Essays & Reviews

Starship Troopers? A Military Reading List from Down Under

We note the Chief of the Australian Army’s Reading List, issued in 2012 by the Army’s Land Warfare Studies Centre. The document includes introductory essays on the study of military history; and on the relevance of history to the military profession; an American Marine’s view (by retired Lt. General Paul K Van Riper, originally published as a chapter in a 2006 volume edited by Williamson Murray and Richard Hart Sinnreich).

The list is annotated and divided into the following sections: (1) Philosophers of war; (2) The character of land warfare; (3) Culture and conflict; (4) Military organisational culture and behaviours; (5) Strategy and doctrine; (6) Logistics; (7) Command and leadership; (8) Intelligence; (9) Professional ethics; (10) Military innovation and adaptation; (11) Amphibious warfare; (12) Memoirs; (13) Thinking creatively; (14) Contemporary security contexts; (15) Military history—general and contemporary: (16) Australian Army History; (17) Recent conflicts; (18) Military and other fiction; (19) Important journals, both professional and historic; (20) Influential websites: (21) Feature films and documentaries.

There is obviously much food for thought here, as it is always worthwhile to see how scholarship and literature on strategy and diplomacy are viewed from afar – in this case, from a foreign military that has much in common with ours, yet from a different geopolitical orientation. Most of the works are of relatively recent vintage and in English (usually published in the United States or England), and fall into the category of what we term “Notable Books” rather than “Classics of Strategy and Diplomacy.”

The editor of the publication offers this explanation for the logic behind the compilation:

Many of the books listed here deal with the history of war (for war knows no nationality), and of Australians at war and of the Australian Army. History provides us with an understanding of where we have come from as individuals and institutions, and offers intellectual tools to help us analyse and understand the issues and problems of our own time within their context. The study of history also helps soldiers understand the shape and nature of war; the great Prussian theorist, Carl von Clausewitz, observed that ‘war changes far less frequently and significantly than most people appreciate … because the material culture of war, which tends to be the focus of attention, is less important than its social, cultural and political contexts and enablers’. The attainment of professional mastery lies in understanding and appreciating war in all its manifestations and dimensions. . . .

Reading lists of this kind do not provide immediate answers to short-term problems—there are other mechanisms and sources available for that purpose. Rather, in the spirit of the great nineteenth century German historian, Jacob Burkhardt, the books suggested here are not intended merely to make us smarter for next time, but wiser forever. One of Australia’s greatest soldiers, John Monash, possessed a personal library of more than 4000 volumes with an emphasis on literature, science and, above all, history. Napoleon’s great adversary, the Austrian Archduke Charles, thought that great soldiers were formed ‘by long experience and intense study’. You will acquire the first by dint of your service; this reading list is a jumping-off point for the second.

I found it interesting that only two authors met the publication’s standard of “Philosophers of War” – Thucydides and Clausewitz (Sun Tzu is not listed). One unusual ancient source is cited, under the Category of “Thinking Creatively:” Meditations by the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161–180 CE): “These ruminations are truly the definition of ‘timeless classics’—the thoughts of this great Roman general are, on the whole, still relevant today.. . . . These meditations are an insight into the mind of a great thinker who applied his philosophy to how he carried out his tasks in life, and modern military professionals would do well to do the same.”

The reading list also highlights the value of literature (novels) and films and documentaries. “Fiction comes in a variety of forms and genres, and good fiction can deal with profound truths in ways that even good history sometimes struggles to convey, but grappling “with important issues of ethics, morality, judgment, courage and the human condition.” The list includes novels such as James Webb’s Fields of Fire, Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels and Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, but also off-the-beat selections including Starship Troopers (Robert A. Heinlein) and Ender’s Game (Orson Scott Carol). Film “can provide vivid insights into issues of wartime leadership, military cultures and the realities of combat and answer ‘big questions’ through the medium of entertainment.” Documentary films such as Ken Burns’ treatment of the Civil War and the Second World War “can also help us to ‘see’ what situations were like with new eyes or renewed clarity,” although this genre also has important limitations.