Posted on November 1, 2015


We all know what incompetence looks like. Merriam-Webster’s defines it as: “lack of the ability to do something well: the quality or state of not being competent.”

Not too long ago we had a visitor on campus at UA who spoke quite clearly on incompetence, although that was not his subject. It got me to thinking about it.

The speaker was General Rafael del Pino of the Cuban Air Force. He defected to the United States in a hair-raising escape from Cuba in 1987.

He also described being an observer and adviser to North Vietnam during the Vietnam War. This is no surprise since Cuba under Fidel Castro was closely allied with the Soviet Union and her allies around the world. A “your friends are my friends and your enemies are my enemies” kind of thing.

Del Pino also led the Cuban air forces in the middle 1980s when Cuban armed forces intervened in the wars between Angola, Mozambique and the South Africans. In this instance, the Cubans were acting as proxies for the Soviets in Africa.

And the General, then a lowly 2nd. Lieutenant was also at the battle of the Bay of Pigs, April, 1961 when U.S.-sponsored and recruited Cuban exiles tried to overthrow Fidel Castro. We’ll return in a moment to Del Pino.

As I considered the implications of what General Del Pino shared with me about Fidel, the Soviet Union (he went to fighter pilot school there also in the mid-1960s), Vietnam, Africa, etc. I began to develop a new theory of why people and nations are successful. It’s not quite in the genre of the new literature by such sharp observers of the human condition as Malcolm Gladwell, who, in his new book David and Goliath Malcolm describes the traits and nature of why people and institutions succeed.

My theory is that those who rise to the top, especially nations and civilizations, but we can refine it later to include individuals and groups, is not because of their brilliance, drive, intelligence or other quirks and characteristics, but because they screw up less than their competitors.

This, in itself, is not a theory to inspire but it bears a lot of resemblance to historical reality.

When Del Pino was in North Vietnam observing the warfare, largely air attacks by the U. S. on North Vietnam, he was watching the Americans trying to destroy a strategic bridge across a river.

He was told after one day of watching American jets try to hit the bridge with multiple strikes, “come back tomorrow, at 7 a.m.”

“So we went back to see what would happen at 7 a.m.,” he told me. “I thought this was strange,” he continued, “they will be back at 7 a.m.?” he asked his North Vietnamese hosts.

“Sure, they always show up at 7 a.m.” was the answer.

I thought, were we that predictable!?

Sure enough, the American jets showed up at 7 a.m.

Del Pino and his Cubans were watching, about a half mile distant.

“You were that close?” I asked, thinking if the Americans couldn’t hit the bridge, they could be dropping bombs everywhere.

“Well, we wanted to see.”

So the jets came in, one strike after another, roaring in and bombing everything it appears, except for hitting the bridge.

The NVN were lighting up the air with anti-aircraft fire, and, for all I know, Migs were also defending the air space against the Americans.

Finally, as Del Pino and others watched, one of the Americans, “I think it was a Navy jet,” the General recalled, hit the bridge. As it exploded, one of the Cubans shouted out “Hon Run!!!”

“Hon Run?” the NVM asked. What did they say?!

In their excitement, the Cubans, who love beisbol (baseball) as much as we do, recorded their feelings in the best way they know, “Home Run!!!” The gringos hit the bridge! Outa the park!

The NVM were outraged. Del Pino then had to explain to them the niceties of baseball, a game which still apparently transcended the ideological barrier dividing Americans from Cubans in those days. Home Run!!!

Now, this makes for a great story, about how we in the Western Hemisphere share a lot of things that the rest of the world may not entirely understand, like beisbol.

But it also underscored my theory. Were the Americans THAT predictable?

No wonder we got waxed in the air war over North Vietnam. That plus the rules of engagement that prohibited the Navy and Air Force from hitting certain targets. It was a witch’s brew which we need not go into here.

In the American Revolution, the English were too incompetent to engage General Washington and destroy his little Continental Army and bring the Revolution to a close. Washington won no major battles against the English, except for the last one at Yorktown, supported by French regiments and ships. Washington, in fact, proved less inept than the English, and guess who won the war?

Interested in more examples? Try the Israelis since the State of Israel came into existence in 1947 and six Arab states all attacked the remnants of Judaism trying to get a foothold in their historic homeland. With vastly more resources in men and equipment, the Arab nations have yet to overwhelm Israel, and the logic is inescapable: they are incompetent.

I am not arguing that a George Washington, a David Ben Gurion, the North Vietnamese, or other examples you can think of yourself were not brilliant and determined and had nothing to do with winning their wars or revolutions. It would be difficult, for example, to argue that the Germans and Japanese were inept during the Second World War.

But, think about it. Militarily they may have been immensely efficient, at least in the beginning. Politically they chose to follow madmen who persuaded them of their invincibility. That is ineptness in political wisdom of a magnitude almost hard to comprehend, except for the fact that it did.

What are the lessons of this striking new theory you have read about, right here in River City? You can draw your own conclusions of course.

But I think it informs us about the human condition. Don’t overvalue yourself and underestimate your enemies might be one conclusion. That one alone is worth chewing on a bit.

Published as Incompetence Explains Human Condition in Sunday Nov. 1, 2015, The Tuscaloosa News.

Posted in: History