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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 December 30, 2006 10:55 AM