Norman F. Dixon’s On the Psychology of Military Incompetence

On the Psychology of Military Incompetence is one of my favorite non-fiction books. Published in 1976, it draws on psychology research to try and explain various great military disasters, mostly British. Parallels with Vietnam are barely touched on, but would have jumped out at the book's original readership as clearly as parallels with Iraq do at today's reader... Irving Janis's eight symptoms of groupthink, first formulated in the 1970s, are all too vividly reminiscent of the the era of George W. Bush.

While the title suggests that the book's topic is very specific, it's actually rich in general life lessons. Dixon ascribes historic military failures to the existence of certain personality qualities that, while conducive to rising within a hierarchy, aren't conducive to thinking clearly in a crisis. He comments, “It is indeed ironic that one of the most conservative of professions should be called upon to engage in activities that require the very obverse of conservative mental traits.”

Which is of course the same fascination that informs much of Rudyard Kipling's work.

Dixon attributes historic instances of military incompetence to such traits as “the ignoring of intelligence reports which did not fit in with preconceived ideas,” “a delusional underestimation of the enemy (a 'magical' attempt to minimize the external threat),” the fear of failure, “an implacable resistance to the 'uncertainties' of innovation,” and other authoritarian personality traits. Before entering the field of experimental psychology, Dixon spent nine years in bomb disposal as an officer in the Royal Engineers. He adds in an afterword, “Lest the reader should have doubted my qualifications to write this book, let me reassure him that I have marked authoritarian traits, a weak ego, fear of failure motivation, and no illusions about the fact that I would have made a grossly incompetent general.” In most of these respects I myself resemble Dixon -- I have to say I wish I'd learned more from reading this book the first time I read it...

Broadstuff blogged recently about this book, rather glibly suggesting its relevance to ongoing changes in the world of media. I'll close this post with an insight from Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger that has a Dixonian quality to it --

“There is a broad division between those who laugh at the perception of incongruities in the world and within themselves, and those in whom laughter is released as a celebration of their own successes, a perception, not of incongruity but of total, triumphant correspondence.”

Dixon teaches us that the former type make more successful generals.

1 thought on “Norman F. Dixon’s <em>On the Psychology of Military Incompetence</em>”

  1. The other Olga

    Hah. Okay. This sounds like a must-read (I'm so good at hierarchical thinking, I'd make a great general), but only after Nineteen Eighty-Four, which I already bought and started reading, although haven't cracked the 10-page buy-in barrier yet.

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