Most high school students only have a vague concept of what life as a commissioned military officer would be like. Even students from military families experience military life at one degree of separation. What’s more, they are usually watching a parent who has spent a dozen or more years gaining both experience and rank — two qualities they will lack if they enter the service themselves.
I am a big reader, which leaves me prone to thinking that a book might just be the solution to most problems. While I’m ready to admit that might not be true for every situation, I do think books offer an opportunity to walk a mile in someone else’s boots, to experience some of the thoughts and feelings they had as a young leader. They may offer discussion topics for ROTC scholarship or academy interviews.
In 1989, USMC Commandant General Al Gray issued the first Commandant’s Reading List. He viewed reading as a means of honing professional skills. Since then, military professional reading lists have proliferated. Most services have a robust list, sometimes several (service chief, senior enlisted, combatant commanders). I’ve gone through the current lists, older lists, recommendations from shipmates, and my personal favorites. I picked titles that might appeal to and inform someone who is young and new to the military and to the responsibilities of leadership.
The list is heavy on memoirs, fiction, and engaging unit histories; it is intentionally light on strategy and lengthy biographies (with apologies to the classmate who suggested Corbett’s Principles of Maritime Strategy). My hope is that reading some of these will help high school students consider if military service is a path they want to pursue. They may also help future midshipmen, cadets, and junior officers to know that they are not alone when they are faced with the need to make decisions with inadequate information under stressful situations.
I am also including some podcasts and video offerings, because one of my favorite midshipmen reminded me that spare time is a luxury for midshipmen, cadets, and high school students. These may stand in the gap if getting through lots of the books doesn’t seem possible. Some of the books are also available as audio books, which might make them easier to fit into a busy schedule.
Note: These suggestions lean towards the Navy and Marine Corps team, because that is where more of my personal reading has been concentrated. I’d love to hear other suggestions if you have a favorite read you think captures part of the experience of junior officer experience.
Stephen Ambrose, Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest – The story of Easy Company from training through D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, and combat through Germany. Based on extensive interviews and research, the book shows the combat experience of soldiers who are determined, but not career Army. This book was the basis of the 10-episode Band of Brothers miniseries directed by Tom Hanks. It would be hard to pick an episode of the series that is most impactful, but future officers would be well served to watch at least the first two episodes, Currahee and Day of Days.
The US Naval Academy Class of 2002, In the Shadow of Greatness: Voices of Leadership, Sacrifice, and Service from America’s Longest War – This is a compilation of essays written by members of the Naval Academy Class of 2002 that was published around the ten-year anniversary of their commissioning. They were first class midshipmen (seniors) when the September 11, 2001 attacks occurred. Chapters include stories of combat as well as life outside the Navy, each from the viewpoint of fairly recent graduates. The strengths of this book are the variety of voices and the fact that time had not yet softened their experiences when they sat down to write.
Sharon H. Disher, First Class: Women Join the Ranks at the Naval Academy – Disher is a member of the Naval Academy Class of 1980, the first class to include women. This is a fictional account of experiences of this first group of women, but it holds lessons for any student on what it can be like to transition from inexperienced high student to young officer.
Nathaniel Fick, One Bullet Away – Fick became a Marine Infantry Officer in after graduating from Dartmouth University. The book describes his experience at Marine Officer Candidate School (OCS) in 1998 and deployments as an infantry officer in both Iraq and Afghanistan in the War on Terror. The audiobook is read by the author.
C. S. Forrester, The Good Shepherd – You may be more familiar with the 2020 Tom Hanks movie Greyhound that was based on C. S. Forrester’s book. Both the movie and book are superb. As a former Surface Warfare Officer, I would say each is the best depiction of underway watch standing that I’ve seen/read. The book naturally goes into far more detail. One cool aspect of the book is that each chapter covers a one watch rotation, and the entire book occurs over just three days. I also appreciate the fact that the main character is not a superstar officer. Devotion to duty is also the preserve of those who don’t have Early Promote fitness reports.
Robert Heinlein, Starship Troopers – Heinlein was a 1929 Naval Academy graduate who served in the Navy before World War Two. Published in 1959, Starship Troopers was one the works of military science fiction and shows up on many military reading lists. The story describes Juan “Johnny” Rico’s service in the Mobile Infantry in an interstellar war against aliens. [I do not recommend the movie of the same name, which is widely regarded as a satire and has little resemblance to the book.] While obviously not a first-hand account of space infantry tactics, it has been on many military reading lists and led the pack when I asked friends and shipmates for recommendations. Perhaps the reason for it’s longevity is that Heinlein had a good sense for what motivated many to commit themselves to military service. Even if you aren’t borrowing his tactics for powered armor, it may help you see inside the heads of those you serve with.
There are several high quality military podcasts, with more cropping up as time passes. Give a listen to a few and find what appeals to your interests.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. I haven’t yet mentioned The Caine Mutiny; All the Ships at Sea; The Return of Philo T. McGiffen; Brave Ship, Brave Men; Love My Rifle More Than You; or The Things They Carried. Nor have I dug deep into the suggestions at DOD Reads or any of the service reading lists. And I haven’t even mentioned the leadership lessons in Admiral James Stavridis’ annotated reading list The Leader’s Bookshelf. That’s ok. Pick something that sounds interesting and start reading or listening. Take note of what you learn and maybe even of what you would have done differently in a similar situation.
If you have a favorite you think I should include in a future list, let me know. I’d love to add it to my To Be Read stack.