Top critical review
A fascinating insight into the smug certainties of 1970's psychotherapy
on 10 September 2016
I was initially fooled from the publishing date into thinking that this had been written in the 1990's but the moment I started reading my first thought was "hang on- this can only have been written in the 1970's. Probably 1976". So that's me being smug.
I found the earliest parts of the book insightful and historically really quite interesting - the Crimean campaign is particularly easy to empathise with because the sheer inadequacy of leadership just springs off the page: the leaders were utterly out of their depth, didn't want to be in charge and didn't dare challenge their superiors even when they could see a fairly clear solution to a problem (one great example being when soldiers were dying of cold because they were without firewood, there were ships and soldiers who could be used to collect it and a safe place to get the firewood ... but nobody dared take the decision to ask for the authority to fetch it). I found that this section really resonated with my own experience of leadership and the strange moment that hits you when you suddenly have to think "Oh, I'm the one in charge? Oh. Best get on with it then. Blimey."
But for reasons that are rather hard to follow, the book quickly loses its way after this: as we move toward more modern conflicts, the author becomes progressively more and more certain of his own opinion and that 1970's theories of psychology provide a complete explanation for all the behaviours observed. Perhaps more important is that the author gets more and more damning of everybody and all their actions: I don't have a particular problem with criticising the actions of the military, but it's worth remembering that in any military situation the main thing that you have to deal with is uncertainty. In a conflict, there's normally a winner and a loser (often two losers and - really rarely - two winners) and therefore your chance of being wrong in any situation are likely to be about 50%. It's therefore not hard to pick instances where the wrong decisions have been made, disasters have happened and lives lost without good cause. That would be war, which is why we try to avoid it.
What I really don't think is true though, is that the leaders in question made all their bad decisions because of the aggressive potty training they experienced as children. Being terrified and incompetent when you're in the middle of nowhere, people are shooting at you and your attempts to find out what is going on are being deliberately sabotaged by people who want to kill you isn't a character defect and probably isn't due to an emphasis on shiny boots for the troops - but Dixon is utterly certain that this is the case -to his faint credit he observes that he wouldn't make a good military leader himself, but that rather feels like a way of heading off any criticism of hypocrisy. The fact is, military leadership in battle is unbelievably difficult, almost certain to fail in some horrible way and has to be done by normal people doing their best with limited information and imperfect resources. And sometimes it's being done by people who really aren't any good at it.
But I don't think the main problem is potty training.