This life’s hard, but it’s harder if you’re stupid.” – George Higgins, The Friends of Eddie Coyle


We’ve all been there. Spend enough time in uniform and you’ll eventually see something so bizarre, so stupid, that it sticks in your mind like a wad of bubblegum under an elementary school desk.

In the waning days of an informal investigation, I was conducting my final interview with an officer who was facing allegations of improper use of command authority. But what had started as a relatively uncomplicated review of disciplinary procedures had quickly evolved into a bizarre case of abuse of power unlike anything I’d ever seen. The officer had wielded the power inherent in their position to intimidate, coerce, punish, and retaliate on a scale that belied their rank. But there was no ill intent; the officer truly thought they were somehow acting in good faith.

The person sitting across from me could not be reasoned with. They were impervious to common sense. The more I explained why the things they were doing were wrong, the more defiant they became, responding with incoherent and senseless arguments. Mark Twain once famously noted, “Never argue with an idiot. They will drag you down to their level and beat you with experience.” Truer words have never been said.

Those moments defy reason. They leave you with your face scrunched, mouth agape, in a fruitless effort to understand the why. As in, “Why would anyone do something so stupid?” You simply can’t make sense of it. They weren’t evil; they were just incredibly stupid.

The evil within

Unlike stupidity, evil is much easier to identify. In the movies and on television, the villain almost always stands out from the crowd. The man in the black hat. The woman with the eyes of cold steel. The smiling clown in the storm drain with the balloons. These are people with deeply dark intent, people who know what they’re doing and launch into it with cold, calculated purpose.

We are conditioned to recognize and react to evil from an early age. We can defend ourselves against these known evils, fight them on even ground. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian, remarked, “One may protest against evil; it can be exposed and, if need be, prevented by use of force. Evil always carries within itself the germ of its own subversion.” Bonhoeffer, an anti-Nazi dissident who died by execution – a dawn hanging on April 9, 1945 – at the Flossenbürg concentration camp, knew a thing or two about evil.

Stupidity, however, poses a different problem.

Bonhoeffer’s law

We all know someone whose bulb burns a little dimmer, who we might joke is a few fries short of a Happy Meal. We laugh about it, toss around a little lighthearted banter. It’s all fun and games.

Until it isn’t.

Stupidity has a dark side, one that we often ignore at our expense. We tolerate stupidity; we simply don’t take it seriously. However, stupid people are also impervious to assault by logic or reason. They can’t be confronted with facts and cannot be debated.

Perhaps channeling Twain, Bonhoeffer continued:

“Neither protests nor the use of force accomplish anything here; reasons fall on deaf ears; facts that contradict one’s prejudgment simply need not be believed — in such moments the stupid person even becomes critical — and when facts are irrefutable, they are just pushed aside as inconsequential, as incidental. In all this the stupid person, in contrast to the malicious one, is utterly self-satisfied and, being easily irritated, becomes dangerous by going on the attack.”

Bonhoeffer recognized stupidity as a deeper, darker danger. While we generally withhold power from the evil among us, stupidity doesn’t prevent someone from holding office or gaining a position of authority. And after ascending to such power, the intellectual gaps – lack of critical thought, self-reflection, or curiosity – become harbingers. As we have seen time and again, one stupid person with power can do more damage to our lives than a gang of scheming villains.

Bonhoeffer’s theory argued that we should view stupidity as something worse than evil. While we are focusing our time and effort preventing evil from gaining power, the stupid take reign, where they pose a far greater risk. With evil, you have a fairly clear idea of what to expect. The stupid, however, wreak havoc in positions of power, creating chaos in their wake as they destroy everything good in their path.

The lesson from Bonhoeffer? Laugh while you can but be afraid. Be very afraid.

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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a co-founder and emeritus board member of the Military Writers Guild; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options; a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal; a member of the editorial advisory panel of Military Strategy Magazine; and an emeritus senior fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point. He is the author, co-author, or editor of several books and is a prolific military cartoonist.