I’m not one for New Year’s Resolutions. More often than not they are expressions of vague aspirations, not firm commitments of action. But at the start of 2016 I decided to read as many books as I could about military history and small unit leadership during the following twelve months. It seemed like a worthwhile topic in light of my ongoing attendance at the Wisconsin Military Academy’s Officer Candidate School and my projected commissioning in September (which did come to pass). The topic was also a nice change of pace from my day job, which was heavily influenced by the tumultuous circus of an election cycle.
I’ve not yet settled on a general topic or theme for my reading list in 2017, but here’s a look back at five of the 16 books I ended up starting and finishing in 2016.
1) An Army at Dawn, Day of Battle, and The Guns at Last Light by Rick Atkinson. Technically this is a trilogy, but for the sake of space I’ll count all three as one book by an outstanding author. Atkinson, a former Washington Post correspondent, wrote his Liberation Trilogy about World War II in North Africa and Europe over a period of several years, and it stands as a defining recent history of America’s involvement in the European theater. While each books is fairly long, Atkinson provides enough technical details to interest the professional and enough personal anecdotes to engage the casual reader. The advantage of reading a three volume history like this is that the reader can understand the overarching themes that weave their way through the United States’ participation in the war.
2) Washington’s Immortals by Patrick O’Donnell. Thanks to a long road trip and a longer commute to a new job, I ended up going through the audiobook version of this title. O’Donnell traces the formation, development and experience of a handful of Maryland militiamen whose regiments ultimately formed the core of General George Washington’s Continental Army. There are limitations to following a specific unit through a specific war, but the fact that these Maryland volunteers participated in nearly every major battle of the American Revolution makes it easy to follow both their own story and the broader story of the American Revolution. The book was all the more moving since several of my ancestors fought in the very regiments O’Donnell writes about. It is hard to complain about anything in modern life after reading of the quiet and courageous sacrifices of these patriots, who, among other privations, marched thousands of miles in bare feet and rags to fight, often without pay, against the most powerful military in the world in defense of an idea only a plurality of their countrymen believed in.
3) Imperial Grunts by Robert Kaplan. This is a slightly dated book because it was published in 2006, but Kaplan is a masterful storyteller who weaves vivid accounts of American military missions around world with picturesque descriptions of the geography, history and culture of the key regions that occupy the national security interests of the nation. Kaplan’s belief in the need for American military action and presence around the world is clear throughout the book, and that strain of idealism might be tempered now in others as a consequence of the difficult wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The real value in Kaplan’s now decade-old work is that it shows that the United States really does not have a choice in choosing whether or not it will engage with the world, but rather must decide how it will engage with the world.
4) The Heights of Courage by Avigdor Kahalani. A short, fast-paced read, this book is a first-person history of the author’s participation in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Kahalani was a tank battalion commander, and while a battalion is hardly a small organization, there are plenty of lessons available in this book for leaders of any sized organization, particularly leaders who face decisions about managing risks, assuming initiative, and pursuing decisive action.
5) The Outpost by Jake Tapper. Tapper is one of my favorite television correspondents, and in The Outpost he follows the story of several Army units — mostly Cavalry units — that occupied a combat outpost (COP) in Afghanistan during the height of the war there. The book details the everyday challenges faced by units attempting to bring order to a chaotic region, fighting insurgents on one hand and local skepticism — even apathy — on the other. Tapper doesn’t paint a rosy picture of war — it is harsh, particularly on the families left behind — but amid the routine proclamations of today’s generational softness it is a stark reminder that courage and sacrifice are still to be found today.