Lighthouse Erected in the Great Sea of Time? You be the judge

I think that it is great that military commanders now have reading lists (who doesn’t have one these days?).  Encouraging military professionals to understand their profession in ways other than by dint of their own experience alone is a worthwhile endeavour and should be encouraged.

This sentiment, of course, depends on the assumption that all books so chosen have a contribution to make towards the noble aims of such an enterprise.  But what is one to make of ‘bad books’?

On the Commandant of the US Marine Corps’s Professional Reading List, I found and read this book: The Warrior Ethos by Stephen Pressman.  It is required reading for every Marine, regardless of rank or role.  And to me, that is a shame.

The book is chock full of bumper-sticker aphorisms, many of which are contradictory, the bulk of which are sexist, some downright misogynist.  The book advocates a turn to ‘subjective control’ of the military, rather than ‘objective control’, on the basis that the distinctions between the military culture and the civilian one are unhealthy.

A confusing–even worrying–choice, therefore, and one that needs defending if it is to be appreciated.

Bring it.


10 thoughts on “Lighthouse Erected in the Great Sea of Time? You be the judge

    • The Faceless Bureaucrat says:

      Yes, thanks for noticing. Now changed in the text. Apologies.

  1. Andrew says:

    You make a good point here. As an active officer in the US Army, I have observed that we often fool ourselves into thinking that we are being intellectual by reading the recommended titles. Many of these books are thinly veiled political drivel or restatements of age old principles of leadership. Junior officers are often guilty of thinking that if they read the works recommended by a senior officer the path to higher command will somehow be easier. I’ve lost count of the number captains who have I have seen walking around with a book in hand simply because the brigade commander had it open on his desk. Conversely, I was once criticized by my brigade commander for having “too many” books in my office. Granted, very few of the titles I displayed on my shelf would have made any General’s reading list (the only reading list he was concerned with at the time, as that was his next step). But I have to admit that I’ve learned far more about the human element of war from an Evelyn Waugh or, even, a George MacDonald Fraser novel than any of the current “Military Leadership for Dumbies” selections.

    For my money, no list would be complete without:

    Defense of Duffer’s Drift – Swinton
    Pork Chop Hill – Marshall
    Face of Battle – Keegan
    A Savage War of Peace – Horne
    Forgotten Soldier – Sajer
    Goodbye to All That – Graves
    Henry V – Shakespeare
    Dando on Delhi Ridge – Clive
    Singapore Grip – Farrell
    Rifleman Dodd – Forester
    The Complete McAuslan – Fraser
    Memoirs of an Infantry Officer – Sassoon

    • The Faceless Bureaucrat says:

      I suppose if everyone had a personal reading list, organisations wouldn’t need to have them…

      However, there is some value (in addition that which I added) in having a inter-subjective, or shared, corpus of knowledge to which one might refer.

      I like your list. If I can add one more, I might say Storm of Steel by Ernst Jünger.

      Other readers might suggest some more?

    • Very much appreciated the film Pork Chop Hill,
      and now enjoyed the book even more.

      In Go, Weichi or even Baduk, the oriental game of strategy,
      Ko is a tactic which is especially useful in asymmetrical
      or handicap games, as wearing on the participants.
      The other beautifully described situations also arise
      and you can try them out at:

    • The Faceless Bureaucrat says:

      Ken, I would concur with your choice. See also his most recent book ‘Men at War’, which could itself serve as a reading list and a gateway to numerous other, literary works. []

  2. Tom Wein says:

    I wonder if the dumb books will eliminate themselves over time? After all, the generation of generals currently writing reading lists are new-ish to this – they weren’t brought up at a time when degrees were nearly automatic for officers, and they didn’t spend their junior officership reading books their bosses told them to. As today’s captains get to the top, they may have had more practice at filtering out the rubbish.

    Or not. CEOs have been reading business books for ages, and they still keep reading Sun Tzu.

  3. Ewan Lawson says:

    Probably a statement of the obvious but I wonder if the issue is as much about how and why the books are read rather than the list itself. I would argue that it is often the perception that by reading the books on the list, the individual will have an injection of knowledge that would put them on the path to greatness. However, what should be encouraged is both the critical reading of the books and then subsequent discussion amongst peers to stimulate thinking. In this way, even ‘bad books’ have a value and there is a chance or really developing the intellects of future leaders.

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