Blinders, Blunders, and Wars: What America and China Can Learn

Blinders, Blunders, and Wars: What America and China Can Learn

Blinders, Blunders, and Wars: What America and China Can Learn

Blinders, Blunders, and Wars: What America and China Can Learn


The history of wars caused by misjudgments, from Napoleon's invasion of Russia to America's invasion of Iraq, reveals that leaders relied on cognitive models that were seriously at odds with objective reality. Blinders, Blunders, and Wars analyzes eight historical examples of strategic blunders regarding war and peace and four examples of decisions that turned out well, and then applies those lessons to the current Sino-American case.



A phenomenon noticeable throughout history … is the pursuit by governments
of policies contrary to their own interests. Mankind, it seems, makes a poorer per
formance of government than of almost any other human activity. In this sphere,
wisdom, which may be defined as the exercise of judgment acting on experience,
common sense and available information, is less operative and more frustrated
than it should be. Why do holders of high office so often act contrary to the way
reason points and enlightened self-interest suggests? Why does intelligent mental
process seem so often not to function?

This is the opening paragraph of Barbara Tuchman’s classic The March of Folly. Of the strategic blunders she describes to make her point, two of the more spectacular are Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and Hitler’s invasion of the USSR—the former ignoring the prior failure of King Charles XII of Sweden, and the latter ignoring the failure of Napoleon. That both Napoleon and Hitler had ample information to have foreseen calamity prompts the question: What were they thinking? Tuchman attributes such “wooden-headedness” to profound and inherent human shortcomings in the field of government: tyranny, excessive ambition, conceit, arrogance, lack of accountability, decadence.

Tuchman argues that folly is “the child of power,” that power not only corrupts but also “causes failure to think,” and that the “responsibility of power often fades” the more it is exercised. It follows from this, in her view, that powerful leaders of powerful states may be especially blunder-prone. Think not only of Napoleon and Hitler but also of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the American wars in Vietnam and Iraq. As Tuchman saw it—and we tend to agree—the more authority is concentrated in one decisionmaker, whether by constitution, personality, or coercion, the harder it may be for inconvenient information and impertinent advice to penetrate and so avert misjudgment. If powerful misguided leaders are a primary cause of strategic blundering, timid staffs are often their accomplices.

Looking in a rearview mirror, the historian Tuchman offers little reason to hope that folly by governments and those who lead them can be eradicated. The problem . . .

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