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  • “I hope the officers of her Majesty’s army may never degenerate into bookworms.”

    Posted by Lexington Green on May 7th, 2008 (All posts by )

    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    I did not know then that by 1955, when my uncle read it, Von Wartenburg’s 19th Century tome was already outdated.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.

    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.

     

    22 Responses to ““I hope the officers of her Majesty’s army may never degenerate into bookworms.””

    1. Shannon Love Says:

      The problem with book learning in any real world field is that significant parts of the books are wrong. You can’t tell which specific parts are wrong until you collide with reality.

      Iraq followed the same pattern as all other conflicts. Nothing came out in the specific patterns predicted by anybody. I don’t think book learning really helped one way or another.

    2. andrewdb Says:

      If you are collecting such things these are two more lists of reading lists:

      Combined Arms Research Library collection of lists:

      http://www-cgsc.army.mil/carl/gateway/military_reading_lists.asp

      National Defense University list of reading lists:

      http://www.ndu.edu/Library/ReadingList/PMReadingList.html

    3. Lexington Green Says:

      “The problem with book learning in any real world field is that significant parts of the books are wrong. You can’t tell which specific parts are wrong until you collide with reality. ”

      So Napoleon, Wolseley, Wellington and Patton were wrong, and officers should not study using books? How about physicians? Engineers?

      If you don’t mean that, what do you mean?

      No one says ONLY prepare for real-world-work from books. But there is a place for it because patterns do recur, particularly in war and politics, where exact situations never recur.

      We will never know how much book learning would have helped in Iraq, since none was apparently applied by the people responsible for its execution.

      Gen. Shinseki drew on book learning to make his back-of-the-envelope of how large an occupation would have been needed. That was a specific pattern that was correctly predicted live on television by somebody. He was right. The occupation force was too small.

      There is a lot of history about conventional military victories then getting bogged down in irregular or insurgency warfare. The pattern is so strong it is virtually the norm. This could have been learned from books about (1) the Franco-Prussian War, (2) the US annexation of the Phillipines, (3) the Boer War, (4) the British annexation of Iraq after World War I, to name just four.

      Another thing that could have been learned from books is that war-planners who are determined to have a war will fudge the facts until they come up with a rosy enough scenario. Studying the pre-Pearl Harbor decision-making process in Japan, the pre-Barbarossa decision-making process in Germany, and the 1965 decision-making process in Washington that led to the “Americanization” of the Vietnam war would all have shown a similar pattern.

      What happened before we went into Iraq was an intellectual failure on the part of people who should have known better.

      The decisions-makers should have read 28 books about Iraq and about occupying Arab populations.

      Things would have gone a lot differently.

      We would all have been better off.

    4. Lexington Green Says:

      Andrew, I am indeed collecting such things. Thanks very much.

    5. david foster Says:

      The trick is to be alert for patterns that *are* recurring, while not forcing real events into patterns that don’t really fit.

      Some relevant thoughts from the British general Edward Spears.

    6. Jonathan Says:

      What happened before we went into Iraq was an intellectual failure on the part of people who should have known better.

      The decisions-makers should have read 28 books about Iraq and about occupying Arab populations.

      Things would have gone a lot differently.

      We would all have been better off.

      This is your opinion. Some of us interpret the evidence differently than you do and draw different conclusions.

      I agree that, in any endeavor, a serious practitioner should master the history of the field, just as he should master the latest doctrines and techniques. However, I think that Shannon makes an important point. The recorded history is sometimes wrong and often incomplete. Leaders have to make decisions in the here and now. History at best is a guide, not an instruction manual.

      Also, people differ in their talents. Some leaders are better able to take advantage of book learning than are others. Some of the others are less literate but compensate for their deficiency by associating with people who are well read or by being exceptionally skilled in sizing up situations. Some of the best military leaders have been highly literate intellectuals, but all of the best leaders have been skilled at making decisions under conditions of uncertainty.

      There isn’t always time to read up on the topic at hand, and it isn’t always clear what that topic is. In 2003 most of us framed the issue, correctly I think, as stopping the aggressive dictator. Occupation was seen as a secondary concern, and only became prominent once we succeeded with the first issue. However, that doesn’t mean that in 2002/3 our leaders should have focused their limited attention on the possibility of occupation. Nobody knew then how the war would unfold, and other conceivable outcomes, including some very bad ones, and including what might happen if we didn’t invade, were seen as deserving of at least as much consideration. While our planning for occupation appears inadequate in hindsight, I think that, in the scheme of things, the outcome we ended up with was one of the less-bad possibilities.

    7. Lexington Green Says:

      David, great link, thanks. Vivid writing has a power all its own, for right or wrong, good or evil.

      Reurring patterns are important in politics as well as war. Two very successful political consultants, Lee Atwater and Karl Rove, were/are both renowned for devouring political history. You only get to do a few political and military campaigns in your life, at most. Vicarious additional experience is the only kind that you can get. So you better get a lot of it.

    8. Lexington Green Says:

      “This is your opinion.”

      Yeah. That’s why I wrote it. I put my opinions on the blog. You and everybody else can agree or not.

      “History at best is a guide, not an instruction manual.”

      If you are attributing that to me, re-read my post.

      “There isn’t always time to read up on the topic at hand.”

      The Bush team had many months and the entire Defense Department to draw on. They the resources of the entire U.S. Government. They didn’t want to know.

      “While our planning for occupation appears inadequate in hindsight …”

      We had been running a no-fly zone for a decade. The prospect of war with Saddam was on the table the whole time. No one in the Defense Department prepared a white paper on what it would take to occupy Iraq? MacArthur had his staff planning the Japanese occupation in 1942, I recently learned, when we weren’t even winning yet. There is no excuse whatsoever for this failure. This is particularly so where the democratization of Iraq was supposedly a war aim. But to do that would mean an occupation. And an occupation would mean a lot more troops than we had, or could come up with without lots of problems. So the incompatibility between means and ends was known — Shinseki told Congress what an occupation would take — but it was ignored.

      “…in the scheme of things, the outcome we ended up with was one of the less-bad possibilities.”

      In the scheme of things, the outcome is the worst politico-military disaster we have suffered since Pearl Harbor, and it was self-inflicted and absolutely unnecessary. Mearsheimer was right. and I was wrong, in the run-up to the war.

      As usual, what I think is an afterthought when I write a post becomes the focus.

    9. Jonathan Says:

      I think your reasoning in the 2003 post that you linked to has held up well. The fact that you have since changed your mind, based largely on information that was not available then, does not necessarily mean that you were mistaken.

    10. Michael Kennedy Says:

      You should read the Douglas Feith book about post war planning in Iraq. There was an apparent conflict between State, which did not support the war at all, and Defense, which wanted to use exiles in the early post invasion period. State and CIA were adamantly opposed to the exiles for reasons that go back to the 10-year interregnum.

      Somewhere you mentioned physicians reading history of their profession and the importance of it. I learned at some length the difficulties of getting a medical history for physicians published. I finally published it myself after being turned down by several academic presses. I was told by one university press executive editor that the boards of these presses are dominated by humanities faculty who would not permit publication of a work of history by anyone other than a history PhD. It did not matter that no US published history of medicine had appeared since the 1950s. The book is in its second printing and there will soon be a third.

      I have been told by friends in the UK that the very active medical history movement there is slowly being taken over by academics and the effect will be similar to that here. A glance at the program for the annual meeting of the American Association for the History of Medicine will show what I mean. Very little real clinical history and lots of feminism and leftist politics.

    11. Smitten Eagle Says:

      Smitten Eagle here.

      Here’s something that’s worth looking at.

      “The nation that will insist on drawing a broad line of demarcation between the fighting man and the thinking man is liable to have its fighting done by fools and its thinking done by cowards.”
      -Attributed to both Thucydides and Sir William Francis Butler

      My personal take is that we have far too broad of a demarcation line between the warriors and the scholars. Look at the intellectually “tolerant” Ivory tower. Look at too-busy-for-book-larnen-but-not-too-busy-for-DVD-watching General Tommy Franks (ret) manning the ramparts.

      Discuss. I’m interested in seeing what you think of this.

    12. Lexington Green Says:

      A few thoughts in response.

      The thinking-and-fighting man — in the Anglosphere — has, over the centuries, usually been an autodidact, and often an eccentric. Lower ranking officers were more often expected to be fit, brave, tough in the face of hardship, but not necessarily book-smart.

      Wellington was out of step with his fellow officers by being studious. He became the man who beat Napoleon, and Prime Minister, of course. So it worked for him.

      Patton was, as we all know, a wild eccentric. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of military history. Marshall and Eisenhower tolerated him because of his talents, but dropped him after the war.

      Eisenhower himself, as a young officer, was the protege of Gen. Fox Connor, who insisted that he study the classics of military history. This experience, he said, served him well. But that kind of thing was not commonplace at the time.

      John Boyd was totally self-taught, and extremely eccentric. He had to get his ideas heard by means of bureaucratic guerilla warfare.

      MacArthur had perfect grades at West Point. One of only three such people ever, if I recall correctly. He was also later Commandant of the USMA. I do not know how much reading he did later on.

      Marshall was the head of the Army War College, but I don’t know how scholarly he was.

      Grant? Sherman? Lee? Jackson? Washington? Pershing? Halsey? Nimitz? Arnold? LeMay? I don’t think any were scholarly, but I could be wrong. Maybe Spruance.

      The Brits: Haig? Montgomery? Brook? Slim? Not Haig. I don’t think Slim. Maybe the other two.

      The Germans had a scholarly ethic for their senior officers. But as Robert Citino showed in his excellent recent books, we can take this too far. The Elder Von Moltke was an exceptional figure. The Germans often had commanders who were more like attack dogs (Blucher legendarily could barely read), usually combined with scholarly and intellectual chiefs of staff (Blucher had Scharnhorst). In World War II we have the scene of the Generals before the gates of Moscow as the snow begins to fall in 1941 all reading Caulaincourt’s memoir of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow. So, there is a stronger tradition there for the warrior-scholar, but it was reserved more for an elite of officers who were tracked to the general staff.

      I do not know enough about the Russians.

      I suspect the Chinese have some tradition of the warrior-scholar.

      If the US military is going to have its officers become educated about military history, it is going to have to be a bottom-up phenomenon, I think. And, also, a lateral one. The means at hand are probably blogs and study groups, whether in person or virtual. Do officers have the time? Do their superiors want this to happen? You know better than I do.

    13. Lexington Green Says:

      My bad. Blucher’s chief of staff was Gniesenau.

    14. zenpundit Says:

      Eisenhower was a highly intelligent man, a problem solver, a planner, a manager, a leader but he was not very often an “intellectual”. Early in his career, Eisenhower shared with Patton an enthusiasm for mobile warfare theorizing which he soon squelched when a superior officer bluntly told him that going on about tank warfare ( which cavalry officers wanted to kill in favor of returning to the horse) would result in their being kicked out of the U.S. Army.

      That being said, Eisenhower always had intellectuals in his inner circle and understood them – Charles Murphy, John Foster Dulles, his brother Dr. Milton Eisenhower – and added their strengths to his own purposes quite freely.

    15. Smitten Eagle Says:

      I do think there is a place for intellectuals in the military. That said, I think the discussion we’re having is more about archetypes. Are military people warriors or scholars? (Don’t tell me that this is a false dichotomy…archetypes must be mutually exclusive…otherwise they wouldn’t be archetypes.)

      My vote is clear. We are warriors, first and foremost. Warriors like a good fight. They like cameraderie. The enjoy putting themselves on the line for what they value. They like danger and the constantly changing environment. They like the responsibility and burdens of command, where their decisions can save or end the lives of hundreds, or save or destroy an aircraft worth millions.

      Me? I like a brawl, especially a ground fight. I revel in what my unit did on July 7, 2004 (an all-out shootout in Deh Chopan, Afghanistan where we killed 100 Taliban (confirmed). I coordinated the close air support that night. Good stuff.

      What would an intellectual prefer? Probably a tenured position, a predictable environment. Elbow-rubbing with other intellectuals. I bet they get some satisfaction by winning arguments whose outcome have no bearing on the lives and fortunes of other. How quaint and carefree!

      What I argue for is the adoption of a Warrior archetype. (I know the Marines have it, and most of the Army does too. I question the commitment to that archetype by the other services, however.) Warriors fight, and when they aren’t fighting, they’re DEVELOPING their fighting skills. They do this by physical training. They do this by spiritual training (things that build esprit de Corps, cameraderie, and individual commitment). And they do this by mental/intellectual training. A component of the intellectual training MUST be independent study, and it is in this area that I think most of the American ground forces fall short. There is a lack of individual commitment to commit to the intellectual side of the warrior ideal.

      An example of the ultimate warrior: Erwin Rommel, wounded countless times. Won the Pour le Merite in WWI, and the Knights Cross of the Iron Cross. He wrote a book called Infanterie Grieft An (“Infantry Attacks” is the English translation). It is a matter-of-fact style of book where he examines his own actions in combat, thinks about them, and evaluates his actions, good and bad. He was a man of action, lacked bluster, and he constantly studied, allowing him to fight and win several battles on an extremely weak logistics system before finally succombing to superior allied logistics. He didn’t develop his methods by accident…he developed them by study.

      Compare him with a LTG Ricardo Sanchez, or a GEN Tommy Franks.

      To Darryl in Texas–Interesting what Clausewitz has to say about “divining the unknowable.” Maybe if we read a bit more of him we wouldn’t be so heavily invested in 80% of the defense programs we’re involved in. Thanks for making my point. Too bad most of the guys at CentCom back in ’02 probably never read Clausewitz. But the DVD watching of GEN Franks sure was lengendary. I bet he was watching Fight Club. That’s a great movie for learning about war. Yep…you know what they say: If it ain’t watching something like Jason Bourne, it ain’t Training.

    16. zenpundit Says:

      Smitten Eagle wrote:

      “Me? I like a brawl, especially a ground fight. I revel in what my unit did on July 7, 2004 (an all-out shootout in Deh Chopan, Afghanistan where we killed 100 Taliban (confirmed). I coordinated the close air support that night. Good stuff.
      What would an intellectual prefer? Probably a tenured position, a predictable environment. Elbow-rubbing with other intellectuals”

      I can’t comment on the joys of combat, unless it involves a fist or foot and a rulebook, but the late 19th century saw a lot of Brits and Americans – adventurer types like Richard Francis burton, Teddy Roosevelt, Winston Churchill – who combined intellectualism with what TR would have called “manly virtues” ( Roosevelt was a good amateur boxer, Burton a master swordsman, Churchill escaped from a POW camp during the Boer War – who wasn’t a horseman back then ?). Certainly the pre-Meiji Japanese saw no contradiction between ” the pen and the sword”.

    17. MD Says:

      Oh, I don’t know about your definition of intellectual, smitteneagle. Yes, the type you describe is well represented in academia, to the detriment of academia, but I think I prefer a different defintion; one that has to do with reaching for truth. By that standard, the authentic intellectual is a rarity.

      I tend to split the difference between Lexington Green and Jonathan re: the Iraq War. We were told it would be difficult and long and hard, and yet, some of the planning doesn’t, upon reflection, seem to have taken that rhetoric into account. If you thought it would be hard, speech-makers, why did you not plan according?

      The post war planning was abysmal, there is no other word for it. I think it reflects a lack of seriousness in our political and government class. That lack of seriousness is reflected in many other areas.

      I’m very ‘done’ with the Right at this point – the only problem is I can never really be comfortable of the Left. I simply can’t imagine it. I don’t want a perfect, real conservative to run for any particular office. I would so prefer a conservatism of competence. How nice that would be.

    18. MD Says:

      Oh, I give up. My above comment needs to be edited. Sigh. I complain about post war planning and I can’t even write a proper blog comment :) Fickle voter-y types like me must annoy a lot of people…..

    19. zenpundit Says:

      “An example of the ultimate warrior: Erwin Rommel, wounded countless times. Won the Pour le Merite in WWI, and the Knights Cross of the Iron Cross”

      The Blue Max was supposed to be given only for meritorious action in defiance of orders ( thus reserving the Reich’s highest decoration not for valor but for initiative; now we know why the Germans never lost a battle in WWII unless they were outnumbered or out of gasoline). Does anyone know what Rommel did to earn it ?

    20. Smitten Eagle Says:

      After briefly checking “Knights Cross,” by Fraser–probably the best biography of Rommel, I found that he won the Blue Max on the Southern Front fighting Italy at Longarone. It is true that, there, Rommel did disobey an order–though in this case his disobeyal was due to his higher headquarters not being aware of the situation on the ground, and had they known more of the situation, they probably would have changed their minds.

      It is a misnomer that the Pour le Merite is awarded on the basis of disobeying an order. There were several pilots in the German WWI-era air force who were awarded the Blue Max after shooting down 20 Allied aircraft.

    21. zenpundit Says:

      “It is a misnomer that the Pour le Merite is awarded on the basis of disobeying an order. There were several pilots in the German WWI-era air force who were awarded the Blue Max after shooting down 20 Allied aircraft.”

      True enough. People were awed by planes and pilots – esp. “aces” then.

    22. Lexington Green Says:

      The discussion of Rommel’s performance in France in 1940 in Karlheinz Freiser’s The Blitzkrieg Legend is amazing. Rommel’s boldness and aggressiveness would not be believed if you made them up. Just one example. At one point his troops had bypassed so many French troops that there were mobs of them wandering behind his “front”. Driving in his armored command car, just him and his driver, I think, he comes upon a huge group of armed French troops. He stands up in the car, tells them they are cut-off, That they are prisoners, and that they must stack their arms and wait for further orders. They did it, instead of just shooting him. I suppose he must have known some French!

      Absolute balls of steel.

      No conflict between being a student of war and a practitioner, not in Rommel’s case.