The Standing Invitation

Archive for October 17th, 2011

An Anatomy of Incompetence

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The Oxford Companion to the Mind – always worth dipping into on a rainy day – contains a thought-provoking entry on something I had never thought of as a mental illness: military incompetence.

There are scores of battles that have gone horribly wrong throughout history – and even some where the battle itself was a mere detail in the horror, as in the ‘imbecilic’ Walcheren campaign of 1809. Here, inadequate medical supplies meant a 39,000-strong army was forced to withdraw just five months after arriving because 4,000 had died from easily preventable disease; the death toll from actual combat was 106. The article lists a number of other hideous mistakes from the Crimean to Vietnam, and asks what caused them. What caused the generals leading these campaigns to act in a way that resulted in such spectacular wastes of human life?

It’s easy to say incompetence. But what exactly does that mean? Certainly not stupidity – that would predict failures coming from all directions, at random, with no pattern linking them. According to studies of some of history’s most pointless massacres, there are common themes running through them.

The inability to use new technology or recognise old technology as obsolete. The tendency to prefer big battles and full-frontal attacks. The habit of ignoring bad news. The belief in following instinct rather than reconnaissance. All these things crop up over and over again.

When a number of symptoms appear together, they might be identified as a syndrome. And this leads us to wonder whether or not there might be some underlying cause.

An army is not like society. Society has evolved over thousand years basically to prevent violence from being the normal state of things. In order make a solder capable of using the violent forces that every other aspect of society does its best to suppress, the military has created a system of punishments and rewards that might have unexpected effects on the people it trains. The rigid discipline that benefits a soldier in the field might be a handicap to a general who needs to adapt his tactics.

The unnerving question is whether there is something about the kind of mind that rises through the ranks in the military that reproducibly leads them to make the same kind of mistakes over and over.

In his book on the art of war, General Rupert Smith urges us to be flexible. Of all the equipment he has used, nothing except the most basic – the hand grenade, the rifle – have been used exactly as they were intended. Indeed, he argues, the whole nature of armed conflict is changing, to the extent that ‘war’ as most people understand it has ceased to exist altogether. If the military lifestyle generates people who are unable to adapt to these developments, disasters resulting in appalling loss of live will never be eradicated.

It’s all depressingly reminiscent of the Peter principle: people who are promoted for demonstrating competence tend to accumulate at the level at which they are incompetent.


The Oxford Companion the the Mind (1987)

Rupert Smith – The Utility of Force


Written by The S I

October 17, 2011 at 11:59 pm

Posted in Politics

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