Review: On the Psychology of Military Incompetence (Dixon)


On the Psychology of Military Incompetence.

What were they thinking?!

If you’ve ever wondered that while studying the Great War, you’re in good company, although it’s Norman Dixon’s contention that most of us who have done so, have come to the wrong conclusion. As a former British Army officer and an experimental psychologist, he is under no illusions about the war’s horrific cost in lives and resources, nor is he bashful about laying the blame where it belongs. But he believes there’s another way to explain and understand the characteristics and character of the men whose behavior brought about such devastation and disastrous consequences.

Like “better living through chemistry,” Dixon advocates better comprehension of history through psychology: that by examining several of the worst examples of inept generalship in a longitudinal fashion, we begin to see patterns of thought and action that can be elucidated by an appeal to psychological and psychoanalytical principles that were current when the book first went to press. (The pictured edition, which I own and upon which I base these comments, dates to 1976, and it went through five printings before being revised in the 1990s.)

Following an insightful foreword, a scintillating introduction, and a unique lesson on the nature of generalship, the First World War as a whole and two of its episodes (Cambrai and Kut) are presented in three out of the ten dismal chapters in military history (dating from Crimea to Arnhem) that make up Part One. The author treats these tragedies with the respect they deserve, while his conversational tone keeps this section of the book from becoming an abject litany of woe.

Part Two is where Doc Dixon assesses, diagnoses, and analyzes his “patients.” A diagnosis of military incompetence derives from the manifestation of these signs and symptoms (summarized in brief):

Serious wastage of human resources.
Fundamental conservatism and clinging to outworn tradition.
A tendency to reject or ignore information.
A tendency to underestimate the enemy.
Obstinate persistence in a given task.
Failure to exploit a situation.
Failure to make adequate reconnaissance.
A predilection for frontal assaults.
Belief in brute force.
Failure to make use of surprise.
Undue readiness to find scapegoats.
Suppression or distortion of news.
Belief in mystical forces.

My professional education and training in psychology is about 15 years more recent than the date of this edition, and even since my time in practice, the discipline of psychology has gone through another revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. That makes some of Dixon’s psychoanalysis a bit dated, although even at the time of writing, he readily acknowledged the existence of contrary professional opinions. But I think his assessments are sound, and that, in general (pun not intended!), he hasn’t misdiagnosed any incompetents.

Writers who are tackling historical fiction set during any of the fiascoes covered in this book will find plenty to ponder about how to portray historical characters, and Dixon’s elaboration of his fourteen points of diagnosis will be valuable for all novelists, in whatever genre, who want to develop psychologically appropriate characterizations, particularly of dysfunctional fictional leaders.

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Filed under Book Reviews, First World War, Great War, psychology, World War I

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