Center for Strategic Communication

I’ve always admired USMC general General James Mattis. I first encountered him when I read his scathing takedown of Effects-Based Operations (EBO) in 2008, and soon became familiar with his operational record in Iraq and endlessly entertaining quotables. Most of all, I’ve always admired Mattis’ deep interest in his own profession, as evidenced by the countless news stories about his personal library of military history books. Thus, I wasn’t surprised to find that one of Mattis’ emails about his military professional reading is now making waves.

Why would a reading list go viral in the national security blogosphere (besides Mattis being awesome)? Mattis addressed this message to a colleague who asked for advice about reading for officers that found themselves “too busy to read.” Mattis’ response was swift, and worth quoting at length because—-well, its GENERAL MATTIS. Would you ever not blockquote Chuck Norris or Mr. T? I deeply, deeply pity the fool that paraphrases General Mattis. 

The problem with being too busy to read is that you learn by experience (or by your men’s experience), i.e. 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 for young men. 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.


With TF 58, I had w/ me Slim’s book, books about the Russian and British experiences in AFG, and a couple others. Going into Iraq, “The Siege” (about the Brits’ defeat at Al Kut in WW I) was req’d reading for field grade officers. I also had Slim’s book; reviewed T.E. Lawrence’s “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”; a good book about the life of Gertrude Bell (the Brit archaeologist who virtually founded the modern Iraq state in the aftermath of WW I and the fall of the Ottoman empire); and “From Beirut to Jerusalem”. I also went deeply into Liddell Hart’s book on Sherman, and Fuller’s book on Alexander the Great got a lot of my attention (although I never imagined that my HQ would end up only 500 meters from where he lay in state in Babylon).


Ultimately, a real understanding of history means that we face NOTHING new under the sun. For all the “4th Generation of War” intellectuals running around today saying that the nature of war has fundamentally changed, the tactics are wholly new, etc, I must respectfully say… “Not really”: Alex the Great would not be in the least bit perplexed by the enemy that we face right now in Iraq, and our leaders going into this fight do their troops a disservice by not studying (studying, vice just reading) the men who have gone before us. We have been fighting on this planet for 5000 years and we should take advantage of their experience. “Winging it” and filling body bags as we sort out what works reminds us of the moral dictates and the cost of incompetence in our profession

It’s a wonderful email, and any soldier serving under a commander wise enough to write such magisterial words of wisdom and generous enough to take the time and effort to express them is truly blessed. Mattis wonderfully encapsulates the value of military history: getting a feel of the experiences of those who came before, and thinking about the commonalities inherent across the temporal and typological spectrum of warfare. Such deep study prepares the mind for action, unleashing creativity and drive that otherwise may not have been enabled by technical training and socialization. Mattis’ own famously eclectic reading is also in full force here, with books on everything from T.E. Lawrence to the storied campaigns of Alexander.

Mattis also rightly argues that lethal mistakes that might have been otherwise made can be prevented by learning from the misfortunes of others. Lastly, a finely honed BS radar can help stave off the episodic military fads and buzzword bingo games that proliferate every few years in the Pentagon, doctrinal shops, and think-tankdom. These are all important things that Mattis has masterfully illustrated. If that’s all there was to it, I’d end the entry here. “Moral of the story? Read military history and train hard so you can reach Mattis’ level of awesomeness. But there’s a lot more to it than that.

The argument that follows should not in any way be construed as a
criticism of Mattis himself, who has gone well above and beyond the
intellectual chops of many tenured university professors. However, it is a word of caution to those who may be reading his email and thinking about their own way to approach war. What works for Mattis may not work for you, much in the same way that your tears—unlike those of Chuck Norris–cannot cure cancer.

First, let’s start with some of the books themselves. I know that Mattis has impeccable taste in books from the biographical articles I’ve read about him. But there are some real clunkers mentioned in the email. There’s a very big gulf between what Lawrence said he did in Seven Pillars and what historians later concluded. Likewise, J.F.C Fuller and Basil Liddell-Hart were known for their own substantial distortions of history. In particular, Basil Liddell-Hart tortured the military historical facts until the facts, just like a waterboarded CIA detainee, gave up. In the eyes of Liddell-Hart, every single significant victory in military history was a result of the indirect approach. Every major defeat resulted from the lack of indirectness. Every significant Great Captain of history was great because he commanded as Liddell-Hart would have. And this goes without mentioning the SLA Marshall-like academic fraud Liddell-Hart is accused of having indulged in. Finally, the less we can say about the reliability of a Thomas Friedman book (“From Beirut to Jerusalem”), the better.

This is by no means a knock on Mattis. I am not making an argument that reading Liddell-Hart made Mattis a poorer commander. Mattis knows what combat is like, how to synchronize forces, and has what Clausewitz dubbed the coup d’œi–a natural feel for what creates military advantage. Mattis doesn’t need Liddell-Hart to kick ass and take names.  He likely pruned the most useful ideas and disregarded the rest when it didn’t fit his experience. Mattis’ reading is part of a larger process that produced an general understanding of the nature of the military profession. Mattis’ own experience would surely cast doubt on Liddell-Hart’s fantasies of indirection, deception, and dislocation as a generally reliable defeat mechanism. And if not that, then its statistically unlikely that someone with as gigantic a personal military history library as Mattis would be fooled by Liddell-Hartisms.

But while gaining an understanding of the nature of war is useful, there are a lot of things it won’t do. This becomes most apparent in the section of the email where Mattis makes specific claims. Mattis repeatedly states that nothing is new under the sun, makes comparisons across big temporal zones (Alexander the Great in Persian Iraq vs. 2004 iraq), and advances specific analytical arguments about military theories. He does so on the basis of a sweeping generalization that 5,000 years of warfare tells us in aggregate that war has not changed. While this makes for a rousing line, it is also a fairly problematic statement. How do we really know that the nature of war has not changed in 5,000 years?

We should recognize that this is an isolated quote, and strive to not take out of context what was a heartfelt letter to a colleague in need of guidance. But the argument itself—as the cumulative product of a process of self-education in the nature of warfare, does merit some critical analysis. It is part of a humanistic conception of war that stresses the unity of military experience across the ages, and puts the fighting man’s will first. What Mattis dashed off in an email has been repeated by others in journal articles, blog posts, essays, and books. The military historian Brian McAllister Linn, in his seminal study of the Army’s cultures, dubbed it the “heroic” style of war. Linn constrasts this humanistic style this with technocratic Managers, defensive Guardians, and other military tribes with differing values and approaches.

So what do we know about 5,000 years of constant violence?

Often times the answer is that it depends. As my Fuller and Liddell-Hart examples illustrate, the quality of historical accounts is extremely uneven. Military history as a modern discipline only started with Hans Delbruck, a civilian who did some basic math and discovered that many of the most prominent chroniclers of pre-modern warfare were flat-out wrong about ancient history’s greatest battles and campaigns. Anthropologists still argue today about the nature of violence in the evolutionary state of nature and whether it can be mapped to violence in settled states. Second, it may be true that war is war in the Clausewitzian sense. But while it is technically true that Alexander’s Iraqi opponents and Sadrist mobs are both humans seeking to use force to impose their will, this in and of itself is not very useful. There are fairly prominent shifts in the character of politics, the international system, techology, wealth, and societ that matter too. 

Consulting history alone makes it difficult to make general arguments about the current or
future state of warfare without devolving into dueling anecdotes.
Take for example, the perennial argument between landpower, seapower,
and airpower partisans, all based on non-falsfiable and poorly operationalized theories that generally
have not been systematically tested or formalized for logical consistency. Lastly, without having solid parameters and standards of comparison, debate over future war trends just degenerates into pop-futurism no more rigorous than Silicon Valley’s dreams of Singularity. Once you go beyond the historical particular and
begin making general claims, arguments, projections, and comparisons, you enter into a
different world that is fraught with potential pitfalls.

The biggest problem with reading military history alone is the problem of induction.
A drastically oversimplified explanation of induction: the number of
times a given event repeats does not guarantee that it will always repeat. Disruptive shifts that create a new reality are an empirically observed regularity in military history. Lack of any explicit method to formalize and systemize history, make
relevant comparisons or properly evaluate generalizable and commonly held notions about
war produces false analogies
like the continued trotting out of Munich and Vietnam during every
foreign policy crisis. And as Joshua Foust
has often blogged, it creates a situation in which security analysts rely on Churchillian 19th century British sagas as a guide to understand modern Afghanistan.

Thinking about how we can evaluate and judge generalizable theories and trends is what prevents us from having to develop substantial, granular expertise on a new security subject every time it is considered. Given the multiplicity of threats inherent in modern American national security, the ability to think deductively in a rigorous fashion is extremely important. It is impossible to make any context-independent decisions about war otherwise. We all hold implicit ideas about how the world works that guide our behavior and choices, so why not bring them into the open?

This is not an argument that the only way to think about war is a statistical model tested against a giant dataset. Even the best war data is messy and statistical modeling can be, under some circumstances, just as pseudoscientific as (if not more than) bad historical analogy. There are many others ways to think about getting at the general and making comparisons, from sociology to abstract formal models and ideal-types. Rigorous and structured reading of strategic history like Colin S. Gray’s corpus can also help.

But unless you are Mattis or the rare non-Mattis mortal that can naturally conceptually order that crazy mixture of forces known as war, you probably should take Mattis’ reading philosophy as a starting point rather than an terminus. Yes, read deeply in history. But also think about how to formalize, model, test, and evaluate specific ideas that move beyond the temporal, spatial, and political particulars seen in those books. Be suspicious of sweeping claims that do not control for relevant variables. Understand the problems with historical analogies. As the likely apocryphal quote goes, “In God we trust; all others must bring data.

I will stress again, the reincarnation of Chesty Puller and Albert Einstein that is General James Mattis can do all of these things effortlessly in his own mind. But 99% of the rest of us can’t. Gen Mattis’ brain was designed by the same people who formulated the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF)—a rapidly deployable combined arms unit that packs immense combat power. But the rest of us need more explicit signposts to direct the analysis we write and the decisions we make, particularly when they require comparison, the evaluation of theory, and prediction into the future.