Second Honorable Mention, Vincent Astor Leadership Essay Contest
Professional reading is vital for illuminating the dark corners of the world of war.
World War II Army General George S. Patton once said:
I have studied the German all my life. I have read the memoirs of his generals and political leaders. I have even read his philosophers and listened to his music. I have studied in detail every damned one of his battles. I know exactly how he will react under any given set of circumstances. He hasn't the slightest idea what I'm going to do. Therefore, when the day comes, I'm going to whip the hell out of him.
With those lines, General Patton spoke to warriors of every era. He correctly prophesied his victory over the Germans while subtly educating future generations of warriors. General Patton understood that reading gives a leader the "foglights of war" to peer into the incomprehensible chaos of combat. We must understand that reading is fundamental in leadership development.
Reading military history allows leaders to peer into the fog of war during times of peace. Leaders can experience combat through the eyes of their predecessors and learn from their mistakes or achievements. In today's era of rapid technological change, reading provides a chance to prepare technically, tactically, and psychologically for the basic truths of warfare: friction, disorder, and the human dimension.
The Pragmatic Approach
From a purely pragmatic standpoint, the benefits of reading are highlighted in U.S. military history. For example, Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain, hero of Little Round Top, was not a career military officer. When the Civil War began he was a religion philosophy professor in Maine. He declined command of a regiment so he could begin service under the tutelage of a more senior mentor in the 20th Maine Infantry and study the technical aspects of military leadership. This scholar-soldier understood the importance of reading.
During his apprenticeship, he studied military manuals to achieve technical mastery. His studies and observations culminated at Gettysburg, where he had the presence of mind to make bold decisions in the face of grim odds. His reading program gave him the technical proficiency required to lead troops in an unorthodox, but highly successful, counterattack. Since he had become a master of military tactical concepts through professional reading, he was able to act decisively when the moment of truth was at hand.
Pragmatic reading, however, is not only a subject for history lessons. It is fundamental to current military leaders. For instance, with the current revolution in information technology, it is challenging for communications officers to remain current in their specialties. I learned this lesson when my unit began preparing to change network software systems. A few years ago, the Marine Corps changed networking software from Banyan Vines to Microsoft Windows NT. During the planning, there was no money available to pay for training on the new system. To overcome this obstacle, my section and I began reading all available literature on Windows NT. Bookstore bargain bins formed the backbone of our section's library. We allocated time during the day to read and prepare for the change.
Although we did not become experts in Windows NT, we were more prepared than those who waited for the Marine Corps to provide training. Our reading program gave us a foundation of understanding on which we could build with practical application.
Certainly the manuals we read are not the normal foundations of a military education. The concept, however, still is valid. In peacetime, we must do all we can to become technically and tactically proficient. Just as Colonel Chainberlain prepared himself by reading military manuals, we prepared ourselves to perform more efficiently by reading computer manuals. We gained the ability to approach uncertain situations with learned experience instead of untrained eyes.
Technical reading can benefit every military leader regardless of specialty. Is it good for an artillery battalion supply officer to read artillery publications? Does it help if the artillery battalion commander has read supply manuals? The answer to both of these questions is a resounding yes. Reading can develop proficient combat service support officers with greater capacities for understanding their units' needs. It also can help commanders understand the capabilities and limitations of their support. Pragmatic reading can yield enormous rewards for leaders of all specialties and ranks. It must become a part of their normal training.
The Philosophical Approach
There also is great value in reading as a purely philosophical exercise. Officers who study topics ranging from military history to philosophy will better understand the human dimension of warfare. When the moment of truth arrives, a warrior's philosophical foundation will help penetrate the fog. Although reading history will not provide technical answers to modern situations, it will provide an understanding of how commanders cope with uncertainty.
It must be stressed that the goal of reading history is not to learn the answers to current or future problems. Rather, the goal is to gain insight into the general nature of combat. As Captain Adolf Von Schell says in Battle Leadership (Marine Corps Association, 1987), "It]here is a certain danger in the study of military history if we seek to obtain from it more than the eternal verities of leadership, morale, psychological effects, and the difficulty and confusion which battle entails." Reading history is a quest for truth, not answers.
General Patton, who devoted his life to studying military history and other subjects, sets the clearest example of this concept. Although the world had never before witnessed the mobility of tank warfare it saw in World War II, the general's studies prepared him for this new style of combat. He was mentally and psychologically ready for the challenge of modern combat. His lifetime of study gave him the necessary foundation for combat leadership in a fluid environment.
Though General Patton's reading program included military manuals, it also included philosophical works. For instance, on his way to North Africa, he read the Koran. He read literature on Caesar's Gallic campaigns and William the Conqueror's battles while awaiting the formation of his army in Normandy. To gain insight into his own situation, he saturated himself with the basic philosophical tenets of the peoples against whom he was fighting and the problems faced by earlier generals. In a 1926 speech, then-Colonel Patton explained his theory of reading: "[W]e must live on not in our studies. We must guard against becoming so engrossed in the specific nature of the roots and bark of the trees of knowledge as to miss the meaning and grandeur of the forests they compose."
In today's military there is a critical need to understand history. One of the hottest military topics is the revolution in military affairs. Leaders in every specialty are dealing with questions of information overload, network-centric warfare, and technological advances. How can we put these questions in a recognizable context? To understand today's shifting technological climate and its impact on future operations, we must have a firm grasp on the historical trends in warfare.
One of the most comprehensive, yet understandable, books in this area is Martin Van Creveld's Command in War (Harvard University Press, 1987). His survey of military history and technology-induced doctrinal changes helps the reader understand the relationship between war and technology. Van Creveld's comment that "the technical advances that were introduced after 1850 [have not] altered or even reduced the quintessential problem facing any command system, that of dealing with uncertainty" shows us that our current situation is not essentially different from that facing leaders of past eras. We are not the first generation struggling to match tactics and technology.
By reading military history we learn that, while the present is unique, the timeless experience of developing doctrine for new technology is not. We cannot expect to find the answers from history, but we can expect to understand our predecessors' thoughts during their quest for answers. Once we have a context for decision making, we confidently can explore the path to victory. That is the truth of history that General Patton preached.
The Foglights of War
Busy though we are, we must not forget the essence of our profession—combat. Everything we do in peacetime must prepare us mentally, physically, and psychologically for war. Failure to prepare will ensure defeat. Military professionals must use every available tool to illuminate the fog and gain the advantage. Reading provides leaders insight into chaos.
A professional reading program should be the cornerstone on which to build leadership in today's military. Whether one reads pragmatically or philosophically makes little difference. The balance between pragmatic and philosophical reading will come as one matures. The key is that one reads. History shows that well-read leaders have been able to lift the fog of war. Their quest for understanding gave them the tools they needed to make decisions in uncertain environments.
The fog of war will continue to dominate combat. Will we equip ourselves with foglights?
Captain Grissom is a 2001 graduate of the Marine Corps Command and Control Systems School in Quantico, Virginia.