A History of Incompetence

What we can learn from Hitler, Alexander the Great and Hannibal Barca

Handre van Heerden
Published in
10 min readNov 6, 2021


I am an amateur photographer. Took this photo at the town of Kleinmond in South Africa

Any ruler or rulers, no matter the type of government, has to be seen as necessary and indispensable to the governed, else they would be disposed of.

Viewing history through this lens provides extraordinary insight into events of the past. In modern history, starting at the end of WW2, leaders have managed to successfully sugarcoat their incompetence by using the press and carefully sculpting their image with the help of consultants. This has been exaggerated by popular media glorifying the CIA, MI6 and the KGB. Countless movies, television series and books depict how smart, competent, hardworking and “high level” these agencies and other government bodies are.

This is in sharp contrast to what we experience in the news. Complete idiots like Biden, Trump and George Bush have been elected to the presidency of the USA. In my home country of South Africa, an illiterate thief called Jacob Zuma ruled as president from 2009–2014. Openly stealing billions of dollars while mismanaging the entire government operatus and delving millions of people into poverty while infrastructure is left to rot and sewerage flows in the streets. Almost every country around the world has similar stories ranging from financial mismanagement to allowing millions of refugees across borders freely to insane economic measures and thievery.

We think that it was different “back in the day” only because of the stories mentioned in the second paragraph and I will now use examples from the past to prove it.

As soon as you change the narrative from “The victors are competent and brave heroes” to “The defeated are complete idiots”, history makes a whole lot more sense. Just imagine what would happen if your country’s current leadership has to now command an army in a world war.

First up we have everyone’s favourite bad guy, trusty old Adolf. Hitler was a massive Napoleon fanboy. He admired and studied Napoleon’s tactics and was acutely aware of the difficulties involved in attempting to conquer Russia. Yet he made exactly the same mistake as his hero and commanded his best troops into the Russian winter to freeze to death without proper clothing or equipment. The similarities are so evident that it is almost as if Hitler tried to emulate Napoleon. Only, instead of retreating, he just left them there to die.

“But Hitler was a military genius and conquered France, who at the outbreak of WW2 had the world’s most formidable, largest and advanced military” you might say. Well well well… let’s look at that event through this lens:

The French spent the time after WW1 strengthening their defences, building a line of defence on their eastern border called the Maginot line. Meanwhile contemplating where Germany could or would attack. If only there were some kind of previous similar event to look to for some clues as to where and how this might happen. Oh wait… there is. WW1. It literally just happened. Germany used what is called the Schlieffen Plan, where they used the bulk of their army as a hammer to burst through Belgium and “roll up” the french line from top to bottom, surrounding the bulk of the French military and cutting them off from the rest of France, supposedly ending the war quickly.

Schlieffen Plan, WW1
WW2 German Invasion Plan

The Schlieffen Plan almost worked in WW1. One would have thought that when planning a defence after all of this, the planner would think: “Let’s defend our northern border. The Germans love attacking from there.” They didn't. In fact they did the exact opposite. Building massive defences literally everywhere accept on the one crucial point where they knew the Germans prefer to attack from.

In March 1940, less than two months before the German surprise invasion, Parliamentary Army Committee member Pierre-Charles Taittinger led a parliamentary delegation to inspect the defenses in Sedan, a city for whose defense General Huntziger was responsible. Taittinger prophetically reported, “In this region, we are entirely too much taken with the idea that the Ardennes woods and the Meuse River will shield Sedan and we assign entirely too much significance to these natural obstacles. The defenses in this sector are rudimentary.” He wrote that he “trembled” at the thought the Germans might attack there. General Huntziger dismissed Taittinger’s warning entirely.

Then on top of that you have insane incompetence from the French military leaders when the attack took place. Reading about it, its hard to think of possible scenario’s where these people could be more pathetic. Basically the entire French command just threw their hands in the air and said, “Oh well, we lost. Pack it up boys, the Germans won.” I don’t want to spend more time on this because this is probably the most well documented utter incompetence in history.

If we back up another 25 years to WW1, the incompetence among leaders seem to run even higher. Ypres, Verdun, Gallipoli, Marne, Somme, Ypres again, Marne again, literally everything the Russians did. Everyone on every side just seemed to attack, attack, attack, gaining nothing but losing millions of men. Over and over and over, basically into oblivion. It’s like hitting your head into a wall over and over until you die and never thinking about stopping. That is basically a short summary of WW1. A total war of incompetence and stupidity by rulers.

So I can go on and on about almost every event in history, but lets look at a few famous ones.

Alexander the Great. This guy is seen as the greatest of all time, the best and most successful military commander in history. Don’t worry, I’m not going to bash him, but rather his opponents. Primarily this guy:

Darius III

You may never have heard of him, but it is because of his incompetence that you have heard of the Great Alexander.

Darius the Third, King of Kings, The Great King, King of Persia, Pharaoh of Egypt. He lost in battle to Alexander twice. Both times he had more than double the amount of soldiers Alexander commanded.

First, at the Battle of Issus, Alex was up to his usual tactics, which can be shortly described as:
“Find a weak spot in the enemy line, personally charge through said weak spot along with elite cavalry, kill or chase off whoever is in command of enemy army, enemy soldiers then just “give up” or flee.” Yes that is how battles used to work. If the enemy general runs away, you win. And that is exactly what happened at Issus.

“Alexander led a cavalry against Darius himself. Darius fled the battlefield, and victory was won shortly after. The remaining Persian forces fled when they realised their king had done the same.”

Now I will give you one, just one guess as to what happened the second time they met on the battlefield, at the battle of Gaugamela.

Alex had 47 000 men. This time, the King of Kings brought with him 120 000 men. Almost 3 times the amount of Alexander’s troops. How is it possible that Alexander can win this?

You guessed it! Ding Ding Ding!!!!

Alexander himself led his cavalry and charged in to exploit the weak spot in the Persian line. Once again, after being penetrated by his cavalry, Darius fled. Once the rest of his army realised Darius had fled, they ran for it. Darius was later murdered by one of his governors.

And so Alexander conquered the whole of Persia by relentlessly charging at a blatantly incompetent old leader with his pals, two times.

Sidenote: Alex was awesome and won a lot of other battles using numerous interesting and novel tactics. This was just by far the biggest and most prestigious of the lot, and charging in with his cavalry is his trademark move.

Next up: Hannibal Barca

This guy was truly awesome. Probably in my top two favourite historical figures.

Hannibal Barca

Hannibal did what was at the time thought of as impossible: Crossing the alps with an army intact.

Hannibal started the crossing with +-60 000 men. The troops and their general had to battle not only the weather and the incline but hostile tribes who lived in the mountains. By the time they reached the other side, 17 days later, the army had been reduced to 26,000 men in total and a few elephants.

But when he reached Italy, boy oh boy did he have some staggering surprises to dish up for the Romans.

First up was the Battle of Ticinus river. Average victory for Hannibal.

The next two battles is where things get interesting.

The battle of Lake Trasimene can be more accurately described as the “Slaughter at Lake Trasimene”. The Roman army was marching along a road with the lake on one side and a hill with forest on the other, spread out thinly in marching formation. Hannibal hid his men in the forest and waited for the Romans to march past. When the entire Roman force was within this “trap”, they stormed down the hill and basically killed the unsuspecting Romans at will. 25 000 Roman casualties.

Lake Trasimene ambush

Who was the incompetent leader here? Gaius Flaminius.

Flaminius is criticised, most strongly by Polybius, for his rashness, lack of judgement, and lack of military expertise that led to this defeat.

This is what happens when you send a politician into war against a general.

But this was far from the worst defeat to be suffered by the Romans at the hands of Hannibal. What he had in store for them next would go down in history as one of the greatest military defeats of all time. Interestingly it is also one of the greatest displays of incompetence by leaders of all time.

The Battle of Cannae (Battle of the Bastards, Game of Thrones S6 Ep9 is loosely based on this)

Hannibal marched to the Roman supply depot of Cannae, which he took easily, and then gave his men time to rest. The Romans sent the two consuls Lucius Aemilius Paulus (d. 216 BCE) and Caius Terentius Varro (served c. 218–200 BCE), with a force of over 80,000, against his position; Hannibal had less than 50,000 men under his command.

Varro and Paulus were co-Consuls that year. Rome elected two leaders every year, sharing power.

Now get this:

Ordinarily, each of the two consuls would command his own portion of the army, but since the two armies were combined into one, Roman law required them to alternate their command on a daily basis.

Yes you read that right. They alternated command of the army on a DAILY basis. What is more is that Varro wanted a battle asap and Paulus did not want to fight at this stage. So basically you have the Romans preparing to engage for battle one day and then attempting retreat the next. They were infighting between each other and arguing instead of preparing to face Hannibal.

Meanwhile Hannibal was planning every detail of the battle including his deployment of troops, access to water, direction of the wind, lining his army up so that the romans have to look into the sun etc.(As one would expect of any competent leader)

On the morning of the battle, as the forces drew up, a Carthaginian officer named Gisgo reportedly remarked to Hannibal that the size of the Roman army was astonishing. “There is one thing, Gisgo, yet more astonishing”, Hannibal coolly replied, “which you take no notice of.” He then explained, “In all those great numbers before us, there is not one man called Gisgo”, provoking laughter that spread through the Carthaginian ranks. Classic

Needless to say, the ensuing battle was another slaughter. Hannibal encircled the Romans, causing them to bunch, squeezing them together. Some men were trampled to death inside the circle. Hannibal’s men then proceded to start killing the Romans from the outside inwards, by hand. This took the whole day. 44 000 Romans died that day.

As Livy described, “So many thousands of Romans were dying… Some, whom their wounds, pinched by the morning cold, had roused, as they were rising up, covered with blood, from the midst of the heaps of slain, were overpowered by the enemy. Some were found with their heads plunged into the earth, which they had excavated; having thus, as it appeared, made pits for themselves, and having suffocated themselves.”

Luckily for us modern humans of the 21st century, when our leaders put their incompetence on display, we are merely stuck with more tax, inflation, an higher crime rate and decaying infrastructure. Count yourself lucky that you don’t have to dig a hole in the sand and suffocate yourself in it, for now.

So, did I write all this shit just to point out that some leaders of the past were garbage at their jobs? No, it is to point out that incompetent people keep getting themselves into positions of power and influence. Throughout history this has been the case. How do we keep these buffoons from wrecking havoc on our society?

The most logical way is to try and limit power. No person or group should be allowed by decree to have such devastating influence. Notwithstanding any of the numerous other arguments for small government, this point alone should be enough reason to advocate for the wider distribution of decision making.

Towns, cities, provinces and regions have to take back control of their own destiny. No national government will ever dissolve their power top down. It always has to happen bottom up.

Thank you for reading. If you want to read more of my work, please follow me on twitter @Handrev or use the links below:

How and Why to Think Macro

Bitcoin Standard: What, When, How

On Inflation

and finally, my satirical masterpiece

The Bitcoin Apocalypse