The problem with being too busy to read is that you learn by experience . . . 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.
An assignment to West Point perhaps inevitably means spending considerable time thinking about professional development in the Army officer corps. After all, for cadets the United States Military Academy is the first stage of a career-long development process. When I recently discovered that my next assignment will be command of 2nd Battalion, 11th Infantry Regiment—the unit responsible for the Infantry Basic Officer Leader Course—I reflected on General Mattis’s comments about the importance of reading. I began putting together a reading list aimed at young leaders—soon-to-be lieutenants here at West Point and elsewhere and newly commissioned officers just beginning their journeys as Army leaders.
This list is a start point—a menu of books that have personally influenced me and shaped the way I think about the profession of arms. All of these books were either presented or recommended to me by other fellow officers who have fought and led faithfully for our nation over the past thirty years. They have often spurred thoughtful conversations between me and other members of our profession. They have absolutely aided me as I continue to learn to lead in and outside of the Army. And ultimately, they are books I hope will help and inspire junior leaders to pursue excellence and continue to learn and lead.
Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne, from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest, by Steven Ambrose
Cohesion, heroism, tactics, good and bad leadership—you will learn about all of these in Band of Brothers. Pay close attention to Dick Winters and not only how he leads but also how he uses his wits and instinct (with doctrine and battle drills as the foundation) to consider the enemy, the terrain, and friendly forces in his tactics.
I highly encourage that you spend time in chapter 5, “Follow Me,” as Winters displays exceptional instinctive military tactics; it is infantry leadership 101.
Brief, by Joseph McCormack
Communicating clearly and concisely in our profession matters. Whether to the unit you command, a higher commander, or an adjacent unit, how you communicate your thoughts will provide clarity to your focused audience. This book assists in communicating leanly. Whether verbally, by email, or written on paper you should simply get in, get to the point, and get out.
Additionally, any officer should, at a minimum, peruse Army Regulation 25-50, Preparing and Managing Correspondence, as it provides the standards for military correspondence in the Army.
Infantry Attacks, by Irwin Rommel
This is an excellent book when considering small-unit tactics in large-scale combat operations. What we know from World War I, World War II, and even the ongoing war in Ukraine is that artillery matters—and when on the receiving end of it, the small unit must be dug in. So, learn to dig in as a priority of work. For infantry forces, Rommel teaches us of several significant tactical fundamentals that we must master—good reconnaissance, exploiting the enemy, digging in, and quickly laying a base of fire on the enemy before the enemy can lay a base of fire on us. Tactics matter. Reading this book will allow you to practice one of the most important habits of successful leaders: reflecting on the past to prepare for future battle.
Legacy: What the All Blacks Can Teach Us About the Business of Life, by James Kerr
As officers, we simply just do extra. Whether planning an operation, considering and mitigating risk, caring for a subordinate’s family, or doing a little more fitness, we help build the values in our small units, and for that matter, the Army as a whole. The current operating environment is uncertain and complex and you and your team will need to hold one another accountable to succeed. Legacy gets at the root of how leaders build teams to succeed. This book will cause you to consider your unit’s mindset, values, and purpose. Sweep the sheds!
One Bullet Away, by Nathaniel Fick
This book was recommended to me by several other officers, and it is worthy of their recommendations. It conveys the pressure on the lieutenant in training, preparation, and combat; it depicts what it’s like to fight in battle. At times the junior officer may be the “strategic lieutenant” whose decisions will have immediate repercussions and might have national consequences. So, what do you do? Your ability to think critically and creatively will matter in battle and Fick demonstrates this with excellence. Not every situation will be simple, but you will still need to think and decide.
Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics, by Tim Marshall
This is an easy and interesting read. The author describes how the geographic and human terrain of the globe influences much of how the world works with respect to politics and war. Clear and concise, this book will help you understand the worldview of groups across the globe and at the same time explain natural obstacles that either assist in defending or expose in attacking certain land areas on earth. This book will assist you in expanding your geopolitical field of expertise and how you see the world.
The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, by Daniel James Brown
Trust. How do you extend it and how do you receive it? The boat consisted of eight rowers and one coxswain—similar in size to an infantry squad. They lived through the Great Depression and they all mostly came from extremely humble means. Most were simply looking for a better way of life. However, they found a common cause and they learned to work together in pursuit of that cause; they built trust in one another. Tough and gritty, most teams come together through shared misery and this book conveys exactly that. Misery enjoys company, so find good company!
Tom Dull is an infantry officer in the United States Army and currently the executive officer for the Character Integration Advisory Group at West Point. He currently instructs West Point cadets in the Character Growth Seminar.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Master Sgt. Mark Burrell, US Army