I was forty-three when I attended the National War College. Over the course of the previous twenty years, I had trained in probably twenty-five countries and had served in a dozen different assignments. Each job broadened my skill set. This is standard in our military. Every officer and noncommissioned officer goes through that same maturing process. The military is a “closed labor” system, and we take responsibility for educating our leaders. I would have gladly paid for that privilege.
Most of us at the War College had reached the rank of colonel. Up to this point, we had focused our attention principally down the chain of command. Step by step, rank by rank, we had accumulated the skills necessary to command a warship or to lead a battalion of eight hundred troops or a squadron of aircraft costing hundred or millions of dollars. Each of us had been promoted College curriculum in strategy, history, and economics broadened me. Guest lectures included senators, cabinet members, foreign officers, and historians. When we left, after a year of study and reflection, many of us were assigned to jobs that required executive rather than direct leadership.
I learned this as an officer candidate, when a hard-nosed sergeant would correct my tactical mistake by sarcastically saying, years later, I was training in the jungles of northern Okinawa when, without warning, I was temporarily put in command of a 180-man company. On a Saturday morning, the sergeant major requested that I drop by for a quiet discussion. Technically, I outranked when his top noncommissioned offer wants to talk with him alone.
“You are a very persuasive young man,” he said, handling me a book about a Roman centurion, “but it would be best if you did your homework first.”
Before going into battle, you can learn by asking veterans about their experiences and by reading relentlessly. Lieutenants come to grasp the elements of battle, while senior officers learn how to outwit their opponents. By studying how others have dealt with similar circumstances, I became exposed to leadership examples that accelerated my expanding understanding of combat.
The Marines are known for their emphasis on physical toughness. But I well recall an Israeli exchange officer, on a sweltering run in the Virginia woods, bellowing at me that the physically vigorous life is not inconsistent with being intellectually on top of your game. “ Read the ancient Greeks and how they turned out their warriors,” he said.
Reading is an honor and a gift from a warrior or historian who- a decade or a thousand decades ago- set aside time to write. He distilled a lifetime of campaigning in order to have a “conversation” with you. We have been fighting on this planet for ten thousand years; it would be idiotic and unethical to not take advantage of such accumulated experiences. If you haven’t read hundreds of books, you are functionally illiterate, and you will be incompetent, because your personal experience alone aren’t broad enough to sustain you. Any commander who claims he is “ too busy to read” is going to fill body bags with his troops as he learns the hard way. The consequences of incompetence in battle are final. History teaches that we face nothing new under the sun. The Commandant of the Marines maintains a list of required reading for every rank. All Marines read a common set; in addition, sergeants read some books, and colonels read others. Even generals are assigned a new set of books that they must consume. At no rank is a Marine excused from studying. When I talked to any group of Marines, I knew from their ranks what books they had read. During planning and before going into battle, I could cite specific examples of how others had solved similar challenges. This provided my lads with a mental model as we adapted to our specific mission.
Reading sheds light on the dark path ahead. By traveling into the past, I enhance my grasp of the present. I’m partial to studying Roman leaders and historians, from Marcus Aurelius and Scipio Africanus to Tacitus, whose grace under pressure and reflections on life can guide leaders today. I followed Caesar across Gaul. I marveled at how the plain prose of Grant and Sherman revealed the value of steely determination. E.B. Sledge, in With the Old Breed, wrote for generations of grunts when he described the fierce fighting on Okinawa and the bonds that blind men together in battle. Biographies of Roman generals and Native American leaders, of wartime political leaders and sergeants, and of strategic thinkers from Sun Tzu to Colin Gray have guided me through tough challenges. Eventually I collected several thousand books for my personal library. I read broadly and selected a few battles and areas where I was weak to study deeply. Asked by a fellow Marine to provide specific examples, I sent him a list of my favorite books.