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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

“The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam”, by Barbara W. Tuchman

447 pages, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., ISBN-13: 978-0394527772

Barbara Tuchmann is one of my favorite historians, and I appreciate the seriousness of her scholarship, the beauty of her writing, and the meticulousness of her research The Guns of August was one of the first history books I read as a kid, and it started me on the road to understanding that idiotic war (still haven’t got it down yet). In The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, Tuchmann explores the narrow-minded selfishness and stupidity of the ruling elite in four instances: how Troy fell victim to the Greek Horse: why the Renaissance Popes failed to reverse the decline of the Catholic Church: how the British caused the American Revolution: and why America became ensnared in Vietnam. This book is rather like the newspaper editor telling their reporters: “Look, here are the headlines for tomorrow’s paper; now go write the story and surround them with facts”.

Thus, the opening paragraph of this book introduces the thesis, or headline, and then goes on to tell you how the whole sorry story is about to unfold – but simply saying that “this stupid idea seemed like a good idea at the time” and then going on to say, like Tuchman seems to, that the leaders in question made these were too stupid, venal, deluded, or blind to see that it WAS a stupid idea doesn’t much help in understanding history or applying its lessons. Furthermore, the author’s grasp of historical problems weakens as she goes further back in time. The central argument of the section on the papacy is destroyed if it is appreciated that the popes of the early middle ages frequently behaved worse than those of the Renaissance without provoking schism. The power of Luther’s challenge lay in a novel concept of salvation which made pious Catholics as much his enemies as worldly hierophants. At times Tuchman seems aware of these problems, but brushes them aside with impatience – ironic, in view of her castigation of such a response in statesmen. After this, the section upon the loss of the colonies is much more persuasive (if familiar) save for a tendency to caricature; it should be remembered that the dim-witted, silk-clad British dilettantes portrayed here somehow managed to preside over a nation growing into the most powerful and stable on earth. The chapters upon Vietnam represent over a third of the book, and are by far the best of it; characters and events are treated with imaginative sympathy and the cumulative effect is very impressive.

The March of Folly presupposes from its title that the various “follies” in question are clear, obvious and avoidable to the decision makers of the time. Despite the citations in this book of people who disagreed with the policies of the renaissance popes, the British in the American colonies, or the Americans in Vietnam, I remain unconvinced that these so-called follies are in fact so open, obvious, and avoidable. There are minority viewpoints on every subject, some of which will eventually be proven right by history. History, however, is not a narrative; fortune plays the critical if not the major role. It strikes me that any ultimately “wrong” decision can be called “folly” (especially when one cherry picks contrary viewpoints that preexisted that decision). This book strikes me as a massive exercise in hindsight.

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