Reading More than the Message Traffic

By James T Stewart

As a typical naval officer, reading books for professional enhancement was not something I thought would be fun or rewarding. Then the joint world placed me at the U.S. Marine Corps Command and Staff College at Quantico, Virginia. It was far from the technical education I received during my undergraduate and graduate education. It was a whole new world of fighting theory, principles, and history revealed through lectures, notes, discussions, and-yes-reading books.

The staff college experience opened my eyes to the big picture. Here I found the art of warfare at the operational and strategic levels. Dead strategists became dear company-Karl von Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, Basil H Liddell Hart, Alfred Thayer Mahan, and many others. I was lifted beyond my undergraduate level of history education. The simple rote of what happened when and where was replaced by the dynamics of the strategists' thoughts on the course of warfare. In addition, I realized how much there is to gain through regular reading of books related to the military profession.

If the written word is the backbone of our communication and learning, why is there such a disdain for reading books? There are many excuses. After one has read the message traffic and the tactical/exercise publications relevant to the next watch, there is a great desire to use those rare moments of free time to set darken ship on the eyelids. If not sleepy, one trudges off to the wardroom to see a movie (for the fourth time). With these realities, it may be difficult to break the pattern and try to inculcate a love of learning through reading-essentially a liberal arts means of professionally enhancing our corps of naval officers.

Naval officers learn early in their careers that it makes no sense to reinvent the wheel and redo work that already has been done, especially if it has been done well. With that in mind, we don't have to travel outside our own military department to find a program that stimulates learning through reading. The program is administered by the service we normally associate with guttural sounds and tan scalps-the Marine Corps. Then-Commandant of the Marine Corps General Al Gray established the details of the Marine Corps professional reading program in ALMAR 127/89. He stated:

I firmly believe that professional reading is essential to the professional growth of our leaders. The profession of arms, in particular, has a profound body of knowledge which requires constant study if a leader is to remain proficient. Marines fight better when they fight smarter. Systematic and progressive professional reading contributes directly to that goal.

This succinct statement grasps a concept we would do well to investigate: regular professional reading will make us fight better. Fighting, after all, is the bottom line for the military. But the Commandant did not stop at a concept; he laid out a program and gave it objectives. These are the six original objectives of the reading program:

  • To impart a sense of Marine values and traits
  • To increase knowledge of our profession
  • To improve analytical and reasoning skills
  • To increase capacity for using printed media as a means of learning and communication
  • To increase knowledge of our nation's institutions and the principles upon which our government and our way of life are founded
  • To increase knowledge of the world's governments, cultures, and geography

The execution of the program is simple: every enlisted Marine is to read a minimum of two books per year from an approved list, and every officer a minimum of three books per year. The book lists are broken down into grade and rank categories and are regularly updated. In addition, each year a separate list of classic books is provided so commands can make a selection for group discussions. It is up to the individual commanding officer to tailor and monitor the overall program. The book lists include fiction and nonfiction, biographies and histories. Once started in the program, a Marine's reading appetite is whetted, and the minimum book requirement becomes just a stepping stone.

The Navy long has prided itself on being the aristocracy of the services, partly because of the multifaceted education we possess as part of our maritime profession. However, opportunities are fleeting by as the ground forces maneuver to outflank us before we can cross the "T". The Navy is ready for a truly professional reading program and subsequent fleet wide knowledge of the expansive history and thoughts that have been put into writing. After all, how many officers really use their full 200-pound professional book weight allowance?

 

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