacArthur American Caesar. But Caesar knew well enough what he was doing when he crossed the Rubicon; the Roman statutes were clear enough. Likewise, Icarus knew that flying was reserved for the gods. And how dumb was Arachne to boast that she could weave better than Athena? MacArthur knew perfectly well that not only was Truman head of state, he was commander-in-chief. Spectacular success, and distance from Washington, as well as professional contempt for a man who had been a mere battery commander in the Missouri National Guard, played their parts. MacArthur needed the crouching slave in the triumphant processional chariot: ‘Remember thou art but a man…’

But what are the other gods that a military commander must not offend? For example, is the motto ‘Who Dares Wins’ chancing it? Undoubtedly. And success does breed success: an enemy worsted often or heavily enough can come to believe an opponent is unbeatable. As a technical manual on
caution, this book might simply be called Overreach, which would then invite criteria for measuring ‘reach’ proportionate to ends, ways and means, though even this would end up needing the exercise of judgment.

So despite all the lessons of history, hubris looks set to remain a feature of war, not only through honest miscalculation but because it is in the nature of things. Indeed, the author ends with a chilling organic analogy, to that of plague: we open Pandora’s box at our peril, from out of which may come ‘the dormant bacillus of hubris’.

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  • freddiethegreat

    He could perhaps have added the smashing of the Russian element and the Cuban mercenaries in Angola

    • cromwell

      Yes a good friend of mine died fighting the Cubans in Cuba.

  • As with the American continuation of the Marxists’ Vietnam operation, it was Chinese soldiers who made up most of the so-called Viet Minh. Ten years later, Chinese soldiers would represent at least 50% of North Vietnamese regiments.

    The following is a discovery I made in April regarding the fake collapse of the USSR, and what that fraudulent collapse proves about the institutions of the West…

    When Soviet citizens were liberated from up to 74 years of horrific Marxist-atheist oppression on December 26, 1991 there were ZERO celebrations throughout the USSR, proving (1) the ‘collapse’ of the USSR is a strategic ruse; and (2) the political parties of the West were already co-opted by Marxists,* otherwise the USSR (and East Bloc nations) couldn’t have gotten away with the ruse.

    ZERO celebrations, as the The Atlantic article inadvertently informs us…

    Notice, however, the Kremlin staged anti-government demonstrations that took place in Russia (and other Soviet republics) in the years immediately preceding the ‘collapse’, yet ZERO celebrations after the ‘collapse’!

    For more on this discovery see my blog…

    The above means that the so-called ‘War on Terror’ is an operation being carried out by the Marxist co-opted governments of the West in alliance with the USSR and other Communist nations, the purpose being to (1) destroy the prominence of the West in the eyes of the world, where the West is seen (i) invading nations without cause; (ii) causing chaos around the globe; and (iii) killing over one-million civilians and boasting of torture; (2) close off non-Russian supplies of oil for export, thereby increasing the price of oil, the higher price allowing oil exporting Russia to maintain economic stability while she modernizes and increases her military forces; (3) destroy the United States Armed Forces via the never-ending ‘War on Terror’; the ultimate purpose of the aforementioned to (4) bring about the demise of the United States in the world, opening up a political void to be filled by a new pan-national entity composed of Europe and Russia (replacing the European Union), a union ‘From the Atlantic to Vladivostok’; which will (5) see the end of NATO.

    The political parties of the West have long been co-opted by Marxists, otherwise the USSR (and East Bloc nations) couldn’t have gotten away with the ‘collapse’ of vanguard Communism ruse.

    Now you know how Bolshevik Russia survived in 1917; how the West ‘lost’ China to the Communists in 1949; why the Eisenhower administration turned a deaf ear to the anti-Communist Hungarian uprising in 1956; why the Eisenhower administration in 1959 was indifferent to the Castro brothers’ Communist fidelity, actually used the CIA to overthrow the Batista government; why the Nixon administration abandoned Taiwan for Communist China, and signed treaties/provided economic aid to the USSR; why the Nixon administration refused to tell the American People that over 50% of North Vietnamese NVA regiments were actually Chinese People’s Liberation Army soldiers (attired in NVA uniforms, and proving that the Sino/Soviet Split was a ruse, as KGB defector Major Anatoliy Golitsyn told the West back in 1962), thereby (1) ensuring the Vietnam War would be lost; (2) destroying the prominence of the United States abroad and at home; (3) breeding distrust between the American people and their government; and (4) securing Communist victories in Southeast Asia. Working in the background within the political parties of the United States and Great Britain were Marxist agents doing their best to (1) ensure the survival of Communist nations when they popped up; and (2) sabotage any policies that would bring down a Communist nation. That’s why after the fake collapses of the East Bloc nations and USSR there was no mandatory Western verification process to ensure the Communists weren’t still in control.

    Now you know why not one political party in the West requested verification of the collapse of the USSR, and the media failed to alert your attention to this fact, including the ‘alternative’ media. When determining whether the ‘former’ USSR is complying with arms control treaties, what does the United States do to confirm compliance? Right, the United States sends into the ‘former’ USSR investigative teams to VERIFY compliance, yet when it’s the fate of the West that’s at stake should the collapse of the USSR be a ruse, what does the United States do to confirm the collapse? Nothing!

    The fraudulent ‘collapse’ of the USSR (and East Bloc) couldn’t have been pulled off until both political parties in the United States (and political parties elsewhere in the West) were co-opted by Marxists, which explains why verification of the ‘collapse’ was never undertaken by the West, such verification being (1) a natural administrative procedure (since the USSR wasn’t occupied by Western military forces); and (2) necessary for the survival of the West. Recall President Reagan’s favorite phrase, “Trust, but verify”.

    It gets worse–the ‘freed’ Soviets and West also never (1) de-Communized the Soviet Armed Forces of its Communist Party officer corps, which was 90% officered by Communist Party members; and (2) arrested/de-mobilized the 6-million vigilantes that assisted the Soviet Union’s Ministry of the Interior and police control the populations of the larger cities during the period of ‘Perestroika’ (1986-1991)!

    There can be no collapse of the USSR (or East Bloc nations) without…

    Verification, De-Communization and De-mobilization.

    The West never verified the collapse of the USSR because no collapse occurred, since if a real collapse had occurred the West would have verified it, since the survival of the West depends on verification. Conversely, this proves that the political parties of the West were co-opted by Marxists long before the fraudulent collapse of the USSR, since the survival of the West depends on verification.


    The West will form new political parties where candidates are vetted for Marxist ideology, the use of the polygraph to be an important tool for such vetting. Then the West can finally liberate the globe of vanguard Communism.


    * The failed socialist inspired and controlled pan-European revolutions that swept the continent in 1848(1) taught Marxists and socialists a powerful lesson, that lesson being they couldn’t win overtly,(2) so they adopted the tactic of infiltration of the West’s political parties/institutions. In the case of the United States…(continue reading at DNotice)…

  • NickG

    Hubris is systemic in the British military, simply because its ethos and promotional priorities select for it. The massively bloated senior command structure of the UK military only exacerbate this.

    You won’t get on at Staff College (JSOC – Joint Services Command and Staff College) in the various war-gaming exercises and TEWTs (tactical exercise without troops) other than by displaying dash and the ‘can do’ spirit.

    We saw how this ends up in the woeful senior command performances ending in the recent ignoble British military defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unfortunately these defeats have not been acknowledged, thus sustaining the ethos that results in hubris.