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‘Hubris: The Tragedy of War in the Twentieth Century,’ by Alistair Horne

Shortly after Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the commander of the Japanese squadrons posed a pointed rhetorical question: "Have these Americans never heard of Port Arthur?" The 1904 Japanese attack on a fleet of Russian vessels at Port Arthur on the coast of northeast China was also a surprise strike against a much larger military power that preceded an official declaration of war. The Japanese commander was making a taunting but accurate point — a stronger knowledge of military history would have made the Pearl Harbor attack less surprising.

In his stark and compelling new book, "Hubris: the Tragedy of War in the Twentieth Century,'' historian Alistair Horne argues that this is just one of many similar failures by nations to grasp the cautionary lessons of past. In five case studies of battles that span roughly the first half of the 20th century, he shows the recurrence of a deadly pattern in which the United States, Japan, France, Russia, and Germany fall victim to illusions of invincibility that result in catastrophic losses.

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Many of Horne's examples illustrate the truth of a famous remark by the 19th-century German chancellor Otto von Bismarck: "A generation that deals out a thrashing is usually followed by one which receives it." Japan, for instance, after its resounding 1905 victory over a hapless Russian fleet at the sea Battle of Tsushima, was convinced it would win the 1942 Battle of Midway. This overconfidence had tactical ramifications; the Japanese commander not only chose to disperse his fleet on trivial targets, he refused to believe reports of losses during the battle.

Hitler's invasion of Russia in 1941 is another example. Convinced that his men would swiftly sack Moscow, Hitler and his generals failed to provide the German troops with adequate cold-weather clothing. The campaign required months rather than weeks, and soon men and horses were freezing to death in a cruel Russian winter. Russian resistance was also fiercer than expected.

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While Horne describes this sort of lethal overconfidence as hubris, the ancient Greek term for brash pride, he also delineates a particular variety fueled by racial prejudice. The German soldiers in 1941 were told that the Russians were an inferior race. Some Russian leaders in 1905, meanwhile, dismissed the Japanese as a lower form of humanity that would be easily defeated. And the Americans in World War II were inundated by propaganda that dehumanized the Japanese and failed to recognize them as a formidable opponent. In all these cases, Horne argues, such beliefs led to tactical blunders that proved deadly.

Often the focus falls on a particular individual. Horne's final case study examines Army General Douglas MacArthur, a World War II hero given almost unilateral power to do as he pleased in the Korean War in the early 1950s. MacArthur spread the troops under his command perilously thin and pushed them beyond the 38th parallel, overextending his forces. The results were predictably catastrophic.

Horne also shows how hubris can spread through an entire army or culture indoctrinated by self-flattering propaganda and puffed up by previous victories. Particularly poignant is the example of the French at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 during that nation's war in Indochina. Recalling the former glory of their ancestors in the 1916 Battle of Verdun, many French assumed they could hold an impossible location through sheer force of will. Enormous casualties and ultimate defeat argue otherwise.

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Horne has a flair for wrenching detail. We see rats gnawing on soldiers' open wounds, desperately dehydrated men in Manchuria sipping the blood from their own bodies, and sundry other horrors. But his moral purpose is never far from the surface. Rather than simply listing statistics, he makes the toll of arrogance and historical amnesia vivid through specific, harrowing stories.

Some of the book's claims are arguable. That the 20th century was "the bloodiest in history" is true in absolute figures, but as Steven Pinker and other writers have shown, the relative percentage of humans dying violently has declined steadily throughout history. Yet these are minor quibbles and do not detract from the potency of Horne's argument. His analysis stops in 1954, but many military actions that have taken place since stand as evidence of lessons unlearned.

HUBRIS: The Tragedy of War in the Twentieth Century

By Alistair Horne. Harper,

400 pp., $28.99


Nick Romeo is a journalist and cultural critic.