Fascinating and with the touch of a master storyteller’s hand, if there’s one history I will recommend this Christmas season, it will be Alistair Horne’s Hubris: the Tragedy of War in the Twentieth Century. Interesting and accessible, Horne’s approach is a narrative that doesn’t merely tell a story, but also examines hubris in the tides of battle. It is well researched, cites relevant sources and histories, and is persuasive, not to mention thoroughly engaging to read.
Beginning with the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 and ending with the last battle of the First Indochina War (the second being our Vietnam War), Dien Bien Phu, all of the battles that Horne examines fall roughly in the first half of the twentieth century, and with the exception of the Battle of the Straights of Tsushima, the final of the Russo-Japanese War, are all closely grouped around a period extending from 1939 to 1954. I’m sure there are plenty of histories that include each of the battles, but it was fascinating to view them through the lens of a nation or leader acting on hubris and taking his force beyond their capabilities.
In Tsushima, we see the last battle between battleships, the last time a battleship was sunk by force of cannons. With its fleet in the Pacific scattered by the Japanese, Russia sent its Baltic Fleet around the Horn of Africa, across the Indian Ocean, and north to bolster defenses on the Korean peninsula. With building drama and suspense, Horne tells the story of the opposing admirals, each with dramatically different personalities and management styles. Here are the vivid colors of a final engagement equal in decisiveness to the English and French meeting at Trafalgar under Lord Nelson.
Japan and Russia are also the opposing forces in Horne’s second battle, over thirty years later at Nomonhan inside of Mongolia. It is Gregory Zhukov’s first major step on the world stage, and it will bring him to Stalin’s attention as Zhukov first executes the maneuvers that he will later use against the Germans during Operation Barbarossa during the invasion of Russia.
It is during this invasion that we see Stalin stand in shocked silence at the news that Germans have invaded the Fatherland, despite repeated warnings not only from military leaders but from spies abroad. In what will become the largest battle in history and a turning point in the war, Hitler will extend himself too far to attempt to capture Moscow and, like Napoleon before him, be defeated by poor planning and the Russian winter.
The fourth engagement is the Battle of Midway, early in the United States’ involvement in World War II, and interestingly, it is the third that involves the Japanese.
Last is a combination of General MacArthur in Korea and the French in Indochina (Vietnam). I’ve recently read The Generals, by Thomas Ricks, which overlaps the Korea war therein, but this was the first account I’ve read about Dien Bien Phu.
In each battle, Horne does more than just lay out the battle lines and order of battle. He steps back and sketches out relevant previous history leading up to it, providing context and color to the personalities behind the facts, dates, and troop movements. I found the writing absolutely fascinating, and I would definitely consider reading other books by Horne.