As Gen James F. Amos and SgtMaj Micheal P. Barrett consistently remind us, the Marine Corps will get smaller, and Marines, to remain competitive, will have to be their best every day. SgtMaj Barrett commented during an interview:
I’m not going to go around and say, ‘Let Daddy give you a hug!’ I’m not going to do that. What I’m going to tell you is, ‘Prepare yourself.’ If you want to stay in the Marine Corps, you can absolutely stay in the Marine Corps. But you’re going to have to be the best. You’re going to have to bring your A-game every single day.1
Given the current and anticipated competitive career designation, reenlistment, and promotion trends, coupled with the guidance and intent spelled out by SgtMaj Barrett, 3d Maintenance Battalion has developed, instituted, and vigorously pursued a battalion reading program to achieve three objectives: (1) Make better educated Marines; (2) Make our Marines more competitive educationally and intellectually; and (3) Develop in Marines of all ranks a lifelong habit of professional reading. The purpose of this article is to explain our reading program intent, successes and difficulties, and recommendations for leaders who wish to use the Marine Corps Professional Reading Program and the Commandant’s Reading List as part of their unit’s professional education programs.
In order to meet the Commandants and Sergeant Major’s intent, we first identified ways to help Marines “bring their A-games every day.” The battalion has excellent company and platoon physical fitness training and martial arts programs. Marines attend many formal schools and even off-duty education is extremely popular. However, in discussions with junior Marines, I found few were aware of, and fewer were active in, the Marine Corps Professional Reading Program. The 3d Maintenance Battalion’s reading program was designed to solve that problem while simultaneously providing aggressive Marines an opportunity to separate themselves from the pack.
Prior to implementing our battalion program, we did some research. A review board convened at HQMC in July 2011 “revitalized” the Commandant’s Reading List. Out of this came AlMar 027/11, Revision of the Marine Corps Professional Reading Program List (HQMC, 7 August 2011) which set a new, less stringent expectation of the number of books a Marine should read annually. The AlMar states that, in addition to First to Fight: An Inside View of the U.S. Marine Corps by LtGen Victor H. Krulak, USMC(Ret) (Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 1984), Marines will also “. . . read a minimum of one book per grade per year.” Unfortunately, at this pace it would take a sergeant a decade to read all the books on the sergeant’s list.
Going back to the guidance we received from Gen Amos and SgtMaj Barrett, we chose to make the standard higher and more aligned to AlMar 030/07, Marine Corps Professional Reading Program (HQMC, 5 May 2007), the document that redefined the Marine Corps Professional Reading Program as we know it today. In this AlMar, Gen James T. Conway stated:
I expect all Marines to read their grade appropriate books—that is the minimum standard. No grade has more than six books. Once you have achieved the minimum, you can then exercise the initiative and read more broadly. I request that commanders view the professional development of their subordinates as a direct responsibility of their performance as commanders, and to develop local programs that emphasize reading and self-directed study.
It is understandable that competing demands of resident and nonresident education combined with very high operation tempo made the original standard perhaps overly aggressive. Nonetheless, because commanders at all levels tend to frown upon minimum achievement (think third class physical fitness or combat fitness test scores), we decided to treat the Commandant’s Reading List the same way.
Purpose. The purpose and objectives of the battalion reading program are based upon AlMar 030/07, which specifies Marine Corps Professional Reading Program objectives as, “[to] . enhance the warrior ethos of the Corps, encourage critical thinking, and broaden understanding of the current operating environment.” This foundation enabled us to develop our battalion reading program objectives as follows:
• Make better educated Marines.
• Make our Marines more competitive educationally and intellectually.
• Develop in Marines of all ranks a lifelong habit of professional reading.
Although the objective sets appear to be similar, they benefit different entities. The first objective will make each rank more knowledgeable, thereby benefitting the entire Marine Corps; the second objective will directly and personally benefit the Marine in pursuit of advancement and retention in the Corps; and the third objective will aid the Marine and society for many years after he leaves the Corps.
Method. We published Battalion Policy Letter 4–11, “3d Maintenance Battalion Reading Program,” on 9 August 2011. However, a month prior, my sergeant major and I spoke to every Marine in the battalion (approximately 600) by visiting all six companies. We also had separate talks with junior officers, SNCOs, and NCOs on conducting small unit, leader-led, guided discussions, the importance of a personal reading program, and command expectations. This constituted our “get the word out” phase. We made sure that every Marine knew the expectations and personal benefit of success in the reading program.
Materials. Early on, we noticed that, on Okinawa, Commandant’s Reading List books were not as prevalent as one might think. Because our battalion has units on three bases ranging from the north to the south end of Okinawa, I had our headquarters and services company commander visit each camp library where we had a company (Camps Foster, Kinser, and Hansen) and report on what he found. The selection was not good in quantity or variety. The good news was that all libraries were cooperative and agreed to increase their Commandant’s Reading List sections based upon our recommendations.
In addition to the Marine Corps Community Services libraries, we wanted our own small libraries at each of our six companies. We met instant approval from the Marine Corps Association & Foundation for two grants, each for $750 (one in 2011 and one in 2012). These helped establish a very good small library in each company. Because many copies of older books sell used for just a few dollars on the Internet, we were able to make our grant money go farther. Moreover, the company libraries were of great use when the battalion deployed to Korea, as we were able to make a “deployed” Commandant’s Reading List library, which was used extensively during the deployment.
Recognition. After publishing the policy, explaining the intent, and obtaining the materials, we prepared to reward those Marines who actively participated in the program. Per the policy letter, Marines and companies were awarded as such:
• Private to lance corporal: a meritorious mast for each grade completed.
• Corporal to major: certificate of commendation for each grade completed.
• Quarterly, the company with the highest number of Commandant’s Reading List completions earns a “72.”
(Essential to the above is continuing encouragement to attack the next higher grade reading list when his own is completed.)
Verification. Marines being Marines, I was immediately asked (mostly by SNCOs), “How do you know if our Marines are really doing the reading?” I utilized both trust tactics and decentralization as guidance for verification. The policy tasked the companies to come up with their own methods of verification. Although I did not require a “book report,” I did not rule it out. I only asked that we not make the verification process so onerous that a Marine would not participate because the “proving I read it” part was harder than the actual reading. Some companies did opt for a short essay (many of these would be worthy of a formal book review, with intelligent insights many leaders had not even considered), while others utilized a discussion forum as verification. Still others chose to attack books together as a section, one chapter at a time.
Total inclusion. We seek to make participation in the reading program something Marines think of daily. Unfortunately, some Marines believe that 1 hour in the gym at lunch equals “good to go,” but 1 hour reading a Commandant’s Reading List book at your desk equals wasting time. Part of our method is breaking that paradigm and constantly reminding Marines that sharpening his mind is no less important than sharpening his body. Progress on the Commandant’s Reading List is included during mentorship sessions. Each mentor is expected to discuss progress with the mentee. Additionally, as part of my sessions with my officers, we discuss what they are reading, as well as what I am reading. During our officer professional military education sessions, we include a book from the Commandant’s Reading List if it is topical to an upcoming event. For example, prior to the battalion’s deployment to Korea, every officer read The Last Stand of Fox Company (Atlantic Monthly Press, NY, 2009) and we had a superb guided discussion on the book led by one of our lieutenants.
Boards. The battalion sergeant major has included progress in the battalion reading program as an important benchmark in competing for meritorious promotions. On the very first day a Marine joins the battalion, the sergeant major explains that, in addition to normal items such as Marine Corps Institute course completion and high physical/combat fitness test and rifle scores, another way to break out of the pack is to start reading what the Commandant has prescribed.
The endstate, as much as there can be an endstate to a reading program, is one that accomplishes the goal giving Marines the gift of the most important weapon for personal success and achievement—reading. Marines understand that, to separate themselves from the ranks of amateurs and become true warrior professionals in any military occupational specialty, they must read. Finally, SNCOs and officers who are already technical experts become more rounded and educated MAGTF officers.
It is now 8 months since we published the 3d Maintenance Battalion Reading Policy. At each formation, small unit discussion, staff meeting, and barracks inspection, the topic of professional reading comes up in some form. I would say the results are mixed. The numbers of completions (all books in grade) may be less than I initially envisioned, but I am confident far more Marines in the battalion are active in the Marine Corps Professional Reading Program than would be if there were no battalion policy. As lance corporals are my highest rank population and a great target to set on the path of positive professional reading habits, I often use their list as the example in my frequent discussions with Marines. There are six books on the lance corporal list: “The 360 Degree Leader” (John C. Maxwell, Thomas Nelson, Nashville, TN, 2011, 336 pages), “The Afghan Campaign” (Steven Pressfield, Broadway Books, NY, 2006, 368 pages), “My Men Are My Heroes” (Nathaniel R. Helms, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 2012, 286 pages), “Starship Troopers” (Robert Heinlein, The Berkley Publishing Group, NY, 1959, 263 pages), “The Ugly American” (Eugene Burdick and William J. Lederer, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., NY, 1958, 240 pages), and “We Were One” (Patrick K. O’Donnell, Da Capo Press, Cambridge, MA, 2006, 280 pages). Given a reasonable reading rate (a rate between reading for pleasure and reading for comprehension) of 30 pages per hour, a lance corporal should require about 59 hours to read the entire list. The private/private first class list is 1,502 total pages, or about 50 total reading hours. The books on these lists are highly readable and enjoyable, and the estimated reading time to complete them very manageable. Therefore, considering the rewards and my command oversight, I thought I would have many completing their lists and reaping the rewards.
The good. We currently have 20 enlisted Marines and 2 officers who have completed their entire list. We have three who have completed their list and the list for their next grade. We have one staff sergeant who has completed all books for her grade and all books for gunnery sergeant—a total of 22 books! Finally, we have one officer who has completed all his lieutenant books and is well on his way to completing the entire Commandant’s Reading List. When touring the barracks, I often see Commandant’s Reading List books on shelves and desks. Although some may be ornaments to distract me from the rest of the room, I take it as a good sign. There have been at least two Commandant’s Reading List book clubs that have sprung up in the battalion. One lance corporal wrote reports on each book in his grade that were as well-written, original, and insightful as some papers I saw as faculty at the Naval War College. While on deployment to Korea, one Marine showed me his Kindle where he had loaded every corporal book on the list.
The friction. Competing demands on a Marine’s time are numerous. The younger Marines would rather play “Ghost Warriors” on their PlayStation 3 than read Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides. The Commandant’s Reading List must compete with video games, off-duty education, and formal school requirements for our younger Marines. For many SNCOs and officers, all the same distractions exist, plus they often have the demands of a family.
Target the culture. Several years ago when I discussed professional reading with a friend, he observed the almost negative view some Marines have on professional reading as compared to civilians who indulge in professional reading. I often ask Marines what they would think if they went into their gunny’s office at 1400 and he was reading a professional military education book. They invariably admit that they would think he was wasting time or something similar. I then ask them what they would think if they went into their doctor’s office and she was reading a medical book. They seem to think this would be normal. There should not be a stigma on professional warriors sharpening their minds with the books our Commandant has prescribed. We reiterate this to our Marines regularly and we task the companies to include time for professional thought and reading on their training schedules (just like physical training and the martial arts program).
Post the list. Most units have a peg board containing the numerous notices that units must post. This is one of the many good places to provide the Commandant’s Reading List. I also recommend putting the list on your unit’s eMarine page and in the barracks. Make sure that no Marine must search for the list.
Availability. The Marine Corps Association & Foundation is a great resource for any sized unit wishing to start its own library. For units with many junior Marines, online used books are very cheap and enable the purchase of multiple book copies. Visit your base library and look at the Commandant’s Reading List section. If it lacks certain books, let the library manager know. Nowadays, many Marines download books to their portable reading devices. Via the Marine Corps homepage and Navy Knowledge Online, many books are available for free. There are very few Commandant’s Reading List books on tape, compact disc, or other media in the libraries I have visited; however, they are great for Marines with long commutes.
Counseling and performance evaluation. AlMar 027/11 states, “Completion of this requirement shall be noted in the individual Marine’s proficiency and conduct remarks or fitness report, as applicable.” I find this requirement to be seldom reported. Once Marines are informed of the expectation, and that it is a requirement and not an ancillary burden, they will respond appropriately.
As our Corps gets smaller, Marines of all ranks will have to do more to stay competitive for career designation, retention, promotion, and coveted resident education seats. Leaders at all levels should use the Commandant’s Reading List to challenge and educate Marines. Just as resident professional education is critical in providing baseline skills and knowledge to Marines across various military occupational specialties, so too can the Commandant’s Reading List.
Thucydides said, “The society that separates its scholars from its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools.”2 In today’s warfighting environment, this is as true and potentially dangerous for the lance corporal as it is for the general.
1. Cavallaro, Gina and Dan Lamothe, “Larger drawdown possible for Corps,” The Marine Times, Garnett Government Media Corp., Springfield, VA, 30 August 2011.
2. Quote by Thucydides accessed at www.goodreads.com.