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March of Folly -- From Troy to Vietnam
Barbara Tuchman
Book Review With Commentary

This is a profound but very readable book. The March of Folly reads the historical rhythm of waves, cresting and crashing again and again in monotony. Again and again, Kings and democrats alike persist in stubborn belief that their power is not only invincible but infinitely wise. Absolute power corrupts absolutely was never truer said. Yet Tuchman shows elegantly that the march of folly involves more than any one individual. Folly arises when governments persist in the face of evidence that their policy is wrong for their nation. Changing policy seems tantamount to failure. It was so in Johnson's Vietnam, and it is so now in Bush's Iraq. To admit "failure" destroy's the "projection" that all people see the sovereign as s/he sees his or her self. This particular failure is yet another parallel between Vietnam and Iraq. Another is the strong likelihood that Iraq will span more than one presidency as it did in Vietnam, no matter who wins election in November.

In these and other ways, Tuchman was profoundly prescient. But then she was in tune with the rhythms of history. Tuchman supplies too many facts and too many situations not to be believed. In her words:

"Wooden-headedness, the source of self-deception, is a factor that plays a remarkably large role in government. It consists in assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs. It is acting according to wish while not allowing oneself to be deflected by the facts. It is epitomized in a historian's statement about Philip II of Spain (Britannica), the surpassing wooden-head of all sovereigns: "No experience of failure of his policy could shake his belief in its essential excellence."

Sound familiar? Substitute Authoritarian for woodenhead and you have it in modern terms. The behaviors are the same; so are their underlying causes.

Twice a Pulitzer Prize winner, Tuchman is a must read for anyone who wishes to understand the war in Iraq. Tuchman traces behavior that has not changed in 2500 years. Like Jessica Stern in her " Terror in the Name of God," Tuchman plows new ground, provides insights that fall on deaf ears of those in power or intoxicated by its promise.

The March of Folly illustrates well how governments act stupidly, stubbornly and perversely against their own best interests. Tuchman defined folly by three criteria:

  • first, it must have been seen as such by contemporaries,
  • secondly, another, better, course of action must have been available, and lastly,
  • the course of action must have been pursued by a group rather than an individual over the course of more than one political generation.

Such criteria are necessary to separate true folly from the incompetence and/or insanity of an individual ruler.

Tuchman chose four "case studies" for detailed illustration: :

  • The decision of the Trojans to bring the Trojan horse into their city,
  • The provocation of the Protestant uprising by the Renaissance Popes,
  • The loss of the American colonies by the British, and
  • The failures of U.S. policy in Vietnam.

Along with these, Tuchman provides numerous snapshots of historical interest that also followed the theme.

Will and Ariel Durant affirm that history repeats itself, if only in the large. For example, the Crusades were literally a march of folly. On the national scale, witch hunting also fits her criteria of folly and one that occurred on American soil.

A fundamental lesson here is that humanity seems unable to learn from the lessons of history. We offer the Authoritarian Personality as one important reason why. This tendency is inborn and takes enlightened governance to manage.

One of our favorites quotes capsulizes the field of governance:

    "Misgovernment is of four kinds, often in combination. They are: 1) tyranny or oppression, of which history provides so many well-known examples that they do not need citing; 2) excessive ambition, such as Athens' attempted conquest of Sicily in the Peloponnesian War, Philip II's of England via the Armada, Germany's twice-attempted rule of Europe by a self-conceived master race, Japan's bid for an empire of Asia; 3) incompetence or decadence, as in the case of the late Roman empire, the last Romanovs and the last imperial dynasty of China; and finally 4) folly or perversity." Barbara W. Tuchman


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