A Political Economy of Professional Reading

I just received two new books in the mail, most notably Colin S. Gray’s new magnum opus. This, unfortunately, adds to a growing problem: how to allocate reading resources. First, let’s start out with an unfortunate fact: our lifetimes are finite, and so necessarily are the amount of the books we can read. The temporal, cognitive, and material resources we have for reading is fairly limited once the needs of work, family, study, and basic living take their necessary toll. There are some technical workarounds to each of these issues (for example, reading books on your iPhone Kindle during downtime when you cannot read print books in order to cram more reading time in) but this is not a solution to the core set of problems with resource allocation.

Reading is not a casual thing. If you are determined to get through a reading list, it requires the discipline ordinarily associated with a rigorous workout or diet. You simply cannot do it when you feel like reading. You have to do it when you can read—just as people often cheat on their personal fitness by saying they do not feel like a morning run this week.

There are many reasons people read–some for pure pleasure, others because they want to have the sort of broad-based education and worldliness (I use the term ‘education’ loosely) that once characterized an person of the 18th century Salon society. Others read for the purpose of professional development–aspiring for mastery of a certain field. While professional development in many fields (even highly technical ones) is very complex, the field of national security and strategy poses perhaps one of the most difficult challenges. I will go through some of them.

First, “strategic studies,” “security studies,” and “national security studies” all tend to overlap, although they aren’t necessarily the same. Strategic studies focuses primarily on the employment of military force, often in a highly technical vein, and is much more integrated with strategic history, classical strategic-operational theory, and military history. It incorporates international relations (IR), but mostly from a realist or neorealist perspective. Security studies is much more folded within the general framework of IR and can be considered a form of “soft security” with a variety of methods not usually seen in strategic studies such as critical theory, anthropology, and sociology. It focuses largely on Kenneth Waltz’s “Third Image” (the system level of international politics). Lastly, national security studies is much less academic and focused more on policy concerns about the integration of defense, intelligence, and law enforcement institutions, the defense budget, and the politics of security. Security studies became formalized in the late 70s, while both strategic studies and national security studies are a product of the Cold War.

Area studies, a subset of security studies, is also a Cold War product that originated with Defense Department funding for study of the various theaters of the global battlespace. Of course, it is far different (in both politics and academic approach) now but experts in China, the Middle East, and South Asia are still highly sought-after by the government and private defense sector.

All of these require a variegated set of reading that pose hard choices about resource allocation. While everyone aspires to see “the whole picture,” in practice this can be a nightmare. J. Bradford DeLong’s obituary of J. Kenneth Gailbraith explains thusly: (h/t Duck of Minerva):

Just what a “Galbraithian” economist would do, however, is not clear. For Galbraith, there is no single market failure, no single serpent in the Eden of perfect competition. He starts from the ground and works up: What are the major forces and institutions in a given economy, and how do they interact? A graduate student cannot be taught to follow in Galbraith’s footsteps. The only advice: Be supremely witty. Write very well. Read very widely. And master a terrifying amount of institutional detail.

A student of strategy and conflict–even one with a heavily regional focus–faces the same challenge. The knowledge base you build–through experience, self-study, and professional schooling–is a major part of what you bring to the table when it comes time to think about a strategic issue. It obviously helps to have a both wide and deep knowledge base, but determining the mix in practice is very difficult. A generalist faces the worst resource allocation problems, but even regionalists and specialists need to read widely in order to gain knowledge and context.

Mastering the “essentials” is the first category, and one that consumes a lot of time. Although technocracy is often criticized in strategic analysis, knowledge of the characteristics of various weapons systems, budgeting, logistics, etc provides a base for thinking about many important issues. Arms control, for example, is a field that is fraught with often esoteric technical details. While experience in the national security system often provides experience, it is a question of what kind of experience is helpful. For example, an infantry commander’s experience may not help him understand the mechanics of modern surface warfare. Exchange programs, joint professional military education, and varied career trajectories can compensate to some degree.

Next is the question of theory. Strategic theory in itself is a large field with a body of work going back thousands of years. Strategic theory alone, however, is not enough. I am often amazed by the sheer diversity of influence that goes into Mark Safranski, Shlok Vaidya, Dan Trombly and Joseph Fouche‘s posts, demonstrating not only a deep knowledge of many fields but also the ability to tie them together into a coherent mode of analysis–to say nothing of Clausewitz’s synthesis of the science and philosophy of his time and John Boyd’s powerful mastery of fields ranging from evolutionary biology to cognitive psychology.

Theory, however, is built on history. There are many types of history relevant to a student of strategy. Military history in itself is a large field comprising traditional operational-level campaign history, institutional history (strategic culture, military innovation), economic history (how states mobilize resources) and many other types. There is a question of region as well (Asian military history, European military history, American military history), temporal period, and state. This is to say nothing of the dizzying amount of other types of history necessarily to absorb to understand military history–a military history of China ought to be read in conjunction with some kind of primer on the history of China itself.

Regional studies allows us to apply our general knowledge to a specific case. Joshua Foust has repeatedly pointed to a lack of pundit knowledge about Afghanistan and South Asia that often leads to unfortunate policy conclusions. Regional study involves a tradeoff too that is rooted both in interest as well as prediction of future importance. Is time spent studying Afghanistan better spent looking at the Middle East? There is also obviously a wealth of granular information concerning a country or region that requires conscious choice about how deep you want to burrow.

There are books (usually found in the “Current Affairs” section of the bookstore) that deal with specific policy issues in a granular level of detail or make a new or interesting general argument. While most of these books are admittedly quickly dated and often unnecessarily polemical, often times they can be enlightening or provide useful information.

Lastly, there are books that are not immediately useful but upon deeper reflection can provide better context. Charles Hill has sold me on the usefulness of great works of literature, but I already love giant robot anime and gangsta rap. So why not Nabokov? I also sometimes buy books in completely unrelated fields to try to better understand a favorite theorist or campaign–or in the off chance that I want to write on something besides strategy.

The challenge of the reader is to properly weight each category, determine what is important, and build a professional reading list that is uniquely tailored to their interests, strengths, and weaknesses as well as inclusive of the required boxes to check. It is difficult to avoid making the list top-heavy in certain categories, and pre-existing interests and focuses can provide a false sense of certainty about what is and isn’t essential. The biggest challenge is to avoid getting lost in the blizzard of possible reading choices.

How do I do it? Well, I’m still figuring it out. I use pre-created professional reading lists as a rough guide, but often draw up my own, trying to achieve a balance of sorts in each category. I also do not entirely read most of the books I have, grabbing bits and pieces. Reviewing books also helps, as it often exposes me to things I do not ordinarily read or encounter. Still, my method of reading is much more impressionistic than I would like.

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