The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."

Friday, March 11, 2022

Strategy Without Tactics is the Slowest Road to Victory -- Lessons from the Italian Attack on Greece in 1940


I do not claim to be an expert in military matters or international politics, but I think we can learn a lot from history. There follows a post that I published a few years ago a few years ago on "Cassandra's Legacy," that I think is worth re-publishing in view of the current situation. 

Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) led the Italian government from 1922 to 1943. During the final years of his career, he made a series of truly colossal mistakes that led to disaster for Italy and for him, personally. Was Mussolini mad? An idiot? Or brain damaged? We cannot say for sure, but the problem with the way the minds of leaders function seems to be more and more important in our times.

An evident trend that we observe in history is that, in times of crisis, strong leaders tend to take over and assume all powers. It has happened with the Romans, whose government system moved from democracy to a military dictatorship. It seems to be happening to us, too, with more and more power being concentrated in the hands of the man (rarely the woman) at the top of the government's hierarchy.

There are reasons for this trend. Human society, as it is nowadays, doesn't seem to show any sign of collective intelligence. It is not a "brain," it can't plan for the future, it just stumbles onward. So, in a certain way, it makes sense to put a real brain in charge. The human brain is the most complex thing we know in the whole universe and it is not unreasonable to hope that it could manage society better than a mob.

The problem is that, sometimes, the brain at the top is not so good, actually it may be horribly bad. Like in the movie "Young Frankenstein," even with the best of goodwill, we may put abnormal brains inside society's head. Dictators, emperors, warlords, big men, generalissimos, strongmen, tycoons, and the like often indulge in killing, torturing, and oppressing their subjects, as well as in engaging in unprovoked and ruinous wars. On top of all that, they are also often sexual perverts. The final result is that they look like the prototypical evil madman character of comics or movies, complete with bloody eyes, wicked smile, and Satanic laughing.

But simply defining leaders as "mad" or "evil" doesn't tell us what makes their minds tick. Could some of them be truly insane? Maybe brain-damaged? Or is it just a kind of personality that propels them to the position they occupy? These are very difficult questions because it is impossible to diagnose mental illness from one person's public behavior and public statements. Doing that is, correctly, even considered unethical for professionals (even though it is done all the time in the political debate).

Here, I am not claiming to be saying anything definitive on this subject, but I think we can learn a lot if we examine the well-known case of Benito Mussolini, the Italian "Duce" from 1922 to 1943, as an example of a behavior that can be seen as insane and, also, rather typical for dictators and absolute rulers.

The mistakes that Benito Mussolini made during the last stages of his career as the prime minister of Italy were truly colossal, including declaring war on the United States in 1941. Let me give you a less well-known but highly significant example. In October 1940, the Italian army attacked Greece from Albania, a story that I discussed in a previous post. That implied having to cross the Epirus mountains in winter and how in the world could anyone think that it was a good idea? Why not wait for spring, instead? Unsurprisingly, the result was a military disaster with the Italian troops suffering heavy losses while stuck in the mud and the snow of the Epirus mountains during the 1940-41 winter, until the Germans came to the rescue - sensibly- in the following Spring. In a certain sense, the campaign was successful for the Axis because, eventually, Greece had to surrender. But it was also a tremendous waste of military resources that could have been used by Italy for the war effort against the British in North Africa. The blunder in Greece may have been a major factor in the Italian defeat in WWII.

The interesting point about this campaign is that we have the minutes of the government reunions that led to the ill-fated decision of attacking Greece. These documents don't seem to be available online, but they are reported by Mario Cervi in his 1969 book "Storia della Guerra di Grecia" (translated into English as "The Hollow Legions"). It is clear from the minutes that it was Mussolini, and Mussolini alone, who pushed for starting the attack at the beginning of Winter. During a reunion held on Oct 15, 1940, the Duce is reported to have said the date for the attack on Greece had been set by him and that "it cannot be postponed, not even of one hour." No reason was given for having chosen this specific date and none of the generals and high-level officers present at the reunion dared to object and to say that it would have been better to wait for spring to come. The impression is that Italy was led by a bumbling idiot surrounded by yes-men, and the results were consistent with this impression.

What made Mussolini behave in this way? There is the possibility that his brain was not functioning well. We know that Mussolini suffered from syphilis and that it is an illness that can lead to brain damage. But a biopsy was performed on a fragment of his brain after his death, in 1945, and the results were reasonably clear: no trace of brain damage. It was the functional brain of a 62-year-old man, as Mussolini was at the time of his death.

Mussolini is one of the very few cases of high-level political leaders for whom we have hard evidence of the presence or absence of brain damage. The quintessential evil dictator, Adolf Hitler, is said to have been suffering from Parkinson's or other neurological problems, but that cannot be proven since his body was burned to ashes after his suicide, in 1945. After the surrender of Germany, several Nazi leaders were examined in search of neurological problems. For one of them, Robert Ley, a post-mortem examination revealed a certain degree of physical damage to the frontal lobes. Whether that was the cause of his cruel behavior, however, is debatable.

That's more or less what we have. It doesn't prove that evil leaders never suffer from brain damage but the case of Mussolini tells us that dictators are not necessarily insane. Rather, they are best described as persons who suffer from a "narcissistic personality disorder" (NPD). It is a syndrome that describes their vindictive, paranoid, and cruel behavior, but also their ability to find followers and become popular. So, it may be that the NPD is not really a "disorder" but, rather, something functional for becoming a leader. 

There lies the problem: even in a democracy, a politician's first priority is being elected and that's a very different skill than that needed for leading a country. An NPD-affected ruler may not be necessarily evil, but he (very rarely she) will be almost certainly incompetent. It happens not just in politics, but also in business. I could also cite the names of scientists who seem to be affected by NPD. They are often incompetents in their fields, but they may achieve a certain degree of success by means of their social skills that allow them to accumulate research grants and attract smart collaborators. (Fortunately, they can't jail and torture their opponents! Not normally, at least.)

The problem with this situation is that, everywhere in the world, NPD-affected individuals aim at obtaining high-level government positions and often they succeed. Then, ruling a whole country gives them plenty of chances to be not just incompetents, but the kind of person that we describe as "criminally incompetent." The kind of disaster that can result may be illustrated, again, by Mussolini's case. During the Greek campaign, the Duce ordered the Italian Air Force to "destroy all Greek cities with more than 10,000 inhabitants" as reported by Cervi and by Davide Conti in his "L'occupazione italiana dei Balcani" (2008). Fortunately, the Italian air force of the time was not able to carry out this order. But what would happen if a similar order were given today by a leader who can control atomic weapons?


  1. During the Greek campaign, the Duce ordered the Italian Air Force to "destroy all Greek cities with more than 10,000 inhabitants" as reported by Cervi and by Davide Conti in his "L'occupazione italiana dei Balcani" (2008). Fortunately, the Italian air force of the time was not able to carry out this order.

    ‘Italy has a large appetite and rotten teeth.’ - Otto von Bismarck

  2. When Energy is realised being the problem, the West shouldn't have been thinking that burning the little remaining Energy is the way to solve the problem...

    This is not a Strategy nor a Tactic - but rather Humanity seeping the dirtiest of all Animal's Nature and Psychology - like never seen before in history

    Ukraine is being now Iraqi'ed* - as we speak...

    Russia is in its way to be Iraqi'ed...

    The Energy Hunger Game continues...

    Our Western Civilisation is forced to make the closure of the outgoing Industrial Age - not as fancy as Technocracy, AI, Nuclear Fusion, Mars Colonisation, 4th IR, New World Order, Transhumanism, Solar Energy, Wind Energy, Small Nuclear Energy Reactors, Crypto Currency, etc - but rather with a massacre and anarchy...

    Yes, indeed - Physics is what behind the closure of the Industrial Age - but the West is responsible for deciding unnecessarily the inhumanely dramatised style of the closure - from the destruction of Iraq, the Pandemic - to now the destruction and dismantling of Ukraine and Russia...

    The West should set humans free from its ill Strategy and Tactics, instead - these are not Strategy nor Tactics - but rather the West's Animal Nature put - in action...

    The most traumatised Animal Nature ever seen in history - being severely injured and wounded by the bitter realisation and fact, mounting since the 1820s 1860s, that humans cannot manufacture Energy...

    "Energy, like time, flows from past to future"


    *Iraqi'ed is a novel and emerging expression first seen used in a user comment on - Well Done...

  3. Jesus reportedly asked something like, "What king doesn't count his army when confronted with a potential enemy with another army? Who doesn't count what they have to build a tower? And his answer was it was Foolish not to count, wise to count. And of course, it would be wise to count what your people are capable of doing, have they ever crossed mountains with all their gear, in the winter, as with this example above? How well does their gear compare with that of the enemy? Lots of things to consider and try to measure, measuring is counting.
    How many have listened seriously to what humanity had to deal with to live when considering the counting of "Limits to Growth"? or before that, the counting of Malthus? Looks to me like the vast majority of humanity have been foolish about this. Just ignore that, count on imaginary things being found. That has been the reaction from the very large majority of society, from the top to the bottom. I wanted to take Limits to Growth seriously soon after I read it. I saw that imaginary things were being counted, what people were doing looked foolish in the extreme. I was counted as foolish by everyone, including a lot of scientists turning their back on me. I think the price will be paid in blood. People have to agree to follow a leader who has some ability. Fools follow fools. The blind lead the blind. I don't claim to be the best at that sort of job, you can't count a lot of things exactly, you are always dealing with the odds of success for anything, but it is very clear that most people want to believe complete foolishness, don't even try to make an honest count. Still insist on ignoring this issue even as the whole thing is on the edge of blowing up.

  4. There is only one way to end war and preparation for war, and that is, as we have said, by a universal monarchy. If we can imagine one country—let us say Russia for the sake of argument—so powerful that she could disarm the rest of the world, and then maintain a force big enough to forbid any Power to invade the rights of any other Power ... no doubt we should have universal peace.[61]

    This dictum recalls one, equally emphatic, once voiced by a colleague of the late Procurator of the Holy Synod in Russia, who said:

    There is only one way to ensure religious peace in the State, to compel all in that State to conform to the State religion. Those that will not conform must, in the interests of peace, be driven out.

    This quote is from a century old book on G's scholar  link:

  5. I don't care if you put up my last comment, or this one,what I want to do is talk to you about these things. I first saw that we were planning on finding imaginary things in 1979 after reading “Limits to Growth”. I think I was primed to see this growing up with celiac disease running in the family, and a decision by a grandfather that Christian Science was the answer, as he thought he had a dramatic healing of crippling rheumatic fever with it around the end of WWI. I came to feel that he had confused correlation with causation, and I wasn’t seeing anything like this happen again, felt the religion had logical problems and was dangerous. This was a decision made a lot harder because I loved my parents… But pushed by a lot of pain I left the religion behind, very sorry that my parents wouldn’t follow, we became a bit like strangers. It has more complexity than this but I don’t have space here to tell it all. So when a few years later I read LTG, I also saw that people were counting on false logic about the past, that since we had found ways around limits in the past we would do it again. This was similar to what I’d seen and concluded about Christian Science, and was both horrified and glad to see it- again a lot of complexity with how all this happened I can’t fit here- ended up telling my boss at work who had argued that LTG was safe to ignore, and the result of that was I had to either resign or be fired- I’d been unable to focus on my job, worried about LTG and a related matter with a romantic relationship. I decided that I didn’t know how to live without fossil fuel and needed to learn, felt I’d learned some things around a decade later and started trying to contact scientists who expressed concern about energy and the environment, about what I’d put together. I’ve lost family, friends, romantic relationships, career, with this stuff, have been deeply depressed at times, struggled a lot with my health, nearly died before I found out about celiac disease, but still had/have a lot of damage to deal with. So, I just wanted to tell you a bit about how I learned these things, and know how conflicted people can be about them, what can be lost to take a position on them-in both directions.

  6. Hello Ugo,
    Leadership qualities are often contested. Different organizational cultures promote different kinds of people to the top. The worst (in my experience) are the competitive "performance-based" organizations, where everyone tries to hide their mistakes, which leads to more expensive failures and a lot of angst and fear.

    The organizational culture also changes depending on who sits in the top chair.

    I recommend the writing of Manfred Kets-de Vries, who already in the 1980s wrote about "the Neurotic Organization", where different psycho-pathologies of leaders are reflected into different kinds of dysfunctional organizations.
    Many illustrative examples of real organizations with real dysfunctional/psycho-pathological leaders... It helped me to recognize the different kinds of dysfunctions of the organizations that I was part of throughout my career.

    The three major problematic patterns that I have observed are:
    * Yes-men
    * GroupThink
    * Back-stabbing

    In the worst case scenario, like the case with the Duce, I think you get all three patterns.

    I suspect that these three are emergent patterns that arise when the seven virtues are absent (chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, humility). I have not yet worked out the relationships. What do you think? Is there one virtue that is more necessary than the others for successful balanced leadership?


    1. There seems to be many variations of what people call back stabbing fostered by competition between departments and teams, not just between individuals. Some people call them feifdoms.
      Often it's started with budget battles, but sometimes just clashing personalities of managers starts it and it goes on forever... even after the managers are gone.

  7. Novel observations about things we have previously put into categories, and conflict with the way those categories are arranged in our minds, can make us stop and think about whether to change our beliefs, or reject change. Especially when it involves beliefs about right and wrong, life and death, and fear of death is common. Having a lot of people stop and think about such things could divide the population into those who think it better to count what we have and live within it for the goal of living on, just as Jesus says, as science says, and the rest will continue as they have with faith in things helping them that can't be seen, or that they don't have faith in such things but are going to continue as they were anyway. Their behavior is basically the same as those with faith in unseen things. And with that resolved, we find out what works best, or if nothing works.

  8. Ugo, I've been thinking a lot about these two posts..chessboard and this one. It's hardly just the leaders....I've gone to war with people I previously called friends over what I believe is their brainwashed/propagandized positions....TDS/Russiagate (certainly warmongering), covid, covid "shots", now the Ukraine (the Cuban Missile crisis seems to have been entirely forgotten)....I now believe that looking for one cause of insanity/loss of common sense or some sign of physical illness, is the wrong approach. There is a theory that many of the medieval (and prior) religious visions were due to the effect of starvation on the brains...Hitler and Mussolini and Napoleon weren't starving...hubris, loss of common sense (detachment from reality and the consequences in an immediate sense), Barzun attributes the decline of Western Civilization to the loss of common sense, as Arendt attributes the rise of totalitarianism to the same. If you don't have to feed the chickens to get eggs, your view of life is different from facing hunger if you don't. But there are many more possibilities. Chemical imbalances due to soil depletion, brainwashing from a young age...(like the British and Germans against the Russians), poisons in the wall paint, poisons in the glyphosate, electromagnetic imbalances in the earth itself (Winifred Gallagher...I think, A Sense of Place? wrote about this). I studied many of these things when I was trying to stay alive when I had cancer.

    This seems off point, but I do not believe it is: all my life, I heard that when I got older, young people would not think I had anything to say, worthwhile. What was never said, and I now find shocking is that my own generation of highly educated people seem to have deteriorated mentally in their accumulation of information (maybe they became too liberal arts education), their own curiosity, their gullibility and lack of questioning. These will be the people, if they live past the "shots" and the "war" who will be demanding show trials in the newly refurbished/built courtrooms of Guantanamo. They are gone....I don't think they will recover...only become more frightening.

    I'm going to go feed the dogs and chickens and turkeys. Even writing this tiny bit makes me feel sick. I don't see an end or a cure. Christine

  9. Small point: the English title of the film referred to as "Frankenstein Junior" is "Young Frankenstein".

  10. Thank you Ugo, for as usual an enlightening look at history.

    I once listened to a talk by a sociologist (I unfortunately don't have the
    reference) in which the orator explained that in experiments it was found
    that in general democracy makes better choices than even an expert

    Gabor Maté notes that our institutions are such that traumatized individuals
    rise naturally to positions of power. We prefer characterizing such
    individuals as "traumatized" rather than as "sociopaths" because we are fans
    of the compassion prison project (see
    which encourages the question: "What happened to these people?" rather than
    "What is wrong with these people?". It is very interesting to note that
    economic contraction provokes autocracy and scapegoating.

    The most positive development would be that Europe adopts agroecolgy as Cuba
    did after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It would undoubtedly change our
    diets for the better.