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Unpopular Ideas

Ramblings and Digressions from out of left field, and beyond....

Location: Piedmont of Virginia, United States

All human history, and just about everything else as well, consists of a never-ending struggle against ignorance.

Saturday, November 05, 2016

Wooden Heads, or How the British Fumbled America Away

For the second time I have been re-reading a book by Barbara Tuchman, a renowned but now passed historian.  It is called “The March of Folly,” and it focuses on notable occasions of highly placed folly over the course of 5,000 years.

The book begins with a look at how the people in Homer’s Troy, after being besieged by the Greeks for upwards of ten years, and, despite repeated warnings by the more level-headed among them, they nevertheless fell for a Greek trick by bringing into their city that huge wooden horse without at least first taking some serious ax work to the thing, to see what was inside. 

   Tuchman then goes on to discuss a string of six popes of the Renaissance Period that no one, including probably even devout Catholics, had ever heard of, and who seem never to have read Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, and instead those holy fathers, who appear to have been little more than forerunners of modern Mafia dons, gave themselves up so completely to worldly ways that little by little, over 60 years they made it possible for the Protestants to waltz in, in a movement called “the Reformation,” after which, to continue the Mafia likeness, the Roman Catholics found themselves forced to cede to the Protestants as much as 50 percent of the valuable Christian take in Europe and elsewhere.

Next the book turns to the undoubtedly gout-ridden gentlemen of Britain who couldn’t be bothered by all those mutterings in one of their colonies called “America,” when much more important local events were always coming up, like the salmon and grouse seasons.

And Tuchman’s enlightening us ends with an extended account of the American mishandling of things after they thought they could succeed where the French had failed miserably, to prevail over a bunch of rice farmers in a distant little place called “Vietnam.”

After reading this book it cannot be doubted that matching amounts of folly have been committed by the leadership in any land and in any era that one might care to name, and one is left convinced that throughout history, leaders at the highest levels have not been any more competent than your average pot-bellied, bleary-eyed, loudmouthed, habitual beer-swilling patron at the sleaziest bar in town.   And no wonder.   Those highly respected leaders of the past, were not infallible gods on high, anymore than their counterparts are today.   Instead they were and still are all cursed by being mere humans and not even exceptionally wise or prudent ones at that.    Therefore it cannot be much of a stretch to think that at best nothing much should ever be expected from any of them.

For instance, let’s go back to Vietnam.  Just a few years after we Americans were forced to slink out of that country with nary a fare-the-well and after having suffered over 50,000 casualties there – not to mention the much larger number of Vietnamese who died at our hands -- and leaving that devastated country in the hands of the Communists after all, an outcome that we supposedly went in there to prevent,  a new administration ignored the lessons of that fiasco as if it had never happened, and they gaily sailed into a new adventure that they expected to be a romp, in Iraq.   And we all know what happened there, and in many other places as well – like Afghanistan, a place from which the acquisition-crazed British had already been thrown out three times in the last two centuries, and from which the badass Russians had also been sent running with their tails between their legs just a few years before it was America’s turn to be embarrassed.   Folly over and over again.  And today we have still been unable to extricate ourselves from that trap.

I have to yet again ask a question that no one ever answers, and that is, “Am I the only one who watched some of the most important TV ever shot and who took the trouble to study the faces of all those Iranian demonstrators when in 1979 they took over the American embassy in Tehran and held its many employees hostage for about a year?”   Had they done that, I was certain that no one would ever have thought about messing with anything and anybody in the Middle East.  Those guys are out of their minds tough when they get their dander up, and at that point it’s insane to go even an inch to engage them, much less cross oceans to do so!

The chapters in this book that interest me most are the ones dealing with the American Revolution and the British, those interesting rascals who, by the way, forever unable to get enough of Afghanistan, have eagerly joined the Americans in every attempt to wield a big stick in the treeless and therefore godforsaken Middle East, to no more avail than at any other time.   Heads of wood for sure!

If you want to know how the Revolution went on the British side, and how they blew that one, you can’t do any better than to read Ms Tuchman’s  account.  It is actually a roaring indictment of the whole class system in England, and it is more absorbing than anything I’ve read about how things went from the American point of view.

Those bewigged 18th Century British officials, supposedly so well-educated and clever, were pompous, ignorant, and, to use one of Tuchman’s favorite terms, “wooden-headed” beyond belief, despite the incredible number of great discoveries that their scientists were making in that very same era, as described in another remarkable book that makes good bedside reading – Bill Bryson’s  “A Short History of Nearly Everything.”

To illustrate, during the whole course of the war, not one of those officials ever bothered to go to America himself or to send a competent aide to see what was at stake and to hear the colonial objections first-hand.   Granted, they could not have jumped into a car and crossed the Appalachians and motored west to meet characters like Crazy Horse and Chief Joseph and to check out all the biggest scenic glories of this land, but that’s beside the point.   Nor did ordinary Englishmen feel inspired to fight to keep the insolent colonists under the British thumb, so that eventually 50 percent of the British Army that was marching and getting picked off by squirrel hunters consisted of Hessians -- paid German mercenaries.

Meanwhile one of the lords and what-nots perfectly expressed the prevailing British attitude when he said something to the effect that the colonists that comprised America should always bear in mind that they had only been allowed to go there in the first place because they were expected to send the fruits of all their labors back to the home islands.  One can easily guess how statements like that were greeted in Massachusetts and Virginia.  Settlers anywhere are a greedy lot, and they don’t take kindly to sending back anything, after having had to go through so much inconvenience wrestling the lands and the resources from their previous proprietors of a few thousand years.

“Yeah.  Forget that, dummies!” the colonists in America said, and they went back to checking their muskets.

Today the same thing has a good chance of happening on the West Bank of Palestine, after the Israeli “settlers” finish taking over the Palestinians’ lands and have applied an Israeli version of the German “Final Solution” to the Palestinians, with the help of the U.S., large parts of which have been infected with a bad case of “looking the other way.”  --Except that in the case of the Israeli settlers, their homeland is right next door instead of far across a wide ocean.  But the voraciousness of those pious “settlers” is such that a revolt by them is not out of the question regardless.  Stay tuned.

Even after the American patriots had clearly won, and King George and his crowd no longer had any sort of a claim to their suddenly invaluable and gigantic former colony, the British were still so addled with arrogance that they tried to dictate the terms of their surrender, with suggestions of forming a federation in which they would still be the top dog, a proposal to which Jefferson, Franklin, Washington, and the others, as if well aware of what the future held, merely said, “Funny man!”

Finally, when the British realized that they would no longer control America, they spent a lot of time weeping and moaning about how now, without that colony, they would be reduced to almost nothing, just like, they said, Denmark.

Oddly, however, in the very next century, the 19th, the British made such an industry of going around and planting their flag on new and poorly defended territory, that they had rebounded to the point that they had laid claim to half the real estate on the planet, with the rest of the world merely nodding in assent.   That situation, weird as it looks now, was reflected in the maps and globes as recently as my childhood, which I remember as being mostly colored the pink that denoted British territory.   That “second British empire” turned out to be operating only on the strength of not much more than a few battleships, and the correction came after World War 2, when those prophecies of the American Revolution days suddenly and belatedly began to come true.

Now the British, reduced to occupying not much more than their little islands, are at last in a federation, though not one of their making -- the European Union, and, under the circumstances, that seems to be their best shot.  But they can’t throw their weight around there enough to suit them, especially playing second fiddle to France and even more to Germany, and by being therein not much more important than Denmark.  So, in a referendum a year or two ago, ordinary English people voted to leave the EU, I’m guessing to teach the Union’s other 20-some members a lesson, in a process called “Brexit.”   But just the other day the British High Court ruled, “Not so fast.   Parliament gets to vote on that, too.”   So the British exit is still up in the air.

In a place like Britain traditions die hard, while almost everywhere people don’t change easily.  Along with stuff like skin color and rump size, they inherit the ways of their ancestors, and it will be interesting to see how the British Parliament will vote and how that whole thing will come out, considering what Ms Tuchman taught us about the British from the days that they fumbled away America much as if it was a greased football and as if all that they knew anything about was looking down their noses and playing pickup sticks.


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