Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Blood, Tears and Folly

Len Deighton is perhaps better known for his Spy novel series Game Set and Match, Hook, Line and Sinker, but he is also a self confessed amateur historian with several works on WWII. “Blood, Tears and Folly: an objective look at World War II”, was published 15 years ago. One nice thing about history books, if they are well researched they can be read any time.

Deighton’s purpose in writing the book was to “remind ourselves how badly the world’s leaders performed and how bravely they were supported by their suffering populations”. He examines the delusions and myths of the nations involved, British, Germans, Japanese and Americans, and how they set the stage for the tragic events that followed. The book “takes into account the assumptions and ambitions of its protagonists and the background from which they emerge” taking the “narrative far enough back in time to deal with some of the misconceptions that cloud our preferred version of the war”

Barbara Tuchman’s “The March of Folly: from Troy to Vietnam" 1984, looks at the folly of nations which she defines “Pursuit of Policy Contrary to Self-Interest." (See also http://www.stoneschool.com/Reviews/MarchOfFolly.html) “For a government’s policy or a nation’s courts of action to be considered folly,” Tuchman writes, “it must meet three criteria. First, it must be perceived in its own time as counterproductive to that group’s own self-interest, not just in hindsight. Second, a feasible alternative course of action must have been available when the policy was adopted. And third, the policy must be that of a group, not just a single individual.” Blood, Tears and Folly looks not just at the folly of nations but the folly of individual leaders from Churchill to Rommel, from Tojo to Wavell, from Stalin to MacArthur.

Deighton’s book illustrates like no other, how wars are started, fought, won and lost by human beings with emphasis on HUMAN. We tend to think of wars in terms of sports where the “best” team wins, where dazzling generalship scores the most touchdowns. Wars are rarely won by brilliant leadership but most often simply by those committing the fewest stupid mistakes or best able to master the logistics of supply. Leadership at all levels on both sides was prone to all the failings of human kind: fear, pride, greed, stupidity, indecision, obsession, paranoia.

“Battleship” admirals’ distain for airplanes and submarines; RAF refusal to consider anything but strategic bombing for fear they fell back under control of the Army or Navy. Constant underestimation of the enemy, whether German invasion planning based on a Russian collapse in four months or British military in SE Asia refusing to prepare any defenses against the Japanese because they could not “believe they could form an intelligent fighting force”.

If you think you know the history of World War II i.e. WHAT happened, "Blood Tears and Folly" will give you new insights into WHY they happened.

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