Why did the Trojans drag the wooden horse into their city, and how did six Renaissance popes provoke the Protestant secession? Tuchman provides an in-depth examination of these two historical events plus the American Revolution from the British side and the Vietnam War in order to explain the common denominator that connects such historic failures of government. She calls it folly and describes it as follows:
All misgovernment is contrary to self-interest in the long run, but may actually strengthen a regime temporarily. It qualifies as folly when it is a perverse persistence in a policy demonstrably unworkable or counter-productive.
I was highly intrigued by the premise of the book, and I was hooked immediately when Tuchman explained her intentions with the book in the introduction and gave a few historical examples for it, like Montezuma’s folly in dealing with Cortés, for instance. The first case study that follows and is concerned with the fall of Troy is absolutely engaging, but it did make me wonder why it was included in a book that is supposed to look at historical events to make its point. The wooden horse is a myth, and even if it is an intriguing one, should it really serve as an example of failure in leadership, especially if there are so many documented instances of fatal misjudgements to choose from in thousands of years of human history? It is followed by the chapter on the Renaissance popes which is my clear favourite because it covers such a darkly fascinating period, and the protagonists and even many of the supporting characters are such a special mixture of entertaining and revolting.
The next two parts, however, did not manage to keep me interested. The descriptions of the bumbling and bungling of the British nobility became very tedious very quickly because there were too many individuals of minor importance that very given a lot of space, and there was a definite lack of focus on the matter at hand. In the part on the Vietnam War, on the other hand, the folly is apparent almost from the onset: it is the unwavering persistence that America would not and could not lose a war to an enemy that was considered vastly inferior. The whole argument of the chapter can be distilled into that single sentence, so why it needed to be drawn out to a hundred pages remains a mystery.
Overall, I have to say that it is a disappointing book. There are some gems to be found when Tuchman argues in general about the pitfalls of leadership and the foibles of human nature when confronted by too much power, and the epilogue is very good. Her four examples, however, are simply not well-chosen. I struggle to recognize the similarity between the Trojans deciding to drag in the horse and the popes succumbing to greed, and Tuchman’s argumentation is not concise enough to make me think there is one, at least not in the way she intends. Troy fell and America gained independence due to of a string of, at least in hindsight, wrong decisions by a group of people. It is easy to say that these were foolish, but the factors that fuelled these errors in judgement are not the same, and I fail to see why the ultimate nature of the decision should be a unifying or instructive element when the diverse circumstances and underlying reasons are so much more relevant. On the other hand, I fully agree when she writes that one of the major detriments to sound government is a seeming inability to learn from experience, and that may truly be what lies at the heart of all follies.