Article by James Rose, The Folio Society
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.
Examples include the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade, the disastrous attempt to capture Spion Kop and the First World War’s ruinous reliance on outdated methods and technology, all the while highlighting the egos and idiosyncrasies of the men who gave the orders.
‘Francis Grose’s Advice to Officers, published in 1762, included this precept: “When at any time there is a blundering or confusion in a manoeuvre, ride in amongst the soldiers and lay about you from right to left. This will convince people that it was not your fault!”’
But Dixon is careful to assert that he is not attacking the military profession as a whole, merely that ‘he accepts the indisputable fact that generals, like politicians or industrialists, sometimes make grave errors of judgment, and seeks to diagnose the particular cause’.
In fact, he examines those traits that can result in exemplary leaders: the Wellingtons, Nelsons and Napoleons of history:
'In mitigation of military shortcomings it has been customary to blame the politicians, this on the grounds that soldiers, sailors and airmen, however senior they may be, are ultimately subservient to civil government. In theory, prime ministers and war ministers see to it that the armed forces are not run by incompetents, for, as Clemenceau put it: “War is far too serious a business to be left to the generals.”
Detail from the binding of The Folio Society edition of On the Psychology of Military Incompetence
This comparison with politicians and industrialists is even echoed by the book's introducer, General Sir Rupert Smith, who, with 40 years' service in the Army and a distinguished civilian career, describes how the book and it’s advice were crucial in developing his own ideas about the 'practice of the profession of arms' and continues to be so.
"I am reminded in the book that the problem of friendly fire is nothing new. One chapter mentions the regrettable, and little known, episode at Fort Rooyah during the Indian Mutiny in 1858, in which General Walpole, having advanced to the fort and failed entirely to reconnoiter any point of the enemy’s defences, launched his assault upon the strongest wall. When his men, inevitably, became pinned down, he brought his heavy guns about and ordered a bombardment from the other side. Unfortunately, and very naturally, balls from his own guns then fell amongst his own men leading to severe casualties. Soon after came the order to retire."
Norman Dixon's understanding of the military decision-making, violent conflict and all its repercussions is perhaps best summed up in the paragraph: "At a conscious level society admires bravery, enjoys pomp, is grateful for protection and proud of conquest, while at the same time disliking the authoritarianism, potential threat and enormous cost of military organisations."
"At an unconscious level many people undoubtedly project on to military organisations their own internalised conflicts over aggression, for it is at once fascinating and abhorrent to see others indulging in (and getting away with) behaviour tabooed within oneself...
To this one must add that since civilian populations pay a stiff price for their military organisations, they will quite naturally expect value for their money and be critical of incompetence."
A Folio Society edition, three-quarter-bound in cloth with a printed Modigliani paper front board, of Norman F. Dixon's On The Psychology Of Military Incompetence introduced by General Sir Rupert Smith is now available to buy here.