Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Book excerpt: Defense Secretary Mattis discusses his favorite books, and why

General James Mattis has accumulated perhaps one of the largest personal libraries of an active-duty military officer ever known in the modern world.


[General James Mattis, you have] accumulated perhaps one of the largest personal libraries of an active-duty military officer ever known in the modern world. What was behind this?

I’d like to tell you mine was designed with purpose in mind. In fact, it was to read everything interesting in the world and ignore the boring, which was about the only challenge. I learned a lot from it, obviously. I was never perplexed for more than a moment when the enemy did something strategically or operationally or tactically, and I learned a lot about human nature from Sherman’s book and Marcus Aurelius and Mandela’s memoirs and everyone else’s. I don’t have a good storyline for what I did.

Part of it, of course, was the Marine Corps had a reading list, and every boss I worked for seemed to have one, and they had rather a lack of sense of humor if I decided I didn’t need to read what they thought was important. They were not there to help me through my midlife crisis or find my inner child, so it was rather a blunt organization in terms of taking responsibility for your own development. History was just natural as well as biography, and for me, even fiction must be a part of it.

Well, I read an article that said you’ve kept track of everything that you’ve read. When your library started to grow, what were the major titles that you had decided on that would be the foundation of your library? I mean, looking at reading in its basics as one of the three legs of the stool of personal development.

Well, personal development is a broader issue when you deal with violence. If you don’t have an understanding of a letter from a Birmingham jail, and how Sherman put the enemy on the horns of the dilemma, and how Scipio Africanus was able to triumph, if you can’t take those lessons of life and tie them together as a military commander, you’re going to have a hell of a difficult time, especially in a democracy where if you rise to high rank, you’re selected for tactical reasons, and operational, but then you have to deal with strategic reasons, and often you’re bringing war’s grim realities and trying to reconcile those with the political leaders you eventually deal with, their human aspirations, which are for a much better world than the primitive, atavistic one of the battlefield.

So you develop by broadening your understanding of human nature, of the ascent of man and everything else so that you can reconcile war’s realities, grim as they are, atavistic and primitive, with human aspirations, without becoming a narrow-minded person who at that point, you ought to give good military advice, but you can’t do so without trying to achieve a better peace, and so you need to have that broader reading as you grow and personally develop so you can actually do the job as a military officer, if you’re so fortunate that they keep you around long enough that you get promoted for a while.

I guess on a tactical level there was a novel by M. M. Kaye called The Far Pavilions, and, of course, Guy Sajer’s The Forgotten Soldier. Nate Fick had One Bullet Away, and there’s some others on the tactical level. I think probably Alistair Horne and his Savage War of Peace — that was certainly one. Let me think. E. B. Sledge With the Old Breed was a really good one.

When you go up to the operational level of war, where you look at operational and strategic, you can’t go wrong when you read Grant’s Memoirs or Viscount Slim’s Defeat into Victory. Oh, gosh, Liddell Hart and his book on Sherman and also his book on Scipio Africanus. I think Colin Gray’s Fighting Talk and The Future of Strategy are just two tremendous ones. Williamson Murray’s Military Innovation in the Interwar Period, up on the strategic level, plus Tony Zinni’s Before the First Shot Is Fired and H.R. McMaster’s Dereliction of Duty are really first-rate.

But you have to understand how they walk those paths, too, so you’ve got to read Colin Powell’s My American Journey, and you have to keep your peace up there, so you’d better read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.

And when you read books like Guy Sajer’s The Forgotten Soldier, it just reminds you of the penalties that are paid by the private soldiers who have to carry out your orders. Then you read things like Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom or Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire, and you realize we’re not asked to do anything that’s all that much greater than what others have done before.

If you look at Bob Gates’ book — I was the executive secretary for two secretaries at Defense, I worked closely with three others — and when you read Gates’ book Duty, you get a real sense of the breadth and the gravity of what faces people at that level. And in some way you look back on Will and Arial Durant’s The Lessons of History or Ron Chernow’s book on Alexander Hamilton, and you realize, man, you can get an awful lot out of people who have been through this sort of thing and studied the ones who did it before. Then you realize how few things are really new under the sun if you do good reading. Any Marine who has not read Lucas Phillips’ book The Greatest Raid of All should. This is about the raid that shattered the dry dock at Saint-Nazaire, France, so that Bismarck would never have a place to be repaired if they went out to sea. You see how you can apply strategy to operations to the tactical costs and all.

You look at our reliance on communications today, on cyber and all this stuff, and then you read Andrew Gordon’s book on The Rules of the Game about what went wrong for the Royal Navy between Nelson’s navy at Trafalgar and Admiral Jellicoe’s navy one hundred years later at Jutland, and you get a real reminder of how you can take fundamental errors that just screw you up royally. Certainly you get that too if you look at our nation, where we’re at right now, if you read Barbara Tuchman’s March of Folly or The Guns of August, or you read Paul Kennedy’s Rise and Fall of the Great Powers or Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy and World Order, you can see what’s happening to a nation in a broader context, which I think is critical.

At the same time, you’ve got to study ethics and not confront your ethical dilemmas for the first time on the battlefield, so you read Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars or Malham Wakin’s War, Morality, and the Military Profession. Sometimes you can actually write books about the specific job you’re in. For example, there’s a lady named Gail Shisler, who is related to General O. P. Smith. She wrote a book called For Country and Corps: The Life of General Oliver P. Smith. He was the general who brought the 1st Marine Division on its way out of North Korea when it was surrounded there in that first bad winter in 1950 at the Chosin reservoir.

So again, you don’t end up flatfooted — if you know what I mean — but there’s a host of these things that help guide you. They don’t tell you what the answers are, of course, they help guide. . . . That sort of approach to how I looked at strategy versus operations, tactics versus ethics, and the spiritual sense shows up repeatedly in many of these.

When I started getting rid of books it was heartbreaking because I had to get rid of thousands because I was tired of hauling them all around. I knew I wouldn’t read them again. I kept my geology books, some of my military books, a lot of my history, especially of the West, the American West.

So as you think through how to put together a personal library, remember that it is an intensely personal adventure. You may be entranced with the ability to hold a book in your hands, scribble in the margins, show the volume to friends who are visiting. Or you may want an entirely electronic library that resides remotely in the Cloud, available in a moment over your smart phone, tablet, or home computer.

Your personal library may be seven books you deeply value or seven thousand, and it may be beautifully organized and alphabetized or simply arranged by the color of the book’s cover. What matters is that it is your library, invested with your intellectual capital, and serves as a garden of the mind to which you can return again and again.

Reprinted, by permission, from The Leader’s Bookshelf, by Admiral James Stavridis, U.S. Navy (Retired) and R. Manning Ancell, (Annapolis, Md: Naval Institute Press, © 2017).

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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 Twitter: @tomricks1