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On The Psychology Of Military Incompetence

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I've started reading this at the weekend On the Psychology of Military Incompetence by Norman Dixon, I have to say it's an entertaining read. However it does raise an interesting question about how this nation managed to rule 1/4 of the planet and kept it under control for so long. Frankly it's amazing we didn't collapse along with France in 1940 as the high ranking military in the inter war period seemed even more clueless than Baldrick.

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Great book, I've referenced it here before. My copy went to the charity shop.

IIRC Hitler's favourite film was The Lives of a Bengal Lancer as it illustrated how a handful of talented people could rule a nation of hundreds of millions.

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I've started reading this at the weekend On the Psychology of Military Incompetence by Norman Dixon, I have to say it's an entertaining read. However it does raise an interesting question about how this nation managed to rule 1/4 of the planet and kept it under control for so long. Frankly it's amazing we didn't collapse along with France in 1940 as the high ranking military in the inter war period seemed even more clueless than Baldrick.

I suspect the answer to your last question is that Britain was less incompetent than the rest particularly when it came to deploying naval power. Unusually for these isles the Royal Navy was a fairly meritocratic institution most of the time where upper class duffers were not tolerated, By contrast the British army has historically been the place where the unwanted of society such as lower class scruff and the idiot third sons of the aristocracy have been dumped. Given that fact it is not surprising it has often been useless when there has not been a Marlborough or a Wellington to whip it into shape.

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My vote also goes on the role played by the Royal Navy.

edit: cue the Lawrence of Arabia quote...

Look, Great Britain is a small country, much smaller than yours. Small population compared with some. It's small, but it's great. And why? Because it has guns. Because it has discipline.
Because it has a navy, because of this, the English go where they please ... and strike where they please. This makes them great.

edit #2: plus the East India Company was a private enterprise operation and more meritocratic than the army, plus (and I can't remember if Dixon mentions him in his book) Garnet Wolseley.

You could play a similar thought experiment in the 20th and 21st century and ask yourself how well the US Army would have fared in the absence of pretty much perpetual air superiority

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It's called combined arms and balance, and Britain being on the side of winning alliances fighting major global conflicts most of the time to shore up its failures and weaknesses. Also the Royal Navy could not always succeed and the British Army outshone them in the War of Austrian Succession in mainland Europe, while the Royal Navy came a cropper in Spanish Columbia (English naval power failed miserably around the mid 17th century as well). The British Army's historic problem is downsizing after every major conflict and is now seriously hamstrung by not directly having the Commonwealth/Empire resources it reliable had until WWII, and also the familiar UK problem of overblown upper bureaucracy seemingly eating away at the frontline personnel.

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It's called combined arms and balance, and Britain being on the side of winning alliances fighting major global conflicts most of the time to shore up its failures and weaknesses. Also the Royal Navy could not always succeed and the British Army outshone them in the War of Austrian Succession in mainland Europe, while the Royal Navy came a cropper in Spanish Columbia (English naval power failed miserably around the mid 17th century as well). The British Army's historic problem is downsizing after every major conflict and is now seriously hamstrung by not directly having the Commonwealth/Empire resources it reliable had until WWII, and also the familiar UK problem of overblown upper bureaucracy seemingly eating away at the frontline personnel.

The navy was useless under Charles 1.

It was a very effective fighting force under Cromwell and Blake during the Commonwealth in the 1650s

It reverted to being hopeless during the Dutch Wars post the Restoration because the Stuart's in their usual idiotic fashion too often appointed aristocrats with no naval experience to command ships or sold the commissions. They also neglected to pay the sailors with the result that some ended up fighting for the Dutch who actually honoured their wages.

It only recovered after Pepys reforms in the 1670s.

The experience English arms in the 17 th century is quite instructive since it was the nature and operation of the government that seemed to have the biggest influence on success rather than the quality of the ships or men. The stunning ability of the Stuart monarchy to throw away the military strengths passed to them by the Tudors or the Protectorate have never been surpassed as examples of incompetence in my view.

The British people have historically (and probably wisely) preferred to keep the army small because it was the arm of the military that the government is most likely to deploy against its own civil population. British soldiers have frequently fought with distinction but too have too often have been hamstrung by being commanded by idiots who only got their position by dint of birth or by buying their commissions rather than gaining their positions on merit. IMHO the best army Britain ever put in the field fought on the western front in the Great War from mid 1917-18 but it previously had to endure 2 years of military failures and chronic under supplies of munitions to reach that state.

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I'd be interested to see how well this book stands up against modern day academic scruitiny from both a pychological and historical point of view, from reading other forums I think that his 1970s style Freudian psychoanalysis would be laughed at these days and I wonder how well his description of actual events ties up with the historical record.

For me this book sounds like a mixture of outdated pop-psychology, questionable history and a stereotype of an officer class comprising entirely of thick public school boys.

Of course one of the problems armies face is that the skills that lead to success in a peacetime career may not correspond to those needed in wartime, but this is only found out once a military disaster happens. To try to ascribe this to a particular set of personality traits and that these traits draw them into the army is I think dubious in the extreme.

One other factor that appears to contribute to disasters is groupthink, i.e. otherwise intelligent men making idiotic decisions, which is something that the culture of the militiary appears to encourage.

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I'd be interested to see how well this book stands up against modern day academic scruitiny from both a pychological and historical point of view, from reading other forums I think that his 1970s style Freudian psychoanalysis would be laughed at these days and I wonder how well his description of actual events ties up with the historical record.

For me this book sounds like a mixture of outdated pop-psychology, questionable history and a stereotype of an officer class comprising entirely of thick public school boys.

I think it'd be difficult to defend the book against charges of dated pop-psychology. The interesting stuff, as I recall, was the narrative component in the first part of the book and the notion of rattling through some landmark foul-ups with a view to identifying common factors.

As a thesis for kicking around and thinking about for a bit, it's fine impo, but it's not definitive in any way.

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From what I remember, the basic idea is that the military trains people to mindlessly follow orders, promotes those who do that the best, and they eventually reach the top where they're supposed to give orders, and have no clue, because they've never done that before. Only in wartime are 'leaders' promoted based on results, rather than obedience.

I think that's pretty obvious, when you think about it. And explains a lot about politics, as well as the military.

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I suspect the answer to your last question is that Britain was less incompetent than the rest particularly when it came to deploying naval power. Unusually for these isles the Royal Navy was a fairly meritocratic institution most of the time where upper class duffers were not tolerated, By contrast the British army has historically been the place where the unwanted of society such as lower class scruff and the idiot third sons of the aristocracy have been dumped. Given that fact it is not surprising it has often been useless when there has not been a Marlborough or a Wellington to whip it into shape.

The army - to become an officer, you simply purchased a commission. In the navy, commission was only gained if you passed the lieutenant's exam (introduced by Samuel Pepys), and that only after six years or so of training.

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The British Army is, IMPO, still a bunch of upper class twits running it.

Yep, Naval power was the main reason for the Empire along with the various companies such as the East Indian and Hudson Bay companies, etc.

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I've started reading this at the weekend On the Psychology of Military Incompetence by Norman Dixon, I have to say it's an entertaining read. However it does raise an interesting question about how this nation managed to rule 1/4 of the planet and kept it under control for so long. Frankly it's amazing we didn't collapse along with France in 1940 as the high ranking military in the inter war period seemed even more clueless than Baldrick.

Luck. Plus a large dose of unrivalled brutality.

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I doubt there is any more incompetence in the military than in any other sphere of life. Its just that with the military, we are occasionally faced with a national crisis that highlights that incompetence.

The army - to become an officer, you simply purchased a commission.

Some commissions were only open to purchase but others could be filled without purchase. The purchase system actually worked quite well in the Napoleonic wars because there was a reasonable turnover of officer casualties which meant that less well off but competent officers were promoted. Of course, a few decades of peace and the whole thing came unstuck in the Crimea.

plus the East India Company was a private enterprise operation and more meritocratic than the army,

The problem with the company was that there was no incentive to retire. Hence its senior officers tended to be very senior indeed - often too senile and decrepit to take command.

The British Army's historic problem is downsizing after every major conflict

IMHO the best army Britain ever put in the field fought on the western front in the Great War from mid 1917-18 but it previously had to endure 2 years of military failures and chronic under supplies of munitions to reach that state.

Yes, and its easy to cut the army in peacetime because no one can see a use for it. The penalty for that is in the event of a major crisis, everything has to be built from the ground up again. The Hundred Days was without a doubt this country's finest military performance, but as you say, it cost a hell of a lot of blood and treasure to get there.

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The army - to become an officer, you simply purchased a commission. In the navy, commission was only gained if you passed the lieutenant's exam (introduced by Samuel Pepys), and that only after six years or so of training.

I suppose the big difference was that to run a ship required an awful lot of detailed technical knowledge. You could just have someone in there who stuck with "Sail to such and such a place!" and left it to his crew to work out how but that was clearly pretty useless even in peacetime. In the Nelson era you were still more likely to be a captain with wealth and influence behind you (and this became more so later), so it was filled with nepotism, but tempered by the fact that an admiral who kept pushing his own useless people was likely to get looked down on and lose out himself. His own standing depended upon having good people for him to put into good positions. Not exactly the best system by modern standards but it seemed to work a lot of the time.

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I WENT into a public 'ouse to get a pint o' beer,

The publican 'e up an' sez, " We serve no red-coats here."

The girls be'ind the bar they laughed an' giggled fit to die,

I outs into the street again an' to myself sez I:

O it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' " Tommy, go away " ;

But it's " Thank you, Mister Atkins," when the band begins to play

The band begins to play, my boys, the band begins to play,

O it's " Thank you, Mister Atkins," when the band begins to play.

I went into a theatre as sober as could be,

They gave a drunk civilian room, but 'adn't none for me;

They sent me to the gallery or round the music-'alls,

But when it comes to fightin', Lord! they'll shove me in the stalls!

For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' " Tommy, wait outside ";

But it's " Special train for Atkins " when the trooper's on the tide

The troopship's on the tide, my boys, the troopship's on the tide,

O it's " Special train for Atkins " when the trooper's on the tide.

Yes, makin' mock o' uniforms that guard you while you sleep

Is cheaper than them uniforms, an' they're starvation cheap.

An' hustlin' drunken soldiers when they're goin' large a bit

Is five times better business than paradin' in full kit.

Then it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an` Tommy, 'ow's yer soul? "

But it's " Thin red line of 'eroes " when the drums begin to roll

The drums begin to roll, my boys, the drums begin to roll,

O it's " Thin red line of 'eroes, " when the drums begin to roll.

We aren't no thin red 'eroes, nor we aren't no blackguards too,

But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you;

An' if sometimes our conduck isn't all your fancy paints,

Why, single men in barricks don't grow into plaster saints;

While it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an` Tommy, fall be'ind,"

But it's " Please to walk in front, sir," when there's trouble in the wind

There's trouble in the wind, my boys, there's trouble in the wind,

O it's " Please to walk in front, sir," when there's trouble in the wind.

You talk o' better food for us, an' schools, an' fires, an' all:

We'll wait for extry rations if you treat us rational.

Don't mess about the cook-room slops, but prove it to our face

The Widow's Uniform is not the soldier-man's disgrace.

For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an` Chuck him out, the brute! "

But it's " Saviour of 'is country " when the guns begin to shoot;

An' it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' anything you please;

An 'Tommy ain't a bloomin' fool - you bet that Tommy sees!

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I suppose the big difference was that to run a ship required an awful lot of detailed technical knowledge. You could just have someone in there who stuck with "Sail to such and such a place!" and left it to his crew to work out how but that was clearly pretty useless even in peacetime. In the Nelson era you were still more likely to be a captain with wealth and influence behind you (and this became more so later), so it was filled with nepotism, but tempered by the fact that an admiral who kept pushing his own useless people was likely to get looked down on and lose out himself. His own standing depended upon having good people for him to put into good positions. Not exactly the best system by modern standards but it seemed to work a lot of the time.

I suspect the Prize system may have offered a small helping hand. There's nothing like a spot of genuine profit share to keep folk perky and focused.

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On military incompetence and also being on a topical note with the Crimea problem being reawakened, I am surprised that only two films have been made of the Charge of the Light Brigade...the patriotic 1936 Errol Flynn romp and the more realistic 1968 John Gielgud version.

It was our very own legendary Shoot Out at the OK Coral moment, but all the more tragic and glorious as a Calvary charge.

160 years on and with renewed interest in the Crimea, may be now is the time to do this episode of incompetence and courage justice on film.

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I suspect the Prize system may have offered a small helping hand. There's nothing like a spot of genuine profit share to keep folk perky and focused.

Being able to profit quite nicely from seizing a ship will always help to focus the mind the men under you. Although not as egalitarian as the pirate system.

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Being able to profit quite nicely from seizing a ship will always help to focus the mind the men under you. Although not as egalitarian as the pirate system.

But still quite generous by the standards of the time.

I suspect one of the reasons why the British establishment has, compared to European counterparts, maintained its impressive continuous run is that it made sure that a wider number of ordinary folk got a small piece of the action.

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Also, there was no purchase of commissions in the engineers or artillery.

Interesting, they also sound like areas where you obviously need technical skill to even pretend to do the job in peacetime. I suppose no-one at any time likes being shipwrecked, exploded, or having a bridge fall down when they're crossing it.

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I've started reading this at the weekend On the Psychology of Military Incompetence by Norman Dixon, I have to say it's an entertaining read. However it does raise an interesting question about how this nation managed to rule 1/4 of the planet and kept it under control for so long. Frankly it's amazing we didn't collapse along with France in 1940 as the high ranking military in the inter war period seemed even more clueless than Baldrick.

Three things. Guns, germs, and steel.

http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guns,_Germs,_and_Steel

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