Tag: The March of Folly

Alternative title: Why Nations Keep Shooting Themselves in the Foot

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…

Read more Alternative title: Why Nations Keep Shooting Themselves in the Foot

The March of Folly: From Troy to VietnamThe March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam by Barbara W. Tuchman

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!”

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[from the Stabenow.com archives, January 25, 2010]

barbara_tuchman-757098It’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.

mirrorMy 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.

follyHer 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?

stilwellThe 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.

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