Barbara W. Tuchman’s “The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam” details four major instances of government folly – during the Trojan War, in the lead up to the Protestant Reformation, blunders by the United Kingdom which contributed to the American Revolutionary War, as well as the Vietnam War – and while the historical narratives are engaging, its major weakness is the lack of justification over how the instances were chosen in the first place. Folly is first defined as “the pursuit of policy contrary to the self-interest of the constituency or state involved” (with the three criteria of first being perceived as counter-productive in its own time; second, the availability of a feasible alternative course of action; and third, a group and not individual decision), and this introduction should have been followed by a brief exposition on the range of past events which are likely to meet this criteria, before explaining how the four aforementioned cases were shortlisted.
In explaining four kinds of misgovernment in the beginning – tyranny or oppression, excessive ambition, incompetence or decadence, and folly or perversity – she does raise examples for each kind, but not necessarily in a systematic manner, and with no exclusive focus on folly.
The use of the Trojan War and the focus on the Trojans falling for the ruse of the Trojan Horse – a war and an episode which is probably part mythology and part historical reality – sets up the premise for the rest of “The March of Folly”, though the ill-fated American intervention in Vietnam was the longest case study. More specifically, the folly of the popes was a combination of the disregard of their circumstances, the fixation on personal gain, and the misguided perception that their power and status were permanent. Attitude was primarily to blame, as the United Kingdom lost the United States. And with Vietnam, across five success presidencies of the United States, there was a collective, continuous overreaction, the illusion of omnipotence, the persistence of cognitive dissonance even in the face of evidence proving otherwise, and the obsession with working the levers of power instead of valuing independence of thought.
Finally, in addition to the explanation of how these case studies were chosen, Tuchman could have expanded the final section on remedies: In other words, given the purported tendency of governments to pursue policies which run counter to their own interests, how should they be more cognisant, make corrections, or even prevent such instances in the future? “Government remains the paramount area of folly because it is there that men seek power over others – only to lose it over themselves”, and while recommendations for a country to “protect itself from protective stupidity in policymaking” include education for government or the professionalisation of the bureaucracy, they were more touch-and-go rather than balanced or practical prescriptions, and was therefore a missed opportunity for calls for change or reform.