“Beware the man of a single book” – Thomas Aquinas
In two weeks, I will be taking on one of the most important assignments in my career – Professor of Military Science at a college in the northeast. I am extremely happy to take this posting, but also a bit apprehensive. I am going to be responsible for educating young men and women who will go on to become Army Officers, an awesome responsibility. There is a curriculum given to us to teach, but there is also a fair amount of latitude in how we present the material. But I also know I am there to share applicable experiences and knowledge with the Cadets in order to get them ready for the road ahead.
I passionately believe in reading. There’s hardly been a day in my life which I haven’t read a book. My professional life has been immeasurably aided by ability to read 2 to 3 books a week for the past couple of decades. Reading isn’t a substitute for experience, but it has allowed me to place my experiences into context and inform future decisions. As Thomas Aquinas said above, ‘Beware the man of one book’, I also add, ‘Beware the man of no books’. I cannot make my Cadets into avid readers but I will ensure they are aware there are vast amounts of knowledge available for them which can help them understand the world they operate.
What should they read? I am a huge fan of professional reading lists and all of the services have approved reading lists which encompass a wide variety of useful military titles. I would advise my Cadets to be familiar with the list and recommend several titles to them – but I also have my own professional reading list which suits my tastes and experiences.
My list is eclectic but it serves one of the principle lessons that I have learned in my career – one doesn’t read for knowledge, one reads in order to prepare their minds to receive knowledge. My point and my divergence from the official reading lists is that the world is big and complex and requires a much broader list than what is typically found. I am not against the official lists – before one goes off the beaten path one must know the path exists and where it leads. But the best thinkers and strategists we have went beyond the official lists to seek out knowledge across the full spectrum of study and were made better for it. Here are several books which I believe should be read and why:
Future of Freedom – Fareed Zakaria: I don’t care for the title but excellent book on modern day civics and the relationship between Democracy and Liberty. Mind blowing to me because it was the first time I came across the idea that Democracy and ‘Freedom’ isn’t the same thing. Many on the right and left take issue with Zakaria’s book – but I find myself in agreement that populism can be the enemy of Freedom and often time it is the undemocratic structures which are vital to the maintenance of liberty.
On War – Carl Von Clausewitz: The I-Ching of War – and the first of my ‘On….’ books. Many military professional officers have an opinion about it but almost no one has actually read the damn thing. It is a difficult read, very Kantian in its presentation and it demands intellectual engagement – but when it clicks, nothing else on strategy will ever measure up. Mao Zedong admired the book so much that in 1938, he presented it to his Officers as a book to be studied.
The Landmark Thucydides – Victor David Hanson: VDH has a negative reputation as being something of an ideologue and thus his reputation suffers. This is unfortunate because VDH is a first rate Greek and Classics professor and this version of the ‘History of the Peloponnesian Wars’ is the essential version of the story. It even has informative footnotes in the margin to explain certain things in the text. The History of the Peloponnesian Wars is one of the best war accounts of all time and has a little of EVERYTHING. Great power politics, battle sequences, heroism, villains, atrocity, PTSD and great speeches. The Athenian’s response to the citizens of Melos is straight out of ‘300’.
Meditations – Marcus Aurelius: This was the Roman’s Emperor’s personal diary to himself and considered one of the foundational documents of stoicism. Marcus spent all but 3 years of his 19 year reign on the campaign trail and Meditation talks a lot about service and duty, a fitting message for soldiers. Basic message: Life is hard. Suck it up, Cupcake, and do your duty.
Guns, Germs, and Steel – Jared Diamond: Jared Diamond is one of the most important writers alive and this book, along with ‘Collapse’, should be mandatory reading. I am taken with the concept of ‘Ecology’ and how everything resides in a system where single changes resonate in surprising ways – both constructive and destructive. The more I look at the myriad of problems in the world, the more I think Ecology is going to be vital to understanding what is really going on.
Clash of Civilizations – Samuel Huntington: Famous work by a powerful intellectual. The work is predicated on the notion that the world is divided into ‘cultural groups’ and those groups are inevitably doomed to compete and clash against each other. There are a lot of folks which hate this idea and criticize Huntington but like Malthus’s work, every year people feel compelled to debate it again – maybe the opposition rails against it because they desperately wish it weren’t true but are finding out Huntington was right.
Into Thin Air – Jon Krakauer: Riveting book about a mountain climbing expedition to Mount Everest in 1996 where eight people died. It is a book about a worst case scenario and instructive because it highlights the danger of overconfidence. At various points, I yelled at the book, ‘Turn back! What are you doing?’ but they kept going to their doom. Readable, gripping, and tragic – the lesson here is if you’re in the business of taking risks, make sure they are informed risks.
Black Hearts – Jim Frederick: If I had to pick one book from my list which I would force my Cadets to read, it would be this one. It is a tale of an Infantry Company in Baghdad and the atrocity which some of their soldiers committed – the rape and murder of an Iraqi girl and her family. It is tough stuff but the writer was fair and this is no hatchet job. More than most books out there, this is a book about leadership and discipline and why those two commodities are so vitally important in a war zone. I could construct and entire class out of the lessons learned from this book.
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