Robert C. Castel


The fatal pathologies of military analysis

Over the last six months, I have spent a lot of time reading and listening to what leading Western analysts have been spouting about the war in Ukraine. Commentary by Robert C. Castel.

As time went on, I was overcome by an increasingly uncomfortable feeling, a kind of déjà vu. A vague sense that a rather familiar pattern lurked in the background that I cannot yet name. It took me some time to identify where and when I had encountered this pattern.

Many years ago, as part of a research group, we wanted to add our own contribution to the voluminous literature on strategic surprise. The main aim of the research was to re-map the psychological pathologies of intelligence and strategic analysis. Why is it important for war theorists to pirate the waters of psychology? Because military history provides many examples of how analysts often look but do not see. The filters of the mind have a great tendency to filter out information that does not fit into a concept built up with great intellectual and emotional effort.

There are many answers to the question of why this is, but I would like to mention only the most relevant ones.

The first and most deadly pathology is the so-called need for closure. Analysts and decision-makers who suffer from this pathology are not fit to be analysts. Nor decision makers. Anyone who can’t bear the stream of unreliable and contradictory information spewing from the firehose of reality should find another profession. General Eli Zeira, the commander of Israeli military intelligence during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, was a fearless fighter, but he was not wrought from the stuff of analysts. His stubborn adherence to a painstakingly developed strategic concept brought the country to the brink of military disaster.

Another such pair of pathologies is professional optimism and its Siamese twin, professional pessimism. These pathologies are both the result of the analysts’ temperament and subject-dependent. It is the task of the decision-maker to diagnose as early as possible those who provide him with intelligence, operational or strategic analysis, and not to allow any one camp to predominate. The strategic surprise known as Operation Barbarossa was made possible by Stalin’s deliberate destruction of this balance among his advisers.

There are, of course, optimistic, pessimistic, pro-Western and pro-Russian voices in the Western press.

But as far as mainstream publications such as Foreign Affairs are concerned, it is very easy to identify the pathologies mentioned above. Will the Russians deploy tactical nuclear weapons? We are not talking about it. Or, if we do, the analyst will be working hand and foot to convince Mr. Putin how damaging this would be for Russia. According to Western policymakers, analysts and the public, „nuclear strikes that won’t happen should not be mentioned.”

A similar heart-warming concern is expressed in other analyses that suffer from professional optimism. So sure are the analysts that everything can only go wrong for Russia in this war that they are showering Mr. Putin with a mass of advice on how he can get out of the mess he has created more easily and quickly.

If only one such article a week is read by a Western citizen, it is both uplifting and comforting. When this is the point of virtually every article and study, the situation becomes worrying.

Where are the professional pessimists of the West to play devil’s advocate? Not the media personalities, politicians, and trolls of the Russian position. Serious analysts who see things differently. Would the chessboard be so clear that all serious experts would agree?

Are we dealing with groupthink?

Or is what we see not even groupthink, the pathology of groupthink, but an enforced consensus? From the experts’ point of view, it is far less risky to be wrong together in a faceless crowd than to take up a dissonant voice.

These survival reflexes, which have become ingrained in the DNA of Western experts as the climate issue has gradually become politicized, are slowly becoming more and more fatal to the survival of the West.

Are we on the verge of a strategic surprise of Pearl Harbor proportions?

Maybe yes, maybe no.

There is no one to ask.

Ezek is érdekelhetik