Usually, when I discover a second-hand bookshop, I confine my browsing to one or two familiar categories. Military history is not one of them, nor is psychology. So it was by sheer fluke that I recently came upon Norman Dixon’s book among tottering piles of volumes. The title, On the Psychology of Military Incompetence, jumped out at me. Who could resist it?
On the way home I wondered why I had found the title so appealing, and why I had felt a shiver of schadenfreude as I handed over my fiver.
Like all children who grew up in the shadow of the Second World War, I was taught that our side could do no wrong. At school we read comic strips in which square-jawed Spitfire pilots sent Messerschmitts spinning to earth in flames. Black-faced British commandos burst into enemy bunkers where German officers with contorted faces had time only to yell ‘Donner und Blitzen! ’ before being mown down by tommy-guns. We were thrilled, too, to discover that our gloomy old Classics master had been at the siege of Kut in 1915. He had survived, he told us, by eating rats and reading Homer’s Iliad – in Greek, of course.
My favourite picture book was Glorious Battles of English History. Victories were glorious, but defeats were often more glorious still. In our family – military on both sides, with more than its quota of wounded, dead and decorated heroes – a phrase like ‘military incompetence’ was not just an oxymoron, it was an incendiary device. To suggest that Singapore, Dresden or Hiroshima might have been mistakes was an impertinence bordering on treason. How could I talk, when I hadn’t been there? I began to feel ashamed that I had not managed myself to go over the top at Passchendaele, and I worried how I would have acquitted myself. ‘Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier,’ said Samuel Johnson. Too right.
I developed a defensive antipathy to all things military. Brass
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