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December 30, 2006

The March of Folly

From Troy to Vietnam
Barbara Tuchman – 0394527771

From time to time it is worthwhile rereading truly historic history books. This is one of them. Tuchman, one of the great historians of the 20th century, walks us thru governmental policy-making folly, described as “the pursuit of policy contrary to the self-interest of the constituency or state involved,” compounded by the refusal to draw obvious conclusions from the evidence, with an “addiction to the counter-productive.”

It being appropriate to judge men of the past by their standards, Tuchman demonstrates that the follies she discusses were widely perceived to be so at the time. In this thoughtful exposition she begins with the prototypically folly Trojan horse. She proceeds thru the Renaissance Popes, who authored the Reformation, and Britain’s betrayal of its own beliefs which fomented the Revolutionary War. While mentioning other follies, she moves on to the French in Vietnam, and then to the U.S., which also betrayed its own beliefs in replacing the French to “protect” us all from S.E. Asian communism. It is the latter insurrection which makes this valuable book particularly cogent right now . . . and worthwhile rereading--or reading, if you have not.

She reviews the prodromal history, the pre-war colonial experiences—explicitly those of France in Southeast Asia--and the reasons for French and American failure to prevail . . . “predictable” in her view, if only those in power had bothered to consult with, and reflect upon, history.

She recants Truman’s refusal to answer appeals by Ho Chi Minh (eight times), the wasting of the postwar “goodwill” America had achieved by prevailing over Japan, and quotes General Leclerc, the French commander from 20 years prior, that “It would take 500,000 men to do it [prevail in Vietnam] and even then it could not be done.” We proved it! True . . . with caveats.

We could have, she posits, supported a “communist splinter,” but at the time Tito was a solo act, and no one considered another such deviation possible. That would have “required imagination . . . never a long suit with governments.” Thus we supported “Humpty-Dumpty . . . and all subsequent activity became an effort to justify it.”

Concern over Communism was rational, right and proper, but it was an extrapolation leading to folly that American security was threatened by Southeast Asia. In this I agree. (However, there is a difference between Viet Nam and Iraq, but the misunderstanding of indigenous culture and the blundering into a poorly conceived adventure is much the same.)

Eisenhower, she notes, stated that “the freedom we cherish and defend in Europe is no different than the freedom that is imperiled in Asia.” He was mistaken. As in Iraq—if differently so—there is no freedom, and their needs and aspirations vary considerably from our own. Worse, we simultaneously failed to confront Communism in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary where it probably would have made a difference to both those countries and the cold war.

Administrations from Truman to Johnson muddled along without clear plans until McNamara, the high priest of rational management, stepped into the breech . . . and promptly forgot about accounting for the adversary. Accustomed to playing the margins (as has another business man--Rumsfeld) he put the em-pha’sis on the wrong syl-la’ble. War is polarity, humanity is not rational, and the human factor was not McNamara’s long suit (nor Rumsfeld’s.) Further, we backed the wrong horse in Diem. He didn’t respond to American calls for reform because his interest was opposed. How different is this from the current conundrum in Iraq?

Both McNamara (and Rumsfeld) seemed to believe that “given the necessary material resources and equipment and the correct statistical analysis of relative factors, the job—any job—can be accomplished.” When apparent that isn’t incorrect, well, you stick with the plan because there is no going back. Johnson had to be strong, but “did not feel a comparable impulse to be wise.” There was the illusion of American invincibility; that American will could be made to prevail.

Major policy decisions, she emphasizes, depend more on judgment than simple facts, and policy-makers are no more endowed with that than the average citizen. Advisors find it hard to say no to the President, or to effectively dispute him. Facts are either interpreted to fit the plan or avoided because they do not.

I am hardly alone in disagreeing that Viet Nam was doomed to fail (while it probably was a badly chosen intervention.) All caveats notwithstanding, when Creighton Abrams took over command, and quit counting bodies as had McNamara and Westmoreland, and actually determined a plan for success based on the evidence, we began to make progress, and I believe would have prevailed had the congress not stopped the funding of the war effort. But it’s too late for that, though not too late to consider avoiding repetition.

And I feel we can prevail in Iraq if we change generals, change attitudes and adjust to reality. It appears that we are about to do that. Still, Tuchman’s makes the cogent observation that “absence of intelligent thinking in rulership is another of the universals and raises the question whether in modern states there is something about political bureaucratic life that subdues the functioning of intellect in favor of ‘working the levers’ without regard to rational expectations.”

Tuchman had no inkling of Iraq, but her insights favor repeating the conversation about “What Went Wrong?” It is not news to anyone old enough to read, but Mark Twain commented that while history may not repeat itself it often rhymes.

Overall this is a good and scholarly read . . . provocative, precautionary, cogent, and worth the time, both for history and for commentary on governmental weaknesses and SNAFUs.

Posted by respeto at 10:55 AM

December 26, 2006

One More Time

The Best of Mike Royko
Mike Royko – ISBN 9780226730721

This is a book worth rereading . . . or reading, if you have not. “Mike wasn’t just the best columnist Chicago ever produced, but makes the short list of Greatest American Newspapermen of all time.” He was expert at finding universal truths in parochial situations, simple and abrupt, and often quite humorous in his commentaries.

He was widely franchised, coast to coast, and while originally writing almost exclusively on Chicago politics (Boss:Richard J. Daley of Chicago), he graduated to more general and universal commentary after Daley’s death. This last book was put together posthumously by his wife and a cadre of other admirers, and it is fantastic; the best of 7500 columns over a near four decade career.

Subjects vary from Frank Sinatra to child welfare, political corruption, immigrants, and the purpose of neighborhood bars; his feet, Medicare, obituaries, the Chicago Bears and his personal afflictive disappointment, the Chicago Cubs. He discusses his youthful fear of the parachute drop at the Chicago’s Riverside Amusement Park when it was there. (I, for one, remember it well.)

He often featured people who “represent us . . . who do our work . . . those special few who do what they do for us, not for the paycheck:” cops, firemen, soldiers, astronauts, etc. Those with the brains, brawn, drive, vision . . . the “right stuff.” Those who “accomplish things the rest of us can only marvel at.”

There are tear jerkers, as when his first wife died . . . and John Belushi (a personal friend), and there are flattering interpretations of John Wayne, Fred Astaire, Curly/Larry/Moe, etc. In these he always manages to find the “right word,” not the most flowery, polysyllabic one which sends you to the dictionary for explication. His “pimping” of Prixe Fixe is uncannily humorous.

Humanity was his beat. Chicago was his town, and his masterful descriptions of life there—and in the U.S. in general--are riveting and thought provoking. Cause for reminiscence, as well. It is said that he could always find the “kernel of truth,” but, really, he had the knack of seeking and finding the truffle!

I recommend that you read it, again and again as I have; reflect, weep, chortle, laugh out loud, get angry . . . whatever! A great "bathroom read."

Posted by respeto at 11:20 AM

December 16, 2006

Dogs of God

Columbus, the Inquisition, and the Defeat of the Moors
James Reston, Jr. – ISBN – 9781400031917

This is a truly enjoyable read, vividly written, factual to a fault--but brief--and productive of increased understanding of that era and its impact on the future of the world. Unless you viscerally hate history, this is unquestionably worth the time.

As the title states, the book covers a brief but critical period in Spanish—hence world—history. It begins with a very concise review of prior Spanish history, notably the historic Moorish (Muslim) culture. He then proceeds in relative depth to chronicle the period from about 1480 to 1500, during which time the Inquisition was begun, the Jews were forced to “convert or leave,” the Moors were finally defeated and driven from the Iberian Peninsula, the Portuguese rounded Africa and Columbus “discovered” the New World.

Ferdinand--one of the important “princes” described by Machiavelli—subjugated the minor royalty, regularized the laws and instituted controlled taxation, thus centralizing power in the crown. Spain thus became the first “modern” nation. Meanwhile Isabella, the esteemed queen, enhanced the arts, music and education. The first major university in the world, Salamanca (founded 20 years before Oxford) became a magnet for scholars from around the Mediterranean.

After 800 years of Muslim dominance, Ferdinand was the warrior who completed the 500 year Reconquista, in large measure thru the firepower of “modern” cannons—which, though primitive, were destructive. In so doing the age of the armored knight passed into history. Further, he set in motion the Spanish Inquisition. The Inquisition and the subsequent expulsions were opposed by Isabella inasmuch as religion was the cover for a vast land grab to enrich the crown and the church, and a violent means of political control (which Machiavelli thought brilliant.) Property was confiscated even when owners weren’t exiled or executed; an exercise ostensibly in the interest of “purifying” the “Christian country.”

The emigration of both Moors and Jews nearly ruined the economy. They had been counselors to the crown, the finest teachers and doctors, poets and philosophers, and the principal merchants and artisans. Much of Spain was owned by them, which explains Ferdinand’s interest in removing them. Overnight the principal cities became stagnant backwaters without intellectual energy or financial capability.

Reston discusses the recent deconstruction of the period, noting that the Inquisition and expulsions were “not really so bad.” They were, however, evil incarnate. In fact, the elevation of the totally corrupt Spanish Cardinal Borgia to the papacy precipitated the Reformation.

Still, the terror of the Inquisition was accompanied by an expanded sense of personal liberty in the intellectual classes at Salamanca’s University, which in turn authored the Spanish Renaissance, already blossoming in Italy.

The reconciliation of the Spanish/Portuguese conflict, the unification of the Spanish nation, the (Portuguese) establishment of sea passage to India, and the territorial expansion which Columbus’s discoveries provided, authored the era of colonialism--and colonial conflict.)

With the arrival of Jewish refugees in Italy the need for a form of political international law was more important than ever, and the only available authority was the Roman Catholic Church. This, in turn, ultimately led to the arguments over the “separation of the church and the state.”

Read it! Great book!

Posted by respeto at 11:21 AM

December 6, 2006

Ordinary Heroes

Scott Turow – ISBN – 9781595230324

This is a blockbuster novel; probably Turow’s best, which says a lot. He explores the savagery of war, placing in its midst the humanity and heroism of many of its participants. Some human madness as well, precipitated by the encounters with death and destruction hourly—daily—for weeks on end, and in the case of one principal, for over a decade.

He possesses the gift of descriptive language, exquisitely fashioned into this narrative, making it easy to experience it as if you were there . . . without the fury or the fright. The account is written by the journalist son of a WWII veteran, based upon research precipitated by the father’s notes which were discovered after his death.

The principal protagonist is a JAG lawyer who is searching for a rogue OSS agent, and is temporarily injected into combat in the Argonne, during Europe’s coldest winter in half a century. At Bastogne his regiment of 5,000 experienced 4500 killed and wounded: 90%! They endured in the only ways they could, and Turow describes them in horrific detail.

The title originates in the ordinariness of the combatants, not excluding the German citizens in their destroyed villages, off put by both sides in the conflict. Their lives were shattered, as well.

He describes the disbelief of the staggering enormity . . . the magnitude of the cruelty and brutality of the death camps as he is party to the liberation of Balingen, where, ostensibly, his father meets his mother—a captive therein.

While the discussions of combat and death are gruesomely correct, the elaborate tale builds toward the end, culminating in the gripping discovery of the nobility and the simplicity of the total affection and commitment of his mother and father, who have kept unimaginable secrets from the family for fifty years.

It is quite a yarn, and grabs you from page one. It doesn’t let go till the end, which, at least in my case, leaves you tearful and glad you spent the time to read it. Not least it is a graphic reminder of the cataclysmic nature of war, and its effect upon people . . . for a lifetime.

Posted by respeto at 3:24 PM