I would make time to read that book

Friday, September 29th, 2017

Mike Hennelly reviewed the last six reading lists from the Army Chief of Staff and declared the most recent list the weakest of the bunch:

The various Army Chiefs of Staff issued six different professional development reading lists between 2009 and 2017 (Casey I, Casey II, Dempsey I, Odierno I, Odierno II and Milley I). All these lists are completely different — Dempsey’s brief list consists of 26 books while Milley’s massive list clocks in at a staggering 115 books. These six reading lists cumulatively contain the names of 240 different books, yet not a single one shows up on every list and only one book (Makers of Modern Strategy 2nd ed.) shows up on five of the six lists. In fact, 80 percent of the books on the most recent list are not mentioned on any of the previous lists.


In the 2017 reading list, Gen. Milley wanted to focus attention on George Marshall. Great idea. Marshall is a wonderful model of military professionalism. Unfortunately, the reading list directs people to Forrest Pogue’s four-volume (!) biography of Marshall. I read all four volumes this summer and it was painful. What is odd about this choice is that the Army has a perfectly good 95-page monograph on Marshall and strategic leadership (written by an Army colonel at the Strategic Studies Institute of the Army War College in 1993) that would serve the same purpose.


Guess which conflict makes Army generals more comfortable World War II (14 books) or Vietnam (1 book)?


There is an entire field of human thought devoted to planning, organizing, leading and controlling organizations. It is called the field of management. As an academic major, management is the most popular in American universities (and coincidentally, the most popular academic major, by far, among cadets at West Point). One would think that people who are responsible for planning, organizing, leading and controlling one of the largest organizations on Earth would be at least a little interested in the field of management. The 2017 reading list shows otherwise. Despite containing 115 books, not a single one of these books is from the field of management. Michael Porter, anyone? Clayton Christensen? Jim Collins? Bueller?


Every single one of the 115 book descriptions on the 2017 list sounds like it was written by a teaching assistant for an undergraduate syllabus. Just once, I would like to read a book description on the CSA reading list that was written by a senior Army leader who says: “I first read the following book as a lieutenant and it fundamentally changed my ideas on (fill in the blank); I reread it on a regular basis and learn something new every time.”

I would make time to read that book.


  1. Ross says:

    This kind of post is why I love Isegoria.


  2. Kirk says:

    Most of these “reading lists” are pretty much so much trite BS, promulgated by people who don’t read books in the first place, for other people who don’t read books unless a gun is put to their heads, and the whole thing is an exercise in public relations.

    I can’t think of a single damn time I ever ran into anyone else in my chain of command at my unit who actually bothered to either acquire or read the listed books, and from the folks I ran into at the libraries and book stores…? I have to extrapolate that there were maybe only one or two people like me in every few hundred or so soldiers, officers and enlisted leadership cadre inclusive.

    What few times I found people who had these books and paid attention to the reading lists? It was like what you find with regards to a lot of the Great Books (TM) programs–People buy them, put them on display, and then never actually read the damn things. It’s an exercise in intellectual posturing, like a peacock flashing their feathers.

    The reality is this: They put out the reading lists, people buy the books, may even read a few of them… And, then? Nothing. There’s limited to no comprehension of the information they’ve taken on, and further, there’s just about zero actual real-world application of what they might have learned.

    I may have mentioned my experiences in Iraq, with regards to MRAP vehicles for the Iraqi Police. Circa 2005, they were suffering huge losses because they were running around in unarmored commercial vehicles. This was enough of a problem that it was highlighted in the many briefings we got from the trainers, who worked out of our division headquarters for that part of Iraq. The solution was to acquire armored vehicles like MRAPs for the Iraqi Police, but due to the need to go through the Byzantine Iraqi procurement process, that solution was years away.

    So, I took it upon myself to talk to some of the people over there in the responsible element, and made a point of going over the actual history of the MRAP, going back to the Rhodesians who started it all, under sanctions, and using the facilities of the Rhodesian national railway repair shops. They upgraded and rebuilt a bunch of the imported chassis they had, adding armor to commercial vehicles, and created the first real MRAP-class vehicles–While under sanctions, I repeat. I saw no reason why we couldn’t do the same in Iraq, employing the locals and getting a solution to the problem of unarmored Iraqi national police at the same time. No dice–My recollections weren’t enough.

    So, I took it further: I acquired a copy of Peter Stiff’s Taming the Landmine, which is an excellent if little-known history of the Rhodesian and South African efforts. Passing that copy around the headquarters got me exactly nowhere for several issues I thought we ought to be looking at, namely the uparmoring of Iraqi Police vehicles, and the tactics used by the Rhodesians and South Africans, such as the so-called “Q-Ship” concept for dealing with IED attacks. Nobody in either the officer or senior enlisted classes at that headquarters seemed to be capable of taking what they had before them, in terms of historical and operational information provided by Peter Stiff, and extrapolating that out to the situation we were dealing with in Iraq in 2005-6.

    The problem isn’t the reading lists; the fucking problem is that they’re incapable of learning from what they read in the first damn place. I dare say that had you sat down and forced every serving officer to read every book on every list out there, at gunpoint (because, that’s what it would likely take…), you’d change nothing. Why? Because you can’t force someone to think. Most people would rather die, than entertain an original thought, or even actually reflect on the thought of others, trying to implement those thoughts in their lives.

  3. Cryptical says:

    I’d be interested to hear if the USMC Commandant’s reading program is more effective than the Army’s.

  4. Kirk says:

    Can’t speak to the Marines, but with the Army? I think the various reading lists served more as the Army version of that Great Books scam the pseudo-intellectual class has put over on the rest of us unwashed barbarians–The books are purchased, and then put on prominent display, never to be read.

    I honestly doubt that there are very many officers out there, in the US Army, who can sit down and discuss a lot of this stuff right off the cuff. To my mind, you ought to have a basic grounding in military history, the classic works of strategy and tactics, and be able to actually discuss and perhaps, in the ultimate expression, utilize what purportedly read in these reading lists. Good luck finding anyone who looks at you with any comprehension when you make reference to any of that body of knowledge.

    There’s a reason why the Army keeps treating the stuff that comes out of guys like Kilcullen like some new revelation from on high–The vast majority of the officers and senior enlisted have no real knowledge base to work from. And, why? Because there ain’t nobody checking on this crap, and there is no real “learning organization” features to the institution.

    I made friends with a British Army senior Warrant Officer, about the equivalent of one of our First Sergeants or Sergeant Majors. His comment vis-a-vis the vaunted US Army Center for Army Lessons Learned was that “…you bloody well can’t call it a “Center for Army Lessons Learned” if you never actually apply any of the lessons you supposedly learned… If they were honest, they’d call the place “The Army Center for Lessons Learned and Then Bloody Well Ignored”…”.

    Which, I’m sad to say, is pretty much something I have to sadly agree with.

  5. Gene says:

    I can’t remember where in my professional military education I was introduced to this book, but specific chapters were required reading for the Army officer corps. If memory serves me correctly, Command and General Staff College for young Majors.

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