When Formalism Kills

I’ve read a great deal about the French defeat of 1940, attempting to understand the military, political, and cultural factors behind this debacle. (Some of my conclusions can be found here.)  I had not, however, encountered a report Picasso’s response to Matisse, when the latter asked him, “But what about our generals, what are they doing?”

According to this article, Picasso’s response was “Our generals? They’re the masters at the Ecole des Beaux Arts!”…ie, men possessed by the same rote formulae and absence of observation and obsessive traditionalism as the academic artists.

Picasso’s comment is entirely consistent with the observations of Andre Beaufre, in 1940 a young captain on the French staff and after the war a general. When Beaufre was promoted to a staff position…

I saw very quickly that our seniors were primarily concerned with forms of drafting. Every memorandum had to be perfect, written in a concise, impersonal style, and conforming to a logical and faultless plan–but so abstract that it had to be read several times before one could find out what it was about…”I have the honour to inform you that I have decided…I envisage…I attach some importance to the fact that…” Actually no one decided more than the barest minimum, and what indeed was decided was pretty trivial.

I believe that the kind of formalism of which Picasso and Beaufre spoke is becoming increasingly dominant in many spheres of American society (though hopefully not the the degree to which it pervaded the inter-war French military…and that this malign phenomenon is largely a side effect of the higher-education bubble, although it is also being driven to a certain extent by the growth of government and the increasingly-abstract nature of much work.


11 thoughts on “When Formalism Kills”

  1. In your earlier post you say “… the country of the Ardennes… was heavily wooded and with few roads, and the French high command did not believe it was a feasible attack route for strong forces”. Had the high command been intellectually serious they would have mined every bridge and culvert, ready to be destroyed if necessary.

    What are the equivalent sensible defensive measures that the US neglects? Or US corporations, or US universities …..

  2. Ever hear the term power point ranger?

    Anyway, I’ve been struck by how often I read about how wonderfully educated our generals are, often with master’s degrees in this, or perhaps a phd in that.

    In my recollection the generals and admirals who won previous American wars weren’t required to spend four years at West Point or Annapolis, then eventually return to school for several more years so they could be considered for high rank.

    Worse, I suspect the real reason they are required to spend years at a leftist-dominated university is so they can be indoctrinated in political correctness and leftist dogma. If they can’t stand that, they leave the service, never achieving a high rank.

    So the end result is a military commanded by exactly the sort of fools who let France be ovverun. I note the insane rules of engagement the US military is forced to operate under, as well as the fumbling inability of the US navy to competently oversee the design and construction of several varieties of warships.

    But at least they’re leading us to victory against the people who attacked us on 9/11, right?


  3. I know oven 40 years ago successful companies such s IBM recognized this – and they would encourage some employees – creative people – to think on their own ouside any parameters of the company.

    They called them the Wild Ducks.

  4. It has always been the case that after a long period without war that the professional officer class deteriorates to a low standard. It’s not hard to understand that the priorities of peace time officers are largely their own advancement in the system they have chosen to career in.

    WW2 provides many examples of peace time promotions being essentially useless in the face of war. My favorite quote “pray arm me further by your reply” was uttered by Churchill to the general he replaced with Montgomery in Africa.

    I grew up on army bases on three continents.

  5. Once an Eagle is till the standard on this although Tom Ricks is pretty good with The Generals except that Ricks is unreliable about Iraq and after. He hates Bush and all his writing after that is trash. He is pretty much correct about Marshall and the WWII generals. Mark Clark was a general to warm the heart of Obama. Once an Eagle is on the same track.

    I still think Sherman was America’s greatest general except Washington.

  6. oh no, Mike! Grant was far better than Sherman. Actually Grant was head and shoulders better, militarily, (if not the “greatest”… Washington, as you indicate, maybe be the most consequential and greatest) than anyone else I can think of.

  7. MikeK

    I still think Sherman was America’s greatest general except Washington.


    oh no, Mike! Grant was far better than Sherman. Actually Grant was head and shoulders better, militarily..than anyone else I can think of.

    Sherman thought Grant was dead wrong in the Vicksburg campaign to not return to Memphis- after Grant failed multiple times to find or dig a way for his boats to go around Vicksburg without braving Vicksburg’s guns on the Mississippi. [They eventually steamed on the Mississippi right past Vicksburg at night, with minimal losses.] IIRC, Sherman also did not agree with Grant’s decision to cut himself off from his supply lines and live off the land in Mississippi. We know how that turned out.

    Also note that what Sherman did in Georgia- living off the land and destroying Confederate property- Grant had already done in Mississippi- though probably Sherman did it to a higher degree.

    At least we can all agree that the best Union generals in the Civil War got their start in the West. Ranked most likely: Grant, Sherman, Sheridan.

  8. Apparently our present politically motivated “interventions” have been no cure for the peacetime deterioration noted by PenGun. Perhaps that comes from frequent command rotations, international shared control, direct political control over host nation relationships, rules of engagement and highly centralized command and control of tactical small unit operations. These conditions foster the rise of power point rangers supporting micro manager flag officers who are oriented on their D.C. handlers where they spend copious amounts of time making office calls, meeting with politicians and presenting their power point dog and pony shows rather than being on point in theater.

    Having an academic degree from a recognized power elite university certainly makes navigating those political waters with the appropriate sensitivity to the concerns and vocabulary of the power brokers. One must seek selection for such schooling early in one’s career in order to make that happen and still get the other military preparatory assignments required for higher level command. It takes some special pull to get all that lined up just right. Having one or more similarly upward motivated officers senior to you pushing the right buttons pretty much assures that the cloning process is highly probable.

    There may be a few that make it to flag officer purely on merit, but they seldom fit in and once they “fall on their sword” based on principle, they are done. The messenger with the contrary opinion or unvarnished truth usually gets shot, then the powerful close ranks and figure out how to put the best face on it they can. Many of the best officers I served with figured this system out at about mid career and walked away. Some thought they could make a difference if they persevered and kept their nose clean. Eventually they had to make the choice either to cave in or take the bullet. No support would be likely because they were unanimously rejected by the four stars and most of the three stars with the rest of them looking away. The two and one stars don’t really count in the flag pecking order unless they are closely attached to more senior members of the circle. Even if just one four star decides you are not a team player, you are done because the others will likely support the play. Team play and solidarity are the highest values. Even most of the “good guys” eventually cave based on those values being wrapped in the flag of duty, loyalty and sacrifice. Eventually they don’t even know that they have become part of the problem and they have nothing of unique value to give.


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