On the Psychology of Military Incompetence

Norman F. Dixon

Introduced by General Sir Rupert Smith

A hundred years of military blunders accompanied by a fascinating psychological analysis.


This incisive and engrossing book is a revealing study of 100 years of military incompetence, from the disasters of the Crimean War to the ‘misery and chaos’ of Operation Market Garden. As well as providing fascinating examples of costly blunders, it also scrutinises the psychology of the men at the heart of these conflicts, and the social psychology of the military as a whole. The result is an unusual perspective on some of the most significant events in recent human history, as well as a series of eye-opening lessons that can be applied beyond the military itself.

‘Since men are not by nature all that well equipped for aggression on a grand scale, they have had to develop a complex of rules, conventions and ways of thinking which, in the course of time, ossify into outmoded tradition, curious ritual, inappropriate dogma...’

  1. From On the Psychology of Military Incompetence

Production Details

Three-quarter-bound in cloth with a printed Modigliani paper front board

Set in Mentor

480 pages

Frontispiece and 16 pages of colour and black & white plates

˝ x 6¼˝

A unique viewpoint on a contentious subject

Norman F. Dixon served in the Royal Engineers, with nine years of service in the bomb disposal division. Wounded while on duty (‘largely through my own incompetence’), Dixon left the army and entered academia, eventually becoming Professor Emeritus of Psychology at UCL: a mixture of careers that affords him a unique viewpoint on a contentious subject.

Part one of this compulsive book looks closely at examples of calamitous ineptitude – the Crimean War’s infamous Charge of the Light Brigade, the disastrous attempt to capture Spion Kop during the Boer War, the First World War’s ruinous reliance on outdated methods and technology – whilst highlighting the egos and idiosyncrasies of the men who gave the orders.

In parts two and three, Dixon looks at how and why this incompetence occurs: the impact of the personalities involved and the underlying psychological conflicts. Lastly, he examines those rare traits that can result in exemplary leaders: the Wellingtons, Nelsons and Napoleons of history.

‘His book offers a powerful stimulant to thought for anyone concerned with military affairs’ 

  1. Ronald Lewin, The Times

General Sir Rupert Smith, with 40 years of service in the British Army, provides an enthralling introduction to this edition, revealing how Dixon’s book helped shape his own thinking early in his career, and how it continues to be a useful aid in his civilian life.

About General Sir Rupert Smith

General Sir Rupert Smith, KCB, DSO and Bar, OBE, GQM, is a retired officer of 40 years’ service in the British Army. He commanded the UK Armoured Division in the 1990–1 Gulf War, the UN forces in Bosnia in 1995, and was General Officer Commanding Northern Ireland from 1996 to 1998. Between 1998 and 2001 he was NATO Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe. He retired in 2002, and is the author of a best-selling treatise on modern warfare, The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World (2005).


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