On The Psychology Of Military Incompetence
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On the psychology of military incompetence
In fact, Dixon provides some rules of thumb we can use to both select against incompetence and develop the habits which seem to preclude it. First, Dixon offers a distinction between those typically incompetent commanders who focus on self-betterment and those typically competent commanders who focus on professional development. He draws on research to suggest that professional motivation correlates nicely with superior task memory, a preference for working with successful strangers over unsuccessful friends, a willingness to participate in experiments, and community involvement. Second, Dixon explains the relationship between authoritarianism and incompetence. Third, he blames two traits for the difficulties Britain faced during the early 20th century: an absence of curiosity with its attendant dislike for new concepts and self-assurance to a degree which precludes foresight. Fourth, he points out that group-think and incompetence share some symptoms: widespread feelings of invulnerability, collective ignorance of adverse information, unquestioned belief of holding the moral high ground, stereotyping the enemy, an assumption that the majority opinion is the only opinion, and participants who take it upon themselves to prevent any change in the status quo.
The effects of isolated cases of personal incompetence can be disproportionately significant in military organisations. Strict hierarchies of command provide the opportunity for a single decision to direct the work of thousands, whilst an institutional culture devoted to following orders without debate can help ensure that a bad or miscommunicated decision is implemented without being challenged or corrected.
However, the most common cases of "military incompetence" can be attributable to a flawed organisational culture. Perhaps the most marked of these is a conservative and traditionalist attitude, where innovative ideas or new technology are discarded or left untested. A tendency to believe that a problem can be solved by applying an earlier (failed) solution "better", be that with more men, more firepower, or simply more zeal, is common. A strict hierarchical system often discourages the devolution of power to junior commanders, and can encourage micromanagement by senior officers.
In parts two and three, Dixon looks at how and why this incompetence occurs: the impact of the personalities involved and the underlying psychological conflicts. Lastly, he examines those rare traits that can result in exemplary leaders: the Wellingtons, Nelsons and Napoleons of history.
Through clear and vivid writing that draws on both psychology and military history, Dixon explores the character flaws and organizational dysfunction that regularly recur across more than a century of British military disasters, from Crimea to the fall of Singapore in 1942 (with occasional references to U.S. adventuring in Vietnam).
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4. Authoritarian organizations [are] masters at deflecting blame. They do so by denial, by rationalization, by making scapegoats, or by some mixture of the three. The net result is that no real admission of failure or incompetence is ever made by those who are really responsible; nothing can be done about preventing a recurrence. (Pg-44)
Norman Dixon's book [On the Psychology of Military Incompetence] looks at incompetence in military leaders throughout history and considers whether, rather than being random occurrences, they are, in fact, a result of the military system. In particular he considers whether people with certain psychological characteristics are drawn to a military career, and whether the military insulates and exacerbates these characteristics in them.
Some might feel that Dixon's study has little relevance to the British military of today, with much of his evidence drawn from the characters and experience of the late-Victorian and Edwardian army. He bases many of his hypotheses on the mostly public school background of military officers, theories that perhaps require revision in an age when the demographic of officer candidates is considerably broader. Modern military readers might also struggle to relate to Dixon's fascination with the issue of toilet-training and its influence on character, as well as his perception of military men inevitably being the progeny of distant, disciplinarian parents and affection-starved childhoods.
If one persists, there is much in Dixon's book that remains applicable to the British military today. Most military readers are likely to find something of themselves in his examples. His assertion that the institutional culture of the military breeds an intellectual conservatism, resulting in dangerous 'group-think', should serve as a warning to all military leaders. He also cautions against military leaders becoming so invested in their own plan that their mind fi lters information, accepting that which reinforces their perception of a situation, but discarding that which doesn't. Dixon draws attention to the military need for order and discipline, suggesting that this conditions military minds to comfortable certainties, despite disorder and uncertainty being the prevailing characteristics of the battlefi eld. He also argues that most military failures result not from being too bold, but from not being bold enough, and that the higher a military leader rises in rank the more they are motivated by fear of failure, rather than hope of success, resulting in a reduced willingness to take risks.
Dixon's book is also very useful in helping to understand how the culture, values, and ethos of British military leadership have emerged from a largely amateur tradition. He divides leaders into two broad types, task-specialists, concerned principally with output, and social specialists concerned principally with the maintenance of harmony and cohesion in a group. Dixon considers the phenomenon of how some of Britain's most incompetent military leaders were still loved by their men, despite leading them to slaughter. He concludes that, although poor task specialists, they were excellent social specialists, with reputations, often made as junior leaders, for being brave and caring. Principally, their incompetence resulted from being promoted beyond their capability.
Obviously, the ideal military leader is both a task and social specialist, and reading Dixon's book, the reader will no doubt see how much more output-related modern military leadership has become. Never-the-less the book challenges the reader to look at some of the cultural attitudes that do persist in our military today and ask if they are still relevant. Is it still important that our leaders are gentlemen, or have a 'sense of otherness'? Given the much improved educational standard of our soldiers, can we still assume that the leader is more knowledgeable than those he leads, and if not should this result in a less autocratic, and more cooperative style of leadership?
This is a challenging and informative book that should be read with an open mind. It highlights some uncomfortable truths about the military psychology and the dangers inherent in the military culture for decision-making and leadership, and provides useful warnings to be heeded from its negative historical examples.
Reviewed by: Command Failure in War: Psychology and Leadership Joseph W. Ryan Command Failure in War: Psychology and Leadership. By Robert Pois and Philip Langer. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004. ISBN 0-253-34378-X. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xiv, 282. $29.95. Indiana University Press chose an apt dust jacket for Command Failure in War. Juxtaposed against formal military photographs of Robert E. Lee and Douglas Haig are Confederate dead at Gettysburg and the mudscape of Ypres. Apparently the publishers caught one of the authors' themes: psychological dysfunction is nowhere more costly than in commanders at war.
Few readers would be unfamiliar with the brutalization of Frederick and Hitler by their fathers, and the authors show how these men use aggression both as a military tactic and as a means of addressing personal issues. However, the authors do not claim this aggression is solely caused by paternal drubbings. Refreshingly, enemy incompetence is also seen as a factor in the success of all the commanders considered. Clearly Pois and Langer understand context. (Haig may indeed have suffered from cognitive dissonance. In 1917, however, he also had more artillery shells than his opponent, and could be expected to use them to the exclusion of other options.) 041b061a72