The March of Folly


by Barbara Tuchman

Barbara Tuchman was the greatest popular history writer of the late 20th century, and this is her finest book: a work of history for those who don't read history. Unlike the typical history which tackles a period and/or region, this book examines, in quite of bit of detail, four instances of folly in human history. This turns out to be a remarkably useful device for learning about the kinds of events that drive human organizations to places they don't often go -- and in these four cases, shouldn't have gone.

The book defines folly by examining the first case, letting the Trojan Horse into Troy. To qualify as folly for this book, Tuchman explains, acts have to be clearly contrary to the self-interest of the organization or group pursuing them; conducted over a period of time, not just in a single burst of irrational behavior; conducted by a number of individuals, not just one deranged maniac; and, importantly, there have to be people alive at the time who pointed out correctly why the act in question was folly (no 20/20 hindsight allowed).

In the case of the Trojan Horse, the latter role is played by Laocoon, a blind priest, who chastises Trojan leadership the moment the wooden equine is found. "You can't bring that thing in here," he says, "it might be full of Greek soldiers!" Later, as it becomes evident the will to bring it in is strong, he suggests helpfully, "Well, if you're going to bring it in, at least poke it with a spear and see if anybody yelps."

The Laocoons of this book are destined to be ignored, providing a key reminder of the value of dissent. Tuchman moves on to examine the Renaissance Popes, showing them to be pretty much as corrupt and venal a group as has ever been nominated as a symbol of religious purity. Her time period here is the reign of ten consecutive popes, which covers parties in the Vatican with one prostitute per guest, the reign of the infamous Borgia pope, and ends during the year when an unknown cleric named Martin Luther tacks ten resolutions for the reform of the church on a door in Germany.

The third section of the book is entitled The British Loss of North America and treats the American revolution from a rarely-seen perspective: that of an avoidable and silly loss of valuable colonies occurring primarily due to stiff British necks (upper lips being of no service). The extent to which the war was unpopular in Britain is covered, as well as the many Laocoons decrying the idiocy of antagonizing the colonists, including some viewed in the American version of events as villians.

The last section of the book is no less powerful for being more familiar -- it is the Amercian involvement in Vietnam. Tuchman's objectivity slips a bit here (she was an anti-war protestor) but the quality of her research and writing decrying our support of the most blatant of puppet regimes is impeccable.

If you think history books are dull drudgery with no real point, this is a book to read. By examining cases where the system was unable to work in its own self-interest, Tuchman gets at the heart of human folly on small as well as large scales.