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by William H. Benson

April 22, 2004

     In her book The March of Folly, the historian Barbara Tuchman, identified four types of misgovernment: tyranny, excessive ambition, incompetence, and folly.  The latter type she defined as the pursuit of a policy contrary to the self-interest of the electorate or the state, a policy that is counter-productive.  She listed as examples of folly the American war in Vietnam in the 1960s, but first and foremost was the British loss of the American colonies.

     The major issue between England and her North American colonies was over Parliament’s right to tax.  King George III and Parliament believed that they had the right to enforce taxation, but the colonists disagreed because each of the thirteen colonies had its own elected assembly, who had the right to tax its citizens.

     Edmund Burke, a perceptive thinker and politician in England, said, “The retention of America was worth far more to the mother country economically, politically, and even morally than any sum which might be raised by taxation, or even than any principle so-called of the British Constitution.”  And yet King George sacrificed possession of a vast territorial empire of incalculable wealth for the principle.

     War against the colonies was not unanimously supported by all the British in England.  Some spoke out against the use of armed forces.  William Pitt stood before Parliament and warned of French intervention and the use of German Hessian soldiers in fighting the war.  He said, “My lords, if I were an American as I am an Englishman, while a foreign troop was landed in my country I never would lay down my arms—never, never, never.”

     Instead of pursuing conciliation, King George sent in the British redcoats, and on April 19, 1775 at Lexington and Concord, shots were exchanged and the war for independence had begun.  It would last for seven years—years that severely tested Americans’ dedication to the ideal of independence, but at the same time it tested the resolve of Parliament and the King.

    About George III, Winston Churchill centuries later wrote, “But his mind was Hanoverian, with an infinite capacity for mastering detail, and limited success in dealing with large issues and main principles. . . . His stubbornness lent weight to the stiffening attitude of his Government.  His responsibility for the final breach is a high one. . . .

     “George III grew stubborn and even more intent. . . . Rarely has British strategy fallen into such a multitude of errors.  Every maxim and principle of war was either violated or disregarded.  The British forces were now dispersed and divided over five hundred miles of country.”

     The war ended in October of 1781 with Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown.  Lord North, the British Prime Minister who had the distinction of presiding over the loss of the colonies, heard the news and cried out in anguish, “Oh, my, it is all over!”  And King George, in the agony of defeat and humiliation, talked of abdicating the throne and returning to Hanover.

     The British lost America.  America lost in Vietnam.  And now we have an Iraq freed of Sadaam Hussein’s grip, and suddenly the political and religious factions are now vying for power.

     Folly can also be defined as acting and talking as if we know when we do not know.

     The Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter admitted, “We don’t know the answers to the scary questions (“What if the Sunnis and Shiites team up against us?”) and no one has a good idea of what the government should do. . . . Maybe the Senate could help by holding hearings where the best experts on the region toss in their best ideas. . . . But that would mean admitting that the Know-It-All-ism isn’t working. . . . Uncertainty is the only certainty now—in politics and terror.”

     President George Bush II went into his war convinced of the rightness of certain ideas about Iraq and that the war would vindicate all those ideas. But then, “as events unfolded, the administration proved stubbornly unwilling to look at facts on the ground, at the new evidence, and the need for shifts in its basic approach.  It was more important to prove that it was right than to get Iraq right.”  The march of folly.