The Standing Invitation

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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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War No Longer Exists

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“War no longer exists.”

This is a bold statement, but Rupert Smith is certainly one with the authority to make it. He was a general in the British Army, seeing action in the Gulf, Sarajevo and Northern Ireland among other places. With these words he begins his book The Utility of Force; he goes on to say that the last real war in the sense that most people think of it was the Yom Kippur War – fought in 1973.

The problem, he says, is how you define war.

The general pattern of war is this: Peace, Crisis, War, Resolution, Peace. And it has always been clear that the more power you dedicate to fighting the war, the better your chances of success will be. The best chance of winning, therefore, will come from a society that totally dedicates itself to winning, by conscripting an army from the general population and by diverting industry to produce munitions ­– in essence, bringing civilian life to a standstill for the duration of the conflict.

For the generals and governments at in conflict, the rule is this: in order to restore the peaceful way of life you are trying to protect, you need to declare war at the last possible moment, and win it as quickly as possible.

And, in the West, we have been getting increasingly good at both of these things. For hundreds of years we improved our means of dealing with the massed armies of our various enemies, until 1945, when we built and used the atomic bomb. It is now absolutely guaranteed that, if push comes to shove, any massed army anywhere in the world can instantly be defeated. We are invincible.

Or at least we would be, if our enemies just played by the rules.

Because now, among nations of the world too poor to assemble their own nuclear arsenal, people have developed their own way of fighting: they have learned that, against an opponent who can destroy any massed army, the secret is not to mass. They fight on their own ground, on their own terms, at their own pace, and among their own people.

They have also redefined victory. To us, victory is expressed in terms of capture, destroy, kill, incapacitate. Our enemies instead would use words like persuade, wear down, exhaust. They know that the real battle takes place, not in the country being invaded, but in the country doing the invading: they must make the war unpopular at home. They do this by fighting wars of attrition. They allow us to capture cities, then keep up a steady drip of assassinations and bombings that make the headlines here. The conflict always remains below the level at which we would have to mobilise to fight a war, but never gives any respite. They wear us down. They take their time, knowing that the longer it drags out, the harder it will be for us to continue.

War no longer exists. Instead, we have a situation where gigantic armies invade a country in a matter of weeks, win every engagement and declare themselves victorious… and then, after years of ceaseless, sourceless violence, are forced to withdraw in the face of popular pressure from back home. It is a kind of conflict we do not yet know how to fight.



Rupert Smith lays this all out in exhaustive detail in his book The Utility of Force, but I found it extremely heavy-going. His speech given to the University of Bath, however, was exhilarating. Download the mp3 here.

Written by The S I

September 23, 2011 at 11:59 pm