HUBRIS

What it is: Overbearing arrogance and excessive ambition that leads to outrageous and violent actions against others: that is how classical Greeks understood 'hubris' - an essentially fatal overconfidence that led some men to defy the gods, with terrible consequences. Today it still refers to insolent arrogance and power-hugging pride.

What it means: In 1996 a senior US military adviser wrote: 'Super tools and weapons - information age equivalents of the atomic bomb - have to be invented. As the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki finally convinced the Japanese that even suicidal resistance was futile, these tools must be directed towards a similar outcome.' The USA should 'deter and overpower an adversary through the adversary's perception - and fear - of his own vulnerability and our invincibility'. The adviser called this strategy 'rapid dominance'. It would become better known as 'shock and awe'. In 1998 a US secretary of state, defending the use of cruise missiles against Iraq, said: 'If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see further into the future.' The terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in 2001 had not yet happened.  When they did, the perceived insult to a superpower sparked even greater hubris. The US administration became even more militarist. They introduced anti-terrorism policies which violated human rights, and launched attacks on Afghanistan, all part of America's declared new 'war on terror'. The world quickly became a more dangerous place.

Think about it:
(1)
The adviser who devised 'shock and awe' justifies the strategy like this: he thinks it saves lives and limits damage by keeping a war very short. The attack on Iraq in 2003 was poor quality rapid dominance, he said. There was certainly much loss of life and extensive damage.  There was something else: the hubristic behaviour of many US troops towards Iraqi civilians as the occupation of Iraq got under way. 'They were supposed to give us our freedom, not assault us.' 'Iraqis who attacked American soldiers were often motivated by anger at the humiliating and degrading way the US troops have treated their families and communities.' What do you think of 'shock and awe' as a way to win human hearts and minds?

(2)  Here is one reason given for the invasion of Iraq: 'The most powerful reason was the belief that bringing democracy (and other ideas and values that we think are superior) to Iraq would transform the strategic landscape of the greater Middle East, making it more stable and peaceful, while also striking a blow against terrorism. The bet was that democracy in Iraq would spread, changing the region for the better.' (Good intentions? Colossal cheek?) Why is armed invasion such a stupid, as well as deadly, way to create a culture of peace? What might be more successful? Bear in mind that Iraq had been run by a brutal dictator for decades, supported by officials and agents (also brutal, or self-seeking) who knew they'd get a raw deal if the dictator were overthrown.  Remember that in the 1980s that dictator had been supported  (because of politics, because of oil) by the western democratic powers now invading his country. Remember also that democracies aren't all good, or even particularly democratic. Not everyone thinks democracy is right for them.

(3) Of course the USA isn't the only nation or government in history to behave with hubris. (Think of the Nazi regime and its belief in its racial superiority.)  Hubris is a characteristic of imperialist leaders of all kinds, nationalities and times. A characteristic of empires is that they reach a peak and then decline, sometimes quickly. Find out about one or more empires of the first millennium. Look at the part played in their histories by armies and wars. (Think also about a modern empire, the Soviet Union, which did not fall but chose to shut down: militarism was bankrupting it, and improving the economy instead was a better bet.) Are there lessons we can learn from past empires?