The Perils of Confidence: Russian navy sailed for six months to face the Japanese. The battle lasted half an hour.

New book on the Russo-Japanese War focuses on Russian hubris.


The Perils of Confidence
The Russian navy sailed for six months to face the Japanese. The battle lasted half an hour.

A Japanese lithograph of the Battle of Tsushima in 1905.

A Japanese lithograph of the Battle of Tsushima in 1905. PHOTO: BRIDGEMAN

The word “hubris,” from the Greek, refers to overbearing pride or excessive presumption. In his latest book, the distinguished British historian Alistair Horne takes us on an episodic journey through the violent first half of the 20th century to see where and how hubris led to military debacles costing millions of lives and leading to the downfall of warlords, regimes and empires. It is an eminently provocative and readable volume in no small part because Mr. Horne, who has written more than two dozen books on modern European history, here ventures into what for him is the new territory of East Asia. Readers are the beneficiaries of this voyage of discovery.

Even students of military history are unlikely to know much if anything about the 1939 Battle of Nomonhan, fought between the Japanese and the Soviets in one of the world’s most rugged landscapes, the bleak steppes between then Japanese-occupied Manchuria and Soviet-dominated Mongolia. Mr. Horne brilliantly reconstructs this long-forgotten battle—featuring tanks clashing on the trackless wastes—and connects it to future military cataclysms, including the battles of Moscow and Stalingrad a few short years later. It’s as if he has discovered a hidden spring from which mighty rivers of blood were to flow.


By Alistair Horne
Harper, 382 pages, $28.99

Such linkages across time and geography are central to a book that the author himself calls “capricious” and “idiosyncratic.” Thus he focuses on a battle like Nomonhan but ignores World War I, the most destructive conflict of the century, precisely because there was way too much hubris displayed on all sides.

Mr. Horne begins with the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, with a focus on the great naval battle of Tsushima, in which the upstart Japanese navy destroyed czarist Russia’s fleet of more than 50 vessels, including eight of the world’s then largest battleships. There is protracted drama and pathos in Mr. Horne’s tale of how this fleet, poorly led, equipped and trained, is set to sea by a hubristic czar to make an epic 18,000-mile journey from the Baltic Sea, around Europe and Africa, across the Indian Ocean and up the long Pacific coast to engage the Japanese. The voyage, replete with mutinies and myriad mishaps, took fully six months. The naval battle itself lasted little more than half an hour and resulted in the destruction of most of the Russian fleet. Adding irony to tragedy, the Siberian base of Port Arthur, which the fleet had come to save, had fallen to the Japanese well before it arrived.

Referring to the artful tactics of the victorious Japanese admiral, Mr. Horne writes: “It was as if Togo were conducting a superbly rehearsed symphony with all its components coming together in a thunderously magnificent last movement.” At one point, he notes, Togo cut “across the Russian line, with the clear intention of crossing the T in the best tradition of Nelson at Trafalgar,” ordering his ships to “turn in sequence” and “doubling back across the Russian line so as to strike on its weaker flank.” Would that music critics could write so well.

According to Mr. Horne, the legacy of Tsushima, with its blow to Russian presumptions of power, includes the fall of czarist Russia and rise of the Soviet Union—and the unleashing of a uniquely Japanese form of military hubris that would end only in a mushroom cloud at Hiroshima. And indeed, Mr. Horne moves next to Manchuria in the 1930s, where a Japanese regime imbued with a toxic mix of modern militarism and samurai tradition brutally occupies much of northern China and looks greedily at the presumed vast mineral riches of Soviet Siberia. Thus the Japanese launch what becomes the Battle of Nomonhan.

Enter Georgy Zhukov, a young Soviet general sent east to Mongolia by Stalin to teach the hubristic Japanese a lesson. Zhukov is aided substantially by secret intelligence provided by Soviet master spy Richard Sorge in Tokyo. But the winning military tactics are his own, in particular the envelopment and pincer movements that shock and crush the invading Japanese. These are precisely the tactics that Zhukov would employ several years later in finally routing Hitler’s Wehrmacht at Stalingrad. “If Waterloo had been won on the playing fields of Eton, then Stalingrad was won on the bleak steppes of Mongolia,” Mr. Horne writes.

The defeated, if not yet humbled, Japanese would forget about the riches of Siberia and henceforth look south for further conquest and glory—to Southeast Asia and, at least wishfully, Hawaii and Australia. In the meantime, Stalin, thanks to Zhukov (and Sorge), could be reasonably assured of not having to fight a two-front war against Hitler in the west and Japan in the east. He was now free to make his own moves, first to divide Poland and the Baltics with Hitler and then, when attacked by Hitler, to eventually defeat him. Essential to that ultimate Soviet victory was Zhukov but also the Soviet divisions from Siberia that had fought for him at Nomonhan and that could be shifted west to provide the narrow margin of victory in the great Battle of Moscow in 1941-42.

The hubristic Stalin, of course, had blindly refused to believe that Hitler would invade Russia until Operation Barbarossa was well under way. And the hubristic Hitler launched the invasion fully believing that his armies would succeed where Napoleon’s had failed. The scale of the Battle of Moscow is almost unimaginable in our era of conflicts like Afghanistan and Iraq, where casualties measured in the thousands can be a cause for hand-wringing and retreat. Hitler’s invasion force numbered 3.8 million, and more than seven million were engaged on both sides. Russia alone lost nearly one million men at this single battle, more men, Mr. Horne reminds us, than the combined losses of the U.S. and the U.K. during all of World War II. In the end, Hitler was defeated by the Russian landmass, the Russian winter, Russia’s resources of manpower, Russia’s near limitless capacity for suffering—and of course his own hubris.

Next Mr. Horne takes us back to sea, where a supremely confident Japanese navy, having already bombed Pearl Harbor, aims to lure the U.S. into a climactic battle offshore of America’s little Pacific islands of Midway. As so often seems to happen in this chronicle, the trappers became the trapped. The age of the battleship, ushered in at Tsushima, had given way to the age of the aircraft carrier. The Japanese held a preponderance of carriers as well as other naval power in the Pacific. But the U.S., with better intelligence, reconnaissance and naval tactics, outsmarted and outgunned the Japanese. Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, once an ensign aboard the flagship at Tsushima, ignores warnings, wastes time and winds up losing a large part of his navy to America’s carrier-based planes. It is a “Tsushima, but in reverse,” Mr. Horne notes, and the turning point of the war in the Pacific.

Mr. Horne’s closing chapters take us to more recent terrain—Korea and Vietnam—and are less clearly connected to the book’s earlier events. In any case, we see Gen. Douglas MacArthur succeed brilliantly with his Inchon landing behind North Korean lines in September 1950 only to lose the initiative and eventually his job with a wildly ill-advised offensive to the Yalu River separating Korea from China. The result was hundreds of thousands of Chinese “volunteers” pouring across the border, the disastrous rout of America’s 8th Army and more years of fighting before the war stalled in stalemate. “Few acts of hubris in the 20th century,” Mr. Horne writes, “were punished more savagely or more swiftly” as this turning of triumph into tragedy.

He ends with a chapter on the 1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu. Here a French army that had been humiliated in World War II but had kept alive its memories of glory from World War I seeks “redemption” by crushing a Vietnamese peasant army challenging colonial rule. The French plan is to occupy the remote mountain valley of Dien Bien Phu and lure the Vietnamese into a baited trap. The bait, of course, became the meal. The primitive peasant army that the French so scorned managed to mobilize 50,000 coolies to haul heavy artillery across the mountains and into firing range. The French were encircled, battered and decisively defeated. It was the end of the French era in Vietnam and soon the beginning of the American one—though Mr. Horne, thank goodness, spares us a rerun of our hubris in Vietnam.

The book concludes with a brief epilogue in which Mr. Horne notes that hubris is a social epidemic and not merely an illness infecting warlords or tyrants: “part of the human condition—deep seated, lingering, pervasive and potentially lethal.” The ancient Greeks, he reminds us, understood as we may not the “terrible penalties that befall those who release from Pandora’s Box the dormant bacillus of hubris.”

—Mr. Kann, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Indo-Pakistani War for The Wall Street Journal, was until 2007 chairman of Dow Jones & Co.



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