Well led and better read
THE two institutions that led racial desegregation in the US were professional sports and the military. At first blush, that may surprise you if you don’t normally associate footballers and soldiers with liberal attitudes, still less with pioneering them. But professional sports and the military are concerned above all with performance — they have objective measurements of achievement — and they promote an ethos of teamwork and team loyalty, especially being tight with your comrades in battle.
Having spent some time with soldiers in recent years, I think even today, when we in Australia tend to revere our soldiers, there are deep popular misunderstandings of military culture.
The army, for example, is genuinely committed to lifelong learning and reflection. As a result, soldiers are among the most literate and thoughtful people. I am provoked to this reflection by reading the newly published Chief of Army’s reading list. The army head, Lieutenant General Peter Leahy, has developed a list of recommended books for his soldiers. The recommendations vary a bit from rank to rank: colonels get more complex books than privates.
The books are not professional manuals, how to drive a tank, that sort of thing. Rather, they are military history, novels that shed light on situations relevant to soldiers, and contemporary books on policies or conflicts that soldiers need to understand.
It is a mixture of classics, popular works from a generation ago and often controversial books of today. It includes a wonderful introductory essay by Colonel E. G. Keogh, an essay first printed in the Army Journal in 1965 and rightly reprinted in 1976, on the study of military history. Keogh is completely convincing on the importance of studying military experience. One or two examples suffice. Before and during World War I, senior soldiers thought night offences too difficult to mount. After World War I, Basil Liddell Hart discovered that most successful daytime offences occurred in fog, which caused military planners to re- examine night offences.
Similarly, most soldiers blame the politicians of the 1930s for appeasement of the Nazis. Yet Keogh shows the chain of causality leads back to the soldiers. During World War I the generals still thought in Napoleonic terms of the great assault. They failed to understand the lessons of the American Civil War, that modern rifles combined with trenches made defences too strong for Napoleonic attacks to succeed. Public revulsion at the needless mass slaughter of World War I led the politicians to appeasement in the ’ 30s.
The much more efficient generalship of World War II did not produce public reaction against military leadership.
Keogh urges soldiers to develop a thoughtful, reflective approach to their military reading, to steep their minds in the problems and culture of the battlefield.
Leahy’s reading list is soberingly ambitious. There are plenty of contemporary and popular works, and lots of easily accessible novels. The list even calls on science fiction, from Robert Heinlein to Kurt Vonnegut. But it is the list’s devotion to classics that is most admirable. No profession involves more demanding technology, nor more complex human interactions, than the modern profession of arms. But Leahy wants his warriors steeped in the classics. If a senior soldier absorbs everything recommended, they will have read works by Thucydides, Niccolo Machiavelli, Carl von Clausewitz, Julius Caesar, Joseph Conrad, Marcus Aurelius, George Orwell and Ford Madox Ford. Not commentaries on these figures, but their works, read for the meanings their authors intended. Our soldier will also have read Mao Zedong on guerilla warfare and Ulysses S. Grant on the US Civil War.
To count on busy professional people, as senior soldiers are, to spare the time and commitment for this sort of reading, and to be open to the experience of such voices speaking to them across the decades and the centuries, is in itself a rigorous expectation.
The list also contains works of philosophy, novels that are not necessarily directly military but deal with small group dynamics that may be encountered in a platoon, and books about thinking. There is plenty of political diversity: tough- minded treatments of allied policy in Vietnam and Iraq, for example. The other feature of the list is its cosmopolitanism. There are plenty of Australian books, but soldiers need to absorb lessons from any useful source.
I find I’ve read about 10 per cent of the list. There are some inclusions I want to applaud and some exclusions I want to contest, which is the joy of a list such as this.
One of the best inclusions is Supreme Command by Eliot Cohen. Its presence demonstrates the integrity of the list, which has plenty of books about soldiers’ mistakes. Cohen’s book concerns the overriding legitimacy of civilian decision- making in war, in strategic matters but also in many matters of policy more generally. Cohen focuses on Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Georges Clemenceau and David BenGurion to show that a politician not only has a moral authority that a soldier doesn’t have, but may by very dint of being a politician have a breadth of strategic view beyond even the most senior soldier. It’s a fascinating argument that shows the complexity of defining civilian and military prerogatives.
One gap in the list, I think, is military bureaucracy. I would respectfully suggest three inclusions to the next update of the reading list, all of which deal in some measure with military bureaucracy. The first is Colin Powell’s memoirs, which show a representative, top- flight US military career from start to finish. Powell’s book is extraordinarily rich, from efforts he made to improve morale in Korea to the incredible responsibility of guarding a nuclear weapon.
Suggestion two is Evelyn Waugh’s The Sword of Honour trilogy, not only the finest novel in English but a masterful treatment of the mobilisation of a wartime army and what that means to a melancholy civilian- soldier of modest ability but determined commitment. Its treatment of the allied rout on Crete strikes me as authentic, especially in its stress, as you find in other great war novels, such as Michael Shaara’s novel of the Gettysburg battle, The Killer Angels, on the overwhelming physical fatigue of combat.
Suggestion three is William Manchester’s biography of Douglas MacArthur, a fascinating look at the Pacific war from a non- Australian viewpoint, a treatment of military- political relations at the highest levels and an account of USAustralian wartime collaboration. But these suggestions imply no criticism of the army. This list is superb. In the course of reading its books, a soldier would greatly deepen a general education. So would anyone else.
review@ theaustralian. com. au