In a recent post, I noted that various military branches had lists of suggested reading. I optimistically suggested that this might partially offset the virtual banishment of military history from America’s colleges and universities. I was politely but firmly corrected by an excellent comment from SmittenEagle. SE’s comment (which you should read) is far better and more interesting than the post it responds to.
I will only respond to one point in his comment. SE stated, inter alia that “…I find that most of my peers (junior Marine officers) don’t spend nearly enough time in study. The Marine capstone doctrinal publication, MCDP-1: Warfighting, implores officers to spend at least as much time in study as they do on physical fitness. That is a lot of time, and almost all of my peers fall far short.”
This reminded me of something from a long time ago … .
I was a military history buff from as far back as I can remember. As a young lad I was the happy recipient of a box of my uncle’s West Point textbooks from the 1950s, which he was going to pitch when he moved. My mother saw someone else’s trashpile coming into the house. I saw a treasure trove. One favorite was Napoleon as a General, by the Late Count Yorck Von Wartenburg, Colonel of the General Staff of the Prussian Army. I had (and still have) volume 1 (I never got Vol. II) and the incredibly good atlas that came with it.
I did not know then that by 1955, when my uncle read it, Von Wartenburg’s 19th Century tome was already outdated. The fact that it was assigned reading that late shows intellectual stagnation at West Point in the mid-1950s. But as a kid I did not know this troubling fact.
The book was part of a series named after Field Marshall Viscount Garnet Wolseley, who fought all over the world for Queen Victoria. At the front of the book is a beautiful letter from Wolseley graciously allowing the series to be named after him. Through the miracle of Google Books I was able to find it online. Note in particular the bolded passages.
Gibraltar, April 9th, 1897
Dear Captain James:
I have read with interest the list you have sent me of the military works to be published as “The Wolseley Series.” The subjects are wisely chosen, and the authors will be generally accepted as soldiers who are competent to express valuable opinions upon them.
I am much flattered by having my name associated with an undertaking that is designed to improve the professional knowledge of our officers, and I rejoice to feel that under your able editorship its success is assured. In some instances I see you are not only editor but also translator, for which duty, if you will allow me to say so, your intimate knowledge of the German idiom eminently qualifies you.
I hope the officers of her Majesty’s army may never degenerate into bookworms. There is happily at present no tendency in that direction, for I am glad to say that this generation is as fond of danger, adventure, and all manly out-of-door sports as its forefathers were. At the same time, all now recognize that the officer who has not studied war as an applied science, and who is ignorant of modern military history, is of little use beyond the rank of Captain. The principle of selection, pure and simple, is gradually being applied to the promotion of all officers, especially in the higher grades. As years go on this system will be more and more rigidly enforced.
It is gratifying to know that a large proportion of our young officers are ambitious, and without doubt there is now many a subaltern who hopes to be a Field-Marshal or to be shot in the attempt. Experience enables me to warn all these determined men of how small their chance is of ever reaching any great position in the army unless they devote many of their spare hours every week to a close study of tactics and strategy as dealt with in the best books upon recent wars. In this series of military works from the pens of first-class writers, the military student will find ample material to assist him in fitting himself for high command, and in the interest of the Empire and of the army I earnestly hope he will avail himself of it.
I know how truly this work is undertaken as a labour of love by you as editor and by all who are helping you. But I also know that you and they will feel amply repaid if it assists the young officer to learn the science of his profession and, in doing this, to improve the fighting value of the service, to the true interests of which we are one and all sincerely devoted.
Believe me to be,
Very truly yours,
Wolseley’s admonition to study is as timely now as it was when the Widow at Windsor owned ‘alf of creation.
The need for military officers to study military history is something that has long been known. Napoleon said as much. (See, e.g. Maxim LXXVIII)
Two specific examples stand out: George Patton and Arthur Wellesley, later known as the Duke of Wellington.
Neither were “bookworms”, a contemptible species rightly condemned by Lord Wolseley. Both men were physically fit, both were excellent horsemen, and Patton at least was devoted to sport, being an excellent polo player, and Olympic pentathlete. Nonetheless, both men were readers and even scholars in their professional field.
Patton’s devotion to study stands out very clearly in another favorite book, The Patton Papers, particularly the first volume. Carlo D’Este’s biography is also good on this point. (A book, which I have not yet read, is devoted specifically to Patton’s intellectual formation, The Patton Mind: the Professional Development of an Extraordinary Leader. If anyone has read it, let me know if it is good.)
I am currently reading Assaye 1803: Wellington’s First and “Bloodiest” Victory. The author tells us:
Arthur Wellesley was a very fit, lean, and bright-eyed officer; unusually for the period he drank and ate in moderation and frequently took exercise to keep himself in good shape. He was at home in the saddle and accustomed to riding over all sorts of terrain and thought nothing of riding upwards of 45 miles a day. Like any good commander he was also inquisitive about the country he was operating in and the enemy he would be fighting. Before sailing to India he added 28 books on the country to his library and on the voyage out he studied every day; this approach enabled him to have a store of information about what had been done in similar situations in the past and this would enable him to act accordingly. On campaign his books and papers were carried in a cart for reference when required.
Wellesley and Patton were both the kind of men Wolseley was talking about who were “fond of danger and adventure” and who “who hoped to be a Field-Marshal or to be shot in the attempt.” And both were devoted to study, and both achieved their professional ambitions.
Extra credit questions for our dear readers: Assume Tommy Franks did not read 28 books about Iraq before he commanded the army that conquered it. Would it have prevented what subsequently happened if he had done so? Would book-derived knowledge have led to a better outcome? Would it have prevented the campaign being waged in the first place? Would it have led to a different approach to the conquest and occupation of Iraq?
Addendum: I found yet another military reading list, the 1994-5 Armor School Reading List. There are a lot of good books listed on here. I hope our tankers have read some of these between hitting the weight room and maintaining and operating their armored monsters.