Many years ago I read the excellent book ‘The Psychology of Military Incompetence’ by Norman Dixon. And I thought I would riff around some of his thoughts and create one of our top tens, recognizing of course that it is not true of most military officers, but his work still resonates:
- 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 organizational 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 élan, is common.
- A strict hierarchical system often discourages the devolution of power to junior commanders, and can encourage micromanagement by senior officers. Recent advances in communications technology have probably made this worse
- The nature of warfare provides several factors which exacerbate these effects; the fog of war means that information about the enemy forces is often limited or inaccurate, making it easy for the intelligence process to interpret the information to agree with existing assumptions, or to fit it to their own preconceptions and expectations.
- Communications tend to deteriorate in battlefield situations, with the flow of information between commanders and combat units being disrupted, making it difficult to react to changes in the situation as they develop.
- After operations have ceased, military organisations often fail to learn effectively from experience. In victory, whatever methods have been used – no matter how inefficient – appear to have been vindicated, whilst in defeat there is a tendency to select scapegoats and to avoid looking in detail at the broader reasons for failure.
- Individual psychology: the selection process is key to whether you actually have talented leaders for your military, and peacetime militaries seem to be very poor at this with rampant kiss up, kick down types unable to
- Separation of military and political objectives: I am reading ‘How Wars End: Why We Always Fight the Last Battle’ by Gideon Rose, about how America has often won the war, but lost the aftermath by losing sight of the fact that war fundamentally has political objectives as well as military ones
One of my favorite Generals: John Pershing (1860-1948): see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_J._Pershing
Footnote: This posting is dedicated to my friends, who I have worked with in the US Army, US Navy, US Marines and US Air Force, who are very far from being incompetent. Semper Fi.