‘Why I believe reading books saves lives’

General ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis: he apparently owns a library of around 10,000 books. © PA
by General James Mattis

Donald Trump’s nominee as defence secretary of the USA, he is a retired general from the US Marine Corps and former head of US Central Command.

It is easy to think we do not have time to read. But books allow us to learn from our ancestors. And when you command an army, that can make the difference between life and death.

The problem with being too busy to read is that you learn by experience (or by your men’s experience), ie, the hard way. By reading, you learn through others’ experiences — generally a better way to do business, especially in our line of work where the consequences of incompetence are so final for young men.

Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before. It does not give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead.

With Task Force 58, I had with me Slim’s book, books about the Russian and British experiences in Afghanistan, and a couple of others.

We have been fighting on this planet for 5000 years and we should take advantage of their experience

Going into Iraq, The Siege (about the Brits’ defeat at Al Kut in the first world war) was required reading for field grade officers. I also had Slim’s book; reviewed T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom; a good book about the life of Gertrude Bell; and From Beirut to Jerusalem. I also went deeply into Liddell Hart’s book on Sherman, and JFC Fuller’s book on Alexander the Great got a lot of my attention.

Ultimately, a real understanding of history means that we face nothing new under the sun. For all the intellectuals running around today saying the nature of war has fundamentally changed and the tactics are wholly new, I must respectfully say: ‘Not really’. Alexander the Great would not be in the least bit perplexed by the enemy that we face right now in Iraq, and our leaders going into this fight do their troops a disservice by not studying (studying, vice just reading) the men who have gone before us.

We have been fighting on this planet for 5,000 years and we should take advantage of their experience. Winging it, and filling body bags as we sort out what works, reminds us of the moral dictates and the cost of incompetence in our profession.

As commanders and staff officers, we are coaches and sentries for our units. How can we coach anything if we do not know a lot more than just the tactics, techniques and procedures? What happens when you are on a dynamic battlefield and things are changing faster than higher headquarters can stay abreast? Do you not adapt because you cannot conceptualise faster than the enemy’s adaptation?

Darwin has a pretty good theory about the outcome for those who cannot adapt to changing circumstance. In the information age, things can change rather abruptly and at warp speed, especially the moral high ground which our regimented thinkers cede far too quickly in our recent fights.

And how can you be a sentinel and not have your unit caught flat-footed if you do not know what the warning signs are — that your unit’s preparations are not sufficient for the specifics of a tasking that you have not anticipated?

Perhaps if you are in support functions waiting on the soldiers in combat to spell out the specifics of what you are to do, you can avoid the consequences of not reading. Those who must adapt to overcoming an independent enemy’s will are not allowed that luxury.

This is not new. Going into Kuwait 12 years ago, I read (and reread) Rommel’s papers, Montgomery’s book, Grant Takes Command and some others.

As a result, the enemy has paid when I had the opportunity to go against them. And I believe that many of my young guys lived because I did not waste their lives because I did not have the vision in my mind of how to destroy the enemy, at least cost to our guys and to the innocents on the battlefields.

The author wrote this in an email to a colleague, who asked him how to respond to military officers who found themselves ‘too busy to read’. Originally written in November 2003.

You Decide

  1. Can reading teach us more than experience?


  1. Make a list of five books you have enjoyed reading. Write a one-paragraph precis of each, explaining what a reader could learn from it.

Word Watch

Task Force 58
An operation which conducted amphibious raids in the south of Afghanistan during the war which began in 2001. The author was the designated commander.
Slim’s book
William Slim commanded Britain’s 14th Army in Burma during the second world war.
The Soviet Union was at war in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989. There were two Anglo-Afghan wars in the 19th century and another in 1919.
Gertrude Bell
A British archaeologist who played an important role in founding the modern state of Iraq after the first world war.
William Sherman was one of the generals on the union side during the US civil war.
As a substitute for.
Erwin Rommel was a senior German officer during the second world war. He was particularly known for his leadership during campaigns in Africa.
Bernard Montgomery was a senior British officer during the second world war. He repelled Rommel’s advances in Africa and commanded British and Canadian units on D-Day.
Ulysses Grant led the union forces during the US civil war. He later became US president.

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