The Sin of Hubris
Excessive pride, self-confidence, arrogance has consequences
If you are wondering what happened to Narendra Modi in Karnataka, read on. The word hubris is described in the dictionary to simply mean “excessive pride or self-confidence; arrogance” But it really means much more than that.
In classical Greek ethical and religious thought hubris or hybris meant an “overweening presumption suggesting impious disregard of the limits governing human action in an orderly universe”. It is the sin to which the great and gifted are most susceptible, and in Greek tragedy it is usually the hero’s tragic flaw.”
In the Greek tradition the sin of hubris was punishable by a super Olympian law to which even Zeus had to submit. Aeschylus in his epic poem “Persians” about the defeat of King Xerxes’ great Persian army in 480 BC by a much smaller Greek force wrote: “For when misfortune’s fraudful hand/ prepares to pour the vengeance of the sky/ what mortal shall her force withstand?”
The sin of hubris has been a continuing theme that has captured the imagination of historians, philosophers and theologians alike. The biblical saying “pride cometh before the fall” applied equally well to Ravana, the great king of the Rakshasas whose long years of penance secured him the favour of Brahma, who rendered him invulnerable to the gods and demons alike. We know what happened to him.
We, lesser Hindus, also know that it is not necessary to be a tyrant to attract the malefic attention of the gods. Bali the celebrated Daitya rose to such an eminence that Indra and the other gods had to seek the interference of Vishnu, who once again obliged the devas by consigning Bali to ‘pataala’ or the netherworld.
Bali, unlike Ravana, was not as guilty of hubris as he was of aspiring the greatness reserved for the gods. In that he was nevertheless punished perhaps lies a useful and still relevant moral?
On April 19, 1959 Fidel Castro made his first post revolution trip to Washington and met with then Vice President Richard Nixon for three and a half hours. Following this meeting Nixon appraised him thus: “The one fact we can be sure of, is that he has those indefinable qualities that make him a leader of men. Whatever we may think of him, he is going to be a great factor in the development of Cuba and possibly in the of Latin American affairs generally.”
In October that year President Eisenhower authorised a plan to oppose Castro. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) then set up a task force to plot the overthrow of Fidel Castro. Among the options is assassination, “possible removal” in officialese.
On October 7, Senator John Kennedy running for president attacked the Republican administration for “permitting a communist menace to arise just ninety miles from the shores of the United States.” A week later Kennedy again attacked: “If you can’t stand up to Castro, how can you expect to stand up to Khrushchev?”
Ironically, it was Richard Nixon who protested Kennedy’s hawkish position on Cuba and charged him with being “reckless and irresponsible” and argued that an attack on Cuba would be condemned in the United Nations and would transgress international law.
But Nixon knew otherwise too. All along the CIA was planning the invasion of Cuba. The plan was to stage landings by Cuban émigré troops, which would then trigger off a massive upsurge among the Cuban people to overthrow Castro’s dictatorship.
Studying the details of the plan the legendary Col. Edward Lansdale, an acknowledged expert on guerilla warfare expressed doubts whether the Cuban people would rise up in the face of the landings? In 1961 John Kennedy inherited this CIA plan, a plan crafted by another legendary master of international skullduggery, Richard Bissell, Director of Operations at CIA.
A Yale trained economist, Bissell had earned a reputation as a brilliant and successful spymaster who had overthrown inconvenient regimes in Iran and Guatemala, and had overseen the U-2 spy plane project. He introduced himself to President Kennedy saying: “I am your man eating shark, Mr. President!” Kennedy fell under his spell and went along with the plan.
The plan called for a landing in Cuba of a force of Cuban émigré fighters armed and trained by the CIA. This force was then meant to storm its way inland releasing in its wake a popular upsurge that would topple Castro, just like he did the dictator Fulgencio Batista. A President in waiting was kept ready in Florida.
On April 15, 1961 the plan went into operation with an air strike by eight B-26 bombers ostensibly belonging to the Cuban Expeditionary Force hit three Cuban airfields in a bid to neutralise Castro’s air power. They partly succeeded.
Fortunately for Castro, the Bay of Pigs, the chosen place for the landing suffered from two crucial disadvantages. The beach was close to Castro’s favourite holiday home and hence had a Cuban military unit garrisoned on it.
The shallow waters of the bay also concealed shoals that necessitated the landing force to wade ashore from a great distance, making them sitting ducks. That is precisely what happened.
As United States’ warships watched helplessly, Kennedy realised that he was led up the path and that the CIA’s urgent pleas for US air strikes would strip whatever was left of the fig leaf of innocence donned by the US. He abandoned the landing force to its fate. The few who survived ended up in Cuban jails. When asked what went wrong Kennedy’s National Security Advisor, McGeorge Bundy replied: “Hubris!”
In February 1961, Robert McNamara, a brilliant Harvard MBA and former President of Ford Motor Company took over as the US Defense Secretary. He took with him an equally brilliant team of systems analysts who were to transform the way the USA fought its wars in the future.
The generals at the Pentagon were ready to snow McNamara under tons of detail to go about with business as usual. The briefing presentations went on forever and the new Defence Secretary studied each slide intently. He was quiet till he reached slide seven hundred something when he cried, “Stop!” and pointed out that this slide contradicted slide fifty something seen the previous day.
The Brass lost the match at that moment and McNamara and his whiz kids took full charge of the Pentagon. The systems analysts quantified everything. Every weapon system ordered was subject to a cost-benefit analysis. Even military results were quantified in terms of “area pacified” and “body count.”
When the USA went into Vietnam these two result goals took an entirely different and sinister meaning. “Area pacified” became an area cleared of all Vietnamese, innocent or otherwise, and body count became just the production of dead bodies.
Since the dead tell no tales they were all supposed to be either Vietcong or North Vietnamese Army. There is that apocryphal story of a senior officer visiting a small town reduced to rubble by US artillery fire asking the officer in charge, “What happened here?” He was told; “We had to destroy this place to save it!”
When Clark Clifford who took over from McNamara as Defense Secretary totted up all the “body count” figures of the war, he found that it had exceeded all intelligence estimates of enemy combatants by over half! When he asked: “Why are we then still fighting?” Lyndon Johnson knew that he too was led up the path.
Some years ago I met Robert McNamara at a seminar organised by Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. I asked him as to how he got it so wrong. He replied with one word, “Hubris.”
In 1987 Indian troops went into Sri Lanka at the invitation of the two warring parties to impose an agreement midwifed by then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. When the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) reneged on it, the then Indian Army Chief, Gen. Krishnaswamy Sundarji assured the government that he would be able to eliminate or disarm the LTTE in just a few weeks.
We know what happened. It continues to be a sad chapter in the Indian Army’s history. It even cost Rajiv Gandhi his life. The question that baffles is how is it that the Indian Army ended up fighting a group that was fostered and supported by the Indian government? And what made the Indian Army think that it will be able to wipe out its one time protégé in just weeks if not days? Hubris?
With the war on Iraq not going quite as easily as anticipated the invasion of Iraq soon became Rumsfeld’s war. According to Seymour Hersh writing in ‘The New Yorker’: “Several senior war planners complained to me in interviews that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his inner circle of civilian advisers, who had been chiefly responsible for persuading President Bush to lead the country into war, had insisted on micromanaging the war’s operations details.
“Rumsfeld’s team took over crucial aspects of day-to-day logistical planning, traditionally, an area in which uniformed military excels, and Rumsfeld repeatedly overruled the senior Pentagon planners on the Joint Staff.” Hersh further writes: “Rumsfeld’s faith in precision bombing and his insistence on streamlined military operations has had profound consequences for the ability of the armed forces to fight effectively overseas.”
The war was awfully wrong for both the Iraqi people and the US. Classified US military documents released by WikiLeaks in October 2010, record Iraqi and coalition military deaths between January 2004 and December 2009 record 109,032 deaths broken down into "Civilian" -66,081 deaths, "Host Nation"- 15,196 deaths),"Enemy" - 23,984 deaths, and "Friendly" - 3,771 deaths.
On the first night of the war a CNN military analyst obviously ecstatic with the high-tech communications system that gave the decision makers in the Pentagon and White House a continuous stream of video data on the progress of the war called it “God's view of the war.”
That God, if there be one, should be thought to have such a still limited and linear view of unfolding events itself is testimony to the arrogance of people who matter now in Washington. It took the US a good part of a decade, over a hundred thousand dead and almost a trillion dollars in smoke before it withdrew. What happened? Hubris.
Mohan Guruswamy is a well known scholar and writer. The views expressed here are his own.