Barbara W. Tuchman's The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (1984) examines three classic examples of monumental political and governmental folly: the rampant greed and secularism of the Renaissance popes, which lead to the Protestant break with the church; the lose of America by the British; and the "classic humiliation" of the United States in Vietnam. Reading it was painful, because it brought out once again the obvious parallels between the folly of Vietnam, and our own current mess in Iraq (as well as Israel's with Lebanon). It's not that the specific circumstances of the war in Indochina are the same as those which prevail in Iraq, but that in both cases a totally wrong-headed policy was set upon and maintained without deviance. The result in Vietnam was defeat, which will almost certainly be the case in Iraq as well.
I've quoted from the book already several times before (here, here, and here), but nevertheless, here are some additional quotes and excerpts:
[F]olly is a child of power. We all know, from unending repetitions of Lord Acton's dictum, that power corrupts. We are less aware that it breeds folly; that the power to command frequently causes failure to think; that the responsibility of power often fades as its exercise augments. The overall responsibility of power is to govern as reasonably as possible in the interest of the state and its citizens. A duty in that process is to keep well-informed, to heed information, to keep mind and judgment open and to resist the insidious spell of wooden-headedness. If the mind is open enough to perceive that a given policy is harming rather than serving self-interest, and self-confident enough to acknowledge it, and wise enough to reverse it, that is a summit in the art of government.
[T]he disease of divine mission [is] so often disastrous to rulers.
The ultimate outcome of a policy is not what determines its qualification of folly. All misgovernment is contrary to self-interest in the long run, but may actually strengthen a regime temporarily. It qualifies as folly when it is a perverse persistence in a policy demonstrably unworkable or counter-productive.
In the search of meaning we must not forget that the gods (or God, for that matter) are a concept of the human mind; they are the creatures of man, not vice versa. They are needed and invented to give meaning and purpose to the puzzle that is life on earth, to explain strange and irregular phenomena of nature, haphazard events and, above all, irrational human conduct. They exist to bear the burden of all things that cannot be comprehended except by supernatural intervention, or design.
[S]erious thoughts is not a habit of government.
[T]he tragic side of folly [is] that its perpetrators sometimes realize that they are engaged in it and cannot break the pattern.
Adjustment is painful. For the ruler it is easier, once he has entered a policy box, to stay inside. For the lesser official it is better, for the sake of his position, not to make waves, not to press evidence that the chief will find painful to accept. Psychologists call the process of screening out discordant information "cognitive dissonance," an academic disguise for "Don't confuse me with the facts." Cognitive dissonance is the tendency to "suppress, gloss over, water down or 'waffle' issues which would produce conflict or 'psychological pain' within an organization." It causes alternatives to be "deselected since even thinking about them entails conflicts." In the relations of subordinate to superior within the government, its object is the development of policies that upset no one. It assists the ruler in wishful thinking, defined as "an unconscious alteration in the estimate of probabilities."
quoting Jeffrey Race from "Vietnam Intervention: Systematic Distortion in Policy Making" in Armed Forces and Society (5/1976)
[Lyndon] Johnson faced the Presidential election of 1964. Since his opponent was the bellicose Senator Barry Goldwater, he had to appear as the peace candidate. He took up the chant about "their" war: "We are going ... to try to get them to save their own freedom with their own men." "We are not going to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves." "We don't want our American boys to do the fighting for Asian boys." When, six months later, American boys were sent into combat with no dramatic change of circumstances, these phrases were easily recalled, beginning the erosion of Johnson's own credibility. Long accustomed to normal political lying, he forgot that his office made a difference, and that when lies came to light, as under the greater spotlight on the White House they were bound to, it was the presidency and public faith that suffered.
[O]ne would like to think that government agencies write reports for more than wallpaper.
War is a procedure from which there can be no turning back without acknowledging defeat. This was the trap into which America had walked [in Vietnam]. Only with the greatest difficulty and rarest success, as belligerents mired in futility have often discovered, can combat be terminated in favor of compromise.
Because it is a final resort to destruction and death, war has traditionally been accompanied by the solemn statement of justification, in medieval times a statement of "just war," in modern times a Declaration of War ... However false and specious the justification may be, and usually is, a legalism of this kind serves to state the case and automatically endows the government to enlarged powers.
Acquiescence in Executive war, [Senator J. William Fulbright] wrote, comes from the belief that the government possesses secret information that gives it special insight in determining policy. Not only was this questionable, but major policy decisions turn "not upon available facts but upon judgment," with which policy-makers are no better endowed that the intelligent citizen. Congress and citizens can judge "whether the massive deployment and destruction of their men and wealth seem to serve their overall interest as a nation."
quoting from Fulbright's preface to The Vietnam Hearings (1966)
Silent departures of its members is an important property of government. To speak out after leaving is to go into the wilderness; by exhibiting disloyalty to bar return within the circle. The same reasons account for reluctance to resign. The official can always convince himself hat he can exercise more restraining influence inside, and he then remains acquiescent lest his connection with power be terminated. The effect of the American Presidency with its power of appointment in the Executive branch is overbearing. Advisers find it hard to say no to the President or to dispute policy because they know that their status, their invitation to the next White House meeting, depends on staying in line. If they are Cabinet officers, they have in the American system no parliamentary seat to return to from which they may retain a voice in government.
When objective evidence disproves strongly held beliefs, what occurs, according to theorists of "cognitive dissonance", is not rejection of the beliefs but rigidifying, accompanied by attempt to rationalize the disproof. The result is "cognitive rigidity"; in lay language, the knots of folly draw tighter.
[T]he Joint Chiefs and the inner circle of the President's advisors ... were frozen in the posture of the last three years, determined on pursing combat and giving [General] Westmoreland what he wanted. They were "like men in a dream," in George Kennan's words, incapable of "any realistic assessment of the effects of their own acts."
In the operations of government, the importance of reason is serious because it effects everything within reach -- citizens, society, civilization.
Mental standstill or stagnation -- the maintenance intact by rulers and policy-makers of the ideas they started with -- is fertile ground for folly. ... Learning from experience is a faculty almost never practiced. .. In its first stages, mental standstill fixes the principles and boundaries governing a political problem. In the second stage, when dissonances and failing function begin to appear, the initial principles rigidify. This is the period when, if wisdom were operative, re-examination and re-thinking and a change of course are possible, but they are rare as rubies in a backyard. Rigidifying leads to increase of investment and the need to protect egos; policy founded upon error multiplies, never retreats. The greater the investment and the more involved in it the sponsor's ego, the more unacceptable is disengagement. In the third stage, pursuit of failure enlarges the damages until it causes the fall of Troy, the defection from the Papacy, the loss of a trans-Atlantic empire, the classic humiliation in Vietnam.
Persistence in error is the problem. Practitioners of government continue down the wrong road as if in thrall to some Merlin with magic power to direct their steps. ... [T]o recognize error, to cut losses, to alter course, is the most repugnant option in government.
For a chief of state, admitting error is almost out of the question. The American misfortune during the Vietnam period was to have had Presidents who lacked the self-confidence for the grand withdrawal. We come back again to [Edmund] Burke: "Magnanimity in politics is not seldom the truest wisdom, and a great Empire and little minds go ill together." The test comes in recognizing when persistence in error has become self-damaging. A prince, says Machiavelli, ought always to be a great asker and a patient hearer of truth about those things of which he has inquired, and he should be angry if he finds that anyone has scruples about telling him the truth. What government needs is great askers.
Above all, lure of office, known in our country as Potomoc fever, stultifies a better performance of government. The bureaucrat dreams of promotion, higher officials want to extend their reach, legislators and the chief of state want re-election; and the guiding principle in these pursuits is to please as many and offend as few as possible. Intelligent government would require that the persons entrusted with high office should formulate and execute policy according to their best judgment, the best knowledge available and a judicious estimate of the lesser evil. But re-election is on their minds, and that becomes the criteria.
Aware of the controlling power of ambition, corruption and emotion, it may be that in the search for wiser government we should look for the test of character first. And the test should be moral courage. ... The Lilliputians in choosing persons for public employment ... "have more regard for good morals than for great abilities," reported Gulliver, "for, since government is necessary to mankind, they believe ... that Providence never intended to make management of Publick affairs a mystery, to be comprehended only by a few persons of sublime genius, of which there are seldom three born in an age. They suppose truth, justice, temperance and the like to be in every man's power; the practice of which virtues, assisted by good experience and a good intention, would qualify any man for service of his country, except where a course of study is required."
While such virtues may in truth be in every man's power, they have less chance in our system than money and ruthless ambition to prevail at the ballot box. The problem may be not so much a matter of educating officials for government as educating the electorate to recognize and reward integrity of character and to reject the ersatz.
That we're being forced to live once again through the very same mistakes that we lived through only a few decades ago is maddening, and horrifying, and makes me extremely angry.
hostile to science
lacking in empathy
lacking in public spirit
out of control
Thanks to: Breeze, Chuck, Ivan Raikov, Kaiju, Kathy, Roger, Shirley, S.M. Dixon
i've got a little list...
Steven Abrams (Kansas BofE)
Howard Fieldstead Ahmanson
Roger Ailes (FNC)
Alan Bonsell (Dover BofE)
Bill Buckingham (Dover BofE)
George W. Bush
Bruce Chapman (DI)
The Coors Family
William A. Dembski
Leonard Downie (WaPo)
John Gibson (FNC)
Fred Hiatt (WaPo)
James F. Inhofe
Philip E. Johnson
by Joel Pelletier
(click on image for more info)
Stephen C. Meyer (DI)
Judith Miller (ex-NYT)
Sun Myung Moon
Elspeth Reeve (TNR)
Martin Peretz (TNR)
Richard Mellon Scaife
Susan Schmidt (WaPo)
John Solomon (WaPo)
Richard Thompson (TMLC)
Bob Woodward (WaPo)
All the fine sites I've
Be sure to visit them all!!
Arthur C. Clarke
Daniel C. Dennett
Philip K. Dick
Stephen Jay Gould
"The Harder They Come"
Ursula K. LeGuin
The Marx Brothers
Michael C. Penta
Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
"The Red Shoes"
"Singin' in the Rain"
Talking Heads/David Byrne
Hunter S. Thompson
"2001: A Space Odyssey"
If you read unfutz at least once a week, without fail, your teeth will be whiter and your love life more satisfying.
If you read it daily, I will come to your house, kiss you on the forehead, bathe your feet, and cook pancakes for you, with yummy syrup and everything.
(You might want to keep a watch on me, though, just to avoid the syrup ending up on your feet and the pancakes on your forehead.)
Finally, on a more mundane level, since I don't believe that anyone actually reads this stuff, I make this offer: I'll give five bucks to the first person who contacts me and asks for it -- and, believe me, right now five bucks might as well be five hundred, so this is no trivial offer.