The Not-Yet-Chiefs’ Reading List


To:                  The Incoming Joint Chiefs of Staff
From:              David Barno and Nora Bensahel
Subject:          Your Professional Reading List
Date:               July 28, 2015
Cc:                  War on the Rocks/Strategic Outpost

Welcome to your new positions! You are part of a historic group, since this is the first time in 32 years (and only the fourth time ever) that all of the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are turning over within a 12-month period.

One of the most important responsibilities of your new job is growing the right force of the right people who are prepared to dominate the battlefields of the future. Winning that unknown conflict will require not just tough training and the right gear, but critical thinking and breadth of vision. If all goes well, you have four short years to bring about change — and then you become an oil painting decorating the E-Ring. The leaders coming up behind you will own this next fight. They will be your most important legacy.

Your responsibilities include overseeing a professional reading and study program to guide the development of your soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines — plus the force as a whole. Since you are all new on the job, we realized that you need your own reading list to help you prepare for the challenges you will face as you sit atop the military hierarchy for the first time. Ours is an unconventional list that includes a TED talk, a YouTube video, a blog, as well as several books. We offer you insights on how to think about potential problems, as well as background reading on the problems themselves — and maybe even identify a few new challenges that you may not have yet considered.

So here are your assignments, just in time for your summer vacations:

Taking Charge: The First 90 Days, by Michael D. Watkins. Your first few months on the job will be critical, and may well determine whether you succeed or fail during your tenure. Watkins identifies several key transition tasks that new leaders must manage successfully, as well as some transition traps to avoid. Even though you have been through many transitions during the course of your career, this book is still worth your time. As a CEO of a cybersecurity firm told us, “I think this classic is worthwhile for anyone in a new role (or even anyone who wants to ‘start fresh’ in their current role). I read it before every new job, and give a copy to every new hire in our company.”

Rates of Change: Did You Know? Shift Happens, 2014 remix. This five-minute video powerfully illustrates that we live in a time of exponential global change in technology, demographics, society, and beyond. Did you know that in 1900, human knowledge doubled every 100 years, but that by 2020, it will double every 12 hours? Or that it took 38 years for radio to reach a market audience of 50 million, but it took Angry Birds Space only 35 days to reach the same number? We didn’t either. The video won’t tell you what such exponential change means for the future of the U.S. military or the global security environment, but it will help spark a sorely needed discussion. (A caveat: one of us likes the music that accompanies the video; the other hates it. If you’re not a fan of Fatboy Slim, you may wish to mute the sound.)

Cyber Vulnerabilities: Future Crimes, by Marc Goodman. Don’t be fooled by the title. This book examines how emerging technologies can pose great threats to national security in addition to enabling criminal behavior. Goodman, who serves on the faculty of futurist Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity University (which offers an Executive Program that more senior military officers need to attend), lays out a detailed and chilling description of the pervasive societal vulnerabilities created by our reliance on the Internet and cyber domain. The scope of the ubiquitous risk today and tomorrow will startle you, and his prescriptions might make you change your personal cyber habits — and will hopefully spark deeper change in your organizations. Cliff Notes guide: you can get the gist of his book from his TED talk. But just like your English teacher used to say, it’s no substitute for actually reading the book.

Future Trends: The Future, Declassified by Mathew Burrows. A principal author of the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2030 identifies key global trends and what we should do about them. Burrows goes beyond simply outlining the trends to innovatively paint a series of alternative future scenarios in storytelling form. His analysis should cause you to think about how much time your staffs are devoting to “foresight” — the practice of looking deeply at emerging trends and thinking about options and consequences before crises erupt that require you to make important time-critical decisions with long-lasting and often unpredictable effects.

Understanding the Troops: The Duffel Blog. An irreverent fake military news site, but a very serious recommendation, because it will be one of the only ways you will have any sense of what average service members are thinking. As a member (or chairman) of the Joint Chiefs, you will be more isolated than you’ve ever been before, because your staff will carefully control the information you receive and will tend to filter out criticism or negative feedback. You and your staff might believe, for example, that the next new uniform achieves the perfect balance between functionality and comfort. But you’ll know you were wrong when “Army Chooses New PT Uniform with Help of No Soldier Feedback” goes viral.

Global Economics: The Little Book of Economics: How the Economy Works in the Real World, by Greg Ip. Most folks in the military got their last whiff of economics in college, but you will now find that your worldwide responsibilities are constantly influenced by economic issues that affect everything from military budgets to oil prices to interstate conflict. Ip, currently the chief economics commentator at The Wall Street Journal, has written a small primer that the foreword promises “makes economics brilliantly accessible and, also, lots of fun.” Your fun-meter may vary, but we found it to be a painless way to understand how dynamics like inflation, unemployment, global trade imbalances, and the U.S. role as the lender of last resort shape the world we live in.

Presenting Data Effectively: Hans Rosling: The Best Stats You’ve Ever Seen. This remarkable TED Talk clearly demonstrates what you should demand from your legions of Pentagon data crunchers — not mind-numbing PowerPoint slides jammed with numbers and text in a 9-point font, but data analysis and presentation that is alive, meaningful, and compelling. As a bonus, the substance of the video will likely challenge your views on trends in worldwide economic growth, population shifts, and global health: all surprising and beautifully depicted. (For extra credit, take a look at some of Edward Tufte’s work on how to present data more effectively.)

Future War: Ghost Fleet, by P.W. Singer and August Cole. A chilling new novel about a near-future war involving the United States, China, and Russia. Countless billions of computer chips of unknown origins render everything from refrigerators to trillion-dollar weapon systems useless — or worse. Twists and turns abound, with high-tech weapons zapping targets on nearly every page, but the underlying message requires your attention: the massive vulnerability of the U.S. military’s ubiquitous dependence on cyber-enabled weaponry and satellite communications. Plus, it’s hard not to admire a book in which the authors have managed to get us to cheer for an improbable hero who is also … well, never mind. Want more fiction to help you think about possible future conflicts? Robbie Gramer has nine other great recommendations for you.

Outside the Box Thinking: A Whole New Mind, by Daniel Pink. Pink persuasively argues why “right brain” leaders with people skills and empathy will dominate the future rather than “left brain” engineers and scientists. This book will make you think hard about who comes into the military today, and whether the military is recruiting the right mix of people to navigate a very different future. Pink might also prompt you to ferret out how many of these unique thinkers are already in our military — and what you can do to identify them, maximize their talents, and keep them in uniform.

Getting and Keeping Talent: Bleeding Talent, by Tim Kane. You have a big problem: you don’t know whether your top people are leaving … and it really matters. Kane lays out the details of how a one-size-fits-all military personnel system pushes many of the best and brightest out of the force. This system poses particular problems for the millennial generation, which already constitutes the majority of the force and will constitute 98 percent of the force in 10 years. If you don’t understand what your millennials in uniform want and expect, this book is the wakeup call. Who leaves, who stays, and why may be some of the most important trends you measure. Secretary Carter’s Force of the Future initiative is all about talent; Kane will help you understand why getting this right is key to making sure America’s armed forces remain the best in the world.

Civil-Military Relations: Supreme Command, by Eliot Cohen. Your new roles require you to give your best military advice to senior elected officials and policymakers, up to and including the Commander-in-Chief. It may be among your most important — and difficult — responsibilities. This work (which was nighttime reading in Afghanistan for one of us) analyzes the sharp tensions between senior military leaders and their civilian masters in time of war, and the “unequal dialogue” between the two. Cohen’s book will help you think through the nature of these relationships in ways you may not have fully considered. Whether you agree with him or not, Cohen makes a strong case for why, in Clemenceau’s famous words, “War is too important to leave to the generals.”


Lt. General David W. Barno, USA (Ret.) is a Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, and Dr. Nora Bensahel is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence, at the School of International Service at American University. Both also serve as Nonresident Senior Fellows at the Atlantic Council. Their column appears in War on the Rocks every other Tuesday.

Image Credit: Sgt. Gabriela Garcia, U.S. Marine Corps