On the Psychology of Military Incompetence cover image
Military Life

Books On The Beach – The Best Summer Military Reads

Get a taster of three top military-themed books recommended to Forces Network by the London Evening Standard’s Defence Editor Robert Fox.

On the Psychology of Military Incompetence cover image

We are losing. Everywhere.

That is the basic message of Sean McFate’s book ‘Goliath: Why the West Doesn’t Win Wars, And What We Need to Do About It’. (Also called ‘The New Rules of War: Victory in the Age of Durable Disorder’).

According to the London Evening Standard’s Robert Fox, it’s …

“ … wonderful, quite wild … (and) a terrific read.”

Max Hastings is likewise impressed. “McFate’s book is wilfully sensationalist”, he writes in the Times, “but much of what he says convinces”.

Wars of the future, just like those of the present, will not, and are not, conventional. 

So, given that they’re characterised instead by fighting that “will hibernate, smoulder and occasionally explode… (he’s astonished) that the world takes scant heed of the carnage in Mexico, where weak governments battle ceaselessly against drug barons, amid mountains of corpses”, Hastings writes.

The short answer is that the broader strategy hasn’t been correct since the end of World War 2 and that expensive defence projects like the F-35 make little sense when counter-insurgency, information warfare and cultural and language acquisition are what’s needed.

Hastings says:

“It is grotesque, he says, that the West has lost information superiority to Russia and China, when the most brilliant creative communications talents on Earth reside in Hollywood and London: ‘The West’s squeamishness about using strategic subversion only helps its enemies’. Military operations are hampered by chronically poor intelligence, a critical contributor to US defeat in Vietnam and now Afghanistan. We are not good at understanding our enemies.”

Also, and perhaps most damningly, Hastings also notes that:

“Some of what he says makes more sense than much of what comes out of the Pentagon and the Ministry of Defence, although the British senior officers whom I know best regard much of McFate’s thesis as a given.

“Their problem is that they are prisoners of populist politics and past rash commitments. Whenever I see photographs of Britain’s two giant aircraft-carriers, I tremble for our national sanity as well as security”.

Goliath by Sean McFate cover image

Stanley McChrystal, former commander of ISAF and US forces in Afghanistan, is similarly impressed. Informed by his own knowledge of recent US military history, he writes in the foreword to the book:

“We were trapped in a cage of our own making; we believed ourselves to be tactically flexible, so much so that we stopped questioning whether our actions, or the nation’s broader strategy were correct …

“ … our culture does not force leaders to reckon with the intersection of strategy and adaptability. This is, in part, due to our incredible privilege… While America has absolutely faced terror and trauma, we remain a global superpower. We have, for too long, expected the world to play by our rules. In so doing, we failed to ask ourselves what would happen if those rules were incompatible with reality.

“Paradoxically, America seems to remain fearful of strategic adaptability in any setting. We are wedded to the notion that we shouldn’t change a policy until it has failed, unwilling to ask ourselves how we can do better.”

And to do so, he suggests that:

“…we must combine outside-the-box and ordered thinking.” 

And:

“Leaders must seek to prevent crises, not simply wait for them to happen.”

Finally, McChrystal, says:

“…(we must) identify our cultural problem… as Sean McFate expertly does in this book. As he so aptly reports, military leaders must combine a level of elasticity and big-picture thinking when confronted with new styles of conflict. Accordingly, we must come to terms with the fact that following yesterday’s rules of war will not lead to today’s (or tomorrow’s) success—that awareness alone can save lives. We must begin to grapple with the consequences of the new rules of war; if not, we will all be left behind”.

Clearly, Sean McFate is someone anyone in the military should have at the top of their reading list.

Also on the list, according to Robert Fox, should be ‘Our Boys: The Story of a Paratrooper’.

In contrast to McFate’s Goliath, ‘Our Boys’ shrinks warfare down from the strategic point of view to that of individual soldiers – in this case, British paratroopers in the Falklands War.

Author Helen Parr writes of the book:

“I needed to see what it had been like for them. I did not want to glorify or to damn them. I had to appreciate their courage and their spirit; but I could not ignore parts of their histories that were distressing or disquieting.”

Her need to know is seemingly fuelled by the death of her own uncle, one of the soldiers killed in the conflict. And the result, according to Robert Fox, is a spectacular piece of literature: 

“It’s a brilliant account of soldiers preparing for battle… being apprehensive about it, and their whole culture.”

He also says:

“What Helen has done (is) she’s got into the whole story in a way that no journalist I know, and no professional soldier who’s written about the Falklands has done.”

From just the first part of the introduction, Parr’s book is definitely emotionally engaging: 

“In the Suffolk town of Oulton Broad, Joy Parr, my grandmother, heard news of the Argentine surrender on BBC radio. She wrote a letter to her son Dave, a nineteen-year-old Private in the 2nd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment. She told him how proud she was of him and the part he had played in what the British had done. She said how pleased she would be to see him again soon.

“Three days later… a military car drew up at the petrol station where Joy worked as a secretary. Inside the car was a man in uniform. He cannot have relished the task he had to fulfil. He parked, crossed the forecourt and arrived at the door. Did she see him approach? He must have knocked, and although she cannot have wanted to, she must have let him in. The man told Joy that her son had been killed serving in the Falklands. He said he was very sorry.

“The man instructed Joy’s work colleague Caroline to ring her eldest son, my father, Harmer. Harmer was teaching French to the fifth form at Hadleigh High School when the school secretary opened the classroom door and told him to take a call in the office. He returned with her and picked up the handset. Caroline said, ‘You’re to come home to be with your mother’. Caroline had been advised not to tell him that his brother was dead, but he said, ‘It’s Dave, isn’t it, he’s been killed’, and she had to confirm what he suspected. The head teacher appeared and said he must leave straight away. Harmer dialled our home number, standing there in the school office, concerned staff all around him.

“I was seven years old in June 1982 and absent from school because I was ill. I was asleep in bed and I remember the sound of the phone ringing. It woke me. I heard my mother running up the stairs and when she came into my room she was crying. She said, ‘Uncle Dave is dead’.”

Our Boys by Helen Parr cover image

Though it was tragic for the families of those who lost loved ones, families like Parr’s, the Falklands of course was at least an overall triumph for the British.

That’s a contrast to the various defeats suffered by Britain featured in Fox’s last recommendation – the 1976 classic ‘On the Psychology of Military Incompetence’, by Norman F Dixon.

Writing about the book for the Forces Network, the Folio Society’s James Rose has said:

“When Norman Dixon came to write On the Psychology of Military Incompetence he did so from an almost unique position. After all, there can be few officers with a record of serving in the Royal Engineers (with nine years in bomb disposal), who have gone on to enter academia and become Professor Emeritus of Psychology at University College London. 

“And it is this understanding, both of the mind and the military, that makes this book so special.

“From the disasters of the Crimean War to costly mistakes in Vietnam, Dixon examines the social psychology of the military as a whole, and reveals an alarming pattern of blunder.”

On the Psychology of Military Incompetence cover image

According to Wikipedia, Dixon also examines mistakes made in the defence of Singapore and attempted seizure of Arnhem, both in World War 2, and in Mesopotamia and the Western Front in World War 1. Overall:

" … he discerns a vicious circle: it is people of a certain type who are recruited and promoted, so others either do not apply or languish in insignificant positions. Among characteristics of the British officer class in the period under examination are: a narrow social segment admitted, scorn of intellectual and artistic endeavour, subservience to tradition, and emphasis on virility.

“This leads, in his view, to the prevalence of an authoritarian type, fawning to superiors and often harsh or uncaring to inferiors. Such a man, by this analysis, is afraid of women (so only half human) and afraid of failure. He therefore ignores people and facts which do not conform to his world view, learns little from experience and clings to external rules, applying them even when the situation demands other approaches (for example Haig sacrificing hundreds of thousands of men he ordered to walk through mud into German machine gun fire).”

In contrast, Dixon highlights examples of those who embody great military prowess instead, men such as Napoleon, Wellington, Nelson and, Fox points out, T E Lawrence.

To get some great summer reading done, pick up ‘Goliath: Why the West Doesn’t Win Wars. And What We Need to Do About it’ by Sean McFate, ‘Our Boys: The Story of a Paratrooper’ by Helen Parr and ‘On the Psychology of Military Incompetence’ by Norman F Dixon.

These recommendations come from The London Evening Standard's Defence Editor Robert Fox, who spoke with Kate Gerbeau on the BFBS award-winning defence and foreign policy analysis and discussion programme Sitrep.

In the latest edition of Sitrep, we discuss:

The UN hears pleas to intervene in Syria, but why the is the west is seemingly so reluctant to intervene?

As Britain’s stand-off with Iran continues, is there a diplomatic way to end it? 

One week into Boris Johnson’s premiership, what have we learned about his commitment to the forces? And are the repeated comparisons to Winston Churchill really justified?

Plus, as an American teenager wins $3-million playing the video game Fortnite, how the military views gamers as a potential source of new recruits

To hear the conversation about the top reading picks, click on the video below, and click here to listen to the latest episode of  Sitrep.