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The Army’s Reading List: A Look Into the New Joint Chiefs Chairman

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Gen. Martin Dempsey, the 37th Army Chief of Staff (Photo: Getty Images)

This week, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey published his new professional reading list. At first glance, it doesn’t seem like a big story, but it does offer a look into the thinking of the general who will be leading our armed forces in the coming years. Every service has their respective professional development programs, training outside of functional specialties designed to help an officer or non-commissioned officer progress in their career. The services also have accompanying reading lists, where the respective service chiefs and Commandant of the Marine Corps list the books they want their leaders reading on their own time.

Gen. Dempsey’s list is interesting for two big reasons. First, he has been tapped to succeed Adm. Mike Mullen in October as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. It’s a safe bet that the things Dempsey considers important for the Army now are the things he will emphasize to the broader military over the next few years. Second, Dempsey is as much a scholar-warrior as Gen. David Petraeus. Dempsey earned a masters degree in English from Duke University and taught English at West Point. But it would be wrong to pigeon hole Dempsey as wonky high echelon leader; he’s closely in touch with how to communicate to young soldiers. At a recent Institute of Land Warfare breakfast, Depmsey talked about the importance of how the Army feels about itself. He also showed a deft knowledge of hard rock and rap–he talked about dropping songs by Eminem and Disturbed into “Hooah” videos for the troops (when was the last time you heard a general say something nice about a hard rock band?)

Dempsey’s reading list features the obvious classics, most notably, On War by Carl von Clausewitz. This may seem obvious, but it’s also important. A Little League coach once told me you can’t play baseball at any level unless you understand the concept of a force play. The idea is true of military leadership: you can’t lead troops in combat, at any level, unless you understand Clausewitz’s concepts of tactical, strategic and political levels of war. There’s The Art of War by Sun Tzu, another required text if one is to understand the concept of military operations.

Books I was excited to see on the list were This Kind of War by T.R. Fehrenbach, perhaps the best account of the Korean War and a heartbreaking look at an almost forgotten conflict, and The Killer Angels, which I reread every couple of years and only gets better with time. There are not one, but two books by Tom Friedman (and not my favorite, From Beirut to Jerusalem). Dempsey chose The World is Flat and The Lexus and the Olive Tree. This says a lot about where Dempsey thinks the Army is going. No longer can a military leader think in a  vacuum; he or she must understand basic geopolitics, and globalization will prove to be a big part of that.

The only real disappointment I have with Dempsey’s reading list is the inclusion of a book I really didn’t enjoy, Once an Eagle by Anton Myrer. This doorstop of a novel about an Army officer’s career from World War I to Vietnam has pretty much always been on the Army’s reading lists, and for that reason, it will remain on the Army’s reading lists for some time. There are some very good lessons in ethical decision-making, the pressures of command and challenges of combat, but I respectfully disagree with the 37th Chief that the book provides a “deeper understanding of Army culture.” The culture of the mid 20th Century Army perhaps, but the book has not aged well, and many of its details are horribly anachronistic. Some books are timeless; Once an Eagle is not. And, as Andrew Exum, a former Army Ranger captain who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, wrote on his blog Abu Muqawama, it’s just not a good novel.

Ex kindly provided an alternate reading list, which is worth taking a look because, in addition to knowing what he’s talking about, Ex has read just about everything. Included are some really great ones, such as Shelby Foote’s Civil War trilogy (full disclosure: I haven’t finished it. It’s great, but huge), With the Old Breed by E.B. Sledge (one of the books on which the recent HBO Series, The Pacific was based), and Bernard Fall’s Street without Joy (if you can handle a deeper dose of tragedy, also read Fall’s Hell in a Very Small Place). For those looking for lessons from the wars currently winding down, some very good ones are Nathaniel Fick’s One Bullet Away, Donovan Campbell’s Joker One and Ex’s This Man’s Army, one of the first books to come out of the current wars that I read the month after I became an Army lieutenant.

Don’t be surprised if some of these wind up on future reading lists. As for Once an Eagle, I hope that one day it melts off of the reading lists and is replaced by something a little bit more applicable to today’s more messy world. If they’re looking for a good novel about the War on Terror to replace it, perhaps one of the veterans will write it some day.

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