Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

The Air Force chief’s 2012 reading list: A C+ for book selection, but overall a B+

By Lt. Col. Thomas Cooper, USAF Best Defense aviation literature correspondent Earlier this month the Air Force released the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s (CSAF) Reading List (CSAF). One of the non-flying things I’ve looked forward to in the past 16 years of my Air Force career is the CSAF’s list. Ever since ...

Air Force
Air Force
Air Force

By Lt. Col. Thomas Cooper, USAF

Best Defense aviation literature correspondent

Earlier this month the Air Force released the Chief of Staff of the Air Force's (CSAF) Reading List (CSAF). One of the non-flying things I've looked forward to in the past 16 years of my Air Force career is the CSAF's list. Ever since the first one from General Ron Fogleman in 1996, the list has presented books about the Air Force and its history that I've never heard of. Sadly, when I opened up this year's list, there were no books that I hadn't already heard of or enough that reached back into Air Force heritage and history like previous years.

By Lt. Col. Thomas Cooper, USAF

Best Defense aviation literature correspondent

Earlier this month the Air Force released the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s (CSAF) Reading List (CSAF). One of the non-flying things I’ve looked forward to in the past 16 years of my Air Force career is the CSAF’s list. Ever since the first one from General Ron Fogleman in 1996, the list has presented books about the Air Force and its history that I’ve never heard of. Sadly, when I opened up this year’s list, there were no books that I hadn’t already heard of or enough that reached back into Air Force heritage and history like previous years.

"Every Airman an Innovator" is the theme of this year’s list, which captures some of the books, but it doesn’t emphasize "being an Airman" as well as I think it could. Although being an innovator is part of Air Force heritage, the lack of organizing principles for the list (previous lists have used strategic context, Air Force heritage, leadership, military history, etc.) makes it difficult to connect back to innovation and Air Force heritage. The list jumps from management theory to satire to science to historical fiction and doesn’t focus as well on what is important as an Airman as previous lists have done.

Unfortunately, heritage isn’t an Air Force strength as the service often spends too much time justifying itself as a valued contributor to the Joint force. This past year the Air Force has clearly stated its contribution better than I’ve heard in my career and I think should be included in every Air Force message. These purposes are the Air Force’s heritage and would have been a great thing to use to help organize the list. With an enduring role to establish control in air, space and cyberspace, hold any target at risk, provide responsive ISR, and rapidly move people and cargo anywhere in the world, the Air Force has a strong foundation to build a reading list from.

Books on Claire Chennault and the Flying Tigers, B-29 operations in the Pacific, and "flying the hump" would have all been examples of the Air Force’s enduring roles that would also help Airmen learn more about the changing strategic context. The three examples also do a good job of showing that no matter the conflict, the Air Force has always strived to control the air, rapidly move people and cargo and strike targets from great distances. Each example is also full innovative thinking by Airmen that is an enduring characteristic of serving in the Air Force.

Although I am disappointed by the books, the true innovation in this year’s CSAF list is its inclusion of movies, TED presentations and a wide range of internet resources. As younger Airmen are raised with iPads for text books, these other media will help achieve the purpose of a good reading list and provide a broader set of learning tools. Unfortunately, these resources also do not have much of a clear organization other than their source.

The inclusion of movies will be a very useful tool for commanders and mentors and was the high point of the list for me. Strategic Air Command captures the challenges of the rapidly expanding new Air Force and the contribution of Airmen serving in the early days of the Cold War. With real-life bomber pilot Jimmy Stewart in the lead role this movie shouldn’t be missed. I would have linked the movie to 15 Minutes: General Curtis LeMay and the Countdown to Nuclear Annihilation under the caption "want to learn more." I’d also have added Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb because it really is how many people see Strategic Air Command and the recently released The Partnership to fully loop from SAC to the future of nuclear weapons. I would have also added War to accompany Restrepo since I was a bigger fan of the book.

Using the TED presentations is a true innovation that I think will become the most popular element of the "reading list." I had never seen the Norden Bombsight presentation and enjoyed that story. Again it could have been linked better to the books and movies. Both Catch-22 and Memphis Belle being on the list would have tied the story of this innovation better and another example of how organization of the list disappoints and doesn’t lead Airmen to broader learning.

And finally, the diverse on-line options included in "RESOURCES" is a useful and innovative way to help expand Airmen’s set of learning tools. "Resources includes information on premier educational, think tank, heritage, documentary, humanities, and scientific organizations" and does a great job of improving an Airman’s self-study tool box to expand how they think. I will probably bookmark most of these and will wander through them if I find the time. Linked to a book, movie or theme other than innovation, to force exploration would have been a more useful way to organize the resources.

Overall, I’d give the books a "C minus" because they don’t go far enough, in an organized manner to build Air Force heritage. The grade is brought up to a "B plus" by the inclusion of all of the other tools for learning that will be useful. As the first use of diverse media on a "reading list" it is a great start. Next year I’m hoping will be an "A" when the entire list reinforces Air Force heritage and links the different tools together so the whole team is gaining the same knowledge, no matter the source.

Lt. Col. Tom Cooper is the Air Force fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is spending this year reading following a career flying the E-3 Sentry, SAMFOX C-9s in the 89 AW and C-40s as commander of the AF Reserve’s active associate 54 AS. He has spent time on the Joint Staff and Air Mobility Command staff. After his fellowship he looks forward to getting back to leading Airmen and helping them pick books.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.