Two Studies in Folly a Century ApartRoundup
tags: leadership, Donald Trump
In her The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (1984), Barbara Tuchman wrote of the folly of leaders and nations at various points in history. In mid-2016, I wrote “The Main Problem with Donald Trump: He’s a Fool.” Although dealing with the Trojan and Vietnam wars and mentioning that “throughout history cases of military folly have been innumerable,” Tuchman’s concern with historical folly also dealt with leaders in non-military situations. And so the present essay will also deal with both military folly (that of General Haig) and non-military folly (that of President Trump during our coronavirus crisis).
What made me thing of the World-War-I General Haig amidst our present coronavirus pandemic was an article in the Los Angeles Times (LAT) entitled “Trump calls Americans ‘warriors’ in fight to open the economy.” It mentioned that Trump had called himself a “wartime president” and recently described citizens as “warriors” who might have to die in the coronavirus battle because “we have to get our country open, and we have to get it open soon.”
The article quoted a public health expert who said that Trump seems to think of people as “collateral damage to salvage the economy,” but “good generals do not send their soldiers into battle without knowing that there will be a net gain,” and “here we know reopening too soon will be a net loss, both in lives and the long-term stability of the economy.” Another medical expert added, that Trump has “not given the American people the tools they need to fight this virus,” and given his failures it’s not valorous to sacrifice people’s lives in the present pandemic battle.
All of this empty Trumpian talk about war, warriors, courage, and sacrificing lives is all too familiar. How many past generals and national leaders have spewed such puffed-up words as they have ordered countless young men to their needless deaths?
One of the most infamous of these was General Douglas Haig, who in December 1915, became commander of British troops on the Western Front and remained in that position until the end of World War I (WWI). Haig was Scottish–Trump’s mother, born just a few years before the beginning of WWI, was also Scottish–and like Trump, he came from a rich family, attended boarding school, and enjoyed golfing. His character also bore a striking similarity to that of Trump. Paul Fussell, in his widely-praised The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), wrote that Haig “was stubborn, self-righteous, inflexible, intolerant . . . and quite humorless.” He was also “provincial,” “bullheaded,” and lacked “imagination,” “artistic culture,” “wit and invention.”