Saturday, June 7, 2014

The March Of Folly by Barbara W. Tuchman

In this groundbreaking work, Barbara Tuchman explores the reasons that humans, especially governments, persist in actions that by all logic, are foolish.  It is a common action, leaving us to often use the wisdom of time to look back at decisions that were made that seem so wrong and illogical.  What possessed those living in the moment to make such bad decisions, and more importantly, refuse to correct their course?

Tuchman studies several monumental historical mistakes to explore her thesis.  She starts with the decision that every schoolchild knows of--the decision to take in the Trojan horse resulting in total disaster for the city.  It's not like there weren't those who counseled against this course but their voices were overridden.  Those in power were entranced with the horse, determined to possess it, and did so, bringing total ruin on everyone.

The next case study is those of the Renaissance Popes who provoke the Protestant secession.  Tuchman gives the history of this period, the outrageous actions of a series of Popes who broke every rule they had vowed to uphold, and who refused to see the consequences that their actions would have once they were reviled rather than loved by the people they ruled. 

Section Three covers the Revolutionary War and how the British managed to lose the American colonies.  The short-sighted policies that sought to punish the colonies rather than form a stronger relationship, and the entire ruling structure in Britain lead to the mightiest power on Earth losing to a small group of determined men. 

The final section showcases the Vietnam War and shows that knowledge of bad outcomes is still with us in modern times.  Tuchman outlines the history of the war, the backroom negotiations, the fear of looking foolish which led to the reality of looking foolish, and the eventual defeat of the American effort to shore up the South Vietnam government.  Readers will remember the men showcased and the actions they took that not only led to military failure but to a lack of respect for the government and its actions.

What then, leads us to make and continue in bad decisions?  Tuchman suggests there are several reasons.  High on the list are greed and ambition which make men in a position to change course hesitant to appear to be weak or to ignore the greater good for their own benefit.  In the first stage, an erroneous conclusion is reached.  As opposing points of view emerge, the initial conclusion is codified as those in power resist having their viewpoint 'lose'.  Persistence in error is the main issue.  Even as evidence piles up and the cost of a bad decision becomes evident, it is difficult to admit defeat, leading to even more costs and an eventual stunning loss of prestige. 

Readers of history will welcome Tuchman's conclusions.  The research is evident and her conclusions are well thought out and never overblown.  Her suggestions on how humans can avoid the folly of sticking to bad decisions are weaker, as there is little evidence that we can effect a change in so basic a human tendency.  Still, one can hope that current leaders can read the results of historic bad decisions and apply the lessons to today's problems.  This book is recommended for readers of history and those who enjoy policy discussions.

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