European Affairs

“Hubris: the Tragedy of War in the Twentieth Century,” by Alistair Horne; Harper; 382 pages     Print Email
Reviewed by Laurence Barrett, Former Senior Editor Time Magazine

BarrettThe battles of Tsushima and Verdun raged in different decades on opposite sides of the globe between different adversaries. Russian and Japanese fleets dueled off Korea’s southeast coast in 1905 at Tsushima. Massed French and German ground forces soaked Verdun’s acreage in blood in 1916. To discern a common relevance of these disparate conflicts, and to project their impact forward to wars of the 1940’s and 1950’s requires a military historian of unusual imagination and erudition.

Cue Alistair Horne, the British scholar who for nearly 60 years has chronicled warfare. His two dozen books, many on Continental or British subjects from the Napoleonic earthquakes onward, brought him a knighthood at home and membership in the Legion of Honor across the channel.

Horne’s new volume, “Hubris,” published late last year, reads like a valedictory. Here the 90-year-old Oxford don seeks a coherent theme to overlay individual exercises in carnage and chaos. The result is a fascinating though occasionally strained discourse on the roots of fiascos in which aggressors, infected with the arrogance that Greeks called “hubris,” gallop to disaster.

In a mournful tone, he confides a hazard of his trade: “One of the most depressing facts of military history is how very little the great warlords learn from the mistakes – indeed the calamities – of their predecessors.”

“Hubris” focuses on a handful of engagements during the half-century from the Russo-Japanese War through the French phase of the Indo-China conflict. Some, like Tsushima, are long forgotten but Horne explains why they deserve remembrance. At least two criteria apply to these engagements. First, one party foolishly overplays his hand with dire results. Second, each battle’s outcome, by Horne’s calculus, has important ramifications for years or even decades. It is the latter standard that sometimes seems stretched.

Tsushima occurred late in a war during which Russia – seemingly the stronger adversary at the outset – lost a series of encounters on land and sea to an opponent it continued to underestimate. Tsar Nicholas’s entourage disparaged the Japanese as “monkeys,” calculating that Russia’s larger forces and industrial base were bound to prevail.

With the remnants of its Pacific fleet blockaded at Port Arthur and the port itself besieged from the land side, Russia decided to dispatch an armada of 50 vessels from the Black Sea. In command: Admiral Zinovy Rozhestvensky, whom Horne describes as “a martinet with an explosive temper,” a physically towering figure known to underlings as Mad Dog.

It might have been a mission impossible for any commander. The crews were inexperienced and poorly trained. The flotilla included decrepit ships that slowed the voyage. Every vessel depended on coal, which would be scarce throughout an 18,000-mile journey consuming six months. Port Arthur fell during that period, vitiating one of the expedition’s main purposes.

Once close to the scene Rozhestvensky chose a shorter route toward Vladivostok to conserve coal. But that took him through the narrow Tsushima Strait. Awaiting him was Admiral Heihachiro Togo, previously considered overly cautious. But now Togo had large advantages: battle-tested crews, excellent intelligence on enemy deployment and a clear battle plan. He attacked with brio.

The battle’s first 30 minutes determined the outcome. All eight Russian battleships sank, along with 13 other vessels. Nearly 5,000 Russians died and 9,000 were captured, including a grievously wounded Rozhestvensky. Japanese losses amounted three small torpedo boats and 117 fatalities.

The impact on Russia was profound. Considered to have had the world’s third best navy before the war, it fell to sixth place. Respect for the Romanovs’ military prowess plummeted at home and abroad. Restiveness within the Russian navy festered, fueling revolutionary sentiment. Vladimir Lenin would later call the Asian defeat “the prologue to the capitulation of tsarism.”

Though the war effort had exhausted Japan, given its frail manufacturing base and significant losses in battles prior to Tsushima, victory gave a huge boost to what Horne calls the country’s “spiraling new militarism.” Togo assumed an iconic status similar to Nelson’s in Britain. For decades Japanese entertained “an illusion of invincibility at sea.” This excessive confidence led to Japan’s pyrrhic victory at Pearl Harbor and its decisive defeat at Midway just six months later.

On land, meanwhile, Japanese forces were gobbling up Chinese real estate. Tokyo exercised only partial control over its Kwantung Army in Manchuria, which eyed Siberia and Mongolia – a Soviet satellite – as prospective targets. In the spring of 1939, at an outpost on the ill-defined Mongolian-Manchurian border, another hubris-inspired conflict occurred.

Nomomhan was so obscure that most military maps failed to identify it. What started as a minor skirmish over grazing rights on disputed acreage morphed into a four-month engagement involving infantry, tanks and planes. Though most of the army was tied down in the Chinese campaign, Japan’s Kwantung command decided that bashing the Soviets would be easy. It dispatched an under-equipped infantry division led by an inexperienced commander.

Moscow sent in a whole corps from Ulan Bator. As Europe teetered on the abyss that summer, Josef Stalin would show no weakness. He ordered his most aggressive younger general, Georgy Zhukov, to assume command at Nomomhan. Soon 100,000 Soviet troops and some of Moscow’s best tank units grappled with 70,000 Japanese. Badly mauled, the Japanese withdrew. Several Kwantung officers, disgraced, committed suicide.

Both sides suffered casualties in the tens of thousands, though reliable figures were never established. What is clear is that Japan’s government fell, replaced by a still more militaristic clique. Further, Horne says, Nomomhan ended Tokyo’s internal debate over whether to go north or south on its next military adventure. Siberia no longer seemed easy prey. Southeast Asia was more appealing – as British, French and Dutch colonies painfully learned.

In making the go-south decision hinge on Nomomhan, Horne appears to be stretching a little to have his narrative to conform to his pattern. Tokyo, after all, held out the dream of an Asian “co-prosperity sphere” in defiance of Western colonialism. Southeast Asians fit that model far better than Siberians.

In any event, Stalin retained a large force in Siberia for another two years lest the Japanese try to surprise him. But in 1941, as the Germans threatened to take Moscow, Stalin saved his capital by reinforcing Zhukov’s defenders with 30 fresh divisions transferred from Siberia.

Horne argues, quite plausibly, that the battle of Moscow outranks the later, better known showdown at Stalingrad in strategic importance. Moscow also makes the author’s hubris roster, as does Hitler’s even more self-destructive decision to attack the USSR.

Overconfidence so warped German thinking that Hitler delayed his assault a few weeks because of minor operations in the Balkans. When the blitzkrieg started in June 1941, Berlin calculated that its adversary would collapse within eight weeks. Hence German troops had no winter gear six months later as fighting raged close to Moscow at the beginning of a particularly frigid Russian winter.

Fearful that the capital might fall, the Kremlin dismantled whole factories for transfer east. Lenin’s remains and the Bolshoi ballet company – scenery and all – were also evacuated. But a combination of exhaustion and weather slowed German momentum. Using the newly arrived Siberian units, Zhukov launch a counter-attack which caught the Germans by surprise. He drove the enemy back 200 miles.

Roughly 7 million combatants fought in Moscow’s environs – more than in any other World War II battle – and Soviet forces suffered 926,000 fatalities. That was four times the number of Germans killed in the entire invasion up to that point, and more than the combat deaths suffered by the U.S. and Britain in the entire war.

Germany had suffered its first significant defeat in World War II. Its military hierarchy was thrown off balance as Hitler assumed direct command. Soon the entire Axis effort began to lose momentum. Meanwhile, on December 11, as the tracks were coming off his Panzers near Moscow, Hitler committed his ultimate act of hubris: declaring war on the United States.

Unlike the Red Army, France’s military could not erase the disgrace it had suffered when it collapsed during the war’s early weeks. Horne, who devoted an earlier book to the 1916 ordeal at Verdun, notes that even in the early 1950s, French officers harked back to that battle as an icon of Gallic courage and tenacity.

Memories of Verdun played a role in the plans for Dien Bien Phu, in some ways the most egregious hubris-laden debacle analyzed by Horne. In 1953, the French Expeditionary Force, 150,000 strong, had been fighting insurgents in Viet Nam for nearly seven years. Commanders had come and gone. General Henri Navarre, the seventh chief, conceived a strange scheme for inflicting a decisive defeat on the View Minh.

At Verdun, the French had withstood – and ultimately beat back – German attacks for ten months. The defenders thwarted Germany’s strategy to inflict unsustainable casualties on them. Navarre’s plan was to construct a jungle equivalent of the fortress at Verdun, luring the Viet Minh into mass attack that superior French forces would obliterate.

As a site Navarre chose Dien Bien Phu, a remote valley closer to the rebels’ supply line from China than to French depots. Nothing worked well from the beginning. Construction of fortifications, cooperation between Navarre and his chief deputy, timely intelligence on the enemy’s capabilities – none worked well. The French had no idea that their astute adversary, Vo Nguyen Giap, could muster thousands of workers equipped with heavy duty bikes to bring artillery and ammunition down jungle trails hidden from aircraft observers.

French intelligence had calculated that the Viet Minh could get no more than 25,000 artillery rounds to the hills overlooking Dien Bien Phu. Post-war analysis showed that some 350,000 projectiles rained on the defenders. Colonel Charles Pirotte, commander of French artillery, had boasted that rebels could not possibly match the accuracy of his gunners. Pirotte killed himself with a grenade toward the end of the 167-day ordeal.

In Paris, Premier Joseph Laniel had to resign. Soon after, France withdrew from Indo-China altogether. American and British refusal to render military damaged relations with Paris, which reduced France’s military role in NATO. By Horne’s reckoning, Dien Bien Phu led to the Fourth Republic’s downfall and Charles de Gaulle’s rise.

Horne’s thesis does not lose relevance in the 1950’s. Had he chosen to chronicle cases of hubris in a later period, there would be no shortage of material. Perhaps the most vivid example was George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq after his ostensible success in the early phase of the Afghan war.

Bush, ironically, became a Horne admirer after reading “A Savage War of Peace,” an account of the Algerian insurrection. Horne accepted an invitation for a White House chat in 2007. In an essay soon after, Horne said he found the President a genial and interesting interlocutor. Horne observed that Bush “might have been a good president – without Iraq.”

Laurence Barrett was associated with Time Magazine for 32 years as Correspondent and Editor. He is the author of several books including “Gambling with History: Reagan in the White House"