Well led and bet­ter read

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Rear View - GREG SHERI­DAN

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

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jon Kudelka

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