Small Wars Journal

Can Johnny Read? - A Guide to Reading for Military Self-Development

Fri, 08/04/2017 - 4:36pm

Can Johnny Read? - A Guide to Reading for Self-Development

Franklin C. Annis

Reading is the most common recommendation for Army self-development. Even in my doctoral research with Northcentral University (Annis, 2016), I would often get the single word reply of “read” from senior officers when I asked for recommendations for practical self-development techniques. While on the surface it may seem like a simple and straightforward advice, the meaning and techniques of the term “reading” vary greatly. I would even assert that a new term specific to how warfighters engage in reading for self-development might be required. In this article, we will examine the terms and approaches to reading to maximize its utility for military self-development. 

Reading in its simplest definition might be said to be the translation of written characters (in our case, letters) into spoken word. While we have developed the ability to now read silently, the intent remains the same. Can you take marking on a parchment and translate them into the message that would have been spoken by the author? While we take this skill for granted in the modern era, the act of reading would have been perceived on the level of magic in days of old. If one thinks about it, it is the ability to re-animate the words of the dead or in some ways an act of time travel back into the past when the words were written. It is this ability to translate written text into spoken word (often read silently) that is referred to when someone might ask if you know how to read. But the ability to translate symbols into spoken word is not what is being implied when senior officers suggest their Soldiers “read” as a form of self-development.

Anyone familiar with modern academia may have come to hate this word “read”. For students are often assigned reading that is beyond their life-experience level or ability to comprehend and asked to read at a rate faster than their abilities to absorb the information. I well remember my college years where reading the “great works” included buying a copy of the CliffsNotes guide or searching for a movie version of the work. This lead teachers and professors to ask obscure questions about the work in an attempt assess if students actually read the assigned chapters or “cheated” by using some other abbreviated source. This method of assessment confounded the problem as now students focused on memorizing every detail of the book and stopped engaging in high-order thought processes about the materials being read. The assessment techniques of reading assignments may be having a tremendously negative impact on getting junior Soldiers to engage in reading for professional development. Without any consistent means of assessing the impacts of reading assignments on thoughts or behaviors, academia has increasingly focused on assessing the knowledge of the books content and not its impact on the individual reader. To use Hamlet as an example, does it really matter if the skull in the graveyard scene is from a man named Yorick or Horatio? Or is it more important to realize that Hamlet was facing the issue of morality? While is it easy for an academic to grade the first question, grading a question concerning a student’s reflection on their own mortality would be far more complex and time consuming.

The key to unlocking the right approach to support military self-development might lay in the Old English word “rædan”. This word being the predecessor of the modern word “read” had meanings that included “ to advise, counsel, persuade; discuss, deliberate; rule, guide; arrange, equip; forebode; read, explain”(Harper, 2017, para. 3). This word expands the concept of reading past the mere translations of written characters and shifts to focus onto the higher-order thought processes. It is these high-order thought processes that are required to gain the type of information useful for the warfighter. Reading a book is as much of an exercise on examining yourself as it is examining the books content.

The latest addition of the Leader Development Field Manual (FM) 6-22 (HQ DA, 2015) provided a list of questions to assist in professional reading on page 3-28. While this list of question is a good start to provide a guide to professional reading, the majority (6 out of 7) of the primary questions provided are focused on the books context. We need to ensure that Soldiers are engaging in self-reflection and further examination of the text than what is readily apparent. The additional questions listed provide an adequate start on a deeper evaluation of the text. I was happy to find a question on “notable historical, economic, racial, cultural, traditional, gender, sexual, or socioeconomic factors” (HQ DA, 2015, p. 3-28). There has been a noted shift in academia to avoid certain topics for the sake of “political correctness” that cannot be avoided by military leaders. I would encourage every military leader to read Army Life in a Black Regiment by Thomas Wentworth Higginson and how this military leader addressed the use of the word “Nigger”. This is but one example of a situation with significant gravitas that military leaders need to be able to address but are unlikely to be discussed in modern academia. Additional questions about the writing style are provided within this list. I have to confess mixed feelings about these questions as I wonder if they are too “academic” in nature. But I realize that some books present useful information or development opportunities that may be harder to read than others due to style. There are also a number of self-reflective questions that get to the very heart of “reading” as it is intended for self-development including: “Have your views or thoughts changed after reading this? […] What did you learn from, take away from or get out of this work? Did your opinion change as you read it? How?” (HQ DA, 2015, p. 3-28).

My personal approach to reading for self-development is as follows. First, remember there is no test. There is no need to read the book as if you need to provide to others that you have read it. The intent is to gain new information and what useful information is drawn from a text may vary from one individual to another.

Second, you are reading to gain knowledge that you can hopefully covert into wisdom (applying the knowledge to current problems or in a different context). This means you are looking for ways that leaders solved their problems that you may not have thought of. While it is impossible to fight the same war twice, seeing how leaders solved problems in the past may simulate thoughts on how you would solve the same types of problems in the current conflicts.

Third, you can abandon a book if you are not finding it useful. There is no need to read an entire book that you do not enjoy and are not pulling useful information from. It would be far better to start reading another book that is useful than to endure a bad book and be discouraged from the practice of reading. If it is an important book, you can always return to it in the future when you have gained more experience or a different outlook.

Fourth, put yourself in the character’s “shoes.” If you were the leader and knew only what they knew would you make the same choices? Why or why not? How would your differences impact the situation?

Fifth, place the characters in the modern context. If you were the character and had access to all the modern technology of today’s military how would it change the situation? Would the technology change the situation dramatically?

Sixth, look for the influences of philosophies. What was the leader’s worldview? Did they have any specific philosophies that influenced their actions? Were they being influenced by any political ideologies?

Seven, is the author biased? This may require reading several books about the same topic/event/conflict to determine. Was their understanding of the events shaped by the “fog of war”? Would they have a different opinion if they could accurately see the whole situation?

Eighth, are there other books that could give you a better understanding of the work at hand? Sometimes reading and understanding the text may require reading several different works. To provide an example, if you read the Iliad, you will read about the character Achilles. At first you may not understand or comprehend how Achilles can be seen as an archetype for a good leader that becomes degraded due to the impacts of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). When the Iliad is paired with Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and Undoing of Character by Jonathan Shay (2003) the influence of PTSD on Achilles and modern soldiers can be better understood. To advance the understanding of this topic further, you could also read On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by LTC Dale Grossman (1995). This demonstrates how readings can be selected to re-enforce and enhance each other. In this way “reading” becomes “studying”.

Finally, in the true spirit of rædan, have a discussion with the book. Use a highlighter to mark important passages. Make notes and ask questions in the margins. Dare to question the facts that are put forth. Don’t worry about damaging a book, the value you will gain by doing these things will far exceed the cost of the book. If you are borrowing a book or reading a valuable text, consider taking notes in a notebook. One of the best ways a leader can inspire good reading practices is by giving a junior Soldier a book that the leader has annotated. I once asked by Battalion Commander, LTC Peter Hunt, for his favorite leadership book and he handed me a copy of The Mission, the Men, and Me by Peter Blaber (2008). It book was well-worn with pages tabbed and passages highlighted displaying that LTC Hunt’s examination went far further than a simple reading of the text.

Also consider using the media that best suits your learning style. Not everyone learns best by reading. If you learn better by listening consider using audio books and keep a notebook handy. If you haven’t found, I suggest you check it out as it contains a number of free audiobooks useful for military self-development.

For anyone looking to start reading for self-development, there are dozens of list available. A simple Google search will turn up list from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the U.S. Army Chief of Staff, the U.S. Marine Corps, the U.S. Army Center of Military History, General Mattis’ reading list, the NCO Reading list, etc. Any of these lists can be used to find valuable books. Asking a mentor for suggestions is also another good option as he/she might recommend a book more specific to your our leader development needs.

Maybe Beagle said it best when he said “Before pointing Johnny to a book, you have to ensure Johnny can read” (2003, p. 49). The professional development of warfighters is unique and vastly different that traditional academia. It is our duty to understand and mentor our Soldiers on approaches to reading to advance our knowledge and understanding of warfare and the larger human condition.


Annis, F. (2016). Clarifying the definition, techniques, and integration of self-development to enhance Army officer leader development. Self-Published.

Beagle Jr., M. (2003). U.S. Army Self-Development: Enhancer or Barrier to Leader Development?. 

Blaber, P. (2010). The mission, the men, and me: Lessons from a former delta force commander. New York: Berkley Caliber.

Grossman, D. (1996). On killing: The psychological cost of learning to kill in war and society. Back Bay Books.

Harper, D. (2017). Online etmyology dictionary.

Head Quarters Department of the Army (HQ DA). (2015). Leader Development Field Manual (FM) 6-22. Washington DC: Government Printing Press.

Higginson, T. (1869). Army Life in a Black Regiment.

Homer.  Iliad.

Shay, J. (2003). Achilles in Vietnam combat trauma and the undoing of character. New York: Scribner.

About the Author(s)

Franklin C. Annis holds a Doctorate in Education (EdD) from Northcentral University. He created the “Evolving Warfighter” YouTube channel to share his research on Military Self-Development. Dr. Annis is a veteran of Operational Iraqi Freedom.

The views presented in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Defense or its components.




Tue, 11/22/2022 - 2:57am

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