Monday, May 9, 2011

Military reading lists oddities

This was in the New Yorker magazine, Canon Fodder by Rolf Pott When allegations surfaced that details in Greg Mortenson’s memoir “Three Cups of Tea” had been fabricated, some reports noted that the book, a best-seller about doing good works in Central Asia, is “required reading” for U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. These reports were referring to the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center’s Pre-Deployment Afghanistan Reading List, which (in addition to cultural field guides and counter-insurgency manuals) recommends novels such as Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner” and George MacDonald Fraser’s “Flashman.” Reading has been a part of military life since Alexander the Great slept with a copy of the Iliad under his pillow. When the United States Military Academy was founded, in 1802, John Adams advocated an ambitious reading program for officers. “I wished to turn the Minds of such as were capable of it to that great Source of Information,” he wrote. During the Second World War, the Council on Books in Wartime printed more than a hundred and twenty million paperbacks for distribution to American soldiers. Touted as “weapons in the war of ideas,” these Armed Services Editions ranged from “Tristram Shandy” and “Candide” to “My Ántonia.” Harold Bloom, in “The Western Canon,” described the culture’s seminal books as possessing “strangeness, a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange.” Today’s military reading lists have a more pragmatic bent. Each major branch of the U.S. military has its own lists, usually targeted to specific ranks; the Marines alone maintain dozens of different reading lists, and the Army has at least six, overseen by such entities as the Chief of Staff, the War College Library, and the Center for Army Leadership. “Three Cups of Tea” appears on the Joint Forces Staff College Commandant’s Professional Reading List and on the list of the Chief of Staff of the Air Force Professional Reading Program. In terms of “strangeness,” the Navy Professional Reading Program recommends, along with Melville’s “Billy Budd,” “Starship Troopers,” the 1959 science-fiction novel about a war between mankind and an arachnoid species known as the Bugs. The self-help genre is well represented, too. Soldiers are encouraged to peruse “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” and Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” Race relations figure prominently. On a Navy list, alongside “When Affirmative Action Was White,” is “Black Titan: A. G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire.” Business writers like military metaphors, and the military seems fond of business titles. The U.S. Army General Officers Suggested Reading List has a section devoted to them which includes Nassim Taleb’s “The Black Swan” and Chip and Dan Heath’s “Made to Stick.” The Navy list recommends “Freakonomics,” by Stephen J. Dubner and Steven Levitt; “The Lexus and the Olive Tree,” by Thomas Friedman; and “Moneyball,” by Michael Lewis. U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Zoltan Krompecher, who has served in Afghanistan and taught English at West Point, says that assembling reading lists is part of a broader effort by the U.S. military to help soldiers understand local cultures. “When you’re going into uncharted territory, you want to know everything about that culture that you can,” he said. “If I’m going out there and talking to an imam or a sheikh, I’ve got to demonstrate that I value his culture. Once you earn their trust, they’ll help you with the bad guys.” As for fiction, Krompecher called it “a way to understand or at least examine how others feel.” He said, “Consider Henry from Stephen Crane’s ‘The Red Badge of Courage.’ That fear of going into battle, when you’re tasting your own mortality: How are you going to react? Are you going to run away? Soldiers can relate to that.” Harold Bloom agrees, at least about Crane. Reached by telephone in New Haven, he listened to a list of some of the military’s recommended titles, among them Kafka’s “The Castle,” “Catch-22,” “The Tin Drum,” “The Brothers Karamazov,” and “Snow,” by Orhan Pamuk. “It’s a very mixed bag,” Bloom said. “The two surprising entries, really quite wonderful, are E. M. Forster’s ‘A Passage to India’ and ‘The Red Badge of Courage,’ which is a considerable work of realization.” He talked about a lecture he once gave at West Point, on Walt Whitman’s “Drum-Taps,” and found that the soldiers were “immensely open to what Whitman was doing.” What did he think about the inclusion of “Starship Troopers”? “I can’t take that seriously, I’m sorry,” he said. “I suppose it’s on the list because that’s the world we’re headed towards.” ♦ Read more

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