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…

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