#Reviewing On the Psychology of Military Incompetence

On the Psychology of Military Incompetence. Norman F. Dixon. Philadelphia, PA: Basic Books, 1976.

Imagine you are a British soldier stationed in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. The year is 1842, and Britain’s First Afghan War, not America’s, rages. Looking out from your guard post, you notice a haggard horse and rider approaching. The rider is Dr. William Brydon, a surgeon from Major General Sir William Elphinstone’s army, and time shows that he is the only European (and one of only a handful of people) to survive the retreat from Kabul to Jalalabad. Of course, you could be forgiven for wondering how a British Army, the physical manifestation of the British Empire’s power, could be completely destroyed. Your leadership has always told you that you are a part of the finest fighting force in the history of the world, and you never had any reason to doubt their assertion, until now.

Then-Lieutenant Henry Montgomery Lawrence, who had served in Sir Elphinstone’s army, sums it up best, “Our Caubul [sic] army perished, sacrificed to the incompetence, feebleness, and want of skill and resolution of their military leaders.”[1] Who was Sir Elphinstone, the general who led his men to their deaths? A veteran of the Battle of Waterloo, he may have been “of good repute, gentlemanly manners and aristocratic connexions,” but he was gout-stricken and “the most incompetent soldier that was to be found among the officers of the requisite rank.”[2] How was such a man selected to lead an army? Why did he live up to his terrible reputation once he was placed at its head?

These questions, and many like it, are the focus of Norman Dixon’s On the Psychology of Military Incompetence. Dixon, a former officer in Britain’s Royal Engineers and an experimental psychologist, approaches these questions through “the uneasy compromise of attempting to precis well-known accounts of military disasters in the pious hope that certain common denominators of these events would become apparent and, no less important, that the discerning reader would acquire a sort of feel for the psychological processes involved.”[3] Dixon succeeds; his tour of British military disasters from the Crimea to the Second World War exposes some general psychological phenomena, and he continues on to explain the phenomena before generalizing a theory of military incompetence.[4]

Britannia colors the whole book: from Dixon’s choice of disasters to a full chapter on the relationship between public schools and military incompetence.[5] Although some readers may be confused by these cultural references, they should not be deterred. Dixon speaks with the relaxation of a veteran commander and the precision of an accomplished scholar, and his examples and lessons have much to teach any student of leadership. Dixon’s description of the British defenses, or the lack thereof, in Singapore during the Second World War showcases the lengths some will go to deflect criticism without actually addressing the problem which spawned the criticism in the first place. The source of this incompetent reaction and others like it? “Passivity and courtesy, rigidity and obstinacy, procrastination, gentleness, and dogmatism.”[6]

These personality traits remain undesirable in a military commander, and much of the book is applicable today. Captains still command companies and generals, armies. A 12-page chapter, simply titled “Bullshit,” may not interest those uniformed personnel who obsess over standards and discipline, but it should be required reading nonetheless. Exemplary quotes from the six pages on “Anti-Effeminacy” could have come from the comments section of a 2010 article about repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell or a modern article about women in the infantry. For those who may be turned off by overwhelming negativity, rest assured that Dixon offers more than cautionary tales.

He draws on research to suggest that professional motivation correlates nicely with superior task memory...

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.

What types of traits then, should commanders possess? According to Dixon, a commander should be intelligent and intrepid, sure and searching, pliable and a public servant. However, senior leaders should be careful to not weight these traits beyond their relative value for identifying competent commanders. For example, it may be worthwhile to consider a potential commander’s volunteer efforts, but only if those efforts are a genuine reflection of professional mindedness and not a—justifiable and understandable—reaction to institutional demands.

...a commander should be intelligent and intrepid, sure and searching, pliable and a public servant.

Dixon’s psychology may be dated and his references may be foreign, yet he has much to offer anyone who selects leaders. Budgetary pressure means that each promotion and command selection board must choose fewer and fewer officers. The world’s persistent chaos means that each choice has higher and higher stakes. Dixon himself admits that “it is most difficult to find a suitable prescription for military commanders,” but despite the difficulty, someone must attempt to find one.[7] Fortunately for them, On the Psychology of Military Incompetence is a great place to start.

Robert Callahan is a U.S. Army officer. An Associate Member of the Military Writers Guild, he graduated from Cornell University. The views expressed are the author's and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S Government.

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Header Image: "Remnants of an Army" by Elizabeth Thompson, Lady Butler, portraying William Brydon arriving at the gates of Jalalabad as the only survivor of a 16,500 strong evacuation from Kabul in January 1842. (Wikimedia)


[1] Norman Dixon, On the Psychology of Military Incompetence (New York: Basic Books, 1976), 79.

[2] Ibid., 73.

[3] Ibid., 26.

[4] There seems to be no reason for Dixon’s choice of British disasters other than his attempt to write what he knows.

[5] In the United Kingdom, a public school is similar to a private or boarding school in the United States.

[6] Dixon, Psychology, 144.

[7] Ibid., 403.