Fog of War

On the psychology of military incompetence

by Rita Italiano

Philosophy 21 May 2021

What happens when you apply the categories of psychological analysis to historical cases of failed military leadership? In an old essay titled On the Psychology of Military Incompetence (1976,) the British psychologist Norman F. Dixon tried to come up with an answer by looking for patterns, breaking down characters, and observing linear cause-effect relationships making sudden reversals, amidst untimeliness and indecisiveness, recklessness, misjudgment, and inaccuracy.
Yet how does this kind of quagmire occur in the psyche and behavior of people who find themselves deciding the fate of millions of others? Dixon starts from childhood, the first years spent in one’s family and at school. He runs into educational processes based on empty mnemonic learning, blind obedience, sports, and odd unnerving ceremonies. Military involvement ends up attracting the less brilliant individuals. The attempt to professionalize aggressive instincts is based on a system of rewards and punishment, hierarchy, and power.
Dixon outlines an “ever-increasing web of rules, restrictions and constraints” headed by a small group of individuals who essentially aim to preserve the status quo. The worst paradox of this arrangement is perhaps the following: the biggest enemy is not external. A large part of militarism, in fact, concerns the defense against the anxieties and obsessive impulses of its members. The inner sphere must be kept at bay, as well as any independent critical thinking. Therefore maniacal attention to cleanliness, discipline, obedience. Young people are given a set of rules and a rigorous program that will permanently cage them, making them unfit to face the unexpected and embrace new ideas. Processes that are already not very conscious become automatic. A meticulous ritualization takes place with the subtle tendency to turn means into purposes. Internal disorder is the natural product of an authoritarian organization that aims, by employing dogmatic behavioral patterns, to reduce overall anxiety. This undermines individual initiative, leads to the affirmation of aggressive virility, the annihilation of differences, the enforcement of uniformity, the veneration of homogeneity, and an aversion to creative thinking.


It triggers the compulsion to control, and eliminate the unpredictable element in human relationships. For Dixon, the code of honor itself is a unique initiation rite that goes on forever. As if that were not enough, add to it the relentless search for social advancement. Snobbery replaces merit. Any criticism triggers touchiness. Errors are terrifying because they lead to a further loss of already low self-esteem and, worse still, of their social approval.
Dixon argues that ideal “senior commanders” must be flexible and willing to change their decisions. They need to be military managers, technology experts, and even keen politicians. This rarely occurs due to certain personal traits and the very organization of the military system. The author draws, sometimes nit-picking, a sketch of disastrous leadership: a multi-faceted profile, with mysterious and often unresolved implications. The characteristics are all attributable to an underlying conservatism and are easy to identify. Attachment to tradition. Refusal to recognize errors combined with the propensity to find scapegoats. Lack or misuse of new technologies. The tendency to underestimate the enemy and overestimate the capabilities of one’s own side. Indecision and inclination to relinquish one’s role as a decision-maker. Stubborn persistence in an assigned task, despite strong evidence to the contrary. Failure to take advantage of a situation that has been achieved. Preference for head-on attacks, often against the enemy’s strongest point. Brute force favored over the craftiness of surprise or deception effects. Removal or distortion of news in order to raise morale or preserve safety. Trust in mystical powers. Ignorance. Lack of initiative and inventiveness. Disregard for the welfare of soldiers, considered “wholly expendable.” Ambition. Contempt for the pain of others. Cult of anti-intellectualism. Slander of progressive thought. Need to pontificate. Cognitive dissonance. And oyster-like behavior, entrenchment in decisions already taken, accentuated need for external approval, chronic lack of self-respect, and general passivity. Finally, adding insult to injury: those who are most afraid of failure tend to make more mistakes.
For an unsuccessful leader, a significant cause for anxiety is that the military system usually sanctions mistakes more than it rewards success. The fear of failure is, therefore, stronger than the hope of success. “The need to achieve” thus lingers pathologically. If only conquering rational fear overcomes the fear of being frightened, unsuccessful leadership often remains a prisoner of a cocoon of threatening superstructures. It freezes. It atrophies one’ s reasoning potential. Obsessive traits become gigantic. The leader’s mind, at this point, becomes a “door locked and bolted against that which he fears most: himself.” The control of instincts forced in the early years of life creates an inner stress that now reveals its destructive force. A childhood without love and full of duties builds an insecure and weakened ego, leading to fear and disgust of one’s own passivity, depending on receiving orders from others. The wrong decisions of these elements fall on the soldiers. A process starts in the “fog of war” that denies the soldier a defined identity. The soldier’s figure loses its features and becomes a target at the firing range, a toy soldier, an insignificant pawn of the great game of blood. Instead, successful leadership is not affected by authoritarian psychopathology. Sensitive to new ideas and the latest technological advances, he does not close himself in the bubble of self-referentiality and is prone to listen and observe. He has vision. He knows how to handle timing and contingencies. With a sense of responsibility, he bears the consequences of his actions. And above all, he is “a great respecter of reason.”
Dixon’s criteria can also be applied to assess other human organizations. Even Western societies, in their diverse and shifting structures ranging from democracies, at least formally established, to democratorships, can be examined under Dixon’s telltale lens. An unsuccessful leader attempts to break up society into closed compartments by classifying and fragmenting like an avid taxonomist. He recognizes his own potential pool of consensus. A space to be filled with a petty electoral proposal. He constantly seeks reassurance. With this spirit, he goes through hectic days hooked on iPhones. He runs through news releases and plunges into the treacherous wilderness of polls. He follows the wind wherever it goes, yet he calls it “sentiment.” The big, undisciplined, and temporary framework of the real world fatally escapes him. He runs a breathless race from a standstill.