The March of Folly, a diatribe

Define self interest.

A course of action that brings unto the participant success? Staying true to who one is? Amassing fortune and power? No one has ever willfully followed a course of action contrary to self interest. No one who could be genuinely considered a loyal citizen of a state has ever knowingly set it upon a course contrary to its interest; once they have, they are now traitors, deserters or both. This is one of the main issues with defining self-interest; if someone does something they don’t want to do, it is through coercion or through a different ambition within self interest.

The March of Folly by Barbara Tuchman takes the position that throughout history, from the Trojan Horse, to Solomon’s son, to the Great War and Pearl Harbor, Vietnam and beyond, leaders of states have been misguided or ignored good advice to pursue a course of action contrary to self interest. Set aside that she starts off citing mythic and legendary events as historical fact and you are still left a basic premise that people are stupid and self interest is something altogether different from belief. (For information about the historiocity of the Trojan War, read The Trojan War by Barry Strauss.)

To argue that many mistakes and “stupid” actions is an inarguable, albeit trite premise; to argue that history is filled with instances where leaders knowingly or willfully ignorantly perpetrated acts that led directly to catastrophe is simply perverse. Where beliefs, delusions, mistaken assumptions and the like often cause states to follow such policies, it is never the the intention or someone loyal to lose.

Tuchman argues that Japan turned a blind eye to the United States joining the war when it attacked Pearl Harbor. This may be so, and surely there were voices that opposed the attack, but a calculated risk is not the same as a folly that could have easily been avoided. In many respects the United States was already drifting towards war and while F.D. Roosevelt was neither the first nor the last head of state to use an attack as a galvanizing agent, war may have come regardless. The United States had already banned the sale of raw materials to Japan in 1940 and other US bases were attacked, too, just that Pearl was on US soil. Whether sooner or later, US forces would have been caught in the crossfire–FDR would have seen to it.

Secondly, Japan had every reason to suspect that a quick strike to demolish the Pacific Fleet would be sufficient. Of all major states, the US had one of the weakest militaries and “the American Spirit” had never really been tested since it had never really been attacked after the wars of Independence. The sudden and ferocious public outrage is nothing new to anyone who knew the history of the war between the states, but on the world stage, it is of the 30th century. Japan struck a blow even without the US carriers in port, but if they had been there, Japan would have raged uncontested for far longer, the Coral Sea and Midway merely skirmishes instead of Japanese Bloody noses. Fighting spirit or no, the US was fortunate that enough force survived December 7 to hold back the tide.

US success in the Second World War hinged on industrial capacity and while it was the largest producer in the world before the war, no one expected the extent to which civilian industry converted to military production and to which the US outproduced every other nation. Yes, Japan poked a sleeping giant who then rose and returned the gesture a hundred-fold, but by any conceivable standard, US industry in 1942 did the impossible.

Now, to bring this diatribe full circle, is it folly to succeed so spectacularly in a gamble or take any action wherein your opponent does the inconceivable? No, it is not. Hindsight is supposed to be 20/20, but foresight is anything but. This is the crux of the problem.

As an aside, was it folly for Hitler, Napoleon and Charles XII to invade Russia after there forebears had failed? Probably, but each also had reason to suspect victory that Russian topography and climate foiled. They also had never played Risk.

ADDENDUM: Her real argument, such as one exists, is that people are misguided fools who often take unnecessary risks on account of beliefs, whims, obsessions and other psychological issues. This, combined with a succession of like-minded leaders has caused the split of hierarchies or prolonged following of courses not in the best interest of an organization. The problem with this analysis is that she takes stories at face value and will only dig as far as to prove her point. For example, she derides Louis XIV as a failed ruler because his kingdom was war-torn and broke from his military ventures after his long reign, but lauds Marcus Aurelius for his good government; the two had much the same track record as Marcus Aurelius took it upon himself to conquer Germania and prove that the era of Roman expansion had not ended with Hadrian. From the point that a historian is supposed to make judgments about the pas to prove points and successfully persuade, this should not be done by mis-representing or not bothering to find the truth. More than anything this is what bothers me about her book.

ADDENDUM II: The fact is she is a poor historian and while there is just too much misinformation and unjustified assumptions to counter them all, here is my real problem with the book: the premise and thesis is mis-represented. She goes on and on about how FOLLY is something that belief, ambition, shortsightedness and willful ignorance lead into and that it should be avoided, but at the same time argues that grand mistakes, the ones that we can see through the lens of history (whether or not modern morals, values and social expectations are applied) were knowingly or willfully ignorantly perpetrated. Whatever her thesis actually says, the argument of the book is that throughout history mistakes, arrogance and greed have led to catastrophes, to which I can only respond: “duh.”

The problem here is that there is only a tenuous unifying theme throughout the book (i.e. mistakes), and no real historical inquiry. Instead of delving and finding underlying currents, looking at socio-economic, political and religious situations in each time, as well as the trappings of power, nature of monarchy and commonly held misconceptions by one group of people over another, there is just a general narrative of four major events framed within “this is folly.”

Lastly, I am a stickler for turns of phrase. Never should a historian say “A strange reminder of ancient folly appeared at this time: the classic marble Laocoon was rediscovered, as if to warn the Church–as its protoype had once warned Troy.”–especially if they then go on to say that the Pope’s did not heed the warning. Historians should be studied in their time and such statements from a supposed modern historian discredit them to me; even in older writers, if they say something like that, it tends to discredit them, but due to the paucity of sources, it just adds qualifiers to the work instead of tarnishing their scholarship.

ADDENDUM III: I HATE socio-economic history…did I really just say that she needed to pay attention to it? I must be joining the collective…

Security vs Stability

In the post-Soviet world we live in, borders are largely static. The borders of the United States, for example, have been set since World War II; The borders of the United Kingdom have been consistent since then, Britain for longer. Since the second world war, the borders of all Western Europe have been stable. In the last 20 years much of the rest of the world has had the same happen. Sure, Kosovo has demanded independence, Russia is claiming Georgian provinces, Chechnya and Tibet would like to be independent and there are some other border and sovereignty disputes, but there is no concept that the only way to maintain stability for a nation is to dominate the world around. Static borders are considered important for sovereignty and to demarcate boundaries for defense, not a sign of weakness.

In antiquity static defense was weakness. If a state had to react instead of forcing others to react, then it was weak. Lycurgus knew this when he made his third law: to make war on all neighbors, but none too frequently. Sparta was a pristine land that was almost never violated for hundreds of years, but more than intrinsic fear of the unbeatable warriors, Sparta was largely inviolate because they spent all of their time attacking others instead.

Such was the case with Athens, a paradox, wherein it was routinely invaded by land and considered weak because of it, but strong because it could go on the offensive via sea. Such was the case in Macedonia where the strength of the state was reckoned by the ability to expand into its neighbors, culminating with Alexander’s sweep across Asia. And such was the case with Rome where Hadrian received derision because of his decision to cease expansion and lay down firm, physical borders (including the wall that bears his name).

Perhaps today the equivalent to this physical domination of others being the route to safety is the mobilization of economic power to subdue troublesome nations in the form of sanctions and by the maxim of Lycurgus as applied to US foreign policy post World Wars.

The unreliability of biography

Many historians today (read: my thesis advisor) have a bias against biography, both in the ancient, moralistic sense and in the modern, personal narrative sense. In the purest sense this is absolutely the right move, sense a simple narrative of events is no more a great historical work than is a newspaper and the moralistic view of biography is meant to teach ethics through the portrayal of certain events. On the other hand, when these parables are all that exist, that is what you work with.

Simply in reading biographies or pairs of biographies of Plutarch, one doesn’t get the sense of how much of an issue it is. The more of Plutarch that is read, however, the weaker he becomes as a source. In each instance the parables and quotes and discussions fit, but in reading the sayings of Spartans, almost all of the famous quotes are attributed to two, three or even four different speakers, and moreover, Alexander’s famous line of “So would I, were I Parmenion,” is attributed to a Spartan at another point. More than anything this repetition highlights in Plutarch a weakness in his sources writing so far down the line.

Of course from this period few of the sources were truly informed on their topics because, while we often see ancient as ancient as ancient, authors often wrote on topics hundreds of years in the past. To stick with Plutarch, his life of Alexander was written about someone who died 400 years before his birth. This, for me would be like writing an intimate book about Sir Francis Drake, only to have it be considered canon on the grounds that we lived within the same half-millennium.

When I addressed Plutarch as a scholar, I took great pains to acknowledge the weaknesses of the source, as I did with the other sources and at several points in the introduction and the conclusion, but I also felt obligated not to dismiss it out of hand. Sources are too scarce and as the root for history derives from that of arbiter, so must the modern eye take a skeptical turn and each address the validity of each source for themselves.

How Austria almost won the Great War

And it had nothing to do with the battlefield. For all of its longevity and prestige, the Hapsburg Monarchy was not usually associated with military strength. They were badly walloped by Napoleon and any number of other Europeans, were saved by Poles and the weather when Suleiman came knocking, but when the Ottoman Empire was in decline and Napoleon long defeated, the Hapsburg Empire remained. Gone were the days of their global empire, ruled from Spain and gone was the German Empire ruled from Austria, yet at the dawn of the 20th century the Hapsburg Dynasty under Franz Joseph was creating a new empire; one of nations.

As the Ottoman Empire regressed the Austrian (from here on out, I refer to Austria to represent the Hapsburg Empire, the Emperor of Austria being one of numerous royal titles held) one advanced, except where met by newly freed Orthodox Christian states such as Serbia and Greece. It was in this theatre where the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and the military overseer of the Balkans was assassinated by a political activist who wished to remove the Austrian military presence. As the story goes, this single act, and one that was not at all unusual for the day, brought about World War One.

Now prior to the war and during it, Franz Joseph and his successor, Emperor Karl attempted a truly amazing thing: to harness the powers of nationalism for the betterment of the Hapsburg Empire. In part it was attempted because of the disparate population in the Empire already, so instead of conquering new peoples, it was bringing the brethren of current subjects into the fold. Austria fared poorly at first (supposedly 82% of the pre-war army of 1 million men were casualties by three months in), but the tide turned and by 1918 Austria possessed Northern Italy, half of Ukraine, Poland and Serbia and wanted peace.

Yet the two objectives were actually Poland and Ukraine, to be annexed by Archduke Stefan and his son Wilhelm respectively. The plan was thus: allow these men and any family they had to ingratiate themselves with their respective country, using flattery, privileges to the minority in Austria, natural linguistic skill (Wilhelm spoke English, French, Ukrainian, German, Italian and Polish all with near fluency), and absolute adoption of the country’s cause to actually become a member of that society. From there they could use their Hapsburg lineage to become national monarchs or at least the regent of the territory for the Hapsburg Monarch.

In reality these would be little more than provinces, but they would be self-governing provinces ruled in their best interest by a direct representative of the Hapsburg Emperor.

At first this seems ludicrous, something akin to showing up, saying you are king and having everyone acquiesce. Then comes the realization that it almost worked. The Hapsburgs offered national unity within a united Eastern Europe (more or less). Stefan and most of his family fervently adopted the cause of Poland, while Wilhelm was unequivocally pro-Ukrainian. Further, both ethnic groups were already in the Hapsburg fold, and so it was merely unifying the groups.

All of this was not enough for Woodrow Wilson, who wanted true independence, and certainly this pleased neither France, Britain, Tsarist Russia, nor Bolshevik Russia, but with Russia driven back and torn within, had Austria persuaded Germany to end the war about the time the Americans joined–and before the Serbs and Italians could regroup, then they would have come out on top. There is a real possibility that both Poland and Ukraine would have become Austrian provinces, while Germany was defeated, but not destroyed (perhaps thwarting the Nazi movement) and the Kaiser may have not abdicated and the status quo remained in Western Europe. Who knows what would have happened with the Great Depression lurking around the corner, but if Austria could have repainted themselves as ending the bloodshed, then it would have doubled in size and changed the face of Europe as we know it.

It didn’t work, but it was damn clever.