On incredible (literally) elite incompetence

I am re-reading the extraordinary World War 2 memoir “The Other Side of Time” by Brendan Phibbs. It is at least as good as I have remembered and said to various people. Easily among the top ten books I have ever read.

This excerpt below comes after some American soldiers have died needlessly in a stupid frontal assault ordered by a thick and egomaniacal commander, when there were perfectly good alternatives (flanking manouevres, waiting for air support etc).

I think it captures something crucial – that as you climb in an organisation (the Peter Principle had not been formulated when this discussion happened) – your incompetence will be covered-up/denied by others, in the (perceived) interests of the organisation, and the fear of a precedent being established that could clear out the Augean stables. And so, in the absence of robust feedback, incompetence, corruption, laxity of all sorts can grow.

Then, at the very top of an organisation, someone might get over-promoted (in part because they are relentless and remorseless self-promoters), and emerge blinking into the fierce sunlight of scrutiny, where mistakes and lack of actual talent cannot be ignored/denied. And then, those people will feel that they are being treated “unfairly” because, well, as per the observation, “when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” 

We are taught to defer. And it is terrifying – and socially dangerous – to realise that those “at the top” are often simply not very good at all. So most of us go with what we are taught, and avoid what would be terrifying and dangerous.

And here we are.

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  1. John Ralston Saul in his Voltaire’s Bastards described an historic structural shift within the military command during WW1 that massively exacerbated this dysfunction. Useful summary in this book review on Saul’s take: ‘SAUL IS superb, however, on military history, which is glaringly absent from the overliterary world-view of poststructuralism. With a novelist’s instinct for historical sweep, he presents the staggering development of the arms trade, which has distorted and impoverished the world economy. Secondly, he shows how this “Armada complex” is a direct result of the victory of staff officers over field officers in the past two centuries, a phenomenon that led to the carnage of World War I.

    Although he is unfair to Napoleon, whom he blames for inaugurating the pattern of godlike hero that would produce Hitler but that again has ancient precedents, Saul’s profiles of military men from Lord Kitchener to Gen. William Westmoreland are models of quick-take psychological astuteness. There are dramatic juxtapositions, such as a wonderful comparison of Cardinal Richelieu to Robert McNamara, against whom Saul levels devastating charges of incompetence.’ https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/entertainment/books/1992/09/06/the-triumph-of-the-technocrats/e5e9d1ef-6dd9-442e-a4c0-73af1cbc7d36/

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