College Columns May 2016 Issue - Page 11

Ninety is the New Seventy

A Senior Fellow Committee Book Review by Michael L. Cook

Hubris, by Alistair Horne (Harper Collins 2015) 344 pages.

produced a gem in his ninetieth year: Hubris, subtitled “The Tragedy of War in the Twentieth Century.” The book was my introduction to Horne’s strong, clear prose; his sound judgments on human nature; and his devastating wit. Only in the author’s final “acknowledgements” did I learn that Horne was 90 when he wrote the book after recovering “from the dark abyss of a stroke.”

Horne describes six twentieth century battles to show the effect of military overconfidence on the course of world history -- Tsushima (1905) (Japanese sinking of the Russian fleet); Nomonhan (1939) (Russia's stopping Japan in Mongolia); Moscow (1941) (Hitler’s overreaching after his invasion of Russia); Midway (1942) (the Japanese naval loss six months after Pearl Harbor); Korea (MacArthur’s fatal march beyond the Thirty-Eighth Parallel); and Dien Bien Phu (1950-1954) (the disastrous French loss to North Vietnam). Defining hubris as military “overreach,” he shows “how very little the great warlords ever learn from the mistakes … of their predecessors.” He shows, too, the “racist distortion” and lack of “good sense” that caused the Russians to have “contempt for the little yellow man”; the “Japanese tendency to relegate the Chinese to the rank of [subhuman], much as Hitler regarded the barbarian Slovak hordes during” his Russian invasion. Even before Pearl Harbor Americans convinced themselves “‘that the Japanese couldn’t fly because of their poor eyesight.” In the end, Horne tries to provide an answer as to why successful military leaders should be closely monitored.

Horne described the Russian Tsar Alexander II during the 1905 Russo-Japanese War as “unerring in his ability to make the wrong choice” when he picked an admiral to lead the Russian Fleet. Describing Stalin’s “hatchetman during the [1930s] purges” who killed at least 185 generals, Horne called him “an old party hack,… described by those that knew him as a ‘bag of [excrement]’”. As for General MacArthur, he was, “as one of his commanders once remarked, ‘senior to everyone but God.’” When the “patrician and fastidious” Secretary of State Dean Acheson declined to join President Truman at his October 15, 1950 meeting with MacArthur on Wake Island, he explained “with exquisite diplomatic style, that, [because] General MacArthur had many of the attributes of a foreign sovereign … and was quite as difficult as any, it did not seem wise to recognize him as one.’“

This is a terrific book. Horne’s superb grasp of human nature graphically shows how success can lead to disaster.

Alistair Horne, the British historian and author of 25 books on military history over the past 50 years, has