Some really stupid things in history

By Nathaniel Smith, Columnist, The Times

The other day I watched the movie “Titanic” for the second time. It seemed a lot longer than before, and much less plausible. What seems totally implausible is that any ship was thought unsinkable, that the captain agreed to increase speed in the known presence of icebergs, that the lookout binoculars were left behind in England, that the flotation chambers were not sealed at the top, and that the limited number of lifeboats at best could have held only half the passengers. But that’s the way it was.

How stupid can people be?

We’ve all probably asked that question many times in looking at history.

In “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (poem by Tennyson, but a true story), the soldiers “knew someone had blundered” but valiantly charged to their doom because no one dared say: “Excuse me, Sir, but that can’t be right.” Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg might be similar.

Nature of the Titanic’s damage wrought by the iceberg.

Since the time of Alexander the Great, the inhabitants of Afghanistan have had the reputation of being fractious and ungovernable. The UK fought to control it for a century. Finally the Soviet Union gained the upper hand, for a while, and its eventual ouster helped end the Soviet Union. The Americans armed the local fighters, and then decided to invade on their own (with some help from their friends) in 2001. That one is still going on. A learning experience? I fear not.

Napoleon caused his own army to self-destruct by invading Russia, and that precipitated the downfall of his empire. Then Adolf Hitler thought he was smarter than Napoleon and tried the same thing. That was the end of him too, fortunately.

Russia sold Alaska to the US.

In 1914 a few Serbian anarchists hatched a plan to destroy the Austro-Hungarian Empire by assassinating the heir to the crown and precipitating a big war. The Great Powers obliged, and 20 million people died because of World War I. A lot of combatants died uselessly at Gallipoli because of Winston Churchill’s bright idea of attacking the mountainous coast of Germany’s ally Turkey from the sea.

Before Pearl Harbor, evidence of impending attack, including radio interceptions, was ignored. Who would ever attack American forces without warning?

In the 1950s the French were defeated in Viet Nam and evacuated. The Americans decided they could do better. And we’re still paying the costs.

In our own century:

Airlines figured that if someone threatened passengers, the plane should be given over to the attackers, thus facilitating the 9/11 highjackings and destruction.

The government encouraged our economy to become interdependent with the Chinese economy and thus in thrall to Chinese imports, ostensibly so China would see how well democracy and capitalism work and would want to become good neighbors for us.

UK Prime Minister Cameron called the referendum that resulted in Brexit.

Citizens United: the US Supreme Court majority never could have suspected that unlimited anonymous corporate and billionaire money could distort our political system. Like the 2007 meltdown: who could have ever thought the banks would destroy the economy? And their punishment: to get bailed out and now be pushing back the regulations designed to prevent a repeat.

And in current news:

We back out of our international obligations, leave our allies wondering what’s going on, and turn diplomatic, economic, and environmental initiative over to China. Is that America first or America last?

Parts of the country burn up or flood, and we still let people build new homes in California forests and Gulf Coast flood plains… with federally-subsidized flood insurance. Great planning, isn’t it?

How to make Americans feel loyal to their country? Chip away at their and their children’s health care, turn their tax money over to the robber barons, push up the student debt level in higher education, cut into the national parks that millions of Americans visit, and favor air and water pollution.

Public officials in league with manufacturers facilitate the sale of guns and opioids so people can lead happier and more fulfilled lives.

And now the administration wants to rev up the nuclear arms race. What could possibly go wrong?

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