Folly Marches On

Last week I finished reading The March of Folly by Barbara Tuchman. It’s a study of three historical episodes that typify the lack of wisdom often shown by religious and national leaders. The episodes are those of the Renaissance Papacy, the English loss of its American colonies, and the American defeat in Vietnam. “Government,” Tuchman says, is “the paramount area of folly because it is there that men seek power over others – only to lose it over themselves.”

Among the anecdotes Tuchman relates was this that caught my attention. In May 1961, Vice-President Lyndon Johnson reported back on the basis of a trip to southeast Asia, “The battle against Communism must be joined in Southeast Asia with the strength and determination to achieve success there – or the United States must inevitably surrender the Pacific and pull back our defenses to San Francisco.” (March of Folly, p. 293)

The very next day I read a report in the New York Times of the testimony of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld the previous day before the Senate Armed Services Committee. “If we left Iraq prematurely,” he said, “the enemy would tell us to leave Afghanistan and then withdraw from the Middle East. And if we left the Middle East, they’d order us and all those who don’t share their militant ideology to leave what they call the occupied Muslim lands from Spain to the Philippines.” And finally, he intoned, America will be forced “to make a stand nearer home.” Maybe, again, in San Francisco?

Forty-five years have passed and nothing seems to have been learned. Mr. Rumsfeld offered the same old exhortation to stay the course, without, said the Times, “the slightest hint of what the course is, other than the rather obvious point that the Iraqis have to learn to run their own country.” “To recognize errors, to cut losses, to alter course,” wrote Tuchman, “is the most repugnant option in government.”

This web site is about Beowulf and I don’t plan to write often about modern politics since the connections aren’t very obvious. I suppose one might argue that Beowulf went off to confront Grendel in Denmark so as not to have to confront him closer to home. But I doubt the present administration would understand it even if that case were made beyond any shadow of doubt.

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