Monday, 13 May 2013

Reading at a professional level

The internet (or at least the specific subset I enjoy) has been abuzz with the name Mattis this week. even more than normal. For those unaware General James "Mad Dog" Mattis is a recently retired member of the USMC and probably one of the most quotable military figures of the last 20 years. His other nickname is "Warrior Monk", and it is precisely these qualities which have led to this post.

A series of emails by Mattis were put online this week covering the important topic of professional reading within the military. I think it is critical that anyone with an interest in this topic read the entire piece, however, in the interest of brevity and getting to the point I will pull a few critical passages:
The problem with being too busy to read is that you learn by experience (or by your men’s experience), i.e. the hard way. By reading, you learn through others’ experiences, generally a better way to do business, especially in our line of work where the consequences of incompetence are so final for young men.

Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before. It doesn’t give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead.


Ultimately, a real understanding of history means that we face NOTHING new under the sun. For all the “4th Generation of War” intellectuals running around today saying that the nature of war has fundamentally changed, the tactics are wholly new, etc, I must respectfully say… “Not really”: Alex the Great would not be in the least bit perplexed by the enemy that we face right now in Iraq, and our leaders going into this fight do their troops a disservice by not studying(studying, vice just reading) the men who have gone before us.
This one passage pretty much encapsulates why I spend a significant amount of time (as a civilian through and through) pursuing the thoughts of military thinkers. Unlike the civilian world many military leaders recognise that a lack of learning can have severe and dramatic consequences for those around them, and indeed themselves. I think this is caused by the civilian attitude that "nothing we do is important", thus mistakes don't feel very important. particularly when the impact is on ones juniors. If they have to work late to cover your mistakes so be it, or at least that often seems to be the attitude.

But Mattis hits on the simple fact that we can learn from the experience of others in a less direct and brutal way, and prepare ourselves for unforseen events in the process. Reading places us in the context of other individuals who have been there before, and gives a demonstration of how those circumstances were (or indeed were not) overcome.

I am currently reading Thriving on Chaos by Tom Peters, a book more than 15 years old (And one Boyd would have found fascinating), yet it remains fresh and vibrant simply because the majority of professionals have not read it, or sought to implement what it contains. It is exactly the sort of book which Mattis would recommend if he were a CEO, a mix of history and analysis, covering broad swathes of the business world, from sales, to manufacturing, to marketing and so forth.

It is frankly inexcusable that we (as civilians) are so dismissive of "book learning" whilst at the same time clinging to training as if it is the most meaningful thing in the world. Training is so often rote learning, giving methods to deal with a particular circumstance in a uniform fashion. Learning is an entirely different process, and comes from creating a flexible mental toolkit based on independent learning and comparisons to the independent learning of others. It contains a vibrancy which training (with it's emphasis on "transmission" above "reception") will never offer.

The problem is that codified "reading lists" are only of moderately more use than training, while they offer a broader pallet they would place all those reading them on a similar level pegging. That is unless they are placed in an environment that demands they argue and debate the texts in order to develop fresh insight. That environment would also need to allow them to face novel and demanding situations which would stretch their understanding and encourage them to go beyond the initial reading list and search out new topics on which to read.

There is nothing new under the sun, and there is no excuse for having "no idea" in the face of a new or novel circumstance. Just because we are civilians and thus the consequences of our actions are lower than those who serve is not a good enough reason not to reach beyond our current comprehension and challenge ourselves. Novelty is nothing new, and if you are experiencing it then it just means you haven't found the right books yet.

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