Under Incompetence

One of the most interesting events in the history of the British Empire were the destruction of Lord Elphinstone’s Army in Afghanistan, 1842. Until 100 years later the retreat from Kabul was the greatest disaster in British Empire history.


Out of more than 16,000 people from the column commanded by Elphinstone, only one European (Assistant Surgeon William Brydon) and a few Indian sepoys reached Jalalabad. A few dozen British prisoners and civilian hostages were later released. Many of the British and Indians died of exposure, frostbite or starvation or were killed during the fighting. Around 2,000 of the Indians, many of whom were maimed by frostbite, survived and returned to Kabul to exist by begging or to be sold into slavery. Some at least returned to India after another British invasion of Kabul several months later, but others remained behind in Afghanistan.

It was a hard act to follow but somehow General Arthur Percival managed it in Singapore, 1942. The British general was completely outclassed by Yamashita. The Empire’s humiliation in their “Gibraltar of the East” was so great that it effectively ended it; 30,000 of 40,000 Indian personnel switched sides after the campaign and joined the pro-Japanese Indian National Army.  The Indians were of all people the most deeply indoctrinated in the idea of British superiority.

And in one crashing moment it had all been revealed as a sham. Elphinstone’s great debacle had been surpassed. “About 80,000 British, Indian and Australian troops became prisoners of war, joining 50,000 taken by the Japanese in the earlier Malayan Campaign. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called the ignominious fall of Singapore to the Japanese the “worst disaster” and “largest capitulation” in British military history.”

While it is inspiring to recall victories such as D-Day, the examination of incompetence is far more instructive. How do incompetents get a hold of great commands? And why are their competent subordinates unable to change the course of events?


Norman Dixon, a graduate of Sandhurst and practicing psychologist wrote a book titled On the Psychology of Military Incompetence to explain his theories about why and when such catastrophic incompetence occurred.

Dixon believes that incompetence is characterized by the capture of an organization from within by mediocrities. One review summarized Dixon’s findings as follows. Incompetence gains a grip when:

  • A fundamental conservatism and clinging to outworn tradition, as well as an inability to profit from past experience.
  • A tendency to reject, suppress or ignore information which is unpalatable or conflicts with pre-conceptions.
  • A tendency to under-estimate the enemy and over-estimate the capabilities of one ’ s own side.
  • An undue readiness to find scapegoats and suppress news about military setbacks.
  • A predilection for frontal assaults and the belief in brute force rather than the use of surprises or ruses.
  • Indecisiveness and a general abdication from the role of a leader.
  • A failure to exploit a situation due to the lack of aggressiveness.

For those more comfortable with programming paradigms, these points can be restated in an equivalent way:

  1. There is no feedback loop in the application;
  2. Variables are overwritten in a higgledy-piggledy way.
  3. The functions return nothing;
  4. The application is essentially “fake”.  It has a front end with a lot of spinning lights, but it does nothing.

You say it can’t happen? Well look at the Obamacare system.

Ironically such catastrophic incompetence can only happen in well-defined hierarchies, in settings where subordinates are conditioned to follow the orders of the superiors, no matter how stupid. In societies which lack strict hierarchies, “natural leadership” is easily recognized and comes to the fore. Success is rewarded and the leader is changed. In societies which strictly follow the rule of law, “natural leadership” is suppressed in favor of formal authority.


In both Kabul and Singapore, the British Army’s discipline worked fatally against it. Men followed mediocrities like Elphinstone and Percival — literally to their deaths — even when they knew they were flawed. They could do no other. That’s the way the system “worked” — or in this case didn’t work. You could not overthrow Elphinstone or Percival without destroying the British Army even further.

There is sometimes among the rank and file the idea that “the brass will wake up”. That is the only hope of subordinates trapped under incompetent superiors.  But as some psychologists have noted the incompetent are the last people to notice their incompetence.  Within their own bubble they perceive themselves as having done no wrong.

Unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than is accurate. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their ineptitude … “”the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self”

Incompetents are forever throwing subordinates under the bus and are continuously employed rewriting accounts to exculpate themselves. Mario Continetti of Politico writes that president Obama is deeply disappointed that America has not lived up to his high standards.

The next morning, during a briefing, the president—whose office holds a burden of responsibility matched only by its power—regretted that his job involved duties other than pretentious conversation with extremely wealthy famous people. “One aide paraphrased Obama’s response: ‘Just last night I was talking about life and art, big interesting things, and now we’re back to the minuscule things of politics.” You know, minuscule things like the maskirovka invasion of Ukraine, the implementation of Obamacare, scandals at the IRS and Department of Veterans Affairs, negotiations with Syria and Iran, withdrawal from Afghanistan. These subjects are far too small and mundane for our president. He prefers contemplative and thoughtful and nuanced symposia on philosophy, quantum mechanics, and how best to spend inheritances—all accompanied by Tuscan wine.


Obama is looking forward to greater things. There is among the incompetent an inordinate sense of unearned destiny. In a sense they’ve achieved by simply being there.  There is a trend among modern political leaders to regard themselves as legends before actually doing anything. While in the past public figures wrote autobiographies in retirement, after their achievement, today they write about their greatness even before their careers begin. The reason for this is that while formerly the narrative came after the fact, today the narrative precedes the person. The narrative is independent of the facts. A public figure’s persona is determined a priori by the narrative-makers. It is not constructed a posteriori by historians.

Consider two personages who are, or aspire to be commander-in-chief of the United States. Hillary Clinton, formerly Secretary of State could not cite a single achievement to her tenure. Yet she has written (with the help of a ghostwriter) the book Hard Choices as if she had ever made any. Hard Choices, Greatness, the 3AM call — are always in the future — they are never in the real past. They don’t have to be because they are already in the mythic past, and that’s all they need to be. The president is in a similar case. He wrote (some allege also with the aid of a ghostwriter) two books about himself before he was a major public figure. And he received the Nobel Prize essentially in anticipation of his services to world peace.

Both Clinton or Obama could easily fit the Elphinstone mode; although to be fair Elphinstone in his youth actually commanded a unit at Waterloo whereas neither Clinton and Obama can point to a similar experience.  One wonders what they actually do. Neither writes their own books. By contrast, Winston Churchill not only wrote his own book, he was also largely responsible for winning the Second World War. They don’t seem to have any tangible skill.  And yet … Obama and Hillary are experts in the modern profession of being famous, which requires no other skill than being famous. Like Kim Kardashian, they’re greatest claim to fame is fame itself. There it begins. And there it ends.


One of the early predictors of incompetence is a silent loss of confidence in leadership before the final crash. In the case of Elphinstone it probably came before retreat actually began, when it became apparent that the sick and confused Elphinstone could take no rational action.  In Percival’s case it may have been at the Battle of the Slim River when the Japanese ran through his carefully prepared positions as though they weren’t there.  There is a period between the unmasking and the actual fall when everyone except the incompetent knows the end of the story. The incompetent is always the last to know.

But the unmasking of incompetence in disciplined organizations is rarely accompanied by reform. Reform is impossible where the King himself is incompetent. Loyalty and competence are brought into fatal conflict and loyalty wins.  The solution is usually provided by the enemy, who by destroying the incompetent King, simultaneously dissolves the bonds of loyalty which make the pursuit of competence impossible.

Perhaps the most dramatic modern example of this recovery-from-dissolution scenario was the Fall of the Third Reich.  The penny dropped on Hitler only inside the Berlin Bunker when he learned that Steiner would not march to his rescue.  German society could not free itself of Hitler, who, whatever his talents, proved incompetent on a grand strategic scale. They could not free themselves of him because they were good, obedient and patriotic. And it all worked against them because they followed him to the Gotterdammerung.

The solution to Hitler was provided by the Allies. D-Day in its way marked the beginnings of modern Germany, and indeed modern Europe.  They dissolved the problem. The incompetence of the Nazis found its remedy in the competence of their foes.


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