That’s the title of a four-pronged historical examination by Barbara Tuchman: an examination of four specific episodes in history (or in the case of Troy and their gift horse, possibly mythical history) where the leadership of a political entity decided – against all good advice and reasoned opposition – to go full out in idiocy counter to their best interests, the pursuit of which left them very much in a worse situation than before. Pride, stubbornness, stupid devotion to a set of principles which wound up biting them in the nether regions and supposedly serving a warning and example to the rest of us. Yet – as MS Tuchman notes – political bodies kept on doing it, over and over again. (Although I and others do have some serious beefs about how she categorized the saga of US in Vietnam.) It’s a readable overview, a quick skim of what happen in four separate eras when four different entities decide against all good advice, interests and viable alternatives, to go ahead and pee on that electric fence; a reminder – as if we really do need another one, that self-interested stupidity is a human constant.
I do believe that the Biden administration in this year of 2022-23 would provide another thrilling segment to MS Tuchman’s brief accounts of political folly, even though we can’t quite make up our minds if there is a single éminence grise manipulating the puppet Joe Biden with a hand up his fundament, or a varied crew of single-minded, single-focused string-pullers in his staff and cabinet going this way and that, in service to their own varied and clashing interests. We’d be farther down the road to disastrous folly if there were a single puppet-master, so perhaps we can take comfort from the sheer clashing incompetence of the many cancelling each other out.
And – folly or malice? Smug stupidity or deliberate, vicious plan, to pick a fight – a for-real shooting war with Russia over the Ukraine or China over whatever provocation has occurred in a day of the week ending in ‘y’? I’m torn between the two possibilities. Yes, the cloud of smug superiority hovering over Washington DC these days is nearly impenetrable. Alas, I can believe that the fools in this administration (given the examples of Sam Brinton, the luggage-and-ladies-clothing fetishist, Pete Buttigieg, the Secretary of Transportation who is so flamingly unfitted for the high office he has been awarded that everyone now knows who the Secretary of Transportation is, and Karine Jean-Pierre, the affirmative-action muppet incompletely relaying marching orders to the national media) could blunder into a war, nuclear or otherwise … and dazedly wonder afterwards, what they had done to bring all that on.
The other option – outright malice – is actually even scarier. What if the end-goal is provoking a very real war? A state of war is the final refuge of political scoundrels. What better way to clothe themselves in patriotic colors and paint domestic opposition as allies to the perceived enemy?
What then, oh wolves?
As one in touch with the veteran community, as well as those still on active service through my daughter’s various contacts – my reading is that the military services are done in. Morale is almost as bad as it was at the end of the draft. (And I was there, to see the last vestiges of that, in the late 1970s.) In the communities which have always provided the personnel who serve at the pointy end of the spear – those communities and families are sick and tired, tired and sick. Tired of having lives lost and burnt out through incessant deployments. (Oh, yes – our CiC checking his watch as the dead from that last gasp in Afghanistan were delivered back to the US of A – that was an indication of how much the lives of our sons and daughters in the military were valued.) Tired and sick of their communities and families being painted as irredeemable baskets of racists and every other sort of ‘ist going. Sick from incessant command-directed DIE briefings. Sick from having ‘get the jab or get out’ Commie Crud vaccine, which is turning out to be more of a health hazard than the Commie Crud itself. Sick of having our love of country and folk disparaged and denigrated. Yes, those of us from military families and traditional communities will so salute and fall in line at the recruiting offices. And I have a lovely bridge to sell you. (Invoice through paypal…)
Discuss as you have the means to do so and while we still can.
25 thoughts on “The March of Folly”
I think Vietnam was folly after the assassination of Diem and his brother. LBJ was clumsy in all his actions but that was the worst. What we have now is an administration that hates America and is trying to use the military for a social experiment. I know a few former troops and they got out to avoid the bullshit currently circulating from Milley and Austin.The Navy has been a clown show about designing new ships. The Army is giving all its ammunition to Ukraine.
The political left in the United States is very used to having only the Republican party as opposition.
They have learned over the years that the is no cost to treating the GOP as irrelevant, because the party will always fold after making a few noises- and then they win.
They have lately taken to treating the entire world as if it were the same.
It isn’t, alas for us.
“They have lately taken to treating the entire world as if it were the same.”
At the risk of being repetitive Sarge, I believe I summarized it some time ago with an abbreviation. TWANLOC.
It is being noticed now.
While I think some of her analysis is sloppy, maybe at 70+ years and all her books and fame she just said she to hello with it, but her framework is interesting. 1) the period studied is across a period of time so it transcends personalities 2) there is a conscious realization by contemporaries that this is the wrong path to follow 3) alternate paths are available.
So given #1 Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan is out I’ll propose 4 events that have a common theme 1) invasion and occupation of Afghanistan 2) invasion and occupation of Iraq 3)this Houston of China into the WTO 4) the effort since 2014 to move Ukraine into America’s orbit. The common theme? Part of a larger project since the post Cold War to establish a liberal democratic order based on American values, that whether through trade or military power the people of the world would be to recognize and achieve their natural rights
This think Touch man would be shocked by these efforts, though she thought Mao was mostly just peachy, as all four had their roots in the 1980s and nobody at that time would think that any of these countries were just a generation or two from being a liberal democracy. I think the idea that in a little more than 30 years that we would have a vital military interest on the Dneiper as strange
So after 25+ years how did that work out?
Its not like this all in the past tense either. If you remember that fabulous Pride flag flying over our embassy as the Taliban were driving on Kabul then this story of Samantha Bee and USAID getting involved in our NATO allies’ internal affairs makes a form of warped sense https://www.theamericanconservative.com/samantha-power-color-revolution-in-hungary/ This is the use of a multibillion dollar economic agency funded by our taxes to involve itself in the social affairs of a democratically government of a NATO member
My first impression was: She stopped at four? Why not four dozen? Wikipedia explains it; more than half of the book published in 1984 is about her take on Vietnam. After wading through her utterly conventional and derivative take on WWI, I’ll take a pass.
“The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams” by Stacy Schiff on the other hand goes through the decade leading up to Lexington and Concord in rather exhaustive detail with, I suspect, considerably less ax grinding and cutting fact to fit preconceptions.
The normal course of every government is to sail along, fat dumb and happy until some crisis forces them to confront reality.
Can’t remember if I mentioned it here before, but it seems that a sufficiently advanced arrogance is indistinguishable from ignorant stupidity.
Yes mark moyar victory forsaken makes that point clear so does max boots lansdale bio much like the mistake the soviets did in afghanistan the russians in chechnya one might say afghanistan before the big dawgs expanded their purview.
We know now that rather than stumbling into the Vietnam quagmire, the whole thing was exactly what the Kennedy brain trust wanted. A long, expensive, both in money and lives, war to convince the Russians we could be as blindly stupid as they were. McNamara and Rusk sure proved their bona-fides in the field of blind stupidity. There was never a question about LBJ.
I was in the Air Force and on my first assignment late in 1978 – and boy, did I hear an earful from the mid-ranked NCOs about how they hated McNamara. They despised him, to a degree that .. well, it was mildly astonishing to me, since he hadn’t been the Sec-Def for a couple of years. They were all Vietnam era or in some cases Vietnam vets.
I’m coming to think that the current crop of actual duty-bound and patriotic souls will hate Austin and Milley with something of the same white-hot passion.
Well the history suggests otherwise halberstam and co relied on a vuet comg agent at stringer and this was all the way up to halberstam
Knebel in the prologue to seven days suggested they were spoiling for a long war in iran
I thought “March of Folly” one of Tuchman’s lesser works that couldn’t hold a candle to Charles Fair’s “From the Jaws of Victory,” though his has a specifically military focus.
After wading through her utterly conventional and derivative take on WWI, I’ll take a pass.
Tuchman is only original when she’s plagiarising
Tuchman’s The Proud Tower and A Distant Mirror are by far her best works. Indeed, two of the finest historical works I’ve read.
They can make you salute a puppy dog with scrambled eggs on its cap, they cant’t make you respect it.
Although a fan – I love The Proud Tower, A Distant Mirror And August 1914 – I think August 1914 ans WW1, which I blame Imperial Germany for – must be the worst. Why did AH (Austria-Hungary) go ahead when war would mean the end of AH?
What did Imperial Germany’s leadership (mainly military, Wilhelm was a bit of a sceptic, his son was far more jingoistic) think would be the benefit of war? Wars are always revolutionary in impact, not just the Bolshevik Revolution, but transforming Conservative Britain to Labour Britain. Pretending or being too stupid to think this wouldn’t happen puts WW1 at the top of the list. The millions of deaths, the Bolshevik Revolution, all unnecessary.
About the American Revolution, aka in the UK as the war of American Independence. Frankly, we were better off. American had to pay for internal peacekeeping, not the British and we could carry on trading with you
When I went through March of Folly yesterday I got a sense of deja vu and it wasn’t until this morning that I realized why. A few months ago I was looking for something to read for a late night flight and I downloaded Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Had I Know” which was a collection of her essays and articles from 1984 to 2019. Ehrenreich is most definitely not a person of the Right, but rather one of those who was a semi-warm Marxist, feminist who lived in the Acela Corridor and named a daughter after Rosa Luxemburg.
Well you can just imagine what her writings in “Had I Known” consisted of and which provided a thrilling journey of cultural anthropology of an ideology that stretched from the New Left to Woke. The writings from the 1980s brought me back to my youth in their mocking of the Reagan era by mischaracterizing free markets, ridiculing as basically snake-handling hicks those who were protesting pornography, and saying power to the people from the comfort of her bourgeois lifestyle.
So with that refresher on how a certain class of people looked at 1980s I went back to March of Folly. There are 3 things about the book 1) The book is heavily focused on Viet Nam which despite being only 1 of her 4 vignettes takes up almost a 1/3 of the text 2) Taking aside the Trokan Horse, the other 2 vignettes (14th Century and American Revolution) cover periods she has already written about extensively 3) The book was published in 1984 which is where Ehrenreich’s book jogged my memory. It was not only a time of great public reflection of the Viet Name War but also of intense opposition by the Left toward Reagan’s dtiching of Detente but also of his fighting communism in El Salvador and Nicaragua. In fact there was a a lot of sturm and drang from the Left about how our fighting communists in El Savador was basically Viet Nam Phase II.
If you go back and read about what Tuchman wrote about Viet Nam in the period from 1945 to 1963, her attitude was that the Cold War was largely a mistake, an irrational spasm driven by McCarrthyism and the Right which after the tumult of the late 1940s was a conflict to be managed and not fought. Truman she felt, by betraying FDR’s anti-colonialism from the start in favor of fighting the Cold War, helped set I a motion a process by which we fought movements that weren’t communist so much as movements of national liberation and of peasant emancipation. She writes of Viet Nam as a discrete phenomena but what she really does is to use both its example and her position to browbeat those she labeled as seeing every issue of foreign policy through Cold War terms. Her view neatly encapsulates the other side of the debate at the time
She died in 1989 right before the Sandinistas finally allowed free elections after which they were voted out of office, wonder what she would have said about that. She also died right before the Berlin Wall fell. So in Cold War terms, whose March of Folly was it really? The Cold Warriors or those like her who thought such things as existential struggles were either unwinnable or were too uncouth to fight?
Both with regard to Viet Nam and British policy toward North America I see major flaws in her historical approach. First of all she has little grasp of military strategy, she can describe why the Americans lost in Viet Nam but no analysis as to why the strategy they took was ineffective and whether other strategies might have worked. Second, she doesn’t understand (or seek to) how popular support needs to be mobilized in a democratic society for an extended war. Addressing both of these flaws would have created a more robust thesis that would point toward a strategic tragedy, but instead she chose instead to write a story that centers on folly, as if history consists of idiots and nincompoops making bad decisions where there are obvious correct choices
I liked her basic framework but this is just a warmed-over piece of history designed to push a contemporary (1984) political agenda.
I I’ll throw a few thoughts out there.
At a global strategic level, the start of WW I was blamed on the interlocking European alliance structure of time. However there was a rational reason for that interlocking alliance structure, to address the instability of European politics. Might have a structure kept the peace if things shook out a different way? One contributing factor was that the speed of of diplomatic communications did not keep up with the technology of military mobilization, where hours mattered communication was limited to diplomatic protocols instead of say a direct hotline or time enough for head-to-head communication.
The second is I think everyone wanted a war because they thought it would be a short and sharp affair that would solve, though for different reasons, various internal and strategic problems. The problem was one of escalation, not in terms of mobilization timetables, but that it transformed from a short war to one of grinding attrition that no one knew how to stop. I think if you could go back and ask the principals in 1917 that if they could back in time and sign an armistice in December 1914 all would agree, because the cost of war had become so great. However hindsight is 20/20, escalation at each step in the ladder has a certain inexorable logic.
I think August 1914 ans WW1, which I blame Imperial Germany for – must be the worst. Why did AH (Austria-Hungary) go ahead when war would mean the end of AH?
I disagree with this. “AH” was the most enthusiastic participant early on. They wanted to destroy Serbia. Franz Conrad, who commended the AH army was pushing for war with Serbia. Germany was reluctant but feared Russia, which was being armed and modernized by France. France was still obsessed by Alsace and Lorraine and longed for revenge for the 1870 lost war (started of course by France). France was not innocent in the origins of WWI. An example of their obsession was the disastrous decision to attack Alsace and Lorraine while Germany attacked through Belgium. France never did get it right as they attacked into Belgium in 1940 while Germany came through the Ardennes.
One might argue the problem with vietnam went back further to when the oss under helliwell aided ho chi minh against the japanese from the base in kunming ho was a survivor of stalins purges so it should have said something about where he came from
One might argue marshall plan diverted to indochina although degaulle has restarted the war in 46 it was left to the merry go round of french prime ministers mostly socialists to fight the war
Don’t fumble the humble. All leaders would be advised to remember Rumsfeld’s list. Lots and lots and lots of ignorance. Plus the “knowns” turn out to be wrong half the time and we don’t know which half.
A recent example of a known that ain’t — the surprisingly strong jobs report a week or so ago. We actually lost 2.5 million jobs. The govt added 3 million pretend jobs via a “seasonal adjustment”. Yay! We added 500k jobs which was 300 more than expected.
Two points — 1) a seasonal adjustment presumes that we can extrapolate past experience to the current economy. Unfortunately, the current economy has been distorted beyond recognition. It ain’t close to normal. 2) Given that, the 3 million ‘adjustment’ is just a wild ass guess spitball. We have a huge signal to noise problem. The 300k surprise is only 10% of the spitball. If the spitball had been 2.6 million, all the economists and expert analysts would have been crying about weak job “growth” of only 100k which would have been only half of the expected number.
We have all kinds of data that is complete garbage. We were told this week that spending in department stores was up over 17%. This is totally an artifact of a seasonal adjustment spitball. The reality is that people were worried about supply problems last fall. They bought for Christmas much earlier than normal. Dec spending was down. The economy ain’t normal or typical. So the spitballs are leaking slobber all over the data.
Our economic data is deteriorating as badly as the temperature records which are polluted by the politicized adjustments made every quarter. All our knowns are wrong.
Tuchman’s “Proud Tower” is worth a read, but otherwise historians don’t pay her much mind any more.
It’s clear that every power in 1914 saw opportunity in the crisis of July, and that each had (to them) good defensive and pre-emptive justifications for their actions. To my mind the critical thresholds were the German blank check and the Russian decision on war, which converted a local Balkan squabble into Great Power showdown.
As already noted, nobody expected the war they got. If the experts had studied Clausewitz they wouldn’t have been so sanguine.
Our involvement, and defeat, in Vietnam were the results of ignorant hubris; another case where Clausewitz might have come in handy. (Nationalism is powerful: who knew?)
I was in Army JROTC from 1968 to 1970, and the enlisted instructors were pretty cynical about the war, though not as cynical or bitter for the most part as the veterans I was in college with from ’71 on.
I have deduced from various deep readings (although I am not a professionally-licensed academic historian, just a passionately-interested amateur) that all the original national actors in the start of WWI seemed to be intensely-focused on what they could get out of it, short-term. Germany would get their place in the world, having come late to the imperialist game. France would get back at the Germans for loosing out in the last round. Austria-Hungary would get to quash the Serbs and show them who was really boss, Russia would get to come to the aid of their little Slavic brothers, and maybe redeem themselves militarily after having been thrashed by the Japanese, and Great Britain would get to exercise their huuuuge, ultimate and world-wide authority – after all, the Sun Never Set On Their Empire.
And it all multiplied and ended badly…
I confess that I used to be much more of a Tuchman fan than I am now, and March of Folly was an early reason why. As a history nerd and wargamer things started smelling off, and while I will defend her in regards to “Guns of August” since in many ways she formed or at least defined what was conventional, but it has had a lot be invalidated by more recent research and even more probably should never have been accepted to start with.
Likewise I found her reference to the Russian Civil War and US involvement in it to be quite daft, especially given the nature of the Bolshevik regime and its actions. I have to concur that she does not have a great grasp of military strategy or tactics, especially on more recent matters. In particular her part on the Vietnam War is heavily derived from Camelot narratives and the Communist propaganda reflections that mark so much historiography on the Indochinese Wars.
Still a fascinating writer but to be considered carefully.
did vietnam need to be fought, sans diems assassination, would the counterinsurgency have worked as it did in most of asia, and even latin america, tuchman doesn’t consider this,
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