Friday, July 28, 2017

Barbara Tuchman - The March Of Folly (Abacus, 1984) *****

Finally, after all these years, I've read the history book that was highly popular during my early twenties. And it matches all the expectations.

What is the March of Folly - it is the stupidity of those in power to create their own downfall when all the indicators demonstrate what is going to happen. Despite all the warnings, including from friends and close allies and counselors and advisors, the men in power still decide to move forward with their mad schemes, which will enexorably to their dawnfall.

The theme is the legend of the Trojan Horse, pulled inside Troy when filled with Greek soldiers who come out at night to open the gates so that the army can invade the city after so many years of battle. Did not all the Trojans warn not to bring the horse into the city? Yes, of course, but when stupidity reigns, it will not listen to reason.

The other historic moments to illustrate the March of Folly are the catholic popes of the 15th and early 16th century, who rule like modern day dictators, unhindered by any moral or ethical considerations, but lusting for sex, money and power. Instead of making the church more powerful, the exact opposite happened, and half of Europe turned its back on catholicism.

The second historic moment is how the Brits lost America as its land across the ocean. Tuchman describes in detail how stupidity and ignorance were the key characteristics of the politics in London at that time. "The attitude was a sense of superiority so dense as to be inpenetrable ... the (successive) ministries went through a full decade of mounting conflict with the colonies without any of them sending a representative, much less a minster, across the Atlantic to make acquaintance, to discuss, to find out what was spoiling, even endangering, the relationship and how it might be better managed".

The last example is about the United States' desperate attempts to win the Vietnam war, and when everybody saw the stupidity of what was happening, the needless bloodshed, the hundreds of thousands of victims, the United States government still kept moving forward to an inevitable loss. As the French General Leclerc said to his political advisor prior to the war 'it would take 500,000 men to do it, and even then it could not be done'. The amount of men sacrificed was indeed an underestimation.

In the current world, with other madmen ruling the world: Trump and Putin for the major powers, and many other of a minor order, yet equally mad, such as Erdogan, Duterte, Maduro, Kabila, Mugabe, to name just a few, the book remains a strongly recommended read.

Listen to these sentences, "When private interest is placed before public interests, and private ambition, greed and the bewitchment of exercising power determine policy, the public interest necessarily loses" or "Personal self-interest belongs to every time and becomes folly when it dominates government" or "Their three outstanding attitudes - obliviousness to the growing disaffection of constituents, primacy of self-aggrandizement, illusion of invulnerable status - are persistent aspects of folly" and know they refer to the popes of the 15th century, they are still equally valid for many of the rulers of today.

And as a final comment: this history book reads like a novel. She writes with passion, not hiding her own opinion. In that sense it's more of a pamphlet, albeit a hefty one, but one that is crammed with facts as it should be for a well-researched history book. Of course you know what's going to happen, and the fact that the cases are so extreme, the stupidity so overwhelming, the human cost so high, make the novel all the more important today.

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