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Kendal Ozzel is seen in Episode V The Empire Strikes Back as the admiral in command of the Imperial fleet searching for the hidden Rebel base and Darth Vader's personal flagship, the Star Dreadnought Executor. However, he makes multiple mistakes -- he almost missed the Rebel base on Hoth, and he brought the fleet out of hyperspace too close to Hoth so that the Rebels were alerted to the Imperials' presence. Wookieepedia's article on Ozzel also notes that earlier in Ozzel's career

his superiors did not see him fit to serve as an effective field commander, and he was relegated to teaching positions for a while.

Wookieepedia doesn't mention how he got out of his teaching positions nor does it say much about his rise through the ranks:

Eventually, he ended up serving in the navy of the Galactic Empire. In 14 BBY, he held the rank of Rear Admiral, and was a member of the Joint Chiefs. Following the destruction of the First Death Star, he had become an Admiral.

There's no evidence that Ozzel was actually a Rebel agent, so he appears to be truly incompetent.

Vader was also famously contemptuous of him:

He is as clumsy as he is stupid.

...

You have failed me for the last time, Admiral.

How did this incompetent officer manage to become an admiral and the commanding officer of a fleet including Vader's personal flagship?

This looks somewhat like a case of the Dilbert principle in practice, although Ozzel was promoted to such a prominent position that he was able to make serious mistakes. Perhaps he was put in charge of Vader's flagship so Vader could keep a close eye on him?

I am primarily looking for an in-universe canon explanation, though examples of how incompetent officers in real life managed to rise through the ranks are welcome as out-of-universe explanations.

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    Yeah, the Empire seems to have constant problems with middle management. But you have to admire their swift solutions – Machavity Jan 3 '18 at 17:29
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    Possible duplicate of Was Admiral Ozzel a Rebel agent or just incompetent? – Dranon Jan 3 '18 at 17:58
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    @Dranon Did you not read the question? I linked to one of the answers in that question. That question is asking if he's incompetent (he is), I'm asking why he was promoted despite his incompetence. – Null Jan 3 '18 at 18:00
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    @Null This is not limited to the Star Wars universe... Incompetent individuals have always, and will always, find the correct dosage of brown nosing and blame shifting to be perceived as "the right guy" by their superiors... – Odin1806 Jan 3 '18 at 18:56
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    There's also the possibly frequent and capricious field promotions that are likely in any command structure led by Darth Vader. – Todd Wilcox Jan 3 '18 at 21:54
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Look at real life. I give you, as an example, Lloyd Fredendall. Got into West Point because of family connections, and failed twice out of West Point (and when the same senator nominated him a third time, they refused to accept him). Took an officer's qualifying exam after he earned a civilian degree and received a commission. Went to Europe when the US joined World War One, became recognized as "an excellent teacher, trainer and administrator of troops", enough to get him brevetted to lieutenant-colonel, but never led troops in combat. After the war, he attended and taught at infantry school, did well at command and staff school, did some rounds in various administrative posts (where he made a lot of well-placed contacts), and it was those contacts and the glowing recommendations they gave that caused Eisenhower to put him in command of Central Task Force of Operation Torch.

Eisenhower forever regretted that decision.

To quote someone who knew him:

"Small in stature, loud and rough in speech, he was outspoken in his opinions and critical of superiors and subordinates alike. He was inclined to jump to conclusions which were not always well founded. Fredendall rarely left his command post for personal visits and reconnaissance, yet he was impatient with the recommendations of subordinates more familiar with the terrain and other conditions than he." - General Lucian Truscott

Fredendall soon become disliked by his men because while they were out in the field, he was commanding from his command ship (until the fighting was over in the initial landings) and later from a luxury hotel. His British superior, Lt. Gen. Anderson, considered him incompetent, but couldn't simply get rid of him because of the political issues. Fredendall couldn't issue orders properly, which caused his subordinates to try and figure out what the hell he was wanting them to do. He built a ridiculously elaborate command bunker well behind the lines and insisted on an armoured Cadillac. By the time of the disaster at the Kasserine Pass, his orders were conflicting Anderson's, so subordinates had no ideas who they were supposed to be listening to, assuming they understood what Fredendall was ordering. Eisenhower sent Maj. General Earnest Harmon to see what was going on, and Harmon's official after-action report on Kasserine Pass called Fredendall a physical and moral coward. Eisenhower "transferred" him out, giving Patton his command, and when Patton finally got a look at what he'd inherited he realized the man had been a complete waste of a uniform and utterly useless.

Despite all that, after Fredendall was still promoted when he returned to the US, because he hadn't officially been removed from his post for cause.

Now, all that said, replace "Lloyd Fredendall" with "Kendal Ozzel", and you can easily picture the character portrayed in the movies and in the Clone Wars TV series doing many of the same things. The only real difference between the real person and the fictional character is that Eisenhower didn't have a bitchin' black cape and mask and was too polite to throttle Fredendall for his incompetence.

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    In my centennial studies of World War I, I have gotten the impression that pretty much all of the generals involved were incompetent to some degree. None had any business waging war. – Todd Wilcox Jan 3 '18 at 21:52
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    @ToddWilcox When family ties and friendships decide who's in charge. One could say the same about many modern democracies, if one were so inclined. – Arthur Jan 4 '18 at 8:48
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    @ToddWilcox I was under the impression that after the 60ish year absence of major conflicts people were overconfident about the lack of possibility of a global war. IIRC, Niall Ferguson made an argument based on governmental bond prices that WWI was totally unexpected. It's easy to see how in that atmosphere the military would become a dumping-ground for leftovers with connections. – Jared Smith Jan 4 '18 at 11:44
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    @JaredSmith, to be fair to the generals, they were in charge during an awkward phase of warfare: they had to deal with essentially the same technologies and weapons WW2 generals did but without a critical one: easily portable radio. Without it, they were tied down to locations because of telegraph and telephone lines so didn't have situational awareness of what was happening in front, and couldn't leave because there was no way for their comms to go with them. – Keith Morrison Jan 4 '18 at 16:08
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    @KeithMorrison Also they were taught tactics that worked with pre-WW1 military, but many hadn't seen large scale combat with "modern" (WW1 time-modern) weaponry. And a lot of technological advancement was made during the war in weaponry, making it hard to adjust to the moving "target". – Frank Hopkins Jan 4 '18 at 19:30
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  According to novels Lords of the Sith and Tarkin, Palpatine purposely put psychopaths (like himself) in charge of Empire, i.e. in top ranks. Upper-middle and middle ranks (where Ozzel belonged) were filled with incompetent but politically loyal buffoons, slothful degenerates and backstabbing careerists. Those at the very top and under personal thumb of the Emperor were unable to reconcile their differences and join forces to topple him, but did share his vision of ruling through fear and terror. Those in middle positions knew too well that they owed their position to the Empire and the Emperor, not to their own skills. So they remained loyal to keep their rank and their life. Lucas was probably influenced by Stalin's Soviet Union, especially before WW2 .

Vader was probably personally disgusted with such policies, which often brought defeat, although Empire had vast numerical and technological advantage over the Rebels. That is why he often vented his frustrations on Imperial commanders whom he deemed incompetent. In this case, Ozzel paid for promotion above his abilities with his life.

1:

Fruun was one of Belkor's men, one of the hundreds whose loyalty he'd bought through favors or secured through blackmail. Moff Mors-lazy, sloppy Delion Mors-left the running of Ryloth's occupation to Belkor, and Belkor had not been idle. He'd filled several Imperial units with commanders whose first loyalty was not to Mors, or even to the Empire, but to him, and the soldiers would do exactly as their commanders told them.

2:

After Murra had died, she'd found herself purposeless and content in her purposelessness, just drifting. She'd turned hedonistic, grown lazy. Worse, she'd lost her ability or desire to discern a quality commander from a flatterer. So she'd promoted Belkor and those like him, while ignoring people like Steen Borkas. And now she'd lost a Star Destroyer, the Emperor, Lord Vader, and maybe a planet.

3:

The Emperor chuckled. "Delian Mors is many things, Lord Vader, lazy, hedonistic, nihilistic, but she is not and never will be a traitor to the Empire. And after today's events, I suspect that she will begin correcting her weaknesses. Proceed, Sergeant."

4:

"He is fearful of you, as he should be, but he is not as timid as he seems. He will do as he's asked in order to preserve what power and privileges he still retains, but he will do no more than what he's asked. And he will do it all with an eye first to his own interests, then to his people, and then to the Empire." "Hmm. Would you say then that he is...loyal?" "Viewed through those constraints, yes, I'd consider him loyal."

Lords of the Sith

1:

The Emperor studied him openly. "I sometimes wonder, though, if you-born an outsider, as I was-feel that we should be doing more to lift up those worlds we defeated in the war? Especially those in the Outer Rim." "Turn the galaxy inside out?" Tarkin said more strongly than he intended. "Quite the opposite, my lord. The populations of those worlds wreaked havoc. They must earn the right to rejoin the galactic community." "And the ones that waver or refuse?" "They should be made to suffer." "Sanctions?" the Emperor said, seemingly intrigued by Tarkin's response. "Embargoes? Ostracism?" "If they are intractable, then yes. The Empire cannot be destabilized.""Obliteration." "Whatever you deem necessary, my lord. Force is the only real and unanswerable power. Oftentimes, beings who haven't been duly punished cannot be reasoned with or edified."

2:

The more Sidious investigated Tarkin's past-his unusual upbringing and exotic rites of passage-the more he grew to feel that Tarkin's thinking about the Republic and about leadership itself was in keeping with his own, and Tarkin hadn't disappointed him. When Sidious had asked for help in weakening Supreme Chancellor Valorum so that Sidious himself could win election to the position, Tarkin had stonewalled Valorum's attempts to investigate the disastrous events of an Eriadu trade summit, thereby helping to foment and hasten the Naboo Crisis. Tarkin had remained loyal during the Clone Wars as well, enlisting in the military on the side of the Republic, despite repeated entreaties by Count Dooku-which Sidious had arranged as a test of Tarkin's dedication.

3:

Still, Tarkin could see how a Republic officer like Teller might feel betrayed to the point where he would attempt to wage a campaign of revenge against all odds. The military was filled with those who refused to accept that collateral damage was acceptable when it served to further the Imperial cause. In the absence of order, there was only chaos. Did Teller expect an apology from the Emperor? Compensation for the families of those who had been unjustly executed? It was witless thinking. Multiply Teller by one billion or ten billion beings, however, and the Empire could face a serious problem˙...

4:

As the backbiting between Rancit and Ison continued, Tarkin was tempted to raise his eyes to the podium to see if the Emperor was smiling, since it was his policy to encourage misunderstanding as a means of having his subordinates keep watch over one another. A form of institutionalized suspicion, the policy had proven an efficient fear tactic. He recalled Nils Tenant's wariness in the Palace corridors. The competition for status and privilege and the jockeying for position brought to mind the waning years of the Republic, but with one major difference: Where during the Republic era cachet could be purchased, present-day power was at the whim of the Emperor.

Tarkin

  • This is good info, but can you 1) cite some passages from "Lords of the Sith" and "Tarkin"? And 2) Offer anything to back up your speculation about the Soviet influence and Vader's venting? – jpmc26 Jan 4 '18 at 6:21
  • @jpmc26 I will add passages as soon as I get some time – rs.29 Jan 4 '18 at 7:36
  • Although Keith Morrison's answer is pretty good, I upvote this one because of in-universe sources. – Neow Jan 4 '18 at 8:03
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    Not all of the high ranking Imperials were incompetent (Tarkin himself is a counterexample), but you make a good point that political loyalty was highly prized in high ranking Imperial officers. +1 for that. Still, I find it hard to believe that the Empire couldn't find anyone in the whole galaxy who was both politically loyal and competent for the important job of leading the fleet that was searching for the Rebels. – Null Jan 4 '18 at 15:36
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    I'd also say, once it's known what happens if you fail, any intelligent person would make sure to not gain too much influence, because there is always a chance you fail - even if due to mistakes made by others - and Lord Vader will just vent his frustrations on you ... – Frank Hopkins Jan 4 '18 at 19:32

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