It might be time to reread this book, but then I think it always is.


A book which informed my entire world view, and still does. Tuchman posits the existance of folly, or the pursuit of public policy contrary to self-interest–in other words, why nations keep shooting themselves in the foot. She uses the Trojans taking the Greek horse inside the walls of Troy as her template

…the feasible alternative–that of destroying the Horse–is always open. Capys the Elder advised it before Laocoon’s warning, and Cassandra afterward. Notwithstanding the frequent references in the epic to the fall of Troy being ordained, it was not fate but free choice that took the Horse within the walls. “Fate” as a character in legend represents the fulfillment of man’s expectations of himself.

and then goes on to talk about how the Renaissance popes caused the Reformation

Their three outstanding attitudes–obliviousness to the growing disaffection of constituents, primacy of self-aggrandizement, illusion of invulnerable status–are persistent aspects of folly. While in the case of the Renaissance popes, these were bred in and exaggerated by the surrounding culture, all are independent of time and recurrent in governorship.

how the British lost America

One cannot escape the impression that the level of British intelligence and competence in both civil and military positions in the period 1763-1783 was, on the whole, though not in every case, low. Whether that was bad luck or was owing to the almost exclusive hold of the ultraprivileged on decision-making positions is not clear beyond question. The underprivileged and the middle class often do no better. What is clear is that when incapacity is joined by complacency, the result is the worst possible combination.

Everyone in the current US Congress is a millionaire. Why would these people vote against their own self-interest now? They’re the new British ruling class, and they’re as oblivious as the British ruling class and the Renaissance popes and the Trojan nobility  were to what was actually going on around them.

Lastly, Tuchman writes how the US lost in Vietnam.

The longest war had come to an end…A contemporary summing up was voiced by a Congressman from Michigan, Donald Riegle. In talking to a couple from his constituency who had lost a son in Vietnam, he faced the stark recognition that he could find no words to justify the boy’s death. “There was no way I could say that what had happened was in their interest or in the national interest or in anyone’s interest.

One can only imagine the new bodily orifice Tuchman would have ripped over Iraq and Afghanistan. ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’ only begins to cover it.

A lively, engaging prose style with more than a hint of “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” It might be time to reread this book, but then I think it always is.

See also A Distant Mirror and Stilwell and the American Experience in China. Tuchman won the Pulitzer for The Guns of August but it was never my favorite, although that might be because a more futile war was never fought by a more feckless bunch of leaders.

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Dana View All →

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2 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I have loved reading Barbara Tuchman in the past, and think I will take on this one. Thanks for the recommendation. Fran


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