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A Canon for the Officer Corps

My column in the March/April issue, “An Officer Corps That Can’t Score [1],” brought a number of responses. Among the more thoughtful was the question, “If becoming military professionals requires that we read books, what books should be read?”

The first answer is, “A lot of them.” When Marine Corps General John Kelly met several years ago with the seminar I taught for the Marines’ Expeditionary Warfare School, he told my students (captains), “I read a thousand books, then I understood war.”

Fortunately, there are Cliff’s Notes: the canon, a list of seven books that, if read in the order given, will take the student from the First Generation of modern war (1650-1865) into the Fourth (the present and future). They are not a substitute for General Kelly’s thousand books, but they offer an intellectual framework without which it is difficult to make sense of events, whether historical or current.

The first book is Charles E. White’s The Enlightened Soldier [2]. It is a biography of Gerhard von Scharnhorst, who led the successful Prussian military reform movement that followed Prussia’s defeat by Napoleon in 1806. This book explains why you are reading the rest of the canon. Scharnhorst lived at the beginning of the professionalization of European officer corps, an effort in which he played a central part. The Enlightened Soldier focuses on his work to educate other Prussian officers, including a lieutenant named Clausewitz, to get them reading, writing, and discussing ideas about war. When I taught a seminar at Quantico on the canon, my students, Marine officers, said this was their favorite book.


The second book is Robert Doughty’s The Seeds of Disaster [3]. Doughty was the longtime chairman of the Military History department at West Point, and he is the top English-language expert on the French Army in the 20th century. The French Army developed Second Generation war during and after World War I, and the U.S. Army and Marine Corps absorbed it from the French. The Seeds of Disaster is the history of our military doctrine. Every American officer to whom I have loaned my copy has said when returning it, “This is us.” It is the only somewhat dry book in the canon, but the reader may skip the parts on French Army organization. It is the doctrinal development that is essential.

The next book, Stormtroop Tactics [4] by Bruce Gudmundsson, is the history of the development of Third Generation maneuver warfare by the German Army in World War I. Blitzkrieg was conceptually complete by 1918. Not merely new tactics, the Third Generation also embodied a radically different military culture, one with roots in Prussia that went back to the Scharnhorst reforms. This culture focused outward on the situation, the enemy, and the result the situation required rather than inward on orders, rules, processes, etc. The reader will quickly perceive that our U.S. armed forces are tactically and culturally almost 100 years out of date. Web issue image [5]

The next three books directly compare the Second and Third Generations. Book four, Martin Samuel’s Command or Control? [6], compares British and German tactics and doctrine from the late 19th century into World War I. There is good reason why the British Army has often been described as lions led by asses. Book five is again by Robert Doughty, The Breaking Point [7]. This volume, which is not dry, is the story of what happened when the Second and Third Generations met head-on in the German campaign against France in 1940. France had more tanks and better tanks than the Germans; she was defeated by her own doctrine, which we still follow. Book six, Martin van Creveld’s Fighting Power [8], compares and contrasts the Second Generation U.S. Army in World War II with the Wehrmacht—not on the battlefield but as institutions. What emerges is two radically different institutional cultures, each consistent with its army’s doctrine.

The final book in the canon is again by Martin van Creveld, and it is the most important book written thus far on Fourth Generation war: The Transformation of War [9]. Creveld describes the state’s loss of the monopoly on war it established in the Peace of Westphalia and the consequences thereof, including how state armed forces now find themselves fighting non-state entities to which they usually lose.

So the canon. If a bold reader thinks he might manage more than seven books, there are two others I would recommend. The first is Creveld’s The Rise and Decline of the State [10]. Although written after The Transformation of War, it is functionally a prequel in that it offers the history on which the theory in Transformation is based.

The second book is the best naval history in decades, Andrew Gordon’s The Rules of the Game [11]. The Royal Navy developed Third Generation war starting around the middle of the 18th century and had effectively institutionalized it by the Napoleonic Wars. The Rules of the Game tells the story of how and why they lost it in the 19th century and returned to inward-focused rigidity. It is a tale with much contemporary relevance, as signaling lies at its heart.

Were the American military intellectually serious, our services would require that the canon be read by all officers, at least by the time they are majors. (I would recommend before commissioning.) But it is not. The canon, while not called that, was previously listed in order on the official Marine Corps Commandant’s Reading List. In the latest version, all the books are gone. The Corps’ new motto, it seems, is lege minus curre magis—read less, run more.

William S. Lind is the author of the Maneuver Warfare Handbook [12].

27 Comments (Open | Close)

27 Comments To "A Canon for the Officer Corps"

#1 Comment By seydlitz89 On August 14, 2014 @ 5:44 am

Focusing on Lind’s list of books would only compound the basic problem. War hasn’t changed, it was, has been and always will be about politics. Warfare on the other hand goes through a continuous transformation which in turn is based to some extent on political conditions/relations. The basic problem for the US is that our last wars have been/were waged for hidden political purposes while sold to various audiences as essentially defensive to some extent. It’s really about a declining great power controlled by a corrupt elite using organized violence astrategically to attempt to maintain its hegemony . . . but you will never get that from 4GW with it’s fixation on tactics . . . Tactics grown to massive proportions, while strategic thought dies. Lind’s just pushing his same old greasy soap . . .

#2 Comment By AnotherBeliever On August 14, 2014 @ 8:46 am

Read less, run more, indeed. I was Army, enlisted, and I can sympathize with that. I’m of the firm opinion that NCOs should also be held to higher standards of writing, critical thinking, and at least informal education. I grew up in the weird MI bubble though, where a lot of people are well read and educated. Indeed there’s not as much correlation between that and rank as you find in most of the services. A reading list of books should also be required reading of them. (AND Congress and anybody contemplating a run for national office but that’s a separate issue.)

Wish you’d posted this list earlier in the summer. Class starts in a couple weeks for those of us chipping away at our education bennies or at programs for various service schools. Crack the books everyone, and excel!

#3 Comment By Rachel On August 14, 2014 @ 8:48 am

Really, any sort of academic rigor in the officer training pipeline would be an improvement over what we have now.

I earned my college degree on an ROTC scholarship and I can tell you that the ROTC classes were the least intellectually challenging courses I took. (Athletes would take them to boost their GPAs.) The administration would occasionally threaten to quit giving credit for the ROTC classes, but ROTC was relatively popular on campus and nothing ever came of it.

#4 Comment By philadelphialawyer On August 14, 2014 @ 9:16 am

Maybe, instead of all this “Generation” BS, we could simply avoid war, and thus not have to be overly concerned about what our “officer corps” is reading. We haven’t fought a real war of necessity in at least 70 years, and I see none on the near horizon. The wars we have been fighting are basically unwinnable, because they are attempts to substitute military might for political acceptability in the “host” countries. And no three, or seven, or eleven books are going to change that.

#5 Comment By John On August 14, 2014 @ 9:26 am

I would agree that completing a seminar course on these books or others would beat the status quo, where O-3s and O-4s get worthless distance-learning master’s degrees prior to attending their service’s initial professional military education for officers. However, the subtitle of this article is “(s)even books that teach our troops how to win today’s wars.” And “today’s wars” are occupations followed by counter-insurgencies in places where we have no ability (or even the apparent interest) to identify a viable political successor and establish a rapport. All the technical ability in the world isn’t going to save a strategically doomed enterprise, as we recently found in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Maybe you should include a book profiling generals who resigned in protest rather than allow themselves to be used as cover for an idiotic strategy. You won’t find any recent American examples, obviously, but surely there are some out there from 1650 and onwards.

#6 Comment By JP On August 14, 2014 @ 11:01 am

I think this was an outstanding list. The only thing I would add to it was the essays from Helmut von Moltke (the Elder). With him, we saw the culmination of 100 years of Prussian reforms applied into very practical terms. I think there are a few translations of his collected memoirs; but, overall most historians and military theorists over-look this quiet genius.

Perhaps the biggest reason for the disappearance of Moltke was the fact that he did not possess the flair of a Wellington, or the theoretical genius of a Clausewitz (von Clausewitz became something of idol amongst German officers between 1871-1914). And I’ve read some historians refer to Moltke as nothing more than a bureaucrat. But, one thing that draws me to the Prussian was his ability conform Prussia’s military to the civilian leaderships foreign policy. The Bismarck-Moltke partnership worked because Bismarck did not force Moltke to fight wars he could not win, and Moltke did not demand that Bismarck shape his policies strictly around Prussia’s military abilities. From 1863-1871, Prussia realized its aims of this rational (some would say cynical) partnership. This partnership between military means and political aims broke down severely after 1890 when a new generation of leaders took to the helm in Berlin.

In light of the United States aimless and often disastrous military operations since the end of the Second World War, perhaps it would be wise for our officers to re-visit Prussia circa 1860-1871 and study how they put theory into action.

#7 Comment By spite On August 14, 2014 @ 12:08 pm

More importantly, what is the political corp reading ? Its all very well to have knowledgeable soldiers, but when their political masters are ordering them to fight in the most ill advised wars, they need to do what they are told regardless.

#8 Comment By channelclemente On August 14, 2014 @ 12:18 pm

It seems only the dead have time to read.

#9 Comment By Duke On August 14, 2014 @ 2:48 pm

PhiladelphiaLawyer, fair enough, but I don’t want a complacent military, I want one ready if and when there’s a just, necessary war, be it 50 or 150 years from now.

I did ROTC in the late 90s when friends would tease that the military had no real purpose, peace reigned, yadda yadda. I certainly didn’t ask for Iraq, but you get what you get I suppose.

Anyway, I like the reading list, though I admit Stormtroop Tactics is the only one I’ve opened. if we’re gonna have an officer corps at all, let’s have an intelligent one.

#10 Comment By Andrew On August 14, 2014 @ 4:00 pm

Any book by David Glantz and Jonathan House plus Corelli Barnett.

#11 Comment By seydlitz89 On August 14, 2014 @ 5:19 pm


Lind has been trashing Clausewitz (“the temple”) and Clausewitzians for the last 20 years . . . even his reading of Boyd is highly questionable . . .

Btw, I’m a former USMC officer and later a US military intelligence officer who was in active service when the original 4GW speculation piece came out in 1989 . . .

#12 Comment By philadelphialawyer On August 14, 2014 @ 6:18 pm

Duke, you make a fair point.

But the fact is our military has way too many chiefs and not enough Indians. Far too many generals, and too many officers in general, and not enough soldiers. Too much tail and not enough spearpoint.

The other problem, as I see it, is that should a real war against a real opponent ever occur, is not that our officers haven’t read enough books about the various “Generations” of warfare. Whenever people talk about generations, whether it is “Gen X,” or with regard to cell phones, or warfare, it is usually without real content. There has been assymetrical warfare since the beginning of time. And the advantage has switched from the offense to the defense and back again innumerable times. Same with mobility versus attrition. War is war. It changes only in that it stays the same and/or repeats itself.

No, the problem is that our military has been wasted in worthless, mostly unsuccessful COIN operations. That is what it (at least the Army and Marines…the Navy and Air Force at least have been mostly spared) knows how to do. It rolls up outdated third (Saddam) or fourth (Taliban) class conventional forces, in days or weeks, and then settles in for years to fight for an unpopular political order (ie a US occupation followed by a quisling, bought and paid for, pro US puppet regime) against insurgent forces. It is actually pretty good at fighting these insurgencies, because (1) that is what it does and so it has lots of experience and (2) because it is so technologically sophisticated as to nullify a lot of the natural advantages that guerillas previously enjoyed (eg night fighting…the night used to belong the rebels, but with night vision technology and so on, it now belongs to the US military). But being pretty good at fighting insurgencies only means that the wars go on and on. The Iraqi rebels, the Taliban, don’t win. But they don’t lose either, not really. They take a pounding, then they disperse, regroup, perhaps re organize and get a new name and leader, re arm, and then come back again. Ad infinitum.

And no reading list for officers is going to change that.

#13 Comment By frenchy On August 14, 2014 @ 6:57 pm


Robert E. Lee is the only one that comes to mind.

#14 Comment By Kurt Gayle On August 14, 2014 @ 8:33 pm

I’m confused by the title given to William Lind’s article: “A Canon for the Officer Corps, Seven books that teach our troops how to win today’s wars.”

I’m confused because Mr. Lind concludes by saying that “the final book in the canon…the most important book written thus far on Fourth Generation war…[describes] how state armed forces now find themselves fighting non-state entities to which they usually lose.”

Back on June 17th at the American Conservative Foreign Policy forum Mr. Lind was even more emphatic:

“Four times in recent years the U.S. military…has come up against 4th generation non-state forces – in Lebanon, in Somalia, in Afghanistan, and in Iraq – and four times they have defeated us.

“The measure of success in a 4th generation situation is that when we, or the other intervening great power leaves, we leave behind a real state. In none of these cases were we able to do that. The pretense that we left behind a real state in Iraq has just dissolved within the past week…

“The fact that our military and the militaries of other states (which are designed to fight other state militaries) cannot win against these non-state forces: This is a revolution. This is an enormous change and it changes virtually everything else…

“An interventionist foreign policy guarantees failure because you find yourself in a war with non-state forces and the non-state forces beat you.”

My question of Mr. Lind is this: Given his conclusion that the U.S. military “cannot win against these non-state forces” — how can reading seven books “teach our troops how to win today’s wars” that are by their very nature unwinnable?

#15 Comment By Uncle Billy On August 15, 2014 @ 7:17 am

Reduce the number of generals and admirals. We have a top heavy military, which costs too much money and micro-manages the junior officers. RIF 50% of all flag officers, and Colonels. It would save money and provide for more efficient operations.

#16 Comment By J Harlan On August 15, 2014 @ 10:45 am

The time wasted on graduate arts degrees(often just a way to warehouse extra officers. Read Petraeus’ PhD dissertation for an example of wasted tax payer’s money)and reading “canons” would be much better spent on foreign languages, culture and politics.

If the US intends to keep joining in local civil wars the ability to teach, advise and lead foreign allies in their own language and empathize with our allies and opponents is vastly more important than studying mid 19th Century Prussian military philosophy and certainly more than efforts to sell “generations of war”.

#17 Comment By Kurt Gayle On August 15, 2014 @ 1:34 pm

When philadephialawyer says “should a real war against a real opponent ever occur” I suppose that he means “should the U.S. armed forces fight a war against another nation state.”

Not only does Professor Lind say that “when you find yourself in a war with non-state forces…the non-state forces beat you” – he also contends that “you don’t want to fight wars with other states.


“Because the losing state’s legitimacy – already shaky in many cases – will disintegrate and with it that state will disintegrate.

“We saw this, of course, with Libya. I warned before we started bombing Libya that the outcome would be the destruction of the Libyan state and another big victory for the 4th generation as Libya became a stateless entity. Well, surprise! Guess what happened?

“If you go to war with another state, regardless of which state wins the war, we will lose. Because the losing state will disintegrate and the real victor will be the forces of the 4th generation. Non-state forces will have another Petri dish in which to breed and grow and from which they will spread.

“The distinction that will drive international relations in the remainder of this century is not some kindergarten-level distinction between ‘democracies’ or ‘places that are free’ and ‘dictatorships’. It is between places that will be centers and sources of order and [places that will be] centers and sources of disorder. And when we go to war with another state, almost certainly the outcome will include the creation of another center and source of spreading disorder…

“So the first rule of foreign policy at this point is ‘don’t go to war with other states.’ And the second rule is ‘don’t go to war with non-state entities.’

Now you put those two together and it somewhat suggests that going to war isn’t a terribly good idea.”

I find William Lind’s reasoning brilliant and spot-on!

(June 17, 2014 — C-SPAN – “National Security Threats and Responses – Panelists talked about U.S. foreign policy issues and national security.” Hosted by The American Prospect & The American Conservative Magazine:


William Lind, American Conservative Magazine, 34:30-48:00)

#18 Comment By Winston On August 15, 2014 @ 6:17 pm

Too much focus on war. US must face problems at home it IGNORING. American’s future is being lost at home!!!!

#19 Comment By Nick On August 16, 2014 @ 2:13 pm

Technology dictates tactics, then military thinkers invent strategic doctrines to explain the changes. Liddell Hart invented a doctrine to explain the tank (technology). The current crop is trying to invent doctrine to explain the RPG. Good luck.

Instead of a summer reading list, we might work on integrity in the officer corps and weeding out the idiots. In Vietnam, the worry was over some major getting us killed to get a box checked in his jacket. We had the doctrine to deal with the NVA. There was no doctrine for ring thumpers.

Find some honest officers and the doctrine will work itself out pretty fast.

#20 Comment By bacon On August 16, 2014 @ 3:56 pm

One way to get this, or any, list of books on the bedside table of military officers would be to require those officers to show knowledge of their contents before admission to the senior service schools which are stepping stones to general and flag rank.

In re the discussion on ability of a conventional army to defeat an unconventional one, fine for company, battalion and division commanders to understand this, but vital that the politicians who commit those units understand it. I don’t see much hope there from a congress seemingly capable of nothing beyond hurling insults between parties.

#21 Comment By vintage EMP On August 16, 2014 @ 4:13 pm

@Kurt Gayle “My question of Mr. Lind is this: Given his conclusion that the U.S. military “cannot win against these non-state forces” — how can reading seven books “teach our troops how to win today’s wars” that are by their very nature unwinnable?”

He didn’t say that today’s wars are unwinnable. He said they cannot be won by today’s US military. Presumably his book recommendations are part of a program to remedy that.

As far as I can see, many of today’s wars are more unnecessary than unwinnable.

I don’t necessarily find fault with the reading list, but I think it misses the point. The political and intellectual incompetence of our elected leaders is a far greater problem than the putative incapacity of our military. As long as presidential candidates bow and scrape before representatives of foreign lobbies for votes and contributions they will neglect US national interests and drag us into other people’s wars. The best (and best adapted) military in the world can’t cope with the mess that that creates.

#22 Comment By Johann On August 17, 2014 @ 10:16 am

Kurt, one may say that a war is “lost” if its objectives are not met, but a war is truly lost when a country loses its sovereignty. A non-state force from another country is no threat to this country’s sovereignty. Our sovereignty can only be taken by a non-state force from within, or by another large industrial country’s military.

#23 Comment By Mark Thomason On August 17, 2014 @ 3:06 pm

seydlitz89 makes a vital point about war. War is a continuation of politics with additional means. When we deceive ourselves about our political goals, or worse yet get so confused we have no idea at all of our political goals, then we have no chance to win those political goals.

We can fight, we can even prevail in the combat, but we can’t win the political purpose of the war if we don’t even know what it is.

Something vague and unattainable is not a substitute for a genuine political purpose. A purpose hidden from our own military leadership could only be accomplished by accident. Fake purposes invented as we go to “explain” what we are doing can’t help, and can hurt if anybody actually believes them and tries to accomplish that.

This is the fundamental problem of wars based on lies. We knew what we were doing in WW2. Since then, we haven’t known, or our political leaders have no admitted their purposes to those sent to add their additional means.

#24 Comment By Kurt Gayle On August 18, 2014 @ 1:49 pm

Vintage EMP wrote: “[William Lind] didn’t say that today’s wars are unwinnable. He said they cannot be won by today’s US military. Presumably his book recommendations are part of a program to remedy that.”

Like you, Vintage EMP, I read Lind’s (title) “A Canon for the Officer Corps” (sub-title) “Seven books that teach our troops how to win today’s wars” and considered – because the sub-title (“Seven books…”) talked about “teach[ing] our troops how to win today’s war” — that Lind might not have intended to say “that today’s wars are unwinnable,” but only that “they cannot be won by today’s US military.”

But after listening to, and carefully transcribing, his June 17th remarks I concluded that Lind’s sub-title “Seven books that teach our troops how to win today’s wars” could not have been written by Lind at all, but by an editor of The American Conservative who misunderstood Professor Lind’s position.

I concluded that the sub-title was a mistake because Professor Lind’s June 17th comments at the “National Security Threats and Responses” conference had been so categorical: Lind said that we cannot win wars against either non-state entities or other nation states. FULL STOP.


Johann wrote: “Kurt, one may say that a war is ‘lost’ if its objectives are not met, but a war is truly lost when a country loses its sovereignty.”

Johann, if we Americans can persuade ourselves that we “win” all the wars that don’t result in the loss of our sovereignty, then I would say (with thanks to Pete Seeger) that we are “neck deep in the big muddy” and the neocons say to push on.

#25 Comment By Johann On August 18, 2014 @ 6:20 pm

Kurt, I agree with you, but we still must be able to defend ourselves against a true threat to our sovereignty. And actually, the neocon adventure wars make us less safe, because the military is geared to fight wars against third world goat-herder countries, not major industrial powers.

#26 Comment By Joshua Brooks On August 22, 2014 @ 8:09 am

This article has provoked a lot of discussion. I appreciate the interactions on this website because people aren’t calling each other names and acting irresponsibly. The discourse continues at a fairly moderate, intelligible tone.

I agree with John, philadelphialawyer, and others who state that the wars that American have been involved in have been unwinnable. As an Army infantry soldier on the ground in Iraq, we knew there was no military solution to the problem(s) we were facing. Our tactical strategy, at one time, at least from the troops’ perspective was to “patrol,” i.e. drive around Baghdad, and not get blown up. Sounds like a winning strategy to me???
Yes, Petraeus’s surge strategy worked wonders; but, as most of know, no military strategy can change the conflict between Sunni and Shia. It’s been going on for hundreds of years and is on track to continue that way.

I see Lind’s premise that reading these seven books, the “canon” of war strategy might help. Perhaps it will help officers become smarter, more strategically-knowledgeable, and perhaps prompt us to raise issues concerning U.S. Army Doctrine and Strategy to higher command. That’s all above my pay-grade. My hope, though, is that America, and the U.S. Army in particular, will stay out of wars that aren’t winnable. That’s my hope and prayer!

#27 Comment By Ed On August 25, 2014 @ 10:16 am

I am putting these books on my personal reading list but I tend to agree with the critical comments.

After 1990, the US army found itself in am impossible position, in being repeated deployed in operations (usually occupations, sometimes contested by insurgents and sometimes uncontested) with objectives set by the political leadership that have either been unclear or hidden.

The obvious example is the invasion and occupation of Iraq, which was conducted at least initially to find and destroy weapons that turned out not to exist. Then the army stayed to stabilize a situation on behalf of a government that seems to be allied with Iran and hostile to the US. I have no idea what the correct strategy should have been in that situation.

Afghanistan, where the US spent a decade fighting a terrorist organization whose leadership left the country (most of them going to the territory of a US ally) shortly after US forces arrived, has been a similar situation.

Organizationally, the army has been showing some of the same behavior you would expect of someone who has been put into a no win and no exit situation, hence William Lind’s column in May. The books are about how to conduct operations to achieve fairly clear, explicit objectives so they are doubtless intellecutally interesting but somewhat irrelevant.