21 February 2010

On Professional Reading

(H/T Reach 364)

We in the milblog community are avid readers, as evidenced by the plethora of posts about reading lists (to include
a list of reading lists here at WOI). Indeed, the Army has long recognized the value of reading for professional development, with the Chief of Staff of the Army publishing an annual reading list for soldiers of all ranks. Certainly, looking at the great minds in the US Army--General Petraeus, Brig. Gen. McMaster, Col. McFarland, Col. Mansoor, Lt. Col. Nagl, etc--we can see the positive effects of a lifetime of reading and learning.

Recently, a few officers at the US Army's Company Command forum--a secure website where company commanders discuss work-related issues--have created a reading list for new platoon leaders and company commanders, which is receiving quite a bit of attention within the Army and also from our sister services as well. These officers implemented a reading program within their unit, forcing new leaders to get in the books and learn lessons from military leaders from generations past.

Nevertheless, as much as I like to read, and as much as I believe in professional reading programs, I've never been forced to read a book--aside from Army manuals and FAA regulations--in nearly eight years in the Army. In fact, when I got to my first unit, my company commander flat-out stated that he would never assign a book report to platoon leaders because he--and I quote--"hated to read".

Part of the reason I was never assigned a book to read revolved around the fact that, as a new lieutenant, I was expected to spend most of my time reading my aircraft operator's manual, my unit's standard operating procedures, and other technical and regulatory works. In all honesty, there simply wasn't enough time to read for pleasure. Plus, reading Army manuals will pretty much kill your desire to read, anyway.

The operational tempo of the Army, with its year abroad followed by a year at home, is such that precious home time is often so full of training exercises, equipment fielding and the like, that we don't want to take away an officer's little remaining free time with assigned reading. Not to mention, a lot of commanders are not avid readers themselves, and, if they do assign books, they are often books from the PX, many of which have little intellectual value, and are often the military equivalent of dime-store novels or Harlequin romances.

Even in professional military education, I've found that the reading requirement was generally waived or pencil-whipped. Strangely enough, though, some odd circumstances came together during my time in the Aviation Captains' Career Course that spurred me to start reading at an even more voracious rate.

The first was the fact that I knew that the Army was not going to teach me to fight in the 21st Century counterinsurgency environment. While there is valid debate as to how much counterinsurgency theory we should be teaching, it's safe to say that, if we're fighting insurgencies in two different wars, we ought not spend most of our time discussing Soviet BMP-2s and Division Tactical Groups. That, coupled with a strange new shift in tactics which was then called "The Surge", spurred me to start reading as much as I could about counterinsurgency.

The second such influence came through an unlikely source--the one and only Tucker Max. Yes, that Tucker Max--the guy that insults vacuous sluts, beats up sporting mascots, and fornicates with the vertically-challenged. Well, Tucker Max also has a reading list of some really good books, such as Thucydides, Homer and the like. Tucker introduced his readers to an author named Robert Greene, who wrote a series of books about Power, War and Seduction. From Robert Greene, I found references to all sorts of great books on strategy--Lawrence, Boyd, Machiavelli, you name it. I committed myself to reading as much as I could. After all, what else was I going to do in lower Alabama?

(Ed note: Okay, one of my fellow classmates can comment into a few other extracurricular activities, but that's neither here nor there. Suffice to say, my moral depravity really knows no bounds.)

While it is difficult to establish a reading program in peacetime, it's relatively simple to implement one during deployments. Troops can get quite bored, particularly when bad weather rolls in. Plus, reading is a much more productive alternative to playing XBox360 for hours on end.

Focus: Does anyone else have a similar experience with military reading programs?


Reach 364 said...

"While it is difficult to establish a reading program in peacetime, it's relatively simple to implement one during deployments. Troops can get quite bored, particularly when bad weather rolls in."

I agree... in my AF experience, deployed troops are always looking for ways to pass their free time and read a lot more than usual. That's why I've never understood why the military misses this opportunity to provide troops with good books. As a C-17 pilot I flew to bases all over the CENTCOM AOR, and the book availability at every BX/PX was TERRIBLE. I could find second-rate fantasy or trashy romance novels, maybe a few Vietnam memoirs, and a single book from a third-rate author on learning Arabic. Almost never did I find quality, current books on foreign affairs, language, strategy, etc. (alas, I didn't have a Kindle at the time)

I think each geographic command should maintain a list of recommended books for their region, actively promote them, and ensure they are available at every BX/PX in their AOR. It's not a perfect solution, but I think it be a big step forward in giving troops the opportunity to educate themselves.

PFF said...

In Brazilian Army, we have reading programs at schools and training centers, for all military personnel (instructors and students).

There is a suggested list of books (mainly about brazilian history, world and brazilian military history, geography and administration), but anyone can choose your own book. It's a six-month program, so we read two book/year. At the and of the program, we join the people who read books of related subjects and each one present an abstract of the book.

At the operational units, reading is encouraged but there isn't a formal program.

Tom Copeland said...

FWIW, I've build a small web site - militaryprofessionalreadinglists.com - where folks can track their progress through the various reading lists. There's a lot of good stuff there, from "Starship Troopers" to books by David Galula on counterinsurgency.

JimmiePopp said...

So far I've been fairly disappointed by any of the required/suggested readings I've been exposed to as a cadet.

We haven't even been pointed in the direction of any books that I've come to regard as required reading (books I've only been exposed to on my own forays into the blogosphere etc.) such as Once an Eagle, Platoon Leader, etc. Nevermind things that may help expose new officers to the realities of the COE like Kilcullen or Defense of Jisr al Doreaa.

I'm sure I would get slammed at IOBC for knocking Rommel's Attacks, but if you are only going to assign ONE book in a semester, is that REALLY the best one out there?

Most of my inquiries into what I should be reading have yielded various field manuals and the like. Maybe that's just what cadets and new LT's should properly be reading at that stage in our development, but I can't help but want something I can actually get into.

Should I just shut up and read my one chapter a day out of FM 3-0 like I am told?

Reach 364 said...

JimmiePopp, you hit on the real danger here: the minute that we institutionalize a reading program and a bureaucracy becomes responsible for keeping it up to date, it is likely to bog down. It will reflect the biases of particular individuals and will probably quickly go out of date.

I think every commander should urge his or her troops to read, and the military should make lots of good books available (in unit libraries or PXs), and make suggestions, but ultimately it's best if servicemembers are free to choose what they want to read. Let the free market of ideas go to work...

Stormy said...

Along the lines of Reach 364's comments, it is largely contingent upon the individual to find the motivation to read books. However, it does greatly help to have a chain of command who supports any reading program--formal or informal. A huge part of learning from any reading is being able to have intelligent debates afterwards.

And I've gone the "unit library" route and it has worked extremely well. I have about 30 military/leadership-related books that I've amassed through Amazon purchases since my Korea tour began a year and a half ago. There's a wide enough variety that even my younger guys (SrA's and SSgt's) have something they can read and from which they take away some good lessons. It's definitely great when one of them come into my office, asks what book I'd recommend for them, and then be able to discuss some of the topics a couple weeks later when they've completed it. I've even had my boss get interested in professional reading since he got here. However, I only advertise it up to a certain point ("hey, I have these books and you're free to borrow any of them") and avoid trying to push any books on them because I know that approach would turn them off.

But no, I have yet to be forced to read a book as an AF officer--only some articles for SOS. I have, however, realized the immense benefits of professional reading on my own...

It is ironic that the Air Force has yet to update the CSAF's Reading List for 2010--perhaps we're too busy re-designing our PT uniform?

Starbuck said...

I think it's similar to what I had to deal with in school. Whenever you're assigned a book to read, you automatically hate it because a TEACHER assigned you the book.

You might as well cultivate a love of learning, that way the habit sticks with you a whole lifetime.