Military Reading for Professional Development? Stop Being So Lazy


American military officers are a studious lot these days. A master’s degree is pretty much de rigueur for advancement. Many officers write books upon retirement and some even write important books while serving. We here at War on the Rocks are grateful, too, for the many American officers who have written for us.

Of course, the flip side of writing is reading. It’s hard to get a degree or write a book without doing a lot of reading. On top of that, service chiefs regularly issue recommended reading lists to their subordinates. Then-Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno noted in the introduction to his 2014 reading list that “a course of personal study and contemplation is an essential component of the individual development of every Army professional. Each of us faces busy schedules every day and finding time to read and think is a recurring challenging. But even as we train our units and physically condition our bodies, we must improve our minds through reading and critical thinking.”

All of this would have appalled 1st Lt. Matthew F. Steele, the author of this week’s document. In 1895, Steele wrote an article in the Journal of the United States Cavalry Association entitled “Military Reading: Its Use and Abuse.” He intended the article to combat the pernicious fad of reading that was sweeping the Army’s officer corps. “The whole service seems to have gone to letters, and our chief ambition, just now, appears to be to convince ourselves and the world at large that the pen is mightier than the sword — an undertaking not quite loyal to our craft.” Had not Francis Bacon pointed out that “to spend too much time in studies is sloth?” Steele continued that “the sloth that too much study induces is, apparently, of both mind and body. When too many books and authorities are to be recollected and pondered over, conclusions are slow to form. This may be of no consequence to the philosopher … but to the soldier in the field it is fatal. Cavalrymen, above all, have no time to ponder and weigh.” One of the few good things that Steele has to say about professional reading is that it is less destructive of military virtues than pleasure reading. Oddly, Steele eventually comes out in favor of broad reading, because one never knows what kind of task an officer might be called on to perform. He must know how to “bargain and trade; to teach any subject from grammar up to the science of war; to cultivate a garden or manage an eating house; to telegraph a message or run an engine; to draw up a contract or defend a criminal.”

Steele’s approach seems very alien today, even shocking. In fairness, this was not a phenomenon limited to the U.S. Army. The U.S. Naval War College faced some opposition in its early days, as well, from seniors who believed that officers should neither write nor read books. In the British Army being called an “inky-fingered” officer was not a compliment.

In part, however, Steele’s uneasiness with reading was probably a function of the fact that the U.S. Army at the time was in a bit of a crisis, lacking a clear raison d’être and called on to perform a wide variety of tasks. To that extent it may be defensible. However, it is also worth noting that the Army of Steele’s day was not among the world leaders in size or skill. True, the United States would win the Spanish-American War just three years later but that was against a sharply declining power and the bumbling of the Army and the War Department became literally the stuff of scandal. Today’s U.S. Army is the world’s leader. And it reads.


Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies and the Graduate Certificate Program in Intelligence at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, D.C.


Photo credit: The U.S. Army