Monday, April 18, 2011

Beware of Officers Carrying Reading Lists

Military folks are surprisingly well read.  We academics tend to think of folks in the military as knuckle-dragging neanderthals, but they almost surely, on average, have read more stuff than civilians, especially non-academic ones.  They tend to have very sharp eyes for stuff on military history, strategy and such.  Indeed, commanders at all levels have developed reading lists for those under them so that the subordinates can understand where their bosses are coming from. 

But I would like to suggest one caveat: these folks tend to better when focused on the military and less so when it comes to getting background on where the military will be operating.  Lots of stories now, starting with a 60 minutes piece on Greg Mortenson and his Three Cups of Tea book and its limited accuracy.  The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen was a big fan of this book (although his official reading list did not include this book). 

I am familiar with this tendency within the military, as the Balkans Branch of the Joint Staff had Balkan Ghosts by Robert Kaplan on its reading list in 2001.  Perhaps my greatest contribution during my year on the Joint Staff was getting to revise the list and drop that book.  It is exactly the kind of thing that seems attractive to uniformed types--a travelogue with lots of local color, developing a very general (but severely flawed) understanding of the place.

So, the lesson du jour for civilian types is discriminate when getting reading suggestions from military folks--do read their recommended stuff on military history and strategy.  But don't read their suggestions for the history and cultures of countries, unless you don't mind blowing time on reading stuff that is utter crap.  Of course, I cannot say if Cups of Tea is utter crap, but Balkan Ghosts was/is.  The lesson du jour for the military types is that they should not buy into the most popular stuff on countries in which they are operating.  Just because something is widely cited does not mean it is good or right.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting. Just found it on my shelf, will start reading the ... Kaplan crap ;)

Chris C. said...

What did you think of From Beirut to Jerusalem? Though I'm not a fan of modern-day Friedman, I thought that was a very good "travelogue" that did pretty fair justice to the conflict on the whole.