Alistair Horne’s Hubris – The Tragedy of War in the Twentieth Century focuses on the dangers of over-confidence in the military arena. He begins with a brilliant quote from the German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck: “A generation that deals out a thrashing is usually followed by one that receives it.”
While focusing on the fateful decisions made by various admirals and generals, Horne provides a useful history of warfare in the Twentieth Century. This is no history of the Korean War or of the Russo-Japanese War, but I learned a lot about both from this very readable book. Again and again Horne shows how prior victories gave outstanding tacticians unfounded confidence in their ability to keep winning. At some point, they stopped reflecting and accounting for worst case scenarios and just got carried away by feelings of invincibilty.
Horne’s study of why wars unfolded as they did is well told. Plainly there are a myriad of factors, but I’d much rather focus on individuals and their fateful decisions. There were plenty of fundamentally evil players on the battlefields of the Twentieth Century, but Horne also shows how more thoughtful and nuanced individuals also got carried away and just kept pushing until they seized defeat from the jaws of victory, as one of my colleagues used to say.
I recommend this book for its focus on the folly of hubris and also because it provides a lucid tour of warfare in the Twentieth Century.