Thursday, August 14, 2008

On the Psychology of Military Incompetence the title of a rather good book I came across a couple of years back. Despite being dated by its Freudian lingo, it was a rather well-thought-out consideration of an apparently simple question: why do generals suck so badly?

It used to be (possibly still is) a well-worn aphorism among soldiers that, whilst the poor sod in a different uniform might kill you, it was your general who would murder you. That was adequately demonstrated by the "meat-grinder" battles of the World Wars, where millions of men were thrown into combat with effectively no chance of achieving the mission objectives or coming out alive.

Or, for another example, consider the infamous defence of Johore (in Malaya). The British commander decided what direction he thought the attack would come from, concentrated all his forces in that direction, and stubbornly ignored all evidence to the contrary. He even ordered that no barricades be built because it would be "bad for morale". Of course, when the Japanese arrived, the defensive line was obliterated.

Why would someone give orders that were so blatantly stupid? OtPoMI gives a thorough discussion of this question, and turns up two main conclusions:

1) The reputation of the military is such that the people who join it tend to be insecure people looking for a stable foundation.

2) The structure of the military is such that risk-averse careerists tend to rise through the ranks fastest.

The result of this is that you get a whole range of commanders who replace self-confidence with bluster, who are inexperienced at dealing with trouble, and who see each battle not as a learning experience but as a threat to their personal reputation. You get people who, faced with a deteriorating situation, are completely unable to get their brain in gear, let alone sort things out (in fact, the Johore story gives a clear example of generals focusing on morale to the exclusion of reality - were they just trying to clear their heads?)

In short, you get people who are likely to screw up really badly.

I've currently got a bit too much of that in me for my liking. In yesterday's restaurant debacle, I was more worried about my reputation as an organiser than about the actual event. A good leader would have focused on making sure everyone was happy, even if this meant ditching the restaurant early and hitting the canteen. But I was too busy panicking to display that level of flexibility.

A good leader would have accepted that this was just one of those things, taken his lumps from the rest of the group, and moved on. I got defensive. I don't think I did anything particularly dumb, but the potential was there. Again, I was focusing on my reputation, and thus failing to "keep my head when all about were losing theirs and blaming it on me".

I have a naturally careerist streak. I don't necessarily apologise for this - it's an excellent source of personal motivation, and frankly I'd have done a lot better at uni if I'd developed this tendency sooner. But it does leave me open to precisely this sort of funk. Before we left for the restaurant, the dept manager had complimented me for arranging the leaving do unasked. If anything, being in the spotlight like this just made me freeze up even worse when everything went pear-shaped.

However, one advantage I have over the generals of yesteryear is that no-one can(successfully) accuse me of avoiding novelty or challenge. Hell, I went to one of the weirdest (and hence most successful) universities in the world. I can hack it.

The problem with careerism isn't so much that it leads to bad behaviour as that it leads to overfocusing on reputation and hence to bad stress reactions. I hereby resolve to learn to control this behaviour. In a way, yesterday was great, because I learned how much damage my adrenal gland can do me. Next time the shit hits the fan, I intend to be carrying an umbrella.


Monty said...

hi wanna read this book .. Can u tell me if i can download it from net. Don wanna pay so much but yet thats the final solution i am keeping


Lifewish said...

Hi Monty. The copyright label on my copy says it was first published in 1976, so it's not (legally) on the web yet. I haven't come across any illegal copies either.

You can get it for about $15 inc p&p on