Overconfidence and War: The Havoc and Glory of Positive Illusions

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Overconfidence and War: The Havoc and Glory of Positive Illusions

By Dominic D. P. Johnson
Harvard University Press, 2004
288 pp. $26.95
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If states could know the outcome of wars in advance, they would in many cases, even when they are likely to win, be inclined to find less harmful ways of pursuing their interests. Accordingly, Johnson argues, they must tend to harbor positive illusions about their prospects. He explores the various psychological and political sources of overconfidence, reflected in tendencies to overestimate one's own side and underestimate the enemy, and tests them in four case studies. In two, World War I and Vietnam, such illusions encouraged war, and in another two, Munich and the Cuban missile crisis, checks on illusions encouraged a settlement. He adds a postscript on Iraq, which certainly provides support for his underlying thesis, although there was no shortage of questioning of the Bush administration's optimism. The focus on overconfidence provides an interesting vantage point from which to view some familiar episodes in international history, although Johnson attempts to extract more in terms of international relations theory from the basic insight than it really warrants. What constitutes an illusion can be very hard to pin down, and, as Johnson notes, illusions can also cause bold or resolute behavior that leads to a convergence with reality.