Reading for War

Why We Read: Creating an intellectual edge for the Joint Force

By Mark Gilchrist April 16, 2020

“Any commander who claims he is ‘too busy to read’ is going to fill body bags with his troops as he learns the hard way.” – General James Mattis, Call Sign Chaos


The recent focus on ‘Why We Write’ in military circles is testament to the positive transformation underway in our approach to professional development. But before we can expect soldiers, sailors, airmen and airwomen to write, we have an organisational responsibility to help them understand their profession in a way that strengthens what they want to say. This understanding will develop with practical experience but must be based on a willingness to study what others have written. As such, it is worthwhile spending time considering why we read. Channelling Simon Sinek, this article articulates why military professionals should read, how to encourage reading that creates an intellectual edge for the Joint Force, and finally what sort of reading leaders should be championing.

Why read?

The profession of arms is unlike any other. It is the only profession where practitioners actively seek to avoid having to display their prowess. This paradox means it is a profession reliant on continuous cognitive preparation to maximise the utility of limited opportunities for physical application. If this wasn’t challenging enough, as Michael Howard reminds us, running a military is among the most complex of assignments. This means that day to day governance can blind us to the purpose the force is actually being governed to achieve. In short, these challenges (among many others) ensure that any attempt to master the profession of arms means thinking until your head hurts.

Therefore, to have a basis from which to consider the myriad complex issues that define war and warfare one must gain a broad and ever-expanding knowledge base. This intellectual preparation should be based on an understanding of the past and the ability to comprehend the challenges of the future – both of which can only come from extensive reading.

Reading assists soldiers to appreciate the basis for the tactics, techniques and procedures they are taught by understanding their historical, technical or philosophical lineage. Reading promotes intellectual curiosity and provides the basis for a smart, young workforce to engage with and debate the issues shaping the future of war and warfare. It also ensures practitioners at all ranks can begin to understand the world as it is, not as they might like it to be.

Pragmatically, an organisational focus on reading also recognises that not everything the Joint Force needs to know can be taught on a course. As such, individual study is a small personal sacrifice that provides great organisational and operational benefits by complementing formal military training. Reading is, therefore, a force multiplier that allows individuals to contribute to the collective knowledge required to address the wicked military problems our Joint Force is likely to face in the 21st Century.

How to encourage it?

'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'.General James Mattis

Reading supports and sustains the lifelong learning culture required to provide an intellectual edge for the Australian Defence Force. As General Mattis highlights, reading is the best means to understand the nature and character of war: the unique knowledge that forms the basis of the profession of arms, and distinguishes military personnel from all other intelligent and dedicated public servants.

The aim of reading in the military context is to complement practical activities and application through inculcating an understanding of how the principles being applied have come into being. It provides context for doctrine and helps the Joint Force avoid slavish adherence to outdated approaches. By expanding an individual’s frame of reference, a focus on professional reading becomes the bridge that connects ‘doing their job’ with ‘learning about their profession’. This helps to develop a mindset open to examining biases and assumptions, which in turn aids in cultivating the strategic thinkers so critical in an era of accelerated warfare.

The accumulation of knowledge is like the magic of compound interest: a little investment each day will create a compounding effect that leads to outsize lifetime gains. However, the later one starts, the further behind they will be. Here is a practical example: If a soldier, having completed ab initio training, were to read 20 pages of professional development material each day, she would be reading 140 pages each week and 280 pages between pay days. This equates to roughly 25 books a year and 500 books over a 20-year career. The cumulative impact of this knowledge is immense, particularly when compared to colleagues who might read only one or two books each year. Indeed, after only a few years, the knowledge gained from such a small investment would be almost impossible for peers to match.

The benefits of an individual investment in professional reading are clear. The challenge is incentivising the activity in a way that raises the aggregate knowledge of the Joint Force to create an intellectual edge. Reading lists are a popular way to promote reading, but not necessarily a great way to inspire readership. As Major General Ryan has recently noted, reading must be guided and supported. Direction on reading, absent the support to do so, risks our people drawing incorrect analogies or being overwhelmed by volume, choice and themes. Here, leaders must also be teachers, coaches and mentors. Telling someone to read can be useful, supporting a mentee to learn and understand is truly helpful.

Reading is about feeding your brain, providing it with the nutrition required to sustain high performance and personal growth. The Australian Defence Force employs Physical Training Instructors to coach and develop our physical development and performance. We need a similar approach to intellectual development that goes beyond formal education or training to cultivate and foster a willingness within each of us to read. Just like physical training, reading shows personal dedication to professional excellence to enhance institutional outcomes. But, like all military endeavours, reading is also a team activity. It’s critical to support each other, train for success and evaluate team improvement. This will lead to the development of good reading habits and enhance critical thinking skills. This approach ensures the personal growth of all team members, with the Joint Force benefiting from the accumulation of new knowledge. Helping our people understand how to read effectively is one of the most valuable contributions leaders can make to developing and sustaining an intellectual edge. Importantly, it can also be the spark that ignites a lifelong passion for professional development.

What reading to champion?

Military reading lists are replete with suggestions for books, but light on guidance to help budding professionals understand them. Leaders should move away from ‘what books to read’, and instead discuss why they are important, what themes to look for and how to engage with them. Active mentoring of juniors is the basis for inculcating a culture of learning across the organisation, which, in turn, provides a higher baseline of knowledge to build on through formalised professional military education.

All military professionals should probably read Clausewitz at some point in their career, but it is not the first book to recommend to a soldier fresh from Kapooka. As such, recommendations must account for where the audience is educationally and experientially, with reading lists designed accordingly. Clausewitz also isn’t much fun to read. We need to make professional reading interesting and engaging to encourage our people to read more. This means tailoring reading to individual interests and needs, while also throwing in a heavy dose of fiction.

Tailored reading can account for things like role, seniority, trade and corps. It is also important to balance reading to assist in doing our current job better, with the reading required to prepare individuals for challenging future appointments. This doesn’t necessarily mean reading different books. It can be just as useful to frame a single book through different lenses. For example, E.B. Sledge’s masterful With the Old Breed provides a vivid and uncompromising insight into frontline combat and the toll it takes on soldiers. It is a brilliant book to help young soldiers begin to understand the fear, loss, confusion and courage that defines the individual experience of battle. It can also begin to inoculate soldiers to the horrors of war. Similarly, for platoon sergeants and commanders it offers a powerful insight into the physical, emotional and ethical challenges associated with leading terrified soldiers in brutal conditions. Sledge’s experiences can provide the basis for a range of meaningful professional development conversations - the key is providing the right coaching to draw out the most useful themes for a specific audience.

Leaders also have a key role to play in helping their teams to read critically, to differentiate normal from novel. The more you read and learn, the more you realise what you don’t know, and the more you question what think you do know. At the beginning of the journey, however, it can be easy to form strong views based on single sources. This reinforces the need to read in width, depth and context. As Michael Howard wisely advised, the reader’s job is to “get behind the order subsequently imposed by the historian, and recreate by detailed study the omnipresence of chaos, revealing the part played not only by skill and planning and courage, but by sheer good luck.” This is where mentoring through reading is particularly powerful: it challenges a reader’s preconceived ideas and biases, and forces them to gain a nuanced perspective by asking the right questions.


“Reading furnishes the mind only with material of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours” – John Locke

Creating an intellectual edge for the Joint Force is reliant on a cadre of critical thinkers who challenge prevailing dogma to unlock future warfighting advantage. Thinking must, however, be based on knowledge, and the most effective way to gain it is through voracious reading. Whereas the pursuit of knowledge is fundamental to any profession it is essential to the profession of arms, as a lack of knowledge can lead to death and defeat. Encouraging and assisting our people to read widely and critically is an essential leadership endeavour. The key is inspiring readership through coaching to achieve compounding cognitive gains. Why do we read? Because it is the foundation upon which an intellectual edge can be built to allow the Joint Force to fight and win in a complex world.


Has this post inspired you to pick up a book but you don't know where to start? Then check out the Australian Army Reading List, published by our friends and partners at the Australian Army Research Centre. With 144 titles on the list, there is something for everyone!



Mark Gilchrist

Mark Gilchrist is an Australian Army officer who has been fortunate to serve in a range of staff and command appointments. He has a passion for learning and you can find him @Gilchrist_MA.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.


Excellent article

Mark, thanks for this excellent contribution. I particularly like the simple metric of reading per day, per year, per career, compounding intellectual interest.

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