The March of Folly
"History, in general, only informs us of what bad government is."
The history of humanity is often a litany of surprising economic, technological, and social advances. Unfortunately, setbacks are also recorded, especially decisions by top government officials that have resulted in terrible consequences for millions of people.
The book "The March of Folly" by Barbara W. Tuchman, presents interesting examples of such brutal errors from the Trojan War to Vietnam. Tuchman emphasizes the difference between individual decisions, which have a limited impact, and mistakes by top government officials, whose effects are considerably greater.
Government leaders are obliged more than anyone to act sensibly and to question their own actions. However, their mistakes are recurring, excruciating, and often the result of an irrepressible arrogance.
The book begins with the mythical Trojan War, asking why in this story, the Trojans brought a large wooden horse into their city without even investigating what was inside it, despite having all the elements to assume that it would be an Aegean trick.
The author also questions the behavior of the popes of the Renaissance period, between 1470 and 1530, who thought that their authority would be unlimited, despite excesses and extravagances totally unrelated to the religious values they preached.
Increasingly alarming absurdities committed by six popes during this period led to uncontrolled spending. To pay for eccentricities and monumental projects, the sale of indulgences was beefed up.
The pontiffs even began offering to eliminate future sins, which became a motivation for those who could afford to pay to commit all sorts of transgressions and abuses. The natural result of these excesses was the division of the Catholic Church and the Protestant Reformation, which would forever limit the influence of the Vatican.
The author describes how the British committed continual blunders until they lost their American colonies in the 18th century. First they charged absurd taxes to sustain an army that was to defend the settlers from possible invasions, without them having requested it and without representation in the British parliament; thus the rallying cry: "No taxation without representation".
Not content with this, the monarchy introduced new taxes that further angered the colonists and led to the 1773 the Boston Tea Party.
Far from listening to the reasons behind the colonists’ discontent, the monarchy closed the port of Boston, which ended up unifying the protests in the other colonies and led to the independence movement.
Finally, the book analyzes the U.S. intervention in the terrible Vietnam War, in which the Americans did not take into account the historical evidence of the fierce Vietnamese resistance against outside invaders.
In this absurd display of arrogance and government spending, the White House justified sending weapons and troops for reasons of "national security" and the defense of "vital interests", even though Southeast Asia is literally on the other side of the globe.
After spending close to US$ 20 billion on average per year for nearly a decade, and with 45,000 U.S. troops killed and 300,000 wounded, the result of the intervention left a tremendous discontent and a terrible break in the social fabric of the United States.
All this without even mentioning the incalculable human cost and physical destruction of a large part of Vietnamese territory and a political situation in Southeast Asia totally contrary to the interests of the aggressor country.
In this book, which only offers a handful of examples, we can see that the mistakes committed by top government officials are common and their consequences disastrous.
Our historical memory is often very short and irresponsibility is common, especially in managing external resources. To complicate the situation, many politicians continually aspire to new positions and seek to hide their mistakes at all cost.
In order to avoid actions contrary to common interest, it is very important to require full transparency and accountability on all levels of government. As responsible citizens, we must scrutinize public policy decisions and decide if the government actions are irrational or contrary to the national interest; our duty is to speak out forcefully.