Misgovernment is of four kinds, often in combination. They are: 1) tyranny or oppression…2) excessive ambition…3) incompetence or decadence…and finally 4) folly or perversity. This book is concerned with the last in a specific manifestation; this is, the pursuit of policy contrary to the self-interest of the constituency or state involved. To qualify as folly…
I tend to read by subject. I'll travel to France, say, and when I get home I'm reading Lunch in Paris, The Greater Journey and My Life in France. I get home from Turkey and suddenly I've got books about Turkey backing up on the Kindle app on my iPhone, Ataturk, Birds Without Wings, The Oracle of Stamboul, A Fez of the Heart.
So when I heard the news about Paul Fussell, I was transported instantly back to that year that I was reading about World War II. Cornelius Ryan's The Longest Day, A Bridge Too Far, and The Last Battle led me to Bill Mauldin's The Brass Ring, everything by Ernie Pyle and Stilwell and the American Experience in China. (Reading really is the true perpetual motion machine.)
So today, I'm remembering Paul Fussell, who wrote about a different kind of war. The Guardian said it best:
The US writer Paul Fussell's 1975 book The Great War and Modern Memory was, according to the British military historian John Keegan, revolutionary. Fussell, in what he called "an elegaic commentary", shaped a picture of the horrors of the first world war, and the cold stupidity of its leaders, made more trenchant by his own experiences in the second world war. He also used the writings of Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon and others to show how the romanticising of the war and its heroes provided the creative spark for modernism, and the sensibility of disillusion and distrust of authority that characterised the so-called "lost generation".
(And of course after reading The Great War and Modern Memory I had to look up Rupert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon, who led me to Wilfred Owen and Randall Jarrell. You want to talk about the glory of war? Go read Jarrell's "The Death of the Ball-Turret Gunner" first.)
I'm a huge Barbara Tuchman fan, but I read Fussell before I read Tuchman, and Fussell colored my view of World War I so strongly that Tuchman's WWI books are my least favorites.
I remember particularly Fussell's Thank God for the Atom Bomb. The title essay is the grunt's eye view of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The title comes from a line from another book by another author, Goodbye, Darkness by William Manchester, another grunt's eye view of the war in the Pacific.
Sacrifice takes on a different meaning for you, when you're the sacrifice.
In a 1997 interview in The Atlantic , Fussell said
I had an abusive letter just yesterday that objected very much to my "lack of patriotism" and my willingness to traduce the United States. I don't think I do that at all. I like the United States so much that I wish it would grow up.
“Theology being the work of males, original sin was traced to the female.”
I was a guest on Coffee Table on KBBI this morning, keeping company with Shady Grove Oliver and Terry Rensel as we talked about our favorite reads with people who call in. It was a blast, as always–thanks, guys!–and without further ado, here’s the books we talked about on the air. Caroline Cow Woman of…
A book which informed my entire world view. In it, Tuchman posits the existance of folly, or the pursuit of public policy contrary to self-interest–in other words, why nations keep shooting themselves in the foot. She uses the Trojans taking the Greek horse inside the walls of Troy as her template, and then goes on to talk about how the Renaissance popes caused the Reformation, how the British lost America, and how the US lost in Vietnam. A lively, engaging prose style with more than a hint of “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”
[From the stabenow.com vaults, October 16, 2009] Here’s my top ten list of books that make me want to quit writing, because I’ll never write anything this good, so why am I bothering. 1. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. I know, kind of obvious, but I defy anyone, whether they’re reading it for the…
[from the Stabenow.com archives, January 25, 2010]
It’s not often you find a good historian occupying the same body as a good writer -- think of any history text you were force-fed in high school -- but Barbara Tuchman was a stellar exception. I’m still mad at her for dying before she wrote more books. Try a A Distant Mirror, a look at the effect on society of the Black Death of 1348-1350, which killed a third of the population between India and Iceland. In the foreward, Tuchman describes this time as a “violent, tormented, bewildered, suffering and disentegrating age, a time, as many thought, of Satan triumphant.”
Sound familiar? The more things change.
My favorite Tuchman book is The March of Folly. With the almost parental exasperation that characterizes so much of her writing, Tuchman posits the existance of folly, which she defines as the pursuit of public policy contrary to self-interest. To qualify for the definition of folly, Tuchman writes, the policy must meet three criteria. One, it must have been perceived as being wrong in its own time. Two, a feasible alternative course of action must have been available. And three, the policy had to have been that of a group, not an individual, and had to persist beyond one lifetime.
Her template is the Trojans taking the Greek horse inside the city walls. Next, the Renaissance popes provoke the Reformation by selling indulgences, elevating illiterate drunks to the pulpit and hosting orgies in the Vatican. The third folly is the British losing America, in which Dr. Samuel Johnson is memorably quoted as saying that Americans were “a race of convicts and ought to be grateful for anything we allow them short of hanging.”
Hard to believe we rebelled, isn’t it?
The fourth folly, and I think the one that inspired Tuchman’s conception of folly and the writing of this book, is America in Vietnam.
And then, if you want to understand the beginnings of America in Vietnam, read Tuchman’s Stilwell and the American Experience in China, in which you learn that Americans screwing up in Southeast Asia wasn't exactly a new experience.
A delightfully acerbic prose style, sort of on the order of “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”, combined with an exhaustive but nonetheless easily accessible scholarship and a you-are-there sense of time and place, the Tuchman historical oeuvre makes for seriously good reading, and you'll learn a thing or two along the way.