By Jill R. Russell
In late 2003 a colleague of General James Mattis wrote to him asking for a few words on the
importance of reading and military history for the officer, even where it might seem that one was “too busy to read.” His response went viral over email – had it been in the time of Twitter this blog piece would be unnecessary. But it enjoyed a wide distribution within the Marine Corps, and eventually arrived in my inbox. As a military historian, I cannot minimize my appreciation that he wrote so eloquently on the subject. If it were only for that, the essay would be valuable. But his writing is valuable also because we rarely have opportunities to hear the unfiltered thoughts of leaders as well for his role in the history of recent conflicts. Much is written and [believed to be] known about the General as a warrior. Less is known about him as a true student of his profession. I would submit that it is quite impossible to correctly understand the former without a proper interrogation of the latter. By this I mean that one must first accept that a significant body of intellectual material sustains his actions and opinions – as is indicated in the messages, he devotes real effort to this aspect of his work. So, there is a base of knowledge that is always growing. On top of that are the benefits which accrue to those who think and critically engage with such material. Furthermore, there is his consideration of the views of others – as in the breadth of his reading or response to my comments – suggesting that he had not fallen prey to the hubris of the powerful, which is to believe they have all of the answers. Good leaders don’t only hear “yes” from the people around them. Thus, the insight these words give to his thinking and interests is invaluable.
I also have to note that from a historian’s perspective this professional practice is fascinating. It is Hegel hurled at the maelstrom of emergent Clio, a manifestation of E.H. Carr’s “unending dialogue between past and present.” There is an awful popular tendency to try to use history prescriptively. This is a bad, bad idea. Very often the lessons relied upon are incorrect or inappropriate. However, history – from quality works – as a critical thinking process, whose substance also furthers understanding [of regions, types of events, etc.] can inform posterity to good effect. The General’s essay is an exposition of this principle.