After more than 50 years of writing about military matters, veteran historian Horne (Kissinger: 1973, The Crucial Year, 2009, etc.) reflects on “the common features of warfare that stood out over the ages.”
Concluding that the main common feature is hubris (which the Greeks defined as “the worst sin a leader, or a nation, could commit”), the author makes a convincing, if not original, case by recounting several campaigns from the first half of the 20th century. More than half the book concerns Japan, whose dazzling victory in the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War began with a sneak attack and ended with the annihilation of the Russian fleet. Horne emphasizes the characteristics of the land campaign, a brutal, Pyrrhic victory by poorly equipped but extremely aggressive Japanese forces. No one—the United States included—learned from this. Unhinged by hubris, Japan continued to nibble at Russia until 1939, when Stalin sent large forces that inflicted a crushing defeat in the undeservedly obscure battle of Nomonhan, persuading Japan to turn its attention to Hawaii, the Pacific, and South Asia—an unwise decision. More hubris (“victory disease”) following Pearl Harbor drove it to send a fleet to disaster at Midway. Using Hitler as an example of hubris is a no-brainer, but Horne delivers an admirable account of the 1941 defense of Moscow, the largest battle in history and the true turning point in the war. He concludes with the Korean War, where Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who nearly epitomizes hubris, delivered a masterful performance, and the 1954 French debacle at Dien Bien Phu. The bibliography is invaluable because Horne seems to have read every popular book on these wars. There is little original research, and he rocks no historical boats, but he has lived long and writes well.
A conventional but thoughtful illustration of the stupidity of war.