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Norman Dixon "On the psychology of military incompetence"

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  • Norman Dixon "On the psychology of military incompetence"

    A short overview who don't know this book, psychologist and former soldier Norman Dixon argues that many a terrible commander of history was not an idiot, but often had a certain psychological make-up that prevented them from being competent commanders and drove them to do stupid and self-defeating things, he called this the "authoritarian" personality (NOT to be confused with an "autocratic" personality!).
    He also argued that this type of personality is not only drawn to pursuit a career in the military, but often does quite well in it (particularly in peacetime naturally). This because these types are insecure in their "manliness" (and often indeed somewhat indecisive among other things) and therefor take a career path that is perceived as manly, by themselves and others. As Dixon put it, it would be like sufferers of Parkinson deciding to become brain surgeons to prove that their hands don't shake. They are also usually terrified by unknown situations, and take great comfort in the strictly regularized life in the military and particularly the bull heaped upon the soldiers. Of course as commanders, being unable to deal with the unknown leads rarely to victory.

    But my question goes primarily to the ones who have read this book, though I am eager for all your contributions: what do you think of his thesis? I was quite taken by it and believe that his theory is very sound. Which makes me worry that it all may be quite wrong, so I wonder what other people make out of it.
    Reaction to the 2016 Munich shootings:
    Europe: "We are shocked and support you in these harsh times, we stand by you."
    USA: "We will check people from Germany extra-hard and it is your own damn fault for being so stupid."

  • #2
    In the US the past few decades, the authoritarian/autocratic style of command has been denigrated. Hence, Dixon's book resonated well with the shift in conventional wisdom. The preferred style of command was the participatory approach seeking more exchange between a commander and his staff and subordinate commanders. A third style of command which is risky is a laissez faire, free reign which was prevalent in the early minute-man and volunteer regiments up to the Civil War, and seen in the early Red Army's units with Soviet councils judging commander performance.

    The reality is a good commander will use all three styles depending on the situation. In some situations, the commander does not have the time for the give and take of a participatory process and there are situations to get the full buy in from your soldiers, you may ask for support from every soldier by their vote.

    Dixon's book is an enjoyable read.
    Leadership is the ability to rise above conventional wisdom.

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    • #3
      Armstrong, does the third, laissez faire appraoch compare to the German "Auftragstaktik" as seen by the Wehrmacht, were subordinates are strictly left to their own ingenuity to solve the task given to them?

      Also if I understood Dixon correctly, he said that an autocratic leader isn't a bad leader, indeed that many good leaders were utter autocrats. The difference between an autocrat and an authoritarian being that the autocrat will let you drill tactics, weapons proficiency and basic endurance until you will puke your guts out and then some, while the authoritarian will let you drill in parades and have you polish your uniforms and equipment until the shine, with any battlefield training strictly performed so that it will impress superiors.
      Reaction to the 2016 Munich shootings:
      Europe: "We are shocked and support you in these harsh times, we stand by you."
      USA: "We will check people from Germany extra-hard and it is your own damn fault for being so stupid."

      Comment


      • #4
        Originally posted by Acheron View Post
        Armstrong, does the third, laissez faire appraoch compare to the German "Auftragstaktik" as seen by the Wehrmacht, were subordinates are strictly left to their own ingenuity to solve the task given to them?

        Also if I understood Dixon correctly, he said that an autocratic leader isn't a bad leader, indeed that many good leaders were utter autocrats. The difference between an autocrat and an authoritarian being that the autocrat will let you drill tactics, weapons proficiency and basic endurance until you will puke your guts out and then some, while the authoritarian will let you drill in parades and have you polish your uniforms and equipment until the shine, with any battlefield training strictly performed so that it will impress superiors.
        Laissez faire is letting the workers decide, not middle management. Theoretically the risk is they may vote no pay for the bosses.
        Leadership is the ability to rise above conventional wisdom.

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        • #5
          I have read the book. I would agree that Dixon correctly describes one historical source of British military incompetence. I do not believe this is currently the most important source of military incompetence in the British armed forces or any other armed forces I am familiar with.

          Sensemaker
          It doesn't matter how much intelligence you have. What matters is how much intelligence you use.

          If it is stupid, but works, it aint stupid.

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          • #6
            Well, Dixon dealt with cases of incompetence that were beyond mere lack of skill or intelligence, most of his cases were about generals letting their armies march into obvious doom, because their psychological make-up wouldn't let them do otherwise. And according to his theory, the military life attracts people susceptible to such maladies.

            But tell me, what do you consider the current source of incompetence? I assumed our (western) militaries to be quite competent.
            Reaction to the 2016 Munich shootings:
            Europe: "We are shocked and support you in these harsh times, we stand by you."
            USA: "We will check people from Germany extra-hard and it is your own damn fault for being so stupid."

            Comment


            • #7
              Originally posted by Acheron View Post
              And according to his theory, the military life attracts people susceptible to such maladies.
              A psychology professor of mine in an introductory psychology course told us that it is not uncommon for people who have psychological problem and are aware of it to enter the field of psychology in the hopes of using what they learn to help them sort out their own problems.

              Certainly I believe that certain personality types are drawn to specific career paths, therefore, I can see how the premise here may be valid. I can also see how the peace time military would not weed such people out well, as the peace time military is all about "ticket punching". For that matter, so is the war time one. It is not about promoting the best battlefield commanders, it is about promoting those who punch the proper tickets on the prescribed career path. Much of which today is made up by PC derived at boxes to check.

              The blame for this does not necessarily fall on the military command structure though. A lot of this is driven by the civilian controlling agencies.

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              • #8
                Met me clarify a bit:
                Oversimplified, Nixon claims that the military attracts people with certain problems. For example, people who have trouble with their own urges and feel they must repress these. According to him, as they control themselves, they strive for a similarly controlled environment, the military. Nixon at least alludes that the military life is (at least in theory) heavily regulated, with even quite some mundane everyday things having rules setup and written down. While I never ever even came close to serving in the military, I don't have the feeling that many who served will contradict this

                So these over-controlled people enter military institutions with a habit of being over-controlling themselves. Nixon further argues that these guys tend to do well in a peace-time military, they make no waves, stick to the regulations and generally behave themselves. Of course, rising to any position of authority, they tend to exacerbate the problem of an over-regulated military, at the very least they will not alleviate it.

                Then comes war. Any war is a pretty potent incarnations of chaos, which is why these people do horribly in it, sticking to rules, regulations, habits, traditions, doctrine and dogma. If the theories in peacetime about the coming war were wrong (and they rarely are), if war plans do not work out as planned (you know what they say about plans and enemy contact) these people usually simply cannot adapt, instead covering up failings with rhetoric or scape-goating, anything that will let them keep up living the lifes they lived so far and ding the things they have always done.

                This is an oversimplified version of but one Dixon's ideas about military incompetence. Other ideas include things like_
                - entering the military due to insecurity of ones manliness and seeking to reassure himself and others of it by entering a manly institution, which of course means that the person in question will choose a bold, "manly" course of action. even if it counter-productive and outright foolish
                - entering the military for the authority inherent in the position of an officer in order to outlive their fantasies of absolute power (again, I am sure everyone who served can tell stories about such officers)
                - being so overly focused on the expected laurels which success would bring that one dismisses any indication for possible failure of one's plan, because nothing may threaten the fantasies of being the invincible and beloved general
                Reaction to the 2016 Munich shootings:
                Europe: "We are shocked and support you in these harsh times, we stand by you."
                USA: "We will check people from Germany extra-hard and it is your own damn fault for being so stupid."

                Comment


                • #9
                  Sounds like an interesting book.
                  "The blade itself incites to deeds of violence".

                  Homer


                  BoRG

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                  • #10
                    Originally posted by Captain General View Post
                    Sounds like an interesting book.
                    It is.

                    I think that a main theme was that service in the military merely amplifies and throws into dramatic focus the attitudes , idiosyncracies and tendencies that are encountered in normal life anyway.
                    "I dogmatise and am contradicted, and in this conflict of opinions and sentiments I find delight".
                    Samuel Johnson.

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                    • #11
                      I think one key difference is that war puts a small number of people into a position where they're failures can create truly monument debacles. How many civilians have the lawful authority to order another to his death?

                      Consider the reverse, a controlling and inflexible individual in the business environment. Unless his idiosyncrasies mesh well with the needs of his business, micromanagement and other non-functional traits should tend to limit success which in turn limits company growth which then limits the damage when he and or the company go down the drain. So the most likely result is that the micro-manager is self limiting and if he does fail, you will never hear of it.

                      So I'm not sure the author is correct in that the military is preferentially attracting these over-controlling personality types. It may only be that the results, when they are wrong, are far more spectacular.
                      Any metaphor will tear if stretched over too much reality.

                      Questions about our site? See the FAQ.

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                      • #12
                        I found the book very interesting and compelling. I want to be open for Dixon being wrong so I asked about the book here.

                        Originally posted by GCoyote View Post
                        I think one key difference is that war puts a small number of people into a position where they're failures can create truly monument debacles. How many civilians have the lawful authority to order another to his death?

                        Consider the reverse, a controlling and inflexible individual in the business environment. Unless his idiosyncrasies mesh well with the needs of his business, micromanagement and other non-functional traits should tend to limit success which in turn limits company growth which then limits the damage when he and or the company go down the drain. So the most likely result is that the micro-manager is self limiting and if he does fail, you will never hear of it.

                        So I'm not sure the author is correct in that the military is preferentially attracting these over-controlling personality types. It may only be that the results, when they are wrong, are far more spectacular.
                        Funny, Dixon says something similar in his book, that such failures are much more damning in the military, and that such grievous errors in civilian life result in loss of profits and entire business going down, but hardly in outright fatalities.

                        BTW, as far as I understood Dixon, he wasn't saying that the military was in any way actively attracting the control-freaks, but more that the control-freaks were attracted by the military, by the enforced conformity and established rules fgor everyday life for example.
                        Reaction to the 2016 Munich shootings:
                        Europe: "We are shocked and support you in these harsh times, we stand by you."
                        USA: "We will check people from Germany extra-hard and it is your own damn fault for being so stupid."

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          Originally posted by GCoyote View Post
                          So I'm not sure the author is correct in that the military is preferentially attracting these over-controlling personality types. It may only be that the results, when they are wrong, are far more spectacular.
                          I believe it has been so historically in the British army. Spit and polish have been highly emphasized. The navy was a prime example of this prior to Lord Fisher taking over about a decade before WWI. I understand it is less so now.

                          Sensemaker
                          It doesn't matter how much intelligence you have. What matters is how much intelligence you use.

                          If it is stupid, but works, it aint stupid.

                          Comment

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