Sunday, March 23, 2014

What Would You Put on Your IDC Reading List?

This is a post from LCDR Christopher Nelson, a Navy Intelligence Officer that is an avid reader and also blogs over at Between the Boards.

There are thousands of reading lists out there. While I'm not sure that I agree with author Umberto Ecco’s belief that we "like lists because we don't want to die," I do think reading lists are essential for any serious reader. They’re also fun. Seriously.

Lists force us to be finite: e.g,. “The 100 Best Books of 2012,” or “My Top 5 Books of 2013.” Creating a list forces you to choose: Do I take Tolkien over Asimov? Or, did I enjoy reading John Keegan’s The Face of Battlemore than Paul Fussell’s Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War? Sigh -- decisions, decisions. Reading lists are also contagious. For example, I’ve probably spent hours, but enjoyable time nonetheless, jumping from list to list, finding new books that I’ve never heard of. I enjoyed reviewing Maj. Gen. H.R. McMaster’s list. He introduced me to Sir Michael Howard, British historian and author of a splendid little book titled War in European History. And then, shortly after, someone sent me a link to Rear Admiral Kirby’s reading list. Rear Admiral Kirby recommended a few books that I hadn’t picked up before. Notably, I grabbed a copy of Ernie Pyle’s Civilian Soldiers -- an extraordinary writer and journalist that until then, all I had known was that he was killed by a sniper’s bullet in the Pacific. His stories from the perspective of the grunt -- rather than the general officer, which was popular at the time -- were fascinating.

All this talk about lists leads me to an IDC reading list. Do we have one? A quick search and you’ll come up with a list of 57 books and additional articles over at the Information Warfare Portal. Ostensibly -- as the thread says -- these readings will (help) prepare you for the IDC command screening board. A quick review of the list and you’ll see that many of them are of the “self-help” flavor., I’m not going to spend too much time criticizing or commenting on self-help books -- good or bad. I will briefly say two things about these types of books (and you can usually spot them by title, e.g., Seven Successful Traits of a Leader).

First, look at men and women who have been in command, now or years ago, and see if they had a reading list. If they were asked to list their top 10 books that made an impact on them, what do you think they would list? Look at Rear Admiral Kirby’s list again, or General McMaster’s list, and tell me what you see. How many self-help books make up their lists? Second, really good books are nourishing; these are books that you will want to mark-up, tab, highlight, and come back to again and again. I would wager that most self-help books don’t offer that kind of nourishment. Maybe some, but not many. Immediately, Dale Carnegie comes to mind. The man who brought us How To Win Friends and Influence People or The Art of Public Speaking are worth a look -- particularly if you’ve never thought about Aristotle's ideas of ethos, pathos, and logos before, then Carnegie can get you started. I won't deny that there are practical uses for these works. I would be a hypocrite if I did -- my bookshelves are sprinkled with Carnegie and others. (Actually, now that I think about it, the late post-modernist writer/genius David Foster Wallace had a personal librarythat ranged from Thomas Pynchon (heavy meta stuff) to self-help.) If it helps you, keep turning the page. But back to the original question: are they nourishing? So this is the challenge: What would you put on an IDC reading list? What books would you consider nourishing to IDC professionals? It’s not an easy question. I’m still thinking about it. Because if our time is valuable -- which it is, as it is the only thing you can’t get back -- then a reading list is a serious recommendation that 1) will take a modest investment of your time and therefore 2) must be worth it. Period. While titles like P.W. Singer’s Wired For War and works of fiction like John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War come to mind, I know a serious list takes serious consideration. I’m interested to see what comes to your mind.



  1. Given that I currently live in the world of Cyber Workforce Development (USCYBERCOM J7), I believe Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card to be a must read. It's an older book and many in our field have likely already enjoyed it. When you think about the talent we need to recruit, the specialized expertise we need to develop, and the decentralized/tactical C2 model required to effectively operate in this domain, this book nails it. It turns traditional military culture upside down and identifies many of the flaws in today's status quo.

  2. "The Effective Executive" by Peter Drucker. Timeless advice. If we used even half the lessons in the book we'd be more effective officers all around. I don't think it gets a lot of press because it was published in 1982 and doesn't have some whamodyne name or method, but it is based in a lot of science and really works.

  3. Sir -- good choice. And if you enjoyed Card's "Ender's Game," then I'd strongly recommend John Scalzi's books. Particularly, "The Old Man's War" and the follow on, "Ghost Soldiers." He takes Card's premise (i.e., identify young strategists to save the planet) and flips it on its head (i.e., what happens when you put a 70 year old's conscience and experience in a genetically modified young body). It's a great read. An even larger discussion, is how science-fiction is often eerily prescient. Tech and the future "character" of war is often only limited to our imagination, so I think there is plenty of room for more sci-fi on reading lists:

    I'm also interested in expanding the discussion, and you hinted at it with your comment on decentralized C2 models, but it's this: what is common among all designators in the IDC? Thus, what books would reflect the IDC culture? (The immediate follow up question, though, is have we clearly defined ourselves?)

    Finally, I'll throw another book out there for consideration. Check out Nate Silver's "The Signal and The Noise." In a data driven and saturated society, how do we make sense out of it all? Can we be better at predication if we understand the data available and more importantly, ask the right questions? Silver offers some great insights.

  4. Navy Grade -- I haven't read Drucker yet. I know he's been around for some time, though. In fact, I believe they actually have Peter Drucker seminars. But what about fiction? Any recommendations?