Hubris As The Evil Force In History

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I have always been intrigued by the Battle of Bull Run, the opening battle of the U.S. Civil War, known to Southerners as the War of Northern Aggression. Extreme hubris characterized both sides: the North before the battle and the South afterward.

Republican politicians and ladies in their finery rode in carriages to Manassas, the Virginia town through which the stream Bull Run flowed, to watch the Union Army end the “Southern Rebellion” in one fell swoop. What they witnessed instead was the Union Army fleeing back to Washington with its tail between its legs. The flight of the Northern troops prompted some Southern wags to name the skirmish the “Battle of Yankee Run.”

The outcome of the battle left the South infected with the hubris that had so abruptly departed the North. The Southerners concluded that they had nothing to fear from cowards who ran away from a fight. “We have nothing to worry about from them,” decided the South. It was precisely at this point that hubris defeated the South.

Historians report that the flight back to Washington left the Union Army and the U.S. capital in a State of disorganization for three weeks, during which time even a small army could have taken the capital. Historians who are inclined not to see the battle as a victory for the South claim that the Southerners were exhausted by the effort it took to put the Yankees to flight and that they simply didn’t have the energy to pursue them, take Washington, hang the traitor Abraham Lincoln and all the Republicans, and end the war.

Exhausted troops or not, had Napoleon Bonaparte been the Southern general, the still organized Southern army would have been in Washington as fast as the disorganized Union. Possibly, the Southerners would have engaged in ethnic cleansing by enslaving the Yankees and selling them to Africans, thus ejecting from the country the greed-driven Northern imperialists who, in the Southern view, did not know how to behave either in private or in public.

It was not Southern exhaustion that saved the day for the North. It was Southern hubris. The Battle of Bull Run convinced the South that the citified Northerners simply could not fight and were not a military threat.

Perhaps the South was right about the North. However, the Irish immigrants, who were met at the docks and sent straight to the front, could fight. The South was dramatically outnumbered and had no supply of immigrants to fill the ranks vacated by casualties. Moreover, the South had no industry and no navy. And, of course, the South was demonized because of slavery, although the slaves never revolted — even when all Southern men were at the front. When the South failed to take advantage of its victory at Bull Run and occupy Washington, the South lost the war.

An examination of hubris casts a great deal of light on wars, their causes and outcomes. Napoleon undid himself, as Adolf Hitler was to do later, by marching off into Russia. British hubris caused both world wars. World War II began when the British incomprehensibly gave a “guarantee” to the Polish colonels who were on the verge of returning that part of Germany that Poland had acquired from the Versailles Treaty. The colonels, not understanding that the British had no way of making the guarantee good, gave Hitler the finger, an act of defiance that was too much for Hitler, who had declared Germans to be the exceptional people.

Hitler smacked Poland, and the British and French declared war.

Hitler made short work of the French and British armies. But the British in their hubris, hiding behind the English Channel, wouldn’t surrender or even agree to a favorable peace settlement. Hitler concluded that the British were counting on Russia to enter the war on their side. Hitler decided that if he knocked off Russia, the British hope would evaporate and they would come to peace terms. So Hitler turned on his Russian partner with whom he had just dismembered Poland. Joseph Stalin, in his own hubris, had recently purged almost every officer in the Red Army, thus making Hitler’s decision easy.

The outcome of all this hubris was the rise of the U.S. military/security complex, more than four decades of Cold War and the threat of nuclear destruction, a period that lasted from the end of World War II until Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, two leaders not consumed by hubris, agreed to end the Cold War.

Alas, hubris returned to America with the neoconservative ascendency. Americans have become “the indispensable people.” Like the Jacobins of the French Revolution who intended to impose “liberty, equality, fraternity” upon all of Europe, Washington asserts the superiority of the American way and the right to impose it on the rest of the world. Hubris is in full flower despite its defeats. The “three week” Iraq war lasted eight years; and after 11 years, the Taliban control more of Afghanistan than the “world’s only superpower.”

Sooner or later, American hubris is going to run up against Russia and China, neither of which will give way. Either the United States, like Napoleon and Hitler, will have its Russian (or Chinese) moment, or the world will go up in thermonuclear smoke.

The only solution for humanity is to immediately impeach and imprison warmongers when first sighted before their hubris leads us yet again into the death and destruction of war.

Personal Liberty

Paul Craig Roberts

was Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Economic Policy and associate editor of The Wall Street Journal. He was columnist for Business Week, Scripps Howard News Service, and Creators Syndicate. He has had many university appointments. His Internet columns have attracted a worldwide following, and can be accessed here.

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