Here and there – On the Psychology of Military Incompetence – Norman Dixon (1976)

 

This book reminds me of Clausewitz On War.  Although both are focussed on war, they are replete with valuable lessons for us all.  For example, Clausewitz said: ‘War is the province of uncertainty: three fourths of those things upon which action in war must be calculated are hidden more or less in the clouds of great uncertainty.’  That precisely applies to litigation, a form of trial by battle.

The author was supremely equipped to write this book.  After ten years’ commission in the Royal Engineers, he devoted his life to Psychology at University College, London.  You can see traces of both fields of service on every page.  Professor Dixon says that the military tends to produce ‘a levelling down of human capability, at once encouraging to the mediocre but cramping to the gifted.’  That is very common in nay large outfit, government or private.

The following also has general application.

It seems that having gradually (and perhaps painfully) accumulated information in support of a decision, people became progressively more loath to accept contrary evidence….  ‘New’ information has, by definition, high informational content, and therefore firstly it will require greater processing capacity; secondly, it threatens to return to an earlier state of gnawing uncertainty; and, thirdly, it confronts the decision maker with the nasty thought that he may have been wrong.  No wonder he tends to turn a blind eye!  ….‘the information-content’ may be just ‘too high for a channel of limited capacity.’

The ignorance of the condition of and the lack of care for the ordinary soldier defies belief in the Crimean and the Boer War.  In the first, many died because they were cold and wet, and they could get no fire; in the second, 16,000 of the 22,000 British dead died of disease.  Those responsible would now be tried for manslaughter.

The same cruel officers said the other side, at least those who were white, should be accorded respect.  ‘The notion that certain acts were ‘not cricket’ was carried to such absurd lengths that the trooper was given no training in the ‘cowardly’ art of building defensive positions or head cover.’  When the heavy machine gun was developed, ‘they were written off as suitable only for the destruction of savages and hardly suitable for use against white men….the colour of the Boer soldiers elevated them from the levels of savages, thereby saving their white skins from, exposure to machine guns, but on the other hand they were regarded, in terms of their believed military expertise, as no better than savages.’  No real uniform or spit and polish, old boy.  It is little wonder they had similar feelings about the ANZACS.  They certainly felt that way about the Americans in 1776 – until they learned better.

Professor Dixon is rightly savage about those who abandoned their men to agonising death.

In considering these data, one is forced the conclusion that the behaviour of these generals had something in common with that of Eichmann and his henchman who, as we know, were able to carry out their job without apparently experiencing guilt or compassion…..  ‘No privilege without responsibility’….Men’s fates were decided for them not so much by ‘idiots’ as by commanders with marked psychopathic traits.

We meet this theme throughout the book – the failures of command were moral rather than intellectual; the flaw was of character rather than the mind.  But we will also come across a failure of the mind in people unable to bear doubt or ambiguity – the ‘black and white crowd.’

The Germans blitzkrieg met a Polish army and a French army that believed horsed cavalry could destroy German Panzers.  That burial in the past defies belief.

The predisposition to pontificate is a dangerous liability.  Unfortunately, such a predisposition will be strongest in those like headmasters, judges, prison governors and senior military commanders who for two long have been in a position to lord it  over their fellow me…the important thing about pontification is that though an intellectual is that though an intellectual exercise, its origins are emotional.

On cognitive dissonance, Professor Dixon says: ‘Once the decision has been made and the person is committed to a given course of action, the psychological situation changes completely.  There is less emphasis on objectivity and there is more partiality and bias in the way in which the person views and evaluates the alternatives.’

But, perhaps there may have been an upside from the predominance of the upper class in British high command.  ‘It did little for military competence, but was eminently successful in other ways.  Few countries can boast of such an absence of military coups as Britain.’

On ‘bull’ – spit and polish and endless repetition –    ‘bull is closely linked to conservatism, for its very nature is to prevent change, to impose a pattern upon material and upon behaviour, and to preserve the status quo whether it is that of shining brass or social structure….it seems to be a natural product of authoritarian, hierarchical organisations….Perhaps the single most important feature of ‘bull’ is its capacity to allay anxiety….by the reduction of uncertainty.’

On ‘character and honour’ –

A code of honour may be likened to an endlessly prolonged initiation rite…As a general rule, snobbish behaviour betokens some underlying feeling of inferiority.  It is a common characteristic of the social climber, of the individual with low self-esteem, of the person who feels threatened or persecuted because of some real or imagined inadequacy.  That there is an underlying pathology to the condition seems fairly obvious for two reasons.  Firstly, those who are emotionally secure are rarely snobbish.  Secondly, the behaviour is itself irrational, compulsive and self-defeating.  After all, even the most hardened snob must know that other people are adept at seeing through his affectations.  There is nothing, for example, quite so transparent as name-dropping or displaying invitations.  He must know at some level that his behaviour provokes at best amusement, at worst ridicule, contempt, or even dislike, but he is nonetheless powerless to curb his snobbishness.  Something drives him on.

Anyone who has been a member of a close professional body – like, say, the Victorian Bar – would relish – no, wallow in – every word of that denunciation of the two bob snob.

On seeking achievement – ambition:

The crucial difference between the two sorts of achievement – the healthy and the pathological – may be summarised by saying that whereas the first is buoyed up by the hopes of success, the second is driven by fear of failure. Both types of achievement motivation have their origins in early childhood…..senior commanders fall into two groups, those primarily concerned with improving their professional ability and those primarily concerned with self-betterment.

The comments on the authoritarian personality warrant a note and a book of their own.  The following may convey the gist.

A symbiotic relationship exists between characteristics of the armed services and the private needs of their members.  Research after World War II into the Third Reich showed two personality types.  One was anti-Semitic, rigid, intolerant of ambiguity and hostile to people of a different race.  The other was individualistic, tolerant, democratic, unprejudiced and egalitarian.

Research at Berkeley by Adorno and others refined the type, leading Professor Dixon to say that the results ‘at one level constituted fitting monument to the six million victims of Fascist prejudice.’  Another commentator said the results were ‘hair-raising.  They suggest that we could find in this country [U S] willing recruits for a Gestapo.’

There should have been no such shock or even surprise.  The Gestapo was not inherently German.  Sparta had a similar version for ruthlessly holding down an inferior people more than 2000 years ago.  To suggest that Hitler and the Nazis could only have risen up in Germany is to fall precisely into their vice of typing people – of branding every member of a group – by reference to their breeding.

Professor Dixon says:

The results delineated the authoritarian personality.  People who were anti-Semitic were also generally ethnocentrically prejudiced and conservative.  They also tended to be aggressive, superstitious, punitive, tough-minded and preoccupied with dominance-submission in their personal relationships….It seems that authoritarians are the product of parents with anxiety about their status in society.  From earliest infancy the children of such people are pressed to seek the status after which their parents hanker….There seem to be two converging reasons why such pressures produce prejudice and other related traits.  In the first place, the values inculcated by status-insecure parents are such that their children learn to put personal success and the acquisition of power above all else.  They are taught to judge people by their usefulness rather than their likeableness…In the second place, the interview data collected by the Berkeley researchers suggested that the parents of their authoritarian sample imposed these values with a heavy hand…..an exercise in punitive repression….The extreme strictness of the parents, coupled with their lack of warmth, necessarily frustrates the child.  But frustration engenders aggression, which is itself frustrated, for it is part of the training that children never answer back.  Hence, the aggression has to be discharged elsewhere, and where better than on to those very individuals whom the parents themselves have openly vilified – Jews, Negroes, and foreigners – all those in short, who being under-privileged, have acquired bad reputations in a status-seeking society?…..the authoritarian personalities manifest a monolithic self-satisfaction with themselves and their parents…Because he has to deny his own shortcomings, he dare not look inwards…..  ‘If he has a problem the best thing to do is not to think about it and just keep busy.’  Similarly, the authoritarian personality is intolerant of ambivalence and ambiguity.  Just as he cannot harbor negative and positive feeling for the same person, but must dichotomize reality into loved people versus hate people, white versus black and Jew versus Gentile, so also he cannot tolerate ambiguous situations or conflicting issues.  To put it bluntly, he constructs of the world an image as simplistic as it is at variance with reality.

Later, the author points to the relationship between conformity, authoritarianism and the tendency to yield to group pressures, and the relationship with obsession.  He also looks at their generalised hostility, what the Berkeley researchers finely called ‘the vilification of the human.’  The dogmatic militarist is of course seriously anti-intellectual.

He already knows all he wants to know.  Knowledge is a threat to his ego-defensive orientation and is therefore rejected…To think is to question and to question is to have doubts….the essence of dogmatism is a basic confusion between faith and knowledge.

Later, Professor Dixon looks at the ultimate authoritarian – Himmler and his SS.

….authoritarian traits are the product of an underlying weakness of the ego.  Thus, from the first study, it seems that the SS guards of the Third Reich were not, as popularly supposed, ideological fanatics, but inadequate ‘little’ men for whom the satisfactions provided by the SS organisations were tailor-made – all-powerful father figures, rigid rules of loyalty and obedience, and ‘legitimate’ outlets for their hitherto pent-up and murderous hostility……By a process of paranoid projection, they hated in others what they could not tolerate in themselves.  Hence it was that the weak, the old, the underprivileged, and later the starving millions of the concentration camps suffered their fearful attentions   [But they could still] aver that their helpless victims were dangerous enemies, Jewish terrorists, etc, who had to be eliminated.  For in a sense they were enemies, not of the State, but of their own precariously poised egos.

Well, now, how does that all grab you?  Is it too neat and tidy for our crooked timber?  Are we falling into the trap of stereotyping people?  I think not.  The author is too bright and decent for that, and he says in terms that you cannot defeat your enemy by stereotyping him.

It is curious that as far as I can see, the book makes no reference to Hannah Arendt, who expressed similar views about Eichmann, or the KKK, which looks to me to the embodiment in the flesh of authoritarian man.  (Nor, I think, did Arendt make any reference to Adorno in her book on Eichmann.)

But, when I read this uncomely catalogue of our failings, I am reminded of the recycled, simplistic, jealous, mean, nativist, surly rejection that you can get hissed at you on a bad day in an outback pub.  More worryingly, I can also sense it in the vacant faces and the banal chants of those deprived souls who idolise Donald Trump, all dressed up to the nines in the colours of an ourangatang.  Those whom Professor Dixon studied look to me to be the kind of people behind our current moral and intellectual landslide.  And that, for what is worth, looks to me to be a failure of the mind – if those distinctions mean anything.

This book is vital to our efforts to come to grips with our saddest failings.

2 thoughts on “Here and there – On the Psychology of Military Incompetence – Norman Dixon (1976)

  1. I have always assumed the SS were “inadequate ‘little’ men”. And that they were pissants suddenly granted authority over their betters, determined to ram home the fact. It’s analogous to obnoxious footy fans who barrack for successful teams, and who lord it over the fans of unsuccessful teams. (I hope to one day be a fan of a successful team, but as a Melbourne supporter, my lording days are few.)

    • I like ‘lording days.’ I was there in 1964 (with my mum) for their last flag. Early this year I told Melbourne Storm I would not renew this year, and I joined Melbourne Rebels. Rebels hardly a won a game; Storm hardly lost one. I have now transferred the curse to the Red Sox. Pity Boston.

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