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General Douglas Haig and President 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.

The LAT piece also noted that Trump was impatient and “views rejuvenating the economy as central to his reelection campaign,” and that “his allies are echoing the message that some death is inevitable as businesses reopen.” It quoted Trump’s ally Rudy Giuliani as saying, “Americans are courageous, and we’re going to face risk in order to fight this. We can’t let COVID-19 destroy us, and if we stay home, we continue to stay home, it’s going to destroy us,”

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?

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.”

Like Trump, he told people they might have to die in a heroic battle, only not against a deadly virus, but against the Germans. In April 1918, three weeks after the Germans had launched a major offensive in France and Belgium, Haig sent a message to British troops that their “determined fighting and self-sacrifice” had prevented German gains. Although he realized that many were tired, there must be no retreat. “With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause each one of us must fight on to the end. The safety of our homes and the Freedom of mankind alike depend upon the conduct of each one of us at this critical moment.”

With both Trump and Haig we see the same willingness to sacrifice large numbers of “warriors” for some abstract good (whether “the freedom of mankind” or an economy that will look good enough to sway voters to reelect a president).

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But Haig’s most grievous folly was not in 1918, but in 1916 when he directed British troops (including some from British Empire countries like India) during the Battle of the Somme. His hope, he wrote on 16 June, was that the British “advance was to be pressed eastward far enough to enable our cavalry to push through into the open country beyond the enemy’s prepared lines of defence.” He was a great believer in the horse, writing as late as 1926 that “the value of the horse and the opportunity for the horse in the future are likely to be as great as ever. Aeroplanes and tanks are only accessories to the men and the horse, and I feel sure that as time goes on you will find just as much use for the horse—the well-bred horse—as you have ever done in the past.”

On the battle’s first morning, July 1, British troops rose up out of their trenches, most of the soldiers carrying “about sixty-six pounds’ weight of equipment: a rifle, ammunition, grenades, rations, a waterproof cape, four empty sandbags, a steel helmet, two gas helmets, a pair of goggles against tear gas, a field dressing, a pick or a shovel, a full water bottle and a mess tin.” Slowed down as they were by this burden, they were “mown down like meadow grass” by entrenched Germans, some with machine guns. Before the day was over, the British had “suffered more than 57,000 casualties—including more than 19,000 soldiers killed.” But the battle continued for 140 more days during which Britain suffered 420,000 casualties, including 125,000 deaths. And what did they gain by it? They advanced a total of only five miles.

No wonder, one article on the History Net was entitled “Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig: World War I’s Worst General,” mentioned that “Haig was cruelly mocked . . . in the satirical musical Oh! What a Lovely War,” and ended with these words, “Haig was undeniably a butcher, as his severest critics have claimed, but he was most of all a pompous fool.”

One of the main problems with fools like Haig and Trump is that they have little empathy and imagination. They can not feel and imagine the sorrow and tragedy that even one death can bring to a family. (See here on Trump’s lack of empathy.) They are not like the protagonist in Ian McEwan’s novel Black Dogs (1993), about whom the author writes: “He was struck by the recently concluded war [World War II] not as a historical, geopolitical fact but as a multiplicity, a near-infinity of private sorrows, as a boundless grief minutely subdivided without diminishment among individuals who covered the continent like dust. . . . For the first time he sensed the scale of the catastrophe in terms of feeling; all those unique and solitary deaths, all that consequent sorrow, unique and solitary too, which had no place in conferences, headlines, history, and which had quietly retired to houses, kitchens, unshared beds, and anguished memories.”

Those who might have to die in the “coronavirus battle” (and the 75,000 already U. S. dead as of May 8) are not individual tragedies in Trump’s ego-driven mind. They are collateral damage. Dan Patrick, the Republican lieutenant governor of Texas, voiced Trump’s opinion when he stated that people need to “get back to work,” and that senior citizens should be willing to be “sacrificed” if necessary, so younger people don’t “lose our whole country” to an “economic collapse.”

The fact that so many of the coronavirus afflicted and their families come from the old, poor, and minorities also makes them more dispensable to a Trump administration not known for its compassion toward the suffering and needy.

In his The Great War and Modern Memory, Fussell quotes Tuchman on how in the telling of some past British military history “mistakes, failures, stupidities, or other causes of disaster, mysteriously vanish.” Everything is “touched with glory . . . . Everyone is splendid: soldiers are staunch, commanders cool, the fighting magnificent.” In his novel of WWI, A Farewell to Arms (1929), Ernest Hemingway’s Frederick Henry is so sickened by leaders spouting such high-sounding words that he thinks that “abstract words such as glory, honor, courage or hallow” had become obscene.

So too in the Republican telling of Trump’s coronavirus battle he has exercised “through the uncertainty and fear . . . a steady hand. Bold action. Strong leadership.” And he has spoken of being a “wartime president” and leading “warriors.” But like General Haig in WWI, Trump has not been a courageous leader, but a “pompous fool” willing to sacrifice countless individual lives.

Fussell called General Haig “bullheaded.” Tuchman’s term wooden-headedness also applies. As she writes, “Wooden-headedness, the source of self-deception, is a factor that plays a remarkably large role in government. It consists of assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs. It is acting according to wish while not allowing oneself to be deflected by the facts.” Exactly one hundred years after General Haig retired from the military, President Trump, as a New York Times article of 7 May stated, “has served up a series of false and misleading statements as he seeks to counter uncomfortable facts about the spread of Covid-19 and questions about his push to reopen the economy.”

Tuchman highlighted folly from Troy to Vietnam. But now a century after General Haig’s folly and a half-century after the Vietnamese War, Trump’s coronavirus contortions continue “the march of folly.”

walter moss

Walter G. Moss