On the Psychology of Military Incompetence: Revisited, Or Why Some Veterans Support 45

 IN 1976, British psychologist Norman F. Dixon published a book titled On the Psychology of Military Incompetence.[i] The book may be said to have spawned subsequent writings on the subject but, despite a new edition in 2016, it seems to be but little read today, and that may be a pity. Aside from addressing the important and timeless subject of why bad military decisions are made, the book offers a clue to a divide which affects both armed forces veterans and the nation as a whole.

Like other veterans, I have sometimes wondered why it is that we can seem to draw such different conclusions from our service. Like most veterans of my own acquaintance, I came back from deployment with an awakened sense of a common humanity. War, it seemed, in its paradoxical way, had done more than any other experience to convince me that all people were brethren, that America had a role to fill in the community of nations, that we need allies and friends, and that to ignore or shut out the rest of the world was both morally wrong and impractical. This is why, like other veterans and many of our fellow citizens, I find the current U.S. policy and practices with respect to immigrants and refugees so painful. I feel that I know in my heart and in my head that this is wrong, both for the suffering it causes and for the long-term effects of a new isolationism.  That this spirit of isolation is fueled by terrible rhetoric of xenophobia and racism, some of it coming from the current administration, makes it even worse. And that’s not all. The chief executive’s contempt for the truth, his bullying and delight in other people’s discomfiture, typified recently by a gleeful reference to “gently” throwing immigrant children back to their countries of origin, seem to me to strike at the heart of personal integrity and good leadership, maybe the two common pillars of military service throughout the armed forces. His failure to condemn the racists and fascists who see themselves as acting under his banner, as in the wake of Charlottesville, has been a terrible blunder. More than this, it has been the sign of a lack of concern for ethical matters that unfits him as a leader of any kind.

Still, we veterans who find this appalling and contemptible know that not all veterans share our opinion of the President, his words and policies. This presents something of a mystery. I once said that I thought I knew veterans who would let you rip off an ear before they told a deliberate lie, but who now supported a man who lies all the time, in matters big and small. A tactical leader trains herself to face facts, to proceed empirically. The President often seems delusional, perhaps in keeping with his contempt for science and other forms of expertise.  Most of all, most veterans have learned that leadership is a matter of caring for people and bringing out their best. A real leader literally encourages, sharing courage and not preying on fears. We’ve all seen and suffered under the wrong kind, the “toxic” leader, but thankfully they are in the minority, and usually forgotten for the nonentities that they are.

The loyalty of those still serving in the reserves or on active duty presents less of a mystery. Absent a clear case of illegality, military members must by oath obey the orders of the President. There is the option of a refusal to obey or of resignation based on principle, but the path to these courses of action is murky and mostly untrodden.

The allegiance of veterans is a greater mystery and a greater problem, but Dixon’s book and some polling conducted over the last couple of years provide some clues and insight.  According to Dixon, the great besetting reason for military incompetence is that the armed forces tend to attract and cultivate people with authoritarian tendencies. Self-selection is at work to ensure that most people entering the armed forces are comfortable with giving and taking orders. This tendency becomes habitual in the hierarchical military culture. Subordinates tend to refrain from questioning the orders and views of their superiors, and senior officers too often do no brook objections to their plans and instructions.

The authoritarian tendencies of military people neatly fit the profile of Trump supporters that has emerged from some polling.[ii] According to some polls, authoritarian tendencies are a better indicator that someone has and will support the current President than gender, income, education, race, or religion.  Behind Trump’s blustering and bad manners, these people see a legitimate authority figure, someone comfortable giving orders and therefore, by that measure, fit to command.

To break out of this way of thinking requires someone to step out of personal tendency and see the requirements for leadership in its greater complexity. Leadership is a moral act as well as the exercise of authority. It involves ends as well as means, and often those most anxious to give orders are those least fit to do so, since they find the pleasures of power too attractive. There is evidence that this change is coming. A small majority of veterans now seeking elected office are Democrats. This may be said to represent a diminishing conservative consensus that had generally existed in the military, in the upper ranks especially. There may be evidence to show that even a few defections can spell the end of groupthink, by introducing the idea that conformity to a certain point of view may not be necessary for group membership.[iii]  If conservative veterans are willing to be their own devil’s advocates, perhaps more will see that he really does not represent their values.

For me, Trump’s damning deficiencies come out in stark relief when he is compared to the man who for me is the gold standard and my personal hero: George C. Marshall. Marshall’s personal courtesy and magnanimity, his scrupulous integrity, attention to and command of facts, the breadth of his humane vision which resulted in the plan for post-war European recovery that bears his name, all are a rebuke to Trump and his methods. Like other demagogues, he may enjoy some short-term success, but these are built on a rotten foundation of ignorance and preening self-regard.

Trump is almost a caricature of the bad leader: closed to the views of others, humorless except at others’ expense, more interested in perks and deference than in real achievement.  Support for him, I believe, rests on a tenuous thread of unreason, of exaggerated deference to authority. Among veterans, there may even be a note of nostalgia for a time when our lives consisted in doing as we were told.  More powerful than these impressions, I believe, is the example of integrity and genuine leadership that is the greatest benefit of military service, and the legacy of the armed forces to its own members and the rest of the nation.

[i] Norman F. Dixon, On the Psychology of Military Incompetence. 1976 (New York: Perseus-Basic Books, 2016). 

[ii] Matthew MacWilliams, Politico. Online. “The Weird Trait That Predicts Whether You’re a Trump Supporter.” January 17, 2016.

[iii] Douglas T. Kenrick, Adam B. Cohen, Steven L. Neuberg, and Robert B. Cialdini, “The Science of Anti-Scientific Thinking,” Scientific American, July 2018, pp. 37-41.

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