This short book takes only a couple of hours to read, but it contains more valuable insight than many good books that are much longer.
Liddell Hart’s question does not get an explicit answer, but an implicit answer is built up as we read: Under pressure, people who are normally capable and decent are prone to become intellectual and moral idiots.
Humans were animals before they were human; they had physical needs before they had emotions, and emotions before they had reason. The natural tendency, even for the best of us, is to see first and most vividly the small universe of good that consists of ourselves and our family. The ability to see out to a larger universe of good often reaches its limit in patriotism, bounded by the borders between countries—and leaders often cultivate even patriotism by appealing to the worst in us, especially fear of the other. Seeing beyond those borders requires a strong commitment to reason—the newest, shallowest, and most fragile of our faculties. Reason is not easy even for those who practice it often under good conditions—let alone those who practice it seldom and are under the pressure of war.
Human nature is full of faults and limitations, and so are its products—including markets, governments, and General Staffs. We can try to be conscious of our strengths and weaknesses, we can try to manage toward the strengths and away from the weaknesses; but the human weaknesses themselves, their deep-rooted place in us, cannot be engineered away.
For Liddell Hart, history, and especially the history of war, is the history of folly: of men who were “all too ready to bring misery upon millions rather than swallow their injured pride”; of men too wedded to false confidence, to a sustaining illusion that they had it all figured out; of men who thought there was something glamorous about war.
As Liddell Hart points out, against folly stand the virtues of accuracy, truthfulness, kindness, and humility. But these involve effort and consequently are all too rare. Human nature wants ease and resists any effort that does not bring instant rewards with it. General human nature changes very slowly if at all, and humankind is not perfectible. But individuals, if with time they see by better lights, can choose to change themselves.