Saturday, May 14, 2016

Reflections: The March of Folly

In 2002 Elder Neal A. Maxwell gave a talk in General Conference titled Encircled in the Arms of His Love.  As part of his talk, he briefly discussed the Founding Fathers and subsequently quoted Barbara W. Tuchman from her book The March of Folly: "It would be invaluable if we could know what produced this burst of talent from a base of only two and a half million inhabitants."  As part of my quest to catalogue as many books quoted at General Conference as possible, I added the book to the list and shortly thereafter ordered it for myself.  The March of Folly is a deep dive; it's not for escapists or fair weather readers.  It takes focus and consistency to enjoy.  It's an excellent book.

Tuchman's main premise is that there have been many, many occasions in humanity's past in which governments, rulers, kings, etc., have acted against their own self-interest, even when clear alternatives were available, which led them to commit folly.  Tuchman focuses on four such events, to wit: Troy, the Renaissance Popes, the American Revolution, and the Vietnam War.  Although appearing to be disparate events and time periods, and one being veiled by mythology, Tuchman asserts that each have similar characteristics and outcomes.  Her writing and exhaustive research does plenty to convince the reader of her perspective.

I've read plenty of non-fiction books and works of history.  I have read very few more researched and detailed than The March of Folly.  Tuchman presents an avalanche of details--names, dates, locations, events.  It can be overwhelming and is not welcoming to readers unfamiliar with this kind of writing.  However, Tuchman has provided an incredible addition to the study of these particular events.  The American Revolution chapter in particular was especially intriguing.  Living in America we obviously and rightfully approach the American Revolution from an American-centric perspective.  However, Tuchman presents the circumstances leading to and pushing forward the American Revolution from the perspective of the British parliament and government officials.  She quotes their letters and their journals; she highlights their disagreements and apathy toward the American colonies.  She chronicles their ignoring of discontent, and the power of the American appetite for freedom.  It's a fascinating variation on a theme and story I have read about many times over but never from this angle.

Perhaps the most challenging chapter of the book was the one related to the Vietnam War.  My feelings on the war are nuanced, as they probably should be, but Tuchman presents details and information in The March of Folly I was completely ignorant of.  Although only occurring a handful of decades ago, the events of the Vietnam War seem distant and mystifying.  Tuchman demystifies some of it, but her cynicism and bias is most apparent during this chapter.  The Vietnam War was a badly managed war and was fought for troubling reasons, but I struggle to call it completely vain in purpose the way that Tuchman does.  As Gordon B. Hinckly said: "I have had many feelings about that conflict . . . I have known something of a feeling of bitterness over some aspects of that conflict . . . I think I have felt very keenly the feelings of many of our young men concerning this terrible conflict in which we are engaged, but I am sure we are there because of a great humanitarian spirit in the hearts of the people of this nation."  Communism is the greatest system of human slavery ever devised, and America's efforts, however mismanaged or misguided, to stop its spread throughout the Earth was noble.  Tuchman presents some troubling facts, mostly about the management of the conflict.  Regardless of my agreement or disagreement, The March of Folly presents a very valuable reflection on the Vietnam War and there are lessons to be learned.

The March of Folly is an excellent academic study of the four events or time periods previously listed.  It's a heady book and wouldn't be enjoyed very much by those looking for a lazy read.  It's a wonderful addition to my collection, and I will undoubtedly return to its pages for quotes, references, and insights.

Notable Quotes:
  • "The opponent's point of view is rarely considered in the paranoia of war."
  • "Men thinking for themselves will defeat the slush funds--if there are enough of them."
  • "The power to command frequently causes failure to think."

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: American Lion
Bosom Buddy Books: The Prince and the Radical
Writing History I can't Forget: Leon Uris

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