Army Chiefs Of Staff Professional Reading Lists Speak Volumes

I love perusing recommended readings whether they are provided by friends and colleagues, professional associations or scholars and wise men. They often point me down intellectual paths I had failed to recognize. They also say a lot about the mindset of those making the recommendation, so when I had a chance to look at the 2011 U.S. Army Chief of Staff’s Professional Reading List I jumped at the chance. Even though General Martin Dempsey was Chief of Staff for only a nanosecond, the fact that he is now Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff still makes the list significant. When I looked for the list on the Internet I discovered that the Army also had kindly provided a PDF of the 2002 version developed by Dempsey’s predecessor once removed, General Peter Schoomaker. I immediately put the two lists side by side to see what, if anything, had changed in the way the Army’s senior leadership thought before and after September 11.

What is immediately striking is how little the two lists have in common. The 2002 list is rich with classic works about strategy such as by Michael Handel, Michael Howard and Williamson Murray. There are also a lot of books about war, mainly big wars. The list includes most of the good histories of World War Two including those by Rick Atkinson and Stephen Ambrose. There is James McPherson’s magisterialBattle Cry of Freedom about the Civil War, Donald Kagan’s The Peloponnesian War and Martin Van Creveld’s Supplying War. There are also good biographies of senior Army leaders such as Patton and Marshall. In a hint of things to come, there are a couple of works on terrorism. All in all, a list that reflects an Army focused as much on its past as on its future; one confident that the lessons of the past can be applied to the future.

By contrast, the 2011 list seems suspended in time or perhaps more accurately outside of time. Gone are all the great works of the 2002 list (with the exceptions of Sun Tsu and Clausewitz) and the histories of World War Two. This might appear reasonable given the radical change in the challenges that the Army confronted and General Dempsey lived after 9-11. But where are the new and interesting works that have been written in the past decade precisely about those wars? There is only Sebastian Junger’s War. What about Doug Stanton’s Horse Soldiers, Sean Naylor’s Not a Good Day to Die: The Untold Story of Operation Anaconda, Bing West’s The Strongest Tribe, or counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen’s,The Accidental Guerrilla? Equally important, there is almost nothing about the adversary we have been fighting for almost ten years. How about NSC advisor Bruce Riedel’s The Search for Al Qaeda, Peter Bergen’s The Longest War, Fawaz Gerges’ The Rise and Fall of Al Qaeda or Ahmed Rashid’s Taliban. On the larger subject of terrorism in general, where is Bruce Hoffman’s Inside Terrorism or Jerrold Post’sThe Mind of the Terrorist?

Nor is there much about other challenges, other than Friedman’s now tired paeans to globalization and Kaplan’s book on the Indian Ocean. Granted the 2011 list was published prior to the Arab Spring but there is nothing about regions that were priorities throughout the first decade of the 21st century such as the Persian Gulf or Northeast Asia. It is almost as if the idea of an adversary has disappeared.

Upon reflection, this makes some sense. When he was at TRADOC, General Dempsey pressed the idea that the major challenge confronting military planners, in general, and the Army, in particular, was uncertainty. Why plan for a particular kind of war or a specific adversary when the future is unknown. What it ignores, however, is that a military planning for everything is not really prepared for anything.

The 2002 reading list provided a good set of basic readings about dealing with the policy and bureaucratic environment in Washington including H.R. Masterson’s Dereliction of Duty and James Locher’s Victory on the Potomac. There are also several works devoted to the transformation of the military including one by that quintessential Army iconoclast Douglas Macgregor. In 2011 there is nothing.

It is interesting that neither the 2002 not the 2011 lists provide any reading that address the changes in technology, economics or culture that have radically altered the conduct of warfare. Nothing on computers or the Internet such as Michael Moritz’s, Return to the Little Kingdom: How Apple and Steve Jobs Changed the World, or even Nicholas Negroponte’s somewhat dated Being Digital. It is said that great generals study logistics so how about books on the radical change in the way goods and services are managed and moved such as Michael Baudin’s Lean Logistics or Greg Niemann’s Big Brown?

Finally, in an era of increased jointness the absence on either list of any readings about the other services is particularly striking. Perhaps this is a reflection of the fact that the conflicts of the past decade have been larger ground wars. But as the Libyan campaign demonstrates this situation can change rapidly.

What disturbs me about the 2011 reading list is my sense that it reflects a service unmoored, cut loose from its history and lacking a vision of the future to guide it. One hopes that the new Chairman, General Dempsey, possesses a sense of history and a vision of where the U.S. military needs to go.