Daniel Sneider of the San Jose Mercury News has written an unusual piece about reading in the military:  “What they’re reading makes it clear that the stereotype of mindless warriors who shun critical thinking is overblown.  ‘This is an incorrect, shallow assumption,’ says Maj. William Stebbins Jr., who publishes a counterinsurgency newsletter from the Cavalry/Reconnaissance Doctrine Team at Fort Knox, Ky. ‘Disciplined authority orientation and independent, intellectual prowess are not mutually exclusive concepts.’”  --  Daniel Sneider has been the Christian Science Monitor’s San Francisco Bureau Chief (1994-1997), Moscow Bureau Chief (1990-1994), and Tokyo correspondent (1985-1990).  He has also covered defense and national security affairs for Defense News and Defense Week....


By Daniel Sneider

San Jose Mercury News
February 13, 2005


As the 5,200 soldiers of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment prepare to ship out to Iraq for the second time, their training has taken on a gritty realism. Exercises in the foothills near their Fort Carson, Colo., base simulated roadside bomb attacks on their convoys and suicide truck bombers charging the gate. A couple of hundred Iraqi-Americans were bused in to play the role of Arabic-speaking villagers angered by raids into their homes in search of elusive insurgents.

But these soldiers have also been armed with another essential weapon of the modern American warrior: a few good books.

The regiment commander, Col. H.R. McMaster, handed out a seven-page reading list that covers a gamut of subjects, including the history of counterinsurgency campaigns from Vietnam to Algeria; Arabic and Islamic culture and history; and a thorough dissection of Iraq's ethnic fabric. It is a list that would rival any college course's.

McMaster's soldiers can't just read a few pages before hitting the sack. Their squadron leaders have assigned particular books to individuals, then organized groups to discuss them. The groups are the army's equivalent -- with a sense of urgency -- of suburban book clubs.

“I am not wild about that analogy but it is accurate,” says Capt. Raymond Kimball, a decorated veteran of the Iraq war who is promoting army education while pursuing a master's degree in history from Stanford. “The key is not so much the reading, but the discussion that follows it,” says Kimball.

Military reading lists aren’t new, nor is the study of military strategy and history. But the lists’ popularity and use are proliferating at Internet speed. The growth is being driven in part by a new, bottom-up movement for military education and self-examination, started outside the traditional structures of military learning.

The need to look for lessons between the covers of a book has a clear timeliness. For the first time since Vietnam, the American military is engaged in a full-scale counterinsurgency war. Such wars are as much about understanding culture as about firepower.

The reading selections, and the discussions they provoke, provide a rare glimpse inside the barrack walls and reveal an army that is engaging, not avoiding, the controversies of this war, from the abuses of Abu Ghurayb to the failure to foresee the insurgency that followed the initial invasion victory.

While army officers and soldiers are trained to maintain the discipline and authority of their command structure, what they’re reading makes it clear that the stereotype of mindless warriors who shun critical thinking is overblown.

“This is an incorrect, shallow assumption,” says Maj. William Stebbins Jr., who publishes a counterinsurgency newsletter from the Cavalry/Reconnaissance Doctrine Team at Fort Knox, Ky. “Disciplined authority orientation and independent, intellectual prowess are not mutually exclusive concepts.”

‘DERELICTION OF DUTY’ No book captures this better than one that is not on McMaster’s list: his own. The former West Point instructor's Dereliction of Duty, written after his decorated service in the Persian Gulf War, has become a military bestseller. First published in 1997, and based on original research, it is a controversial look at the decision to expand the war in Vietnam.

As the subtitle implies -- Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that led to Vietnam -- this is an excoriating look at the relationship between civilian and military leaders. The depiction of Johnson and McNamara as deceptive and abusive of the military is not unprecedented. But the equally harsh condemnation of the military leadership for failing to stand up and make clear how difficult the war was going to be was unusual.

You cannot read this book and not think about Iraq. The parallel between McNamara and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld practically jumps off the pages. And, like the Vietnam-era chiefs, former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki was slapped down for saying the United States would need far more troops in Iraq.

So when the army chief of staff and the new Iraq ground forces commander put the book on their reading lists, it raised eyebrows within the military.

McMaster, who laughs politely when invited to draw the implications of his own book, is focused more on guiding his cavalrymen to grapple with the moral minefield of fighting an insurgency.

Iraq “is the most complex region we could be dealing with,” he says. There are “cultural and historical factors that make understanding the environment there elusive. My soldiers have to understand what that population went through.”

Insurgencies are fought on two battlegrounds -- intelligence and perception -- he says. The first involves understanding who the enemy is and separating it from the broader population. The second is to “understand how our actions will be perceived by the population.” The reading, he says, is intended “to equip soldiers to make those tough decisions every day.”

The question of when to use force, not just how, is very much a part of this, says McMaster.

Lt. Gen. John Vines, heading out as American ground commander in Iraq, assigned his own short list of books to his top staff members. It, too, encouraged an understanding of Islam and Iraqi history, including such books as Karen Armstrong's short history of Islam along with V.S. Naipaul's Among the Believers. But it also suggested more philosophical reading in the form of Samuel P. Huntington's controversial treatise, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.


The West Point history department recently recommended 10 books for those engaged in Iraq. It also recommends watching Gillo Pontecorvo's 1965 movie, “Battle of Algiers,” a barely fictional and darkly realistic account of the often brutal and ultimately unsuccessful French suppression of the Algerian revolt against its rule.

The West Point list, like one provided by Stebbins in his newsletter, does not shy away from the fact that most counterinsurgency campaigns fail. And it offers a view from the other side -- for example, the memoirs of a Viet Cong commander. Among the suggested readings is a 1922 account by the commanding officer of British forces who suppressed the large-scale insurrection against the British occupation of Iraq in 1920.

“Methods used were innovative, if brutal, causing short-term pacification but long-term resentment of British influence,” the West Point list summarizes.

The Army Chief of Staff's Professional Reading List is the heavyweight of military reading lists. It was first issued in 2000 by then-Army Chief of Staff Shinseki and revised last year by his successor, Gen. Peter Schoomaker. The suggested readings are divided by rank -- beginning with a list for cadets, ordinary soldiers and junior non-commissioned officers, and finishing with the books for senior officers.

It begins, appropriately enough, with the Constitution of the United States, and moves on to very readable accounts that are often graphic, if not depressing, in their depiction of warfare. Stephen E. Ambrose's Band of Brothers, the tale of a World War II airborne rifle company, is paired with the powerful We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young, a searing firsthand account of one of the opening battles of the Vietnam War by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore and journalist -- now Knight Ridder columnist -- Joseph L. Galloway.


There are also the classics -- Carl von Clausewitz's On War, and China's 2,000-year-old Art of War, by Sun Tzu. The reading also focuses on the dilemmas of leadership. And military personnel are invited to ponder the challenge of globalization in Thomas L. Friedman's The Lexus and the Olive Tree, or to study Thinking in Time, a cautionary examination of the dangers of false historical analogies by Harvard giants Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May.

The importance of education has long been an essential part of American military life, enshrined in the service academies as well as in midcareer training colleges.

But the current blossoming of reading lists is driven by a new, bottom-up model of military learning, facilitated by the growth of the Internet. The poster child for this is CompanyCommand.com, a Web site initially set up outside formal military channels. The site, created by four Army captains, was intended to foster problem-solving conversation among the men and women who command companies, which range from 100 to 200 soldiers.

“Company commanders have an amazing amount of power and authority for someone so junior in the Army organization,” says Kimball, one of the movers behind CompanyCommand.com. The grass-roots effort became so successful that the Army now officially hosts the site on the West Point server.

The site, which is accessible only to officers and those preparing for that role, offers discussions on everything from the role of women in combat to coping with improvised explosives planted along Iraqi roads.

A vital part of CompanyCommand.com, “Pro-Reading Challenge,” provides units with copies of a book and an online space to discuss it. Members of the 25th Infantry Division headed to Afghanistan were given Ahmed Rashid's award-winning Taliban, for example.

In one forum, made available to me, cadets and others discussed Once an Eagle, a novel written by a former Marine infantryman that describes the struggle between a virtuous soldier and a scheming scoundrel of an officer. Kimball, who led the online discussion, provoked a lively exchange by asking if it is necessary to depict the enemy as evil to get soldiers to fight effectively. And that sparked a back-and-forth on U.S. soldiers' increasing use of the pejorative term “Hadji” to depersonalize their Iraqi enemies.

“It seems obvious that dehumanizing a person can lead to immoral acts -- like what happened in Abu Ghraib,” wrote CompanyCommand.com founder and now West Point instructor Maj. Pete Kilner. “I wonder if it's a result of operating in an environment that doesn’t address the morality of killing. . . . Nowhere in a soldier’s formal training and education is there any explanation of why and when it is morally permissible to kill in combat.”

As we saw in the recent controversial comments of a Marine commander -- who said, “It's fun to shoot some people” -- there are those in the military who don't share Kilner's view. But as these reading lists suggest, some of the Army's commanders want leaders who think before they act.

Kimball, who estimates that the Army has spent some $2 million on his education, including his training as a helicopter pilot, puts it more bluntly: “If all they want me to do is salute and drive on, it’s a waste of money.”

--DANIEL SNEIDER is foreign-affairs columnist for the Mercury News and has written extensively about the military.