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

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

At the end of The March of Folly, on its last page, historian Barbara W. Tuchman writes that the best way to avoid folly by government — the folly fueled by ambition, corruption, laziness, arrogance, ignorance and emotion — might be to follow the Lilliputians.

Those tiny residents of the isle of Lilliput in Jonathan Swift’s 1726 satirical novel Gulliver’s Travels choose their leaders this way:

“They have more regard for good morals than for great abilities, for, since government is necessary to mankind, they believe…that Providence never intended to make management of publick affairs a mystery, to be comprehended only by a few persons of sublime genius, of which there are seldom three born in any age. They suppose truth, justice, temperance and the like to be in every man’s power: the practice of which virtues, assisted by experience and a good intention, would qualify any man for service of his country, except where a course of study is required.”

Pretty simple, right? A good leader is most likely one with a good character.

A good leader, writes Montaigne, also quoted by Tuchman, needs to have “resolution and valor, not that which is sharpened by ambition but that which wisdom and reason may implant in a well-ordered soul.”

 

Power as a drug

Alas, government is the exercise of power, and the sad reality is that most people with good character — people who are comfortable in their own skin — don’t have the lust for power that resides in those without a well-ordered soul.

Power is a drug, a morphine to ease the pain of a damaged childhood or the gnawing of insecurity or the boredom of everyday life. Not every person who is seeking office or high office is a soul that is out of balance. But read history and you’ll find that most are.

This lust for power is about need and yearnings, not about reason and wisdom. No wonder folly by governments and leaders is pretty much routine, yet still maddening, frustrating, stunning for all its routineness.

 

Pessimistic

Tuchman’s 1984 book is, at its heart, a maddening, frustrating and stunning book to read.

It tells the story of folly in the acceptance of the Trojan Horse, in the mind-numbing and Reformation-causing extravagance of Renaissance Popes, in the empire-eroding arrogance of British leaders toward their North American colonies, and in the relentlessly woodenheaded decisions of successive U.S. administrations with regard to Vietnam.

The March of Folly can be seen as pessimistic. Sure, Tuchman suggests that good character is a solution to much of folly, but, at the same time, she notes that, in the U.S., at least, electing such good-hearted people is difficult, given the cost of campaigns and the influence of lobbyists.

And, in the 34 years since her book’s publication, it’s gotten even more difficult.

And, of course, good-hearted people with well-ordered souls are at a disadvantage compared to those for whom power, acclaim and control fill a twitching, festering need.

Lustful for the roar of the crowd and the gossamer niceties of position and the emotional satisfactions of the bully, such addicts are ruthless in their efforts to achieve and keep power, more open to corruption, more willing to jettison principles.

 

Realistic

On the other hand, The March of Folly can be seen a realistic.

It’s not that good government by good-hearted people is impossible. Tuchman notes that Queen Elizabeth I, for instance, was “able and sanguine” and brought growth and prosperity to England at a time of religious wars — and with the handicap of being a woman in a world of cunning, rapacious men.

The Founding Fathers of the U.S. are another example.

Still, as she goes through her rogue’s gallery of follies, Tuchman is constantly astonished at every new step of stupidity and blindness and ignorance. And so is the reader.

Except, of course, she’s not really astonished, and neither is the reader. Each mindless, self-defeating act echoes the one that went before and points forward to the next to come.

 

Human nature

Human nature is at work here.

There is seemingly a natural law that is at war with every effort to create a well-ordered soul. As human beings, we are wired to create chaos in our private lives and in the public sphere.

Yes, our leaders should act rationally. They should be reflective and not knee-jerk reactive. They should put the common good above their own ambition.

Alas.

You could set up a law that every new public official must read The March of Folly. But it wouldn’t matter.

The good-hearted people wouldn’t need to read it. And the power-hungry ones would ignore its lessons.

Alas.

 

Patrick T. Reardon

5.9.18

 

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