Blogs > Liberty and Power > BARBARA TUCHMAN TOLD YOU SO, AND IN GREAT DETAIL

Jan 10, 2004 8:53 pm


BARBARA TUCHMAN TOLD YOU SO, AND IN GREAT DETAIL



And here I bet some people thought I was full of it when I posted excerpts from Barbara Tuchman's The March of Folly and her examination of the Vietnam disaster, and pointed to the similarities to the Iraq adventure in terms of the operative underlying principles. (And more Tuchman excerpts can be found here.)

Well, Ms. Tuchman is more than entitled to several dozen iterations of"I told you so," for any number of reasons. I see that Jim Henley approvingly quotes this comment at Hit & Run (a comment which concerns this new Kenneth Pollack article about intelligence failures with regard to Iraq, an article I haven't read yet):

The assessment given in the Pollack article appears to be so reasonable that I believe it will probably serve as a platform for any further discussion of the issue. I find that I come away from the article only MORE persuaded of conclusions I had already reached-- and I am sure that others, with different conclusions, will have exactly the same response...AND THEY WILL BE RIGHT.

We will all be right for sticking to conclusions we otherwise find reasonable, because what the article really demonstrates is that intellegence doesn't SETTLE any outstanding policy debate...in fact is scarcely even relevant.

If an issue of importance is out there, and a consequential choice needs to be made, a citizen can come to a sensible conclusion based on the sort of information available to any interested newspaper reader, and he will be as likely to choose correctly as any member of the National Security Council (or the equivalent policy-shaping body in another democratic society).

What Pollack's article demonstrates, is that a modern intellegence apparatus (and no one more than the US) can pile up mounds of data...which don't incontestably support any conclusion. You would be nearly as well off without any of it.

There is lots of data about the stock market. But nobody can call the market short-term, and nobody needs to, long-term (it will go up).

In a way this is reassuring. Debate over foreign policy choices (or any other policy choices) in a modern democracy can proceed among citizens, based mostly on information citizens can reasonably be expected to have.

I completely agree with Jim's positive assessment of this.

In fact, in my first post of excerpts from The March of Folly, I quoted Tuchman on the Fulbright hearings on Vietnam in early 1966, in large part on precisely this point. Here is the relevant part of that passage:

For all their truths, the Fulbright hearings were not a prelude to action in the only way that could count, a vote against appropriations, so much as an intellectual exercise in examination of American policy. The issue of longest consequence, Executive war, was not formulated until after the hearings, in Fulbright's preface to a published version. Acquiescence in Executive war, he wrote, comes from the belief that the government possesses secret information that gives it special insight in determining policy. Not only was this questionable, but major policy decisions turn"not upon available facts but upon judgment," with which policy-makers are no better endowed than the intelligent citizen. Congress and citizens can judge"whether the massive deployment and destruction of their men and wealth seem to serve the overall interests as a nation."

Though he could bring out the major issues, Fulbright was a teacher, not a leader, unready himself to put his vote where it counted. When a month after the hearings the Senate authorized $4.8 billion in emergency funds for the war in Vietnam, the bill passed against only the two faithful negatives of Morse and Gruening. Fulbright voted with the majority.

The belief that government knows best was voiced just at this time by Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who said on resumption of the bombing,"We ought to all support the President. He is the man who has all the information and knowledge of what we are up against." This is a comforting assumption that relieves people from taking a stand. It is usually invalid, especially in foreign affairs."Foreign policy decisions," concluded Gunnar Myrdal after two decades of study,"are in general much more influenced by irrational motives" than are domestic ones.

It's a terrible tragedy that we need to learn the same lessons over and over and over again, and incur awful costs of all kinds while doing so. And there are still more lessons from Vietnam that we have to absorb -- and I suspect it will be a rather painful process.

That is, assuming that we do ever absorb them, an achievement which seems far beyond the capabilities of virtually all our political leaders at the moment.

(Cross-posted at The Light of Reason.)


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