Magazine | April 11, 2016, Issue

Facing War

Hubris: The Tragedy of War in the Twentieth Century, by Alistair Horne (Harper, 400 pp., $28.99)

Since Thucydides, historians have looked for a moral pattern in the dynamics of war in their own time, with decidedly uneven results (see, for example, Barbara Tuchman’s March of Folly). For Thucydides the war in question was the Peloponnesian War. Although Iraq and Afghanistan barely get a mention in distinguished historian Alistair Horne’s new book, they evidently cast an enormous shadow over his approach to understanding the relationship between success and failure in military conflict. Unfortunately, the book’s thesis — “Wars have generally been won or lost through excessive hubris on one side or the other” — simply doesn’t bear up to close examination. One man’s hubris, after all, is another’s self-confidence.

And the examples Horne cites, from the Russo–Japanese War of 1904–05 to the Korean War, don’t always seem to fit even his secondary theme, that “the exuberance that follows victory all too easily leads to the wrong decision.” Exuberance doesn’t seem actually to have played much part in the decision by Russia to send a fleet of 50 warships on an 18,000-mile voyage from the Baltic to the Pacific to defeat the Japanese fleet in the Tsushima Straits between Korea and Japan, only to lose one of the most lopsided sea battles in history. On the contrary, Russia’s situation was desperate: Its Pacific fleet at Port Arthur had already been destroyed by the Japanese under the gifted admiral Heihachiro Togo, Russian land forces had suffered a crushing defeat at the battle of Mukden, and Port Arthur itself, Russia’s most important Asian outpost, was being strangled by a seemingly unbreakable siege.

Sending the quickly assembled Russian fleet, with its untrained crews and untested ships, was a last roll of the dice. As Horne tells the story, it seems obvious that the fleet’s real problem was a prolonged run of bad luck almost from the moment it left St. Petersburg harbor, plus the fact that Togo was a true admiral of genius, a Japanese Nelson who managed to sink all eight of Rozhestvensky’s battleships and destroy or capture 20 other Russian vessels, with only three torpedo boats lost, 117 sailors killed, and 583 wounded — all but wiping out Russia as a major maritime power.

Horne’s description of the battle is gripping: “As twilight set in and light began to fail, Togo decided . . . to pursue Rozhestvensky’s crippled fleet with his plentiful torpedo boats. They circled like prairie wolves bringing down a great buffalo, scurrying about at high speed and with all the precision of months of hard training for this one engagement.” And he does argue forcefully, if not entirely convincingly, that Togo’s overwhelming victory went on to inspire Japan to launch a 35-year career of empire-building that led ultimately to a long, costly land war in China, and to an even more disastrous sea war with the United States. (Horne reminds us that one of the young lieutenants at Tsushima was Isokoru Yamamoto, the future architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor.)

If this seems a somewhat strained example of hubris in action, Horne looks to be on firmer ground in his discussion of Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. As Horne points out, Hitler assumed that the blitzkrieg tactics that had led to such stunning, swift success in France the previous year would crush the Soviet Union in a few short months. Instead, the German war machine got bogged down in the vast distances of Russia and with the onset of winter ground to a halt at the gates of Moscow, in time for Stalin’s armies to recover and administer the first decisive defeat of German forces — more decisive in the long run, Horne argues, than the later defeat at Stalingrad. As 1942 started, he writes, “the myth of the invincible blitzkrieg had been shattered,” while Hitler’s decision to take personal command of the conduct of the war, down to deciding the disposition of individual divisions, only set the hubristic stage for further disastrous decisions that finally doomed Germany in the war.

Still, it’s worth noting that if the invasion of the Soviet Union had started in April or May, as originally planned, instead of late June, Hitler’s armies could have surrounded Moscow well before the snows fell and before the offensive lost its initial momentum. But Hitler’s attention that spring was diverted instead to Yugoslavia and Greece, where he had to send his Panzers to salvage Benito Mussolini’s deteriorating position there, forcing the fateful delay. The real failure of Operation Barbarossa might have had less to do with Hitler’s hubris than with misplaced loyalty to a fellow dictator.

But it’s when Horne takes up Douglas MacArthur’s conduct in the Korean War that his case seems weakest. Unfortunately, Horne falls for the standard view about MacArthur in Korea — purveyed by, among other sources, William Manchester’s uneven and outdated biography — as a vain, pompous “American Caesar” who, after his stunning success with the surprise amphibious landing at Inchon in September 1950, which led to the collapse of North Korean forces, rashly decided to pursue the enemy across the 38th parallel and up to the border with Red China, despite warnings that this might precipitate Chinese intervention. That intervention swiftly came in November and December, forcing a disastrous headlong collapse of U.N. forces — so the conventional story goes — until finally the new commander of MacArthur’s Eighth Army, General Matthew Ridgway, managed to stem the tide and MacArthur himself was removed from command.

In point of fact, virtually every part of the conventional story is untrue.

Horne writes, “How different world history might have been if MacArthur had had the good sense to stop at the Thirty-Eighth Parallel.” In truth, there was almost no one in the Truman administration at the time who didn’t want MacArthur to cross the parallel into North Korea, to finally destroy the remaining Communist forces and to complete the unification of the peninsula under South Korean president Syngman Rhee. It was Secretary of Defense George Marshall himself who gave MacArthur permission to conduct the rest of the campaign as he saw fit, including moving his forces as close to the Chinese border as he thought practicable — although he was supposed to use only South Korean troops for the advance toward the Yalu. (MacArthur did, but they were the first to collapse when the Chinese flooded across the border.)

Nor was it MacArthur’s move toward the Yalu that precipitated Mao Tse-tung to enter the war. As we now know from Chinese sources, Mao was preparing for a full-out war with the United States from the moment the first American troops arrived in South Korea to halt the North Korean invasion, in late June 1950. Mao wanted his generals to attack as early as August, when American forces were still well south of the 38th parallel, but they, rightly mindful of American military power, stalled. Mao was forced to wait until November before delivering what he assumed would be the fatal knockout blow to the Americans, with no fewer than four Chinese armies pouring into Korea.

MacArthur’s retreat back down the Korean peninsula, which Horne describes mistakenly, as many historians do, as “the Bug-Out,” actually gave his forces time to regroup and later resume the offensive — which they did under Ridgway, whom MacArthur had appointed to head the Eighth Army and who, like MacArthur, saw final victory over both China and North Korea as a realizable goal until the Truman administration yielded to European demands for a negotiated settlement and a divided Korea. It was MacArthur’s outspoken criticism of a policy that traded victory for stalemate that finally cost him his job, not incompetence — let alone hubris.

Indeed, if anything displayed full-fledged hubris on MacArthur’s part, it was his highly successful landing at Inchon in September. Operation Chromite, as it was called, was done in defiance of the best judgment of all the experts, including the Joint Chiefs and even the generals and admirals in charge of the operation — even, one could argue, in defiance of nature herself. (Inchon harbor had extremely variable tides, which, if the timing of the landing had been delayed by a couple of hours, could have left American forces stranded in the mud.) Yet Inchon was a great triumph, as Horne concedes. It triggered the collapse of the North Korean army and temporarily shattered Kim Il-sung’s regime, as U.N. forces occupied Pyongyang. If MacArthur’s strategy of carrying the fight across the border into Manchuria had been pursued, the war might have spelled the end of Mao’s Communist regime as well.

The British historian F. W. Maitland once remarked that “it is very hard to remember that events now long in the past were once in the future.” This is equally true of actions in the recent past, including the decisions to invade Iraq and Afghanistan. Retrospectively assigning the quality of hubris in order to explain them seems to ignore Maitland’s salutary warning. Alistair Horne is a great and gifted writer, and fans of his work (including this reviewer) would want this book, his 24th, to be the best of all. Sadly for all of us, Hubris is not.

– Mr. Herman is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and the author of the forthcoming book Douglas MacArthur: American Warrior.

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