Reading about War

This post appears in Issue 18 of Naval Special Warfare Ethos Magazine, and hopes to inspire some of the SEALs and SWCCs (Special Warfare Combatantcraft Crewman – part of the Naval Special Warfare community wtih the SEALs) to dive a little deeper into the profession they’ve chosen, and read the experience and perspectives of others curently serving or who have gone before.  This recommendation would apply to anyone in any profession.

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SEALs and SWCCs are practical men.  And war is one of the most ‘practical’ of human activities.  In war, that which works saves lives and civilizations; that which doesn’t costs lives (often thousands of them, sometimes millions) and risks national independence.  Results of decisions, good and bad, are dramatic and often immediate.  Warriors, therefore, are conditioned to be very practical, and the closer one gets to the actual killing and dying in war, the more ‘practical’ war becomes.

That is why warriors are men of action – training is never over, you can always train harder, you can always be more ready.  In the stress of combat, when the bullets are flying, muscle memory and well-trained automatic response is what wins fights and saves lives.  There is little wonder that warriors often have an aversion to military theory and academic study.  Indeed most of our warriors are too busy honing their practical skills to have much time for books.  They are men of action, and reading is…well….passive.

And yet, there is a well-known quote from the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, one of the first great writers about war:  “The nation that makes a great distinction between its scholars and its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools.”

No doubt, many of our thinkers are cowards, and some of our fighters may be fools, but his point is that the best warriors are also thinkers, and the best thinkers are also courageous.  The early years of a warrior’s time in the military MUST be spent intensely focused on mastering the practical and tactical skills necessary to fight, survive, and win in combat.   But sooner or later, our best Naval Special Warriors realize that in order to truly excel as leaders and warriors, they need to tap into the breadth of experiences and ideas that others have written about, and include in their professional repertoire perspectives that come from the literature of their profession.

I realized after several years in the Teams that I had unconsciously decided to make the military my profession and career.  With that realization came the commitment to understand my profession and learn as much about it as possible.  I began by reading accounts of special operators in combat, either first person or in biography, and was surprised to find a great body of literature in this area.   Great stories of special operations-like combat, with lessons learned very relevant to today’s conflicts, are available from nearly all wars, from the US Civil War and before, to a tremendous body of literature from WW2 and Vietnam, and increasingly from more recent conflicts.   I learned how others struggled and rose to meet enormous challenges, how they dealt with their own uncertainties and mistakes, how they managed leadership issues with difficult people up and down the chain of command, under the stress of combat or the struggle to survive.  Though I had never been to war, I began to get a better understanding of fighting in war, of the scope of warfare itself.  I also learned about myself, as I tried to put myself into some of the situations I read about, and questioned whether I would have been ready to do what needed to be done.  The training moment in “book learning” happens when we ask ourselves, “what would I have done?” and then answer that question with BRUTAL honesty.

The idea that SEALs should read, and study their profession had never been emphasized to me or my colleagues during our professional development.  Our leaders didn’t stress it with us, because it had never been stressed with them.   The NSW community has made progress in this area.   But I suspect more can be done.

During my final command tour, I had an offsite that began with each leader – CO, XO, CMC – sharing with the entire group a brief summary and lessons learned from a book they had read.  Some resisted; professional reading had not been part of their lives.  But most were pleased to be ‘forced’ to read a book they’d heard about from their colleagues. Other CO’s have created professional reading groups within their commands, leading by example, with monthly or bi-monthly meetings to discuss a book all had read, or to share different books that each had read.  I am aware of innovative and intellectually curious JOs creating their own reading groups, and once the initiative had been taken, others – officers and NCOs – requested to be included.

There is no shortage of well written and easily accessible books very relevant to the Naval Special Warfare profession.  But don’t forget, being a Naval Special Warrior is a subset of being a military professional, and professional reading about the experiences, challenges and cultures of the conventional forces not only expands a special operator’s perspective, it opens doors.  Every career Marine has read Rifleman Dodd, With the Old Breed, and First to Fight – great books for every Naval Special Warrior to read.  Every career Army officer I know has read We Were Soldiers Once…and Young, and Killer Angels.  For more current literature, consider Bing West’s The Wrong War, or Into the Fire, or Sebastian Junger’s War.  For the more thoughtful among you, I’d recommend Karl Marlantes’ What It Is Like to Go to War or J. Glenn Gray’s The Warriors. 

The mind is like a muscle – when you exercise it, it gets stronger. Exercising the mind, just like exercising the body, is best done with others.  So I’d suggest that you get some of your buddies to agree to read a particular book (I say ‘some,’ because I’ve found that most who say they will, don’t) and then set a date to meet, drink a beer or two, talk about the book and how it applies to you and your profession. It may be an important step toward making you a well-rounded military professional, as well as a better all-round warrior.

9 thoughts on “Reading about War

  1. Another great essay, Bob. I’ve been fascinated by war books since I was a kid, starting with the Time/Life history of the Civil War series. I wasn’t big enough to hold the books so I read them on the floor. Or maybe I just looked at the illustrations and photos.

    I’ve read many of books you cite. Here are a few others:

    A History of Warfare, John Keegan.

    The Face of Battle, John Keegan

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    • THanks John – I’ve read the Face of Battle and Masks of Command by Keegan – both books made a powerful impression on me. For students of warfare, he was up there in the royalty. We lost him just last month – he had a good run and made a difference. It would be an interesting discussion with your B in law Scott about what books made an impression on his professional development. Thanks for your comments, and we’ll stay in touch! Bob

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  2. Hi Bob – Very well written; I very much enjoyed reading your blog. It makes you step back & think about things, both how we were back then and our thoughts today about how things have evolved in our community. You were always an `out-of-the-box’ thinker and more of an intellect than a lot of us. Here are a few books I recommend: Partners in Command: George Marshall & Dwight Eisenhauer by Mark Perry, and The Reluctant King by Sarah Bradford.

    Hope you, Mary Anne & family are all well in San Diego. Hope we can stay in touch. All the best & keep safe. Best, Scott (Hill)

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  3. Thanks for sharing this blog with me!
    Having spent most of my adult life in the Marine Corps, I can see a couple key areas where the Navy could take a few plays out of the Marine playbook to enhance commraderie and sense of purpose as needed by large organizations. The Commandant’s Reading List is something all Marines learn from day one, and by design, it’s used as a life-long indoctrination tool.

    Thanks for pointing that out…because it really does work to align the organization’s goals of building a sense of shared experiences.
    Plus, it is directed from a ‘top-down’ approach and followed by leadership at every level, even at the squad and fire team level. Great post, as usual.

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    • Amy – I agree -that having a common set of stories that everyone knows and to which all can refer when they come upon a dilemma or otherwise challenging situation can really help to build a culture with a common set of values. The Marines have done this better than the other services. A few books that everyone in any organization has read – whether it be a service, a branch within a service, a command, or even a business can serve to build bonds and common understanding. And help people agree on approaches to problems that the group faces. Thanks for your comment and insights. Bob

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