The March of Folly

From Troy to Vietnam

In the book The March of Folly, Barbara Tuchman examines four major cases where leaders acted against their own interests, to bring about their downfall: the Horse of Troy; the Renaissance Papacy; the American Revolution; and the Vietnam War.

Tuchman defined “folly” as having met these three criteria: it is counter-productive, even as viewed by contemporaries; an alternative course of action is present, but not taken; and finally, it is perpetrated not by a single leader, but by a group. These criteria merely narrow down the number of case studies to be considered, and not in themselves explanations for the failures. The main argument in all of these, instead, is something else: it’s about acting “against self-interest”.

Maybe the present-day concept of “self-interest” is different from how the author used it in this book. But it sure isn’t just about dereliction or corruption – although the Renaissance popes are indeed shining examples of such. Instead, the concept of “self-interest” here is more about hubris. And so taking it into consideration, the four cases can be understood better when seen in this light.

In the short discussion of the Trojan Horse, hubris is when the kingdom of Troy accepted the offering of a gigantic wooden horse as a sign of peace. And despite persistent demands for the horse’ internals to be inspected, the Trojan leaders refused. At night, while the people of Troy are asleep, the Greeks hiding inside the horse came out, opened the city gate, and let their forces in, thus culminating in the defeat and destruction of Troy.

In the story of the Renaissance papacy, hubris is something that stretched back to earlier times, outside of the book’s scope, when the popes settled in Avignon, and thus were closely intertwined with the secular leadership of France. Even upon returning to Rome, the Church leadership brought with it the secularism and lavishness it adopted in Avignon. The six popes of the Renaissance period – Sixtus IV, Innocent VIII, Alexander VI, Julius II, Leo X, Clement VII – lived in utter prodigality and vulgarity. They appointed relatives and friends to the College of Cardinals – especially nephews, which is how the word “nepotism” came to be. They lived less like the apostles of Jesus, but more like the kings of their times, except more extravagant. Some even had illegitimate children, whom they also appointed as Cardinals.

To keep funding the otherworldly levels of materialistic lifestyle they lived, these popes used their office for all sorts of money making schemes – notably, the sale of indulgences. When this scheme was introduced in Germany, a certain clergy named Martin Luther stood up to the Church, and thus paved the way for the greatest schism in the history of Christianity later on. Once the Reformation movement set in, and both clergy and secular rulers started breaking off from the influence of Rome, the Catholic Church started its rapid decline in power and prestige. All because a group of successive popes prioritized their hubris over their pastoral duties.

In the third case, the British Parliament, keen on raising funds to recuperate from the successive wars of the early 18th century, looked to the faraway New World to raise taxes. Multiple proposals were put forward, each time receving huge backlash from the American colonists. The Americans hated the idea of being taxed by a faraway Parliament across the Atlantic, without so much as a proper representation to the body. The hubris comes in the form of stubbornness, as the Parliament insisted on levying taxes despite the growing possibility of open revolt. Which, in the end, is what happened. And thus, the American Revolution came to be, and the British Empire lost its colony. All because of hubris.

The implacability of the British, that led to their loss of America, is ironically repeated by the Americans themselves, two centuries later. Five presidents – Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon – wrestled over the issue of the Southeast Asian nation known as Vietnam. When the French, after the tragic siege of Dien Bien Phu and the Geneva Conference, finally exited from Indochina, the Americans came in, and soon found themselves stuck in the same quagmire that the French extricated themselves from at a terrible price.

Taking the author’s definition of folly, the Vietnam War is its greatest example. So much has been said about the glaringly contradictory policy of suppressing communism in Vietnam without escalating the conflict, but the book’s examination of the folly lies in the creation of a sense of “self-hypnosis”. The presidents sought to defend and perpetuate their policies on Vietnam by convincing themselves that the Communist threat over Southeast Asia – the so-called “dominoes theory” – is more than real. By the time of Kennedy, the growing gap between Soviet Union and China already offered a view contrary to that of falling dominoes, yet the self-hypnosis continued.

As Johnson started to gradually escalate the American efforts in Vietnam, they adopted a policy of counting bodies, and manipulating the count, if needed. They bannered the numbers that show lower American casualties than Vietnamese, indication, according to them, of getting closer to victory. This, too, is self-hypnosis: soon, both the American government and the military leadership were too convinced they were winning, that when the 1968 Tet offensive came, they found it almost impossible to realistically assess their situation. Even after the offensive, even amidst the widespread and violent opposition to the war, America went on and kept fighting.

Nixon won by promising to end the war. Which he did, but not immediately. Instead, he still vainly looked for a way to win the war, even as he nonetheless ordered massive withdrawal of ground troops. America pursued a policy of “Vietnamization” – training and equipping the ARVN to fight their war on their own, with little to no American help. Meanwhile, aerial bombing was intensified further, which did little to ease the anti-war sentiments. Ultimately, the bombings and the Vietnamization failed to work, and in 1975, with North Vietnamese forces rapidly overwhelming the South, America exited from Vietnam in shame.

Tuchman concludes that the “rejection of reason is the prime characteristic of folly.” As I see it, such rejection has to be caused by something. And as I see it, hubris is what really made these follies possible. Whatever the case, The March of Folly is a good casebook on how and why policies fail. In the end, the author asserts that a “test of character” is probably what is needed in choosing leaders. Maybe we – citizens and leaders – can all learn from the mistakes of the past. But I guess one takeaway here is that these lessons aren’t just more relevant now – instead, they’ve always been relevant. And as these follies show, it seems every once in a while, we’ll realize we never learned our lessons after all.