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am 23. Oktober 1999
Tuchman sets out to offer a survery of governments acting contrary to their own interests, and after a wide-ranging introduction, she offers four case studies: Troy, the Renaissance Popes, Britain and the American Revolution, and the US in Vietnam.
The introduction is brilliant, as is the Vietnam case study. The material between ranges from adequate (a solid but pedestrial treatment of Britain's bungling before the American Revolution) to awful (a peevish, presentist scolding of the Renaissance Popes) to irrelevant (what is Troy, whose internal politics remain obscure, *doing* in this book as a case study?).
Saying that "It seemed like a good idea at the time," then going on to explore *why* it seemed like one, is nearly always an effective way to understand the actions of historical figures. For Tuchman, though, the answer always seems to be the same: "It seemed like a good idea because they were too stupid, venal, deluded, or blind to see that it wasn't." This doesn't help us, much, in understanding history or applying its lessons.
The notable exception to this--the one chapter where Tuchman seems willing to trace the internal logic of misgovernment--is the Vietnam chapter. If you're interested in, but not an expert on, Vietnam, that chapter may be worth the price of the book.
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am 18. September 2000
In the "March of Folly", historian Barbara Tuchman surveys four episodes in history - disparate in culture, chronlogy and geography but otherwise united in folly by the ruling leadership. Tuchman defines folly as the pursuit policy contraryr to self-interest. Self-interest is not to be confused with selfihsness, can be understood as the course that gives those who follow it the greatest benefit, whether the benefit is perceived as such. The Trojans fail to heed the warning of Greeks bearing gifts; The renaissance papacy provokes a protest; the British lose America and America loses Vietnam. In each of Tuchman's episodes, man's leadership not only trails his advances in science and the arts, but is actually inverse in relation. Tuchman's prose is always crisp and inviting and her analysis rarely lacks any power. Unfortunately, her thesis is not flawless - folly is meant to represent self-inflicted harm by government policy. This is meant to be uncomplicated by moral decisions which, given the actors involved, is not to be expected. Governments are expected to act in ways that benefit themselves. Nevertheless, self-interest is not selfishness, which, when coupled with greed or blind ambition, does more harm than benefit. (Often, a government's self-interest is to act morally, not based on any innate good, but merely because this legitmizes its rule over the people who prefer to see themselves on a moral high-ground.) The problem lies in Tuchman's equating any lack of good government with active self-harming policy, even the two shouldn't share an equal footing. Active, if ill-informed policy-making mires America in Vietnam, while the Trojans all but knock down their walls to make way for that Greek horse. On the flip side, British policy in the colonies seems clumsy, indicating that those for or against the colonies were incapable of formulating a cogent policy - the bane of a purely parliamentary system. Most lamentable, but also the most absorbing, is the case of the renaissance popes. Being at once the product of the college of cardinals and also the architect of its new generation, the renassance popes can do no more than prolong a corrupted system that bestowed upon them the papal tiara. Of the six popes cited, three actively pursue policy - while the remaining can do no more than continually tax christendom (especially the disunited German states), pursue confused alliances, arrange for lavish parties and deplete papal reserves. Under Tuchman's definition, self-harming policy is too inclusive of leadership incapable of forming policy. The corruption that bred the renaissance papacy was clearly endemic to the church of that era - with greed and manipulation of religion hardly limited to the seat of St. Peter - so it's hard to fault the popes. Tuchman clearly understands when recounting the reproach given to the future Leo X, that, were the Cardinals better men, they'd elect better popes, and all men would be better for it. Unfortunately, as Tuchman notes, the Renaissance Cardinals could not be better men because they were chosen by the poor popes to begin with, while the Popes are stymied by the fact that they were chosen by an earlier generation of imperfect cardinals. How Rome broke this cycle, vindicating Tuchman by proving the papacy capable of doing so, gets too little shrift. In fact, the renaissance papacy, while corrupt, was also remarkably tolerant, and the reformation that it bred held dire consequences in terms of war and religious persecution of the Jews, every bit as painful as the machivellian schemeing of the pre-protestant papacy. It's all exasperating, heart-breaking and entertaining, but one wonders whether these episodes should have gotten their own book.
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am 1. Juni 2000
Barbara Tuchman has a way of viewing history as few can. Instead of falling back on just "telling of a story," Tuchman does what few historians are able to pull off without sounding self-rightious. She gives us a comentary. Kind of like the "color-man" while listening to a sporting event, Tuchman examines the idea of "folly," or the persistent pursuit of a policy by government or those in power that is "contradictory to their own interests." Since a topic like this could take volumes, the author chooses 4 primary historical examples: the Fall of Troy, the breakup of of the Holy See in the 16th century, the British monarchy's vain attempt to keep the American colonies, and America's own arrogant persistence during the Vietnam War.
The fault in this book is that this subject matter can be pretty exhausting even with the only 450 page book. The examples used are valid and make sense. The author finds something different within each one that allows us to see the many levels of government folly. However I found the chapters dealing with the six terrible popes to be mind-numbing. Perhaps it's due to the fact that this history is not examined extensively in current day curricula like the American Revolution and Vietnam, but I think this section was tedious and repetitive. Also, within the Vietnam chapters, Ms. Tuchman tends to reveal her adoration towards Kennedy--like many historians of her era--and her disdain of the Johnson and Nixon administrations. This can distort her objective examination of the topic in some areas, but if it is noticed and ignored, the rest of the study is outstanding. Some may read these excerpts and label them as "liberal" but they are ignorant of history.
In any event the book is an excellent supplement to studying Machiavellian politics. The governments' "wood-headedness" towards policy that is counter to anything rational (as well as contrary to respected voices of reason) is something that all ordinary members and voters of a democratic society ought to take heed of.
The example of Troy is used simply as an example of how Homer and the Greeks had foreseen and probably experienced, the lack of reason when pursuing particular policy. This is usually done because those in power are so consumed by power and what it brings, that their arrogance and ignorance blinds them.
Without carrying this review too far into the book's wonderful and biting commentary, I will just say that this book is recommended, but not for those that have no real experience with intellectual historical study. Some areas will be interesting, such as the Vietnam chapters, but otherwise the book would dull the amateur historian. But if you do wish to challenge yourself and your understanding of how power corrupts and destroys after it corrupts, then "March of Folly" will be admired.
All politicians should be forced to read this book. Kind of like a supplement instructional manual for their job...paid for by taxpayers. Within 100 years, they might actaully learn something.
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am 30. Juni 2000
Barbara Tuchman is a first-rate writer and historian whose books I have much enjoyed. For some years now I have been meaning to get a copy of "The March of Folly," since it is a book which greatly appeals to me in its concept. To look at the history of modern man (since about 1,000 BC) and take examples of real foolishness on the part of a number of key governments, and try to see why they so acted, strikes me as a wonderful idea for a book. However, I can now say, somewhat reluctantly, that "The March of Folly" is not up to the standard of Tuchman's earlier books. I find this curious indeed and have been wondering for some time why it is so.
Firstly, the writing is not up to par and I can only put this down to sloppy editing. Some of the oddest phrases in the book are so un-Tuchman like, that I imagine they have been written by a researcher and, for whatever reason, have managed to sneak by both the author and her editors. Tuchman is usually crisp and succinct. Some of this text is laborious and redundant; it's most surprising. Perhaps this first fault leads to the second, although not entirely. In "The Guns of August" and "The Proud Tower," Tuchman seems to be in very complete command of both her history and her sources. In "The March of Folly," one begins to wonder if she has not strayed too far afield and is rather unsure of her ground. So it appears to me, especially with reference to the beginning of the book, where she discusses both the siege of Troy and then the Papacy during the Renaissance, when she seems very shaky indeed. Or it may be that this apparent instability is founded on limited research and that that has been allowed to come through in the book. Whatever the reason, I find that the book does not live up to its promise, either conceptually or authorially.
The sections on the American Revolution and the Vietnam War are interesting in themselves, but one wonders at times, given the detail involved in both cases, if Tuchman is not actually off the rails. The fact that there is no stated plan at the beginning of the book (chapters and sub-headings and synopses, I mean) makes me wonder indeed, just how much of a plan she had. So I think you can read this book for its individual content (i.e., if you happen to be interested in the particular periods covered), but the disappointment overall is that the really first-rate text that one might have expected, does not materialise. I will say that the essay at the end is very Tuchmanesque and is a brave attempt, quand même, to tie the threads of the book together. Yet I'm unsure of just how far she can get away with a text that smacks so readily of invention and understudy, and in my opinion, the epilogue is hardly sufficient, by itself, to save the whole. I suppose it is just possible that she and I both got carried away by the title.
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am 4. Januar 2000
A marvellous book. People looking for a synopsis of the book can get that from the other reviews. I'd like to take exception to A.Bowdoin Van Riper's contention that nothing useful can be gleaned from the book in respect of understanding history. I would have thought that illustrating how folly in its variety of manifestations operates in forming governments' policies is a very useful lesson of history. It is precisely in the manner that Tuchman illustrates how folly - a very human condition - comes into play that lessons for the future can and should be learnt. Her definitions of folly are much more intellingent and pertinent than this reviewer gives credit for.
As for the reviewer who dismisses this as 'liberal', well ... what can you say to the wilfully blind that might open their eyes? Nothing.
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The book is a penetrating analysis of the collective madness that overtakes governments, causing them to act consistently, wittingly and willingly in a manner inimical to their own interests. This process is illustrated by a collection of essays on the wooden horse, the Renaissance Popes, The British loss of America and the Vietnam War. An excellent read and a book that I, as a consultant, have given away a number of times to clients who were similarly hell-bent on self-destruction - with excellent results.
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am 18. Juli 1998
Barbara Tuchman distills an awesome ammount of information to provide the reader with an account of the seemingly inevitable inability of the powerful to curb their appetites even when they know their actions are counterproductive and sometimes dangerously foolish. Mrs. Tuchman is one of the few writers of history that makes history read like today's news magazines. Job well done.
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am 25. Januar 2009
... still good enough.

And wait a minute. Her description of the road to the Vietnam disaster reads an awful lot like the road to the Iraq mess. And that makes it a quite unsettling read.

History teaches that history teaches us nothing, or else the high and mighty (and all their sycophants) are either blind, illiterate or maybe they are capital F Fools after all?
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am 21. Juni 1997
Starts out a bit slow with Troy which is perhaps a bit too far back for valid comparisons. Improves with the story of the Renaissance Popes. Becomes superb with "How the British Lost America". Does an excellent portrayal of the political factors operating then & is yet very exciting and moving
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am 2. April 1998
Great text for studying dysfunctions from a societal, institutional, or organizational perspective. Difficult reading if you want to read it with a cup of tea in hand. Tuchman does well with her definition of "folly" which is an extension of the definition of "dysfunctional."
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