Wednesday, January 03, 2007


Barbara Tuchman was a library rat of the first order, and she wrote some great history books. Her grandfather was Secretary of the Treasury, and this may account for why she has an almost psychic albeit superlatively researched feel for decision-making processes. The Guns of August, for which she won her first Pulitzer Prize, is still accepted as the definitive account of how great powers and small could not overcome slights real and imagined, and conned themselves into the necessity of the First World War despite the best efforts of the single royal family (the Windsors) to forestall it, whose monarchs controlled almost every country involved. Germany's emperor for example, Kaiser Wilhelm, was more proper an Englishman than Prince Charles, and I'm sure he would've thought as much. Yet he couldn't stop the slide into war.

Mad to learn of war as I was, I read The Guns of August, despite the fact there was precious little "action" in it, when no more than 10. It was challenging, but Tuchman is an accessible writer, and in the process she probably formed my views on power politics more than any single writer. She instilled a deep skepticism for the claimed skills and conceits of politicians, whom as a group I view as something akin to actors, only of lower morals. Ms. Tuchman's ability for prose and storytelling spoiled me for less talented historians, and while I haven't read all her works, the ones I did were all good enough to read more than once. My friend Al C. is reading The G of A now, likely for its applicability to the present world situation.

Another Tuchman book, probably my favorite for its unique treatment of a subject not well or often enough illuminated, and which is highly applicable to our country's current predicament, is called The March of Folly. It's both a contemplation and a passionately skilled dissection of why governments do stupid things on a grand scale, even when almost all the key actors know they're making a big mess of things. Tuchman compares the messes of The Trojan War, The Protestant Secession, The American Revolution, and The American War in Vietnam, and pays particular attention to the traits and decision-making processes common and distinct to each. A couple of quotes from it:

"The power to command frequently causes failure to think."

"A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of place or period is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests..."

Really, Ms. Tuchman uses Western history's most major, prolonged debacles as instructive preambles serving as background terrain to her centerpiece, a vivisected, sunlit tableau of America's agonizing disaster in Vietnam. Few people realize Vietnam was the equal of the eclipse of Greece, the shattering of the Catholic church, or the beginning of the end of Rule Brittania. But she did, and she hated the murderous, addle-brained, and wasteful blunder there, enough to begin writing a comparative condemnation of it while it was still ongoing; in reading the pertinent sections of her book, you begin to realize she is well aware of the implications of those failures and sins, and you begin to sense them too. I'm not sure she fully predicted the debacle in Iraq, nor the denouement which will follow. But she certainly helped me to do so, and for that I'm forever in her debt.

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