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Back to September Ed Reporter
Education Reporter
NUMBER 212 THE NEWSPAPER OF EDUCATION RIGHTS SEPTEMBER 2003

How to Become a Military Expert
With Congressman Ike Skelton's 50-Book Reading List
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WASHINGTON, DC - Convinced that American policymakers and military commanders may be forgetting history's lessons, Rep. Ike Skelton (D-MO) released in June his National Security Book List, a compilation of books he recommends as required reading to all officers of the Armed Forces, Members of Congress, and those interested in national security.

"I don't believe the statement that history repeats itself, but I do believe that those who don't study history tend to repeat the mistakes of the past," said Skelton, who serves as a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC).

Motivated partially by a series of recent attacks that have killed dozens of U.S. soldiers since the Iraq war ended, Skelton drew parallels with the French following their defeat in the 1954 battle of Dien Bien Phu and in Vietnam where U.S. troops were hit with grenades and sniper fire prior to the 1968 Tet Offensive. Skelton claims that an understanding of the history of such events and of guerilla warfare will produce better and more informed leaders.

Skelton hopes that his list will produce future generations schooled in leadership and character. This list "will make you a better officer, a better legislator, a better expert witness, a better executor of American policy." Skelton stated that too many senior officials and officers who testify before his defense committee lack insight into the current relevance of past problems faced by Americans.

Skelton mailed copies of the list to hundreds of people, including chiefs of all the military branches, war college officials, various military officers, and every member of the U.S. House. In the first week alone, his office mailed out over 85% copies of the 50-book National Security List.

He spent weeks compiling titles, all of which he has read. Through the years he has benefited "enormously by seeking out books recommended by others who share my interest in history and military affairs." The 50 books he has chosen cover topics of leadership, character, and military art. The subjects range from ancient to modern warfare and world leadership.

No. 1 on the list is the U.S. Constitution, although Skelton claims that the most important book on the list is Edward Shepherd Creasy's Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World; From Marathon to Waterloo. Written in 1859, this 400-page book describes 15 famous battles of the previous 2,300 years that changed the course of world history.

Twenty of the books he recommends are biographies, including Alexander the Great, Napoleon, Harry S. Truman, Winston Churchill, Daniel Boone (a distant relative of Skelton), and Tecumseh. Three of his recommendations are autobiographies: Ulysses S Grant, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, and Field-Marshal Viscount William Slim who led British forces in retreat from Burma to India during World War II. Another biography listed is Frank E. Vandiver's Black Jack: The Life and Times of John J. Pershing. "The best place to learn history is from biographies," Skelton said, "from people who have actually been there."

Other books include the ancient Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu's The Art of War, written in 4th century B.C., Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose, and From Vietnam to 9-11: On the Front Lines of National Security by John P. Murtha and John Plashal. The books cover Napoleonic rule, Nazi aggression, and Japanese intelligence battles.

Skelton gives a great deal of emphasis to U.S. history and leadership, with a strong focus on early American life and the Civil War. "I also believe that if you don't know where you came from, you don't know where you're going," stated Skelton. "I believe that every American citizen ought to have a basic understanding of the story of America. The list is comprehensive and covers each branch of the U.S. military. If one undertakes to read the entire list, I expect it would be about a 10-year project."

As far as Skelton is aware, no other list like this has been published. Reactions to his recommendations have been positive. Richard H. Kohn, former chief of history for the Air Force, complimented Skelton by pointing out that he has long been a devotee of reading history, and it has made him one of the most knowledgeable and persuasive members of national security community.

"I think that Congressman Skelton has perceived one of the real weaknesses of our national security policy thinking, and one of the very key ways we can strengthen it," said Richard H. Kohn who is also a chairman of the Curriculum in Peace, War and Defense at the University of North Carolina.

Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, former president of the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa, commented: "History is a soldier's laboratory. Unlike law and medicine and business, we don't practice our craft every day, maybe only once in a lifetime. So in order to prepare mentally and intellectually for leadership and decision making and to have an idea what combat is like, you have to study the record."

Scales, a Vietnam veteran who directed the Army's project on future warfare from 1995 to 2000, added that "Ike has never made a decision or initiative without first considering it in historical context. If we had more of that, not only in Congress but in all positions of authority, we'd be a much better nation for it."

Ike Skelton's lifelong love of history began on December 7, 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. As a 9-year-old, he followed political developments through the radio and newspapers.

A graduate of Wentworth Military Academy and the University of Missouri at Columbia, he has been representing Missouri's 4th Congressional District in the House of Representatives since 1977 and is now the ranking Democrat on the HASC's Panel on Profession Military Education.

Skelton was recently named the outstanding historian in government by the Society for History in the Federal Government. Skelton said, "I consider myself lucky that my longtime hobby as a military history enthusiast has complemented my work in Congress as a member of the House Armed Serviced Committee."


 
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