|The last stand on the retreat from Kabul (Wikipedia)
Guide to this series:
The Psychology of the Rigid Personality
The Psychology of Military Incompetence
The Psychology of Ecclesiastical Incompetence
The Psychology of Traditionalism
I described how this observation has been applied in a one-sided way, by looking for conformism solely in terms of strict adherence to traditional rules. If attention is fixated upon this specific model of conformism, then it can seem inconceivable that a person opposed to traditional morality or social forms could be a conformist. This is the state of mind of seminary rectors, for example, who see theological or liturgical conservatism in seminarians as prima facie evidence of a weak ego, which would in turn indicate that the seminarians in question would be incapable of the flexibility of mind necessary for pastoral work.
This also seems to be the way that Pope Francis thinks. I don't want to pick him out, however: this is a very widespread attitude among senior clerics of his generation. The situation in seminaries and religious communities is beginning to change as a result of the retirement of this generation.
One of the ironies here is that so many practitioners of this psychological theory, and those influenced by it, exhibit the inflexibility of mind, and the rigid use of stereotypes, which they condemn in others.
In any case, things become more interesting once one notices that the core insight - that those who fear failure will play it safe - means that people with weak egos will comform with whatever are the dominant values of the environment in which they find themselves. In light of this rather obvious fact, the observations of Norman Dixon, in The Pyschology of Military Incompetence, are particularly helpful. Here is a summary of his conclusions.
Military establishments are, by necessity, hierarchical and authoritarian, and in their training environments, and in general in peace-time, they offer the predictability of institutional life and rewards for conformism. They are thus attractive for people with weak egos: people whose fear of failure makes them want to play things safe. In a well-run army, it will be a constant struggle to avoid promoting only the conformist goody-goodies, and conflict between them and risk-taking non-conformists, people who don't care too much about the opinions of their peers and superiors, but want to get the job done, will be a fact of life. In badly-run armies the conformists will take over completely and establish a culture of conformism which will lead to military ineffectiveness.
The next question is what happens to weak-ego conformists when they are promoted to positions of authority. When they have the freedom and authority to do their own thing, at least to an extent, what do they do? Here Dixon is at his most interesting, because it is here we can see the irrational and counter-productive aspects of the pathological fear of failure.
The incompetent generals Dixon considers have in common a concern for the respect of their fellow-officers and a disregard for the welfare of their troops. When it comes to conducting operations, they combine weakness and dithering, and a failure to give orders, with being closed-minded to unwelcome information, which can look like stubbornness.
On the first point, their self-image depends on the opinions of their peers (and superiors), rather than their inferiors. Thus General Elphinstone, during the retreat from Kabul of 1842, refused to allow his men, literally dying of cold, to improvise puttees from horse blankets. Elphinstone said it would look scruffy.
We should not get fixated on the subject of Elphinstone's obsession: the smart appearance of the British soldier. What is critical is that a scruffy army was a way in which he might lose face with his fellow officers. For him, that was more important than the welfare of his men.
On the second point, the generals' stubborn weakness, the crucial issue is the desire, manifested in a irrational, self-defeating, form, first to avoid blame (by not giving orders), and second, to hide from the possibility or the reality of failure by refusing to face up to disturbing information. Lord Raglan, famously, failed to give any orders at all during the battle of Alma, during the Crimean War, after his first one ('Advance to the river'). The most extreme example of the failure to look information in the face must be General Percival, who was warned repeatedly, not only by inferiors but even by his superior, that the Japanese attack on Singapore could come from the north, the land-ward side. He refused to build defences or move guns into the area, as he could easily have done.
When asked why, Percival revealingly replied that it would be 'bad for civilian morale' if the possibility of a Japanese attack from the north was acknowledged. But it wasn't civilians' morale which was really at issue: it was his own. He couldn't bear to face the possibility that the Japanese could invade from the undefended, land side of Singapore. It would have crushed his fragile self-confidence.
Another characteristic of incompetent conformists is taking on (when there is a choice) only tasks which are either easy or impossible. This might seem surprising, but fragile egos like these tasks because either they will succeed, or they will avoid blame for failure. They also like to assign blame, if possible, either to inferiors, or to forces outside their control.
Dixon's explanations make sense. The competent general is prepared to take responsibility, not by backside-covering conformity to conventional procedures, nor by burying his head in the sand, nor by diverting his energy to impossible tasks, but by facing squarely the difficult and necessary job at hand in an open-minded way. Since force conservation is a military necessity, the welfare and morale of his troops occupies an important place in his priorities, and he will not hide from the ordinary soldiers in headquarters. He will take responsibility for failure as well as for success, and he will be able to learn from his own, and others', mistakes.
Dixon makes the point that, tempting as it is, it is a mistake to attribute the military failures he considers to stupidity. Many of the generals he considers were highly intelligent. Nor were they cowards under fire: in many cases physical courage was among the factors which led to their promotion. Nor, again, did they necessarily lack compassion. Field Marshall Haig was physically ill when he saw the dressing stations, and resolved to preserve his health by not visiting them.
No: the thing they lacked was moral courage: the strength of character to do the right thing at the risk of failure, rejection, disgrace, and ridicule. Moral courage is the quality which led great commanders to break the rules, on those occasions on which they did so: Nelson's blind eye to the command to retreat at the battle of Copenhagen, for example, or the young officer James Wolf, later the great General Wolf, who refused the order to kill the wounded and prostrate Macleod of Glenelg in the aftermath of Culloden. He said to the appalling 'Butcher' Duke of Cumberland:
My commission is at the disposal of your Royal Highness, but I decline to become a butcher.
And here's something which nails the liberal narrative which is developed out of the general theory Dixon is applying, and with which Dixon himself agrees: viz. that taking rules seriously indicates a weak-ego, 'anal', conformist, character, whether the rules are military orders, moral obligations, or social norms. It should be obvious that there is a very important difference between breaking rules (such as orders) which are of only subordinate importance, because one has the moral courage to realise that they conflict, in the circumstances, with the right thing to do, and, on the other hand, breaking fundamental moral rules out of self indulgence. The self-indulgent breaking of sexual norms, for example, is not an example of moral courage, even if a some famous commanders combined moral courage in military matters with sexual self-indulgence.
The confusion of rule-breaking moral courage with rule-breaking self-indulgence has been particularly unfortunate for the Church. But this and other applications of these matters for the Church will require another blog post.
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