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Three Truths About The Personal Study of War



Imagine if someone told you that a year from today, you would be required to take a test in which every wrong answer resulted in the loss of a human life.  How would you approach studying for the test? Would you study for 20-30 minutes every night or would you wait until a week before the test and start cramming? You’re probably saying that this is a no brainer, and that you would spend a year studying in small increments so that you get a 100 percent and nobody dies. While the logic is clear-cut in this scenario, it is lost on many leaders in their professional military careers.

Many go their entire careers without dedicating time to the study of war and warfare.  Let’s be honest, the military places little extrinsic value on self-study.  We don’t get rewarded on our Officer and NCO evaluation reports for spending time on our own self-development. Some leaders even go twenty years without reading a single book outside of professional military education, and boast that they still made brigade command.  The problem is that as time marches forward, we run the risk of the professor walking through the door and handing us the test when we least expect it. The test is a practical exercise called “War.” If we aren’t prepared, the results can be devastating.  This doesn’t have to be the case, and I’ve learned three truths about self-study that I hope motivate you to start preparing now before your own test.

1. There is a cumulative value to investing small amounts of time in self-study over a long period of time

Most of us in the military have gone through seasons where our fitness levels dropped.  You come back from a deployment and your APFT score looks abysmal compared to where it was twelve months earlier.  After the first workout, there’s no change. After a few weeks of consistently working out, you begin to see an overall improvement in running ability or WOD times.  It’s not the effect of one work out that aids in our improvement, but the cumulative effect of multiple workouts that impact our overall level of fitness.

The study of war is no different. I remember after the first year of consistent reading, I was like a walking Google.  I wasn’t great on the specific details, but I knew which book to find the passage to which I was referring.  After my second year, I began making connections.  I would encounter a problem at work, and my solution would be informed by the vicarious experiences or theories I gained through reading. Eventually, after a steady effort, I started developing my own ideas that were a combination of knowledge captured from several books, articles, as well as reflections from my own experiences. None of this happened over night or from reading a couple of books, but through a consistent investment of small chunks of time into the habit of self-study.

Every time I’ve watched LTG H.R. McMaster speak, I hear folks in the audience talk about how smart he is, and how he is going to missed when he retires.  Yes, he is intelligent, but he’s also been a student of war for 31 years!  If you actually dissect his speeches, they are an amalgamation of thought spanning human history. I’ve heard him reference Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War, Clausewitz’ On War, the works of Sir Michael Howard, and Jonathan House’s Combined Arms Warfare in the Twentieth Century, just to name a few.  His ideas and actions are the result of a cumulative investment in self-study. When we study the lives of successful war-time generals they all share a common thread, they spent their entire careers preparing their mind.

2. Neglect also has a cumulative effect

You can skip a workout and not fail the APFT; but start consistently skipping workouts over a month or a couple of months, and now you have a problem.  This idea plays out in other areas of life as well.  Most of the marriages I have watched dissolve were the result of one or both partners neglecting the relationship over a period of years, and by the time they realized it they were in dire straits-it was too late. Neglecting our own self-development can have equally damaging results.

Unfortunately, many in the military do not invest small amounts of time throughout their careers in self-study.  They perform well as platoon leaders, company commanders, and battalion commanders.  None of these responsibilities require much in the way of self-study.  Eventually, they reach a level in which an understanding of war that goes beyond a couple years of professional military education is required, and they don’t possess it.  This is where “winging it” takes over, resulting in lives lost, time wasted, and resources depleted.

3. You cannot make up for lost time

Out of all the commodities we are given in life, this is the only one we can’t get back.  Once time has passed, it’s gone forever.  It doesn’t do a Colonel with 24 years of service in the Army any good to look back on his or her career and wish they’d read more when they were younger.  Many start cramming, but by then you cannot make up for lost time.

One of my favorite passages from Charles Edward White’s The Enlightened Soldier, is taken from a conversation in which a commander laments to his chief of staff (in the midst of battle) that he wishes he would have prepared his mind for war. It occurs during one of the Prussian campaigns against Napoleon in 1813. And it illustrates this point of time lost:

Gneisenau (The Chief of Staff), if only I had learned something, what might have been made of me! But I put off everything that I should have learned.

Instead of studying, I had given myself to gambling, drink, and women.  I have hunted and perpetrated all sorts of foolish pranks.  And that’s why I don’t know anything now. Yes, the other way I would have been  a different kind of fellow. Believe me, something could have been made out of me.

One thing you pick up very quickly from the study of war is that the need to use the military instrument of power usually captures us by surprise.  None of us know if or when we will be called upon to lead formations in battle. That is why time is so critical.  All of us owe it to our nation and those we lead, to begin a consistent practice of self-study. Start today! Pick up a book or grab an article from a professional journal and spend 20-30 minutes a night reading. Finish it, and then move on to the next one, and don’t stop!  Don’t let the professor catch you unprepared.

If you have a habit that’s helped you remain consistent with self-study, please feel free to share in the comments section below! You never know who might benefit from your experience.


20 thoughts on “Three Truths About The Personal Study of War”

  1. This post hits the nail on the head Sir. When I was in OCS we had the quote “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” by Aristotle pounded into our heads and I feel it helps in my self study. Another great post!

  2. Sir,
    I really enjoyed this piece. It is also the first of regular visits to this site.

    As far as personal study time, something that has worked wonderfully for me is audiobooks. Utilizing my IPhone, the Overdrive App, Goodreads (book list aggregator) and my Navy and/or Army library subscriptions, I have been able to turn my commuting and PT time into study time for free. My audio playback speed and comprehension have significantly improved over time.

    Capt C

  3. Sir,
    Your green notebook system seems similar to mine. I finished reading, “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains,” today. During the book he talks about an old custom of the educated (18th Century-ish) called the commonplace book. I have attached a link. I believe you will see some similarities. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commonplace_book
    Capt C

      • No Sir. Your time is better spent with other books. If you utilize Goodreads, feel free to add me. I’ve rated 268 books and I’m tied in with quite a few other Marines that read extensively.

      • Joe-read the thesis in there. Unless you’re planning on doing some academic work, you can skip/lightly skim. B-Mac

  4. Totally agree on the theme of this article. To be considered a military “professional” you need to immerse youself in a study of your craft. The nature of war, strategy, tactics, operational concerns. The technology. Leadership and command. The Great Captains. Bttles and campaigns. Military theory and various doctrines. Human psychology and the behavior of organizations, units, and men in battle. A great professional military education will not teach you what to think, but how. But it will also fill your mind with the struggles, challenges, triumphs, and defeats of those who have gone before. It can serve as a torch of illumination as you move into dark and unexpected territory throughout your own career, as you confront your own challenges, options and decsions. It cannot fortell the future, but it can sure light the path.

  5. I’m not a soldier, I’m a historical novelist (under the name P F Chisholm). I’ve always been interested in military history though & totally agree with what you say. The best way to acquire a useful habit is to attach it to another one – read something immediately after you brush your teeth or go for your run & keep doing it. Just 10 minutes a day will make a difference in the long term – & I suggest you start with Macchiavelli!

  6. As a Staff Corps Officer, Nurse Corps, I have mandatory professional continuing education units due yearly for my state licensure. I am currently deployed and we have weekly teaching and education sessions that incorporate not only general medicine topics but also medical lessons learned and case studies on battle injuries and disease endemis pertinent to the region we are in. Some of us have currently had the opportunity to follow soldiers here and learn the environment that they work in and around, wether it be physical or weapons training.This helps us as a medical team to understand the mechanism of injuries that are sustained and environments worked in. We can then provide ideas e.g., hydration, sunscreen, PT exercises, to help mitigate any preventable injuries. We drill often and as realistic as possible and include everyone from our most junior to most senior personnel. Good stuff Joe.

  7. Very good advice for an officer of any army in the world. It is worthwhile to learn by heart.
    I wish you to become a general. Two stars at least.
    And I will hope that the mutual ambitions and stupidity of politicians will not bring us to the war. “Mad Dog” is of course a hard man – but he is a professional and a patriot, and therefore predictable.
    In the world and without Russians and Americans, there are plenty of people who need to be shot. 🙂
    I have never regretted that for so many years have been following your blog.

  8. A habit? Perhaps. Having a ready supply of books in your area of interest(s), so that you can bookmark and put one down and pick the next up and comeback to when you have reflected on the words there. Reduce the opiate of television, if not, mostly eliminate the distracting dross. Reading is the goal, but comprehending is the endstate.

  9. One way I have found is effective at maintaining accountability of my professional development is by keeping a Log on my iCloud account where I make an entry every day with the article/journal/book I read that day and how long I read for.


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