(Artvoice 8 July 1999)
 

Troy/Rome/London/Saigon/Buffalo
by Bruce Jackson
 

Explaining the Peace Bridge War
I was trying to explain the Peace Bridge War to Warren Bennis, an old friend who now lives in Santa Monica. Warren was a provost at UB in the late '60s and he likes to hear about what's going on in town. He's a social psychologist and a keen analyst of management; most of his work has to do with making sense of institutional behavior. I thought he might help me understand what's been going on here.

I told Warren that we've got a public service agency--the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority--in charge of bridge repairs and tolls that has taken on the business of designing major public works, though not one of its membership has any competence or expertise in these matters. I told him that the Authority and our congressman want to construct a bridge that is ugly, expensive, and anachronistic, one that will consume far more land surface on both sides of the river and will be far less flexible in use than its signature bridge alternative. I told him that Senator Charles Schumer has proposed a commission that would evaluate the two designs and take this all out of the area of personal pique, but the Authority has refused to cooperate with anyone or anything, save for one plan (LaFalce-Maloney) so narrow in design it will resolve nothing.

There was a sudden burst of static on the line. It stopped, started again, and then became a continuing crackle. For a moment we tried to decide whether it was in Buffalo or Santa Monica. I picked up a hard-wired phone, turned off the portable I'd been using, and the noise was gone. In the background I could hear Grace, Warren's wife, playing violin. I told Warren I couldn't quite make out what she was playing. He listened for a moment and told me what it was, then said she was really happy with the violin, which she'd just gotten after a two-year search. Then he told me to go on about the bridge. Warren is really good at focus.

I said the city of Buffalo had told the Authority it thought the Authority's design so hurtful to the city it would refuse to issue the permits the Authority needed to begin construction, and that the city had, in collaboration with two very respectable community organizations, filed suit to force the state agencies that had authorized the commencement of construction to rethink their decisions. And I said that not only had the PBA ignored all the requests from the community that it reconsider its decision--not change its decision, just reconsider it--but it had filed suit against the city to force it to issue the construction permits.

Basically, I told Warren, the Public Bridge Authority and its attorneys had examined all the requests and pleas from the community, had read all the legal briefs, had considered the Authority's role as a community agency, and had responded: "Fuck you."

I said I didn't think members of the PBA were like those tobacco executives and industrial polluters who are making so much money from their decisions they bury in ice all notions of social responsibility and all prodding of conscience. That kind of self-enriching position, I told Warren, I could understand, vile though it might be. But nothing I could think of made sense of the PBA position: they want to spend more money over more time to make something ugly that will give the public less service. As much as I've studied the Peace Bridge affair, I said, that decision finally doesn't make any sense to me.

"But why," Warren asked, "do you think it has to make sense?"

"Everything makes sense at some level," I said. "You just have to find it."

"Not so," Warren said. "Some things don't make any sense at all."

"So how do you explain them? How do you make sense of them?"

"You don't. You try to see them for what they are."

We talked more about the difficulty of dealing with behavior that doesn't make sense. Then Warren said, "There's a good book about this."

"Bad design and stonewalling public agencies?"

"Refusal by people in power to consider viable alternatives when what they're doing is clearly not in the best interests of the organization or groups they represent or in their own best interests either. Behavior that doesn't make sense. It's Barbara Tuchman's The March of Folly. It's about the Trojan War and the Renaissance popes and how the British lost their American colonies and how America got mired in Vietnam. And I think it may be about what's been going on in Buffalo."

One horse, six popes, one continent, one war
The full title is The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam. It was published in 1984 but it's one of those classic inquiries that doesn't go out of date. Tuchman, who won two Pulitzer Prizes (for The Guns of August in 1962 and  for Stilwell and the American Experience in China in 1971) addresses the assumption that people in power act rationally. When they do something we wouldn't do or of which we disapprove, we look for a logical reason: misinformation, corruption, an error in addition, madness, stupidity. We assume that the results, however good or evil or beneficial or detrimental, occur in service of some plan, are directed to some end. We try to figure out why we might make such choices if we were in that position. That is, even when we disagree with a position we tend to assume that reason plays a central process in achieving it.

Not necessarily so, Tuchman says in this superb description of and meditation on the way people in power make and adhere to decisions against their self-interest and the interest of the political organizations or communities they represent or control. Her concern isn't with decisions that are merely crooked or lousy, but rather with those that occur when there is a sufficiency of information available indicating they are stupid or dysfunctional, when competent people tell the decision makers that something is very wrong and the likely consequences will be costly and harmful, and when there are preferable alternatives clearly available.

She calls such behavior folly, and she identifies "block-headedness" as the primary cause. Block-headedness is the refusal or inability to listen.

She begins with an example from literature: the Trojans who took the Greek horse into their city without checking the contents, even though Laocoön and Cassandra warned against it and common sense should have told them the same thing. The horse was full of Greek warriors, who in the dark of night opened the city gates and admitted the Greek army, which proceeded to slaughter all the men, enslave the women and children, and destroy the city.

The main part of the book deals with the six Renaissance popes whose corruption, greed, sexual excess and general perversion led to the Protestant Reformation and the sack of Rome; Britain's loss of the American colonies; and the U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

The Renaissance Popes
The six popes who governed the Church from 1470 to 1530 might have been scripted by Larry Flint, Ken Russell, and John Gotti. "Their governance," writes Tuchman, "dismayed the faithful, brought the Holy See into disrepute, left unanswered the cry for reform, ignored all protests, warnings and signs of rising revolt, and ended by breaking apart the unity of Christendom and losing half the papal constituency to the Protestant secession. Theirs was a folly of perversity, perhaps the most consequential in Western history, if measured by its result in centuries of ensuing hostility and fratricidal war."

These were popes who sold everything or who gave it away to their lovers, children, or other relatives. She tells of one man made a cardinal by Clement VII who visited his cathedral only once: the day of his funeral. In 1480, Cardinal Pietro Riario hosted a banquet at the papal court "featuring a whole roasted bear holding a staff in its jaws, stags reconstructed in their skins, herons and peacocks in their feathers, and orgiastic behavior by the guests appropriate to the Roman model."

As the popes sunk deeper and deeper into depravity, greed, militancy, and ambition, they became increasingly deaf to cries for reform from outside their own protected circles of power. And they became ever more violent: when Leo X (1513-21) wanted to bring Perugia into the Papal States he invited its dynastic ruler, Gianpaolo Baglioni, to Rome, promising him safety in transit and while there; as soon as Baglioni arrived, Leo had him arrested, tortured, and beheaded.
Raphael: Pope Leo X and Two Cardinals
On 6 May 1527 a Spanish-German army invaded Rome and carried on like Slobodan Milosevic's troops in Kosovo:

Massacre, plunder, fire and rape raged out of control.... The soldiers looted house by house killing anyone who offered resistance. Women were violated regardless of age. Screams and groans filled every quarter; the Tiber floated with dead bodies.... Ransoms were fixed on the wealthy and atrocious tortures devised to make them pay; if they could not they were killed. Priests, monks and other clergy were victimized with extra brutality; nuns dragged to brothels or sold to soldiers in the streets. Palaces were plundered and left in flames; churches and monasteries sacked for their treasures, relics trampled after being stripped of jeweled covers, tombs broken open in the search for more treasure, the Vatican used as a stable. Archives and libraries were burned, their contents scattered or used as bedding for horses....

...The first wave of carnage lasted eight days. For weeks Rome smoked and stank of unburied corpses gnawed by dogs. The occupation lasted nine months, inflicting irreparable damage. Two thousand bodies were estimated to have been thrown into the Tiber, 9800 buried, loot and ransoms estimated at between three and four million ducats. Only when plague appeared and food vanished, leaving famine, did the drunken satiated hordes recede from the "stinking slaughterhouse" they had made of Rome.

The sack of Rome ended but the other result of the papal folly did not: it occasioned the rise of Protestantism, from which the Church never recovered.

Losing America
Eighteenth century Britain was governed by a small inbred ruling class generally taking counsel from no one but themselves. They imposed ever more onerous taxes and trade regulations on their American colonies. For example, they required every colonial legal document to have a stamp, the revenue from which went to the British government. It quickly became clear that the Stamp Act would have a stifling effect on trade. Trade generated more than two million pounds per year, the stamps at most sixty thousand. Nonetheless, the ruling class for years refused to revoke or even modify the Stamp Act.

When they finally did repeal it, Charles Townshend, Chancellor of the Exchequer, proposed and Parliament voted import duties for the colonies on glass, paint, lead, paper and tea. Townshend's duties were likely to generate even less income than the Stamp Act, and likely to engender greater rage in the colonists, but Parliament gave it to him anyway. You know what famous party the tea tax produced. After his death, his successors continued imposing the tax. Thomas Pownall, who over seven years had been an administrator in four of the colonies argued that the Act would encourage American manufacture rather than purchase of British goods and once that happened the status would not be reversible. Pownall's experience of the colonies was not considered of any import whatsoever and his advice was ignored.

After the Boston Tea Party, the Cabinet prepared a bill closing the port of Boston until the East India Company was compensated for its loss. They expected that shipping to ports in other colonies would make up for the loss of the closed port and that the other colonies would simply let Boston take the punishment. It didn't happen: the other colonies supported Massachusetts and told England to bugger off. "Wooden-headedness," Tuchman writes, "enjoyed no finer hour."

What we call the Revolutionary War dragged on for years. Even after inner members of the British government began to understand that they could not win a war so far away in so hostile a battleground, that pursuing it was counter-productive, England could not cut its losses and sue for peace. Some perverse sense of national honor was at stake and the war continued at terrible cost. This selfsame error, Tuchman points out, the United States would itself repeat two hundred years later in Vietnam.

Vietnam--deep and deeper
American involvement in Vietnam began at the end of World War II, when the United States helped France regain control of its former colony, what was then called Indochina. Roosevelt had considered French rule in Indochina colonialism at its worst and he would not have permitted any involvement in reestablishment of that rule. But FDR died of a stroke in 1944 and his successor, Harry S Truman, had no knowledge of, directions about, or interest in the matter. Truman's generals were preoccupied with the threat of international Communism. French president Charles de Gaulle, ever the working hustler, threatened that France might go Communist if the US didn't help it reestablish its base in southeast Asia.

The US eventually underwrote eighty percent of the French effort there but the French never did reestablish their colonial power. Marshall Jacques Leclerq, whom de Gaulle put in charge of his military operation in Indochina, said in 1946, "It would take 500,000 men to do it and even then it could not be done." Leclerq was a visionary. "In one sentence," Tuchman says, Leclerq "laid out the future, and his estimate would still be valid when 500,000 American soldiers were actually in the field two decades later."

For nearly a decade the French fought Vietnamese nationalism, they brought all the power of their great industrialized country to bear on a peasant economy--and they were beaten. After they were driven out, the US went in and made exactly the same mistakes, lost exactly the same war, only it took longer and cost more in money and lives. "The question raised," Tuchman writes, "is why did the policy-makers close their minds to the evidence and its implications? This is the classic symptom of folly: refusal to draw conclusions from the evidence, addiction to the counter-productive."

America was driven by the Domino Theory, first articulated by Eisenhower's Secretary of State John Foster Dulles: if Vietnam went communist, so would all of southeast Asia, so would the South Pacific, so would everybody. There was no evidence to support the Domino Theory and as time went by there was more and more evidence against it, but the United States, through the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations, never abandoned it. In the most recent volume of his memoirs Henry Kissinger admits he knew Vietnam was a lost cause in 1965, yet until the very end of the war a decade later he argued for us to continue fighting there, for us to increase the severity of our bombing there. Why? "War," Tuchman writes, "is a procedure from which there can be no turning back without acknowledging defeat. This was the self-laid trap into which America had walked. Only with the greatest difficulty and rarest success, as belligerents mired in futility have often discovered, can combat be terminated in favor of compromise. Because it is a final resort to destruction and death, war has traditionally been accompanied by the solemn statement of justification..."

Nixon came into office in 1969 with a promise of a plan to end the war. It was a lie. He didn't get out until five years later, after his reelection. Like Johnson before him, domestic politics and fear of a backlash locked him into pursuit of a military policy he and his Dr. Strangelove--Henry Kissinger--long knew was futile.

The peace treaty Kissinger and Nixon negotiated was no different from the settlement agreed to in Geneva almost twenty years earlier. They could have had it the first day of their administration. Lyndon Johnson could have had it. John Kennedy could have had it. Reason doesn't explain why they all avoided it so assiduously and at such abominable human and economic cost. "If pursuing disadvantage after the disadvantage has become obvious is irrational," Tuchman writes, "then rejection of reason is the prime characteristic of folly.... Although the structure of human thought is based on logical procedure from premise to conclusion, it is not proof against the frailties and the passions."

"The stark impossibility of thinking that"
When I finished The March of Folly I recalled the passage in the Preface to The Order of Things where Michel Foucault tells of the laughter that seized him when he came across a passage in an essay by Borges:
 

This passage quotes a 'certain Chinese encyclopedia' in which it is written that 'animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.' In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that.


"The stark impossibility of thinking that." What a splendid description of the problem we always have with people who make choices that make no sense: "the stark impossibility of thinking that."

But it's not only a matter of people having an entirely different model of thought. Sometimes it's a matter of them not engaging in thought at all. Tuchman quotes a wonderful caveat from Ralph Waldo Emerson's Journals:

"In analyzing history do not be too profound, for often the causes are quite superficial." This is a factor usually overlooked by political scientists who, in discussing the nature of power, always treat it, even when negatively, with immense respect. They fail to see it as sometimes a matter of ordinary men walking into water over their heads....

Finally, there is the sad factor of what both physicians and attorneys call "curing": all of these grim events could have been cured, fixed, avoided almost anywhere along the way. The Trojans could have looked inside the horse before dragging it inside their city or, after they made that blunder, before they went to bed that fatal night. Any one of the six decadent Renaissance popes could have discovered God and brought the Church along with him. Any one of the American presidents could have gotten out of Vietnam at any time on exactly the terms Richard Nixon settled for in his fifth year in office. People worked very had to ensure those disasters. Each could have been avoided had the people in power been capable of listening to the voices around them and of reconsidering choices already made. Each of these stories could have the same epitaph: It didn't have to be that way.

The March of Folly ought to be read by anyone in power, whether business, government, private foundation, public agency. It ought to be read by administrators of public institutions and members of public commissions and authorities. It ought to be read by anyone in a position of civic responsibility who thinks "fuck you" is an adequate response to community requests for a fair hearing. It ought to be read by the attorneys who serve or service such individuals and the organizations they comprise. It ought to be read by anyone trying to understand why otherwise competent and decent people conduct themselves in ways that at best seem to make no sense at all and at worst seem stupid or venal or block-headed.
 
 

Bruce Jackson, the former chairman of the Board of Trustees of the American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress and a Trustee of the Newport Folk Foundation, is SUNY Distinguished Professor and Samuel P. Capen Professor of American Culture at UB. This and his other twelve articles on the Peace Bridge War are available on the web at www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~bjackson/allbridge.html.