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The Tragedy of War in the Twentieth Century.
By Alistair Horne
SIR ALISTAIR HORNE is a wise old bird. One of the British historian's many books, an account of the Algerian war and its bitter aftermath, was seized upon by a beleaguered president, George W. Bush, four years into the American occupation of Iraq as a source of sound advice in dealing with brutal insurgencies. Summoned to the Oval Office in 2007, more than 30 years after the publication of 'A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-72', it is likely that the ever-courteous Sir Alistair refrained from saying that the best counsel he could have given Mr Bush was not to go into Iraq in the first place. His latest book, published in the author's 91st year, is a reflection on military hubris and the part it played in 20th-century conflicts.
For the ancient Greeks, hubris was the folly of a leader who through excessive self-confidence challenged the gods. It was always followed by peripeteia (a reversal of fortune) and, ultimately, nemesis (divine retribution). Sir Alistair’s subject is the embedded tendency of generals and nationalistic political leaders who experience military triumph to overreach, and for the next generation to inherit their arrogance and complacency with disastrous results. The author was spoilt for choice in looking for conflicts to illustrate his central point, but he confines himself to six battles that spanned the first half of the 20th century, the bloodiest by far in human history.
They include the smashing of the Russian fleet by the Japanese at Tsushima in 1905; the little-known battle of Nomonhan in 1939 when General Georgy Zhukov, the most successful commander of the second world war, destroyed the Kwantung Army and put paid to any further thought of Japanese northward expansion; the Japanese defeat at Midway just six months after the reckless gamble of their attack on Pearl Harbour; and the defeat of the once-preening Wehrmacht outside Moscow in 1941, which Sir Alistair sees, even more than the later battle of Stalingrad, as the 'end of the beginning' of the war.
This melancholy account of military delusion closes with two conflicts that had huge consequences. The first is General Douglas MacArthur's vainglorious dash across the 38th Parallel to the Yalu river in 1950, which brought China into the Korean war with calamitous results. And the second, four years later, is the fall of Dien Bien Phu (where the French had convinced themselves they were reliving the glorious defence of Verdun in 1916) to General Vo Nguyen Giap's Viet Minh, which would later drag America into the Vietnam war.
One constant theme is how decisions were influenced by a misguided concept of racial superiority. Although at the turn of the century Japan was rapidly industrialising and had equipped itself with some of the best warships money could buy (cheerfully supplied by their ally, Britain), the Russians constantly underestimated them. It was surely folly to send a fleet 18,000 miles to the Far East to relieve besieged Port Arthur. When the Russians arrived, their ships and men were so exhausted that the faster Japanese ironclads, superbly commanded by Admiral Heihachiro Togo, were able to outmanoeuvre and destroy them. But in that smashing victory the seeds were sown that led inexorably to Hiroshima and Nagasaki 40 years later.
Isoroku Yamamoto, who planned the attack on Pearl Harbour and led the Japanese fleet at Midway, was a junior officer at Tsushima. For Yamamoto and Japan's increasingly nationalistic and militaristic leaders in the 1920s and 1930s, Tsushima inspired a kind of 'mystical Messianism' that gripped the country and made expansion into the Asian mainland seem almost preordained. The samurai code of honour, hyper-nationalism and the illusion of invincibility at sea combined to convince the leadership that there was no foe 'divine Japan could not vanquish'. Japan, as much as imperialistic Europeans in the previous century, believed in its racial and cultural supremacy, particularly over the Chinese, but also over white colonisers and decadent America. It was, says Sir Alistair, 'a suicidally dangerous philosophy'.
The case against the awful consequences of military hubris is not hard to make. But Sir Alistair makes it with erudition and eloquence. His account of the conflicts he cites contains little that is new. But his narrative is never dull; his judgments are informed by a weary understanding of human folly. This is a book that any political leader contemplating military action should read. Had it been available to Mr Bush, he might not have needed to seek help from the author's earlier work.
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