It happened today - September 13, 2015

An Italian "tank" It frequently occurs to me that the only reason the open societies did not succumb to their enemies many years ago, and do not manage to do so on almost a weekly basis, is that the bad guys manage to be even dumber than we are. For instance, most of our anti-terror measures are so laughable that our first line of defence and frequently our last is that we are up against guys who can’t blow their legs off with their shoes full of explosive, or give one another one last brotherly hug before martyrdom and set off their own dynamite vests.

Now luck is not a good Plan A. But there’s more than just luck here. There’s also the impenetrable obtuseness of the truly maniacal. Open societies are, as the name suggests, open, including open to criticism. Humans being what they are, the resulting discussions are frequently inane. But at least there are discussions and once in a while people notice that some irritating crank's point of view is actually right while the big shots going bwa bwa bwa are clueless. That doesn’t happen in terrorist organizations, or surly dictatorships.

Case in point: Mussolini deciding to invade Egypt from Libya on September 13, 1940. In the first place, he intended to restore the glory of Rome. Seriously. Nobody dared tell him that having a swaggering bully in charge and timid adversaries in the prewar years did not alter the fact that Italy was now a third-rate power, capable of beating up poor Libya or Ethiopia but not ready for a real fight.

In the second place, Hitler offered help but Mussolini declined because he was hurt that Hitler had rejected his help in the Battle of Britain. One imagines Hitler, a profoundly evil man but no fool, responding with ill-suppressed laughter or perhaps the comment that Germany had enough problems already. It genuinely seems not to have occurred to Mussolini that he needed German help in Africa for precisely the same reason Hitler didn’t want his help in the air over Britain.

In the third place, Mussolini ignored the reminders from Gen. Rodolfo Graziani that Italy’s claims of air superiority in North Africa were just the usual windy propaganda. So the Italians surged in, advanced about 65 miles and then basically sat around until December when the British struck back, drove the Italians out of eastern Libya and captured around 138,000 prisoners. Which is remarkable as the British initially attacked with about 30,000 men, one fifth of the Italian force.

Mussolini evidently felt that if he accepted German help while they declined his with a sneer, he would become a junior partner. What nobody dared tell him is that in fact he was already very junior to Hitler, indeed barely a partner. The result was that the Germans had to send precious troops to North Africa, where they almost captured the Suez Canal, and then invade Yugoslavia in April 1941 to bail out Mussolini’s botched October 1940 invasion of Greece, diverting forces Hitler badly needed for his invasion of the Soviet Union that summer.

Once the fighting started, the open societies rallied magnificently, at every level from Churchill down to privates and corporals. But in the run-up, their performance was so feeble it took a clown like Mussolini not to defeat them.

Fortunately closed societies are reliably demented, vicious and absurd precisely because they are closed and no one can tell the maximum leader he’s really neither.

It happened todayJohn Robson