Book Review | Hubris: The Tragedy of War in the Twentieth Century by Alistair Horne

Hubris: The Tragedy of War in the Twentieth CenturyFascinating and with the touch of a master storyteller’s hand, if there’s one history I will recommend this Christmas season, it will be Alistair Horne’s Hubris: the Tragedy of War in the Twentieth Century. Interesting and accessible, Horne’s approach is a narrative that doesn’t merely tell a story, but also examines hubris in the tides of battle. It is well researched, cites relevant sources and histories, and is persuasive, not to mention thoroughly engaging to read.

Beginning with the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 and ending with the last battle of the First Indochina War (the second being our Vietnam War), Dien Bien Phu, all of the battles that Horne examines fall roughly in the first half of the twentieth century, and with the exception of the Battle of the Straights of Tsushima, the final of the Russo-Japanese War, are all closely grouped around a period extending from 1939 to 1954. I’m sure there are plenty of histories that include each of the battles, but it was fascinating to view them through the lens of a nation or leader acting on hubris and taking his force beyond their capabilities.

In Tsushima, we see the last battle between battleships, the last time a battleship was sunk by force of cannons. With its fleet in the Pacific scattered by the Japanese, Russia sent its Baltic Fleet around the Horn of Africa, across the Indian Ocean, and north to bolster defenses on the Korean peninsula. With building drama and suspense, Horne tells the story of the opposing admirals, each with dramatically different personalities and management styles. Here are the vivid colors of a final engagement equal in decisiveness to the English and French meeting at Trafalgar under Lord Nelson.

Japan and Russia are also the opposing forces in Horne’s second battle, over thirty years later at Nomonhan inside of Mongolia. It is Gregory Zhukov’s first major step on the world stage, and it will bring him to Stalin’s attention as Zhukov first executes the maneuvers that he will later use against the Germans during Operation Barbarossa during the invasion of Russia.

It is during this invasion that we see Stalin stand in shocked silence at the news that Germans have invaded the Fatherland, despite repeated warnings not only from military leaders but from spies abroad. In what will become the largest battle in history and a turning point in the war, Hitler will extend himself too far to attempt to capture Moscow and, like Napoleon before him, be defeated by poor planning and the Russian winter.

The fourth engagement is the Battle of Midway, early in the United States’ involvement in World War II, and interestingly, it is the third that involves the Japanese.

Last is a combination of General MacArthur in Korea and the French in Indochina (Vietnam). I’ve recently read The Generals, by Thomas Ricks, which overlaps the Korea war therein, but this was the first account I’ve read about Dien Bien Phu.

In each battle, Horne does more than just lay out the battle lines and order of battle. He steps back and sketches out relevant previous history leading up to it, providing context and color to the personalities behind the facts, dates, and troop movements. I found the writing absolutely fascinating, and I would definitely consider reading other books by Horne.

Hubris: The Tragedy of War in the Twentieth Century Book Cover Hubris: The Tragedy of War in the Twentieth Century
Alistair Horne
November 17, 2015
Publisher Review Copy

Sir Alistair Horne has been a close observer of war and history for more than fifty years and in this wise and masterly work, he revisits six battles of the past century and examines the strategies, leadership, preparation, and geopolitical goals of aggressors and defenders to reveal the one trait that links them all: hubris.

In Greek tragedy, hubris is excessive human pride that challenges the gods and ultimately leads to total destruction of the offender. From the 1905 Battle of Tsushima in the Russo-Japanese War, to Hitler's 1941 bid to capture Moscow, to MacArthur's disastrous advance in Korea, to the French downfall at Dien Bien Phu, Horne shows how each of these battles was won or lost due to excessive hubris on one side or the other. In a sweeping narrative written with his trademark erudition and wit, Horne provides a meticulously detailed analysis of the ground maneuvers employed by the opposing armies in each battle. He also explores the strategic and psychological mindset of the military leaders involved to demonstrate how devastating combinations of human ambition and arrogance led to overreach. Making clear the danger of hubris in warfare, his insights hold resonant lessons for civilian and military leaders navigating today's complex global landscape.

A dramatic, colorful, stylishly-written history, Hubris is a much-needed reflection on war from a master of his field.

About Daniel

Daniel Burton lives in Salt Lake County, Utah, where he practices law by day and everything else by night. He reads about history, politics, and current events, as well as more serious genres such as science fiction and fantasy. You can also follow him on his blog where he muses on politics, the law, books and ideas.