82191328

Morale-raising exercise

In an excellent book called “On the Psychology of Military Incompetence”, Prof. Norman Dixon mentions an anecdote immediately preceding the fall of Singapore in the Second World War, one of the worst military disasters in the recent history of the British Army. Brigadier Ivan Simpson, one of the few British commanders to emerge from the episode with anything approaching an intact reputation, had been loudly advocating the construction of defensive earthworks — tank traps, moats and similar — to impede the progress of any Japanese attack which might come from the North. The Commander in Chief, General AE Percival had repeatedly rejected these calls. Simpson decided to have one last go at persuading his commander, in a private meeting … Dixon takes up the story:

” […] At last, he grew exasperated. ” ‘But why won’t you let us put up defences, sir?’ I asked”, Simpson recalls in his memoirs. He received the considered reply from Percival that devoting effort to defensive earthworks would imply that Singapore was not impregnable, and that this would be bad for morale. “My blood ran cold. ‘It’ll be a bloody sight worse for morale to have Japanese troops running round all over the place, sir'”.

The idea that doing something about a problem might make things worse, because it would be tantamount to admitting that there is a problem, is almost always a bad one, but it is a common psychological defence mechanism for people who are excessively concerned with others’ opinions of them, Dixon notes. Morale is certainly important, but it is too often used as an excuse to prolong or forestall the recognition of unpalatable truths, with eventual results that are, of course, as disastrous for morale as they are for anything else.

At present, the Federal Reserve isn’t cutting interest rates, but is saying an awful lot about the dangers of the development of a “deflationary psychology”. To which all I can say is “It’ll be a bloody sight worse …”.

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