(Editor’s Note: SOFREP invites our members to submit articles for publishing consideration. Today we bring you a piece by SOFREP member Shelby Kearns. Mrs Kearns graduated with an M.A. in the Humanities from the University of Chicago and has experience teaching writing classes and working for a non-profit. She is an emerging writer and lives with her husband Matthew in Lawton, Oklahoma)

On February 15th, Army Chief of Staff General James McConville will release another book on his reading list as he does on the 15th of every month. This may not seem like a noteworthy event. Gen. McConville follows a decades-old (maybe centuries-old) tradition of military leaders maintaining a professional reading list, and these days, everyone from a battalion commander to an academy commandant has one.

My experience has led me to believe that these reading lists matter. When my husband checked into Infantry basic training at Fort Benning, he placed his copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Breakfast of Champions” in the “Amnesty Box,” the container for all contraband from the civilian world. The reason? He felt worried that Vonnegut wasn’t on any of the reading lists. My mother-in-law mailed him two of the approved books: Dave Grossman’s influential “On Killing” and Erich Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front”.

Vice Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. James McConville addresses Air Force Gen. Joseph Lengyel, chief, National Guard Bureau, state adjutants general and senior leadership from the 53 states, territories and District of Columbia at the Guard Senior Leadership Conference held at the Herbert R. Temple, Jr., Army National Guard Readiness Center, Arlington, Va., Feb. 21, 2018. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Michelle Gonzalez)


Most Likely to Turn into a Mel Gibson Movie

Since then, the service members and veterans I’ve encountered haven’t stopped talking about these books. The anecdotes are numerous: my professor, a former commandant of a senior military college, who spoke of his summer reading list; my husband’s book club; and a reception I attended where the new post commander raved about Colin Powell’s latest book. With the military’s proclivity towards acronyms, I hear that junior officers are advised to ABR (Always Be Reading).

The constant chatter about the professional reading lists led me to question how they influence military culture and why leaders develop these lists to begin with. I started browsing these lists for trends. The Army Chief of Staff divides his list into six categories: Strategic Environment, Regional Studies, History and Military History, Leadership, Army Profession, and Fiction. These categories appear across other military reading lists, albeit with different names. I grouped the kinds of books that appear on these lists into three more general categories. I call the first “Most Likely to Turn into a Mel Gibson Movie,” which includes memoirs, portraits of leaders from Grant to Lincoln, and analyses of battles (the Battle of Thermopylae, which pervades popular culture in films like “300,” is a favorite on these lists).


I call the second category TEDxMilitary, the kind of content that Oscar Schwartz calls “inspiresting”. In other words, it’s the kind of interesting and inspiring content typical of TED Talks that promises a better future–usually through globalization or technological progress–all while keeping the reader entertained. These include the big ideas books of Malcolm Gladwell and leadership books that share stories of discipline and sacrifice (think Jocko Willink’s “Extreme Ownership”) or new ways of forming teams (think “The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations”). The TEDxMilitary books also contain more alarmist accounts of America’s changing status as a world power. These are academic books exemplified by General Mark Milley’s description of “The Future Declassified” in his 2017 reading list: