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Monday, February 27, 2006


by digby

Arthur Silber has written a very compelling series of posts featuring Barbara Tuchman's "The March of Folly" in several different contexts and it led me to go back and read it. It's an amazing analysis of a certain kind of willful governmental stupidity borne of hubris, mental laziness and bad judgment, and it's quite clear that we are seeing it being carried out right before our eyes. She defined "folly" this way:

To qualify as folly for this inquiry, the policy adopted must meet three criteria: it must have been perceived as counter-productive in its own time, not merely by hindsight. This is important, because all policy is determined by the mores of its age. "Nothing is more unfair," as an English historian has well said, "than to judge men of the past by the ideas of the present. Whatever may be said of morality, political wisdom is certainly ambulatory." To avoid judging by present-day values, we must take the opinion of the time and investigate only those episodes whose injury to self-interest was recognized even by contemporaries.

Secondly a feasible alternative course of action must have been available. To remove the problem from personality, a third criterion must be that the policy in question should be that of a group, not an individual ruler, and should persist beyond any one political lifetime. Misgovernment by a single sovereign or tyrant is too frequent and too individual to be worth a generalized inquiry. Collective government or a succession of rulers in the same office, as in the case of the Renaissance popes, raises a more significant problem.

Certainly, the first two criteria apply in spades. It's that last, that got my attention. In order for the current quagmire to be truly considered folly it must persist beyond any one political lifetime. In my view it already has.

Via Arthur again, here's Tuchman describing the thought processes of Lyndon Johnson during Vietnam:

Like Kennedy, Johnson believed that to lose South Vietnam would be to lose the White House. It would mean a destructive debate, he was later to say, that would "shatter my Presidency, kill my Administration, and damage our democracy." The loss of China, he said, which had led to the rise of Joe McCarthy, was "chickenshit compared with what might happen if we lost Vietnam." Robert Kennedy would be out in front telling everyone that "I was a coward, an unmanly man, a man without a spine." Worse, as soon as United States weakness was perceived by Moscow and Peking, they would move to "expand their control over the vacuum of power we would leave behind us ... and so would begin World War III." He was as sure of this "as nearly as anyone can be certain of anything." No one is so sure of his premises as the man who knows too little.

The purpose of the war was not gain or national defense. It would have been a simpler matter had it been either, for it is easier to finish a war by conquest of territory or by destruction of the enemy's forces and resources than it is to establish a principle by superior force and call it victory. America's purpose was to demonstrate her intent and her capacity to stop Communism in a framework of preserving an artificially created, inadequately motivated and not very viable state. The nature of the society we were upholding was an inherent flaw in the case, and despite all efforts at "nation-building," it did not essentially change.

In the illusion of omnipotence, American policy-makers took it for granted that on a given aim, especially in Asia, American will could be made to prevail. This assumption came from the can-do character of a self-created nation and from the sense of competence and superpower derived from World War II. If this was "arrogance of power," in Senator Fulbright's phrase, it was not so much the fatal hubris and over-extension that defeated Athens and Napoleon, and in the 20th century Germany and Japan, as it was failure to understand that problems and conflicts exist among other peoples that are not soluble by the application of American force or American techniques of even American goodwill. "Nation-building" was the most presumptuous of the illusions. Settlers of the North American continent had built a nation from Plymouth Rock to Valley Forge to the fulfilled frontier, yet failed to learn from their success that elsewhere, too, only the inhabitants can make the process work.

Wooden-headedness, the "Don't-confuse-me-with-the-facts" habit, is a universal folly never more conspicuous than at upper levels of Washington with respect to Vietnam. Its grossest fault was underestimation of North Vietnam's commitment to its goal. Enemy motivation was a missing element in American calculations, and Washington could therefore ignore all the evidence of nationalist fervor and of the passion for independence which as early as 1945 Hanoi had declared "no human force can any longer restrain." Washington could ignore General Leclerc's prediction that conquest would take half a million men and "Even then it could not be done." It could ignore the demonstration of elan and capacity that won victory over a French army with modern weapons at Dien Bien Phu, and all the continuing evidence thereafter.

American refusal to take the enemy's grim will and capacity into account has been explained by those responsible on the ground of ignorance of Vietnam's history, traditions and national character: there were "no experts available," in the words of one high-ranking official. But the longevity of Vietnamese resistance to foreign rule could have been learned from any history book on Indochina. Attentive consultation with French administrators whose official lives had been spent in Vietnam would have made up for the lack of American expertise. Even superficial American acquaintance with the area, when it began to supply reports, provided creditable information. Not ignorance, but refusal to credit the evidence and, more fundamentally, refusal to grant stature and fixed purpose to a "fourth-rate" Asiatic country were the determining factors, much as in the case of the British attitude toward the American colonies. The irony of history is inexorable.

Deja-vu-vu. I think it's pretty clear that history will judge Vietnam and Iraq as related wars, much as WWI and II were related, one growing out of the other. (The last election more or less dramatized it like a movie of the week.) The Republicans clung to their delusions for more than a quarter of a century believing that the Vietnam war was lost because it was sabotaged by the civilian leadership and the fecklessness of the American public. They nurtured their resentment through almost three decades, unappeased even by the fall of the Soviet Union. They, and many Democrats as well, never questioned their assumptions about the "illusion of American omnipotence" and they never understood that "problems and conflicts exist among other peoples that are not soluble by the application of American force or American techniques of even American goodwill." In fact, they carefully nurtured all those fancies and when they finally gained the power and opportunity, they immediately set about trying to prove their point --- again. The results are as predictable and as bad they were the first time.

I think that many of us over these last few years have felt as if we were living under water. Everything has seemed vaguely distorted. Communication and movement had an odd quality of density and resistance. We spoke out. We marched. We called our representatives. But it seemed as if our words sounded garbled and muffled in some way.

And there has also been a strong sense of inevitability. Certainly, since the impeachment the country has been steamrollered into a bizarre and aberrant political reality, never more than after 9/11 when the administration began agitating for this absurd, incomprehensible war. Despite its utter madness, I think most of us knew it was unstoppable. And it wasn't just us moonbats who knew it; it was the CIA and the state department. It was all of Europe and even Saddam himself. I suspect this is yet another feature of folly --- the sense among those who know better that there is no way to change the course of the event, that you are speaking a language nobody can understand.

Now, after we are dug in deeply with so much blood and money wasted, salvation requires repudiation of the Iraq war, the Bush doctrine and the cruel, undemocratic policies of the "war" on terrorism. I don't know if anyone has the strength to do that. It must be said that Lyndon Johnson was correct in that he would be mercilessly attacked for being weak if he withdrew from Vietnam. That's a political fact and it is what will happen if a Democratic administration tries to draw down the GWOT. (Not that we shouldn't do it, I'm just saying that the price will be high.) It's one of the main reasons why we should never start these things unless absolutely forced to. They are very difficult to end.

What or who will successfully put a coda to this ongoing folly? I don't see it in either party, to tell you the truth. But it's what I'm going to be looking for. This is the central challenge of millenial America: how can the most powerful nation on earth survive such monumental folly?

If you are interested in this topic, I urge you to read Arthur's long entire series on Iran and Tuchman's "March of Folly." Oh my.