The Chief’s Reading List

July 1, 1997

In a move that reflects his appreciation of the need for understanding history, Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman, Chief of Staff, has launched a professional reading program for Air Force members. His aim is to foster the development of a unifying air and space culture throughout the Air Force.

The Chief’s program features a basic list for captains, intermediate list for majors and lieutenant colonels, and a more advanced list for colonels and generals. The officer lists were compiled under the leadership of Dr. Daniel R. Mortensen of the Air Force History Support Office. USAF’s senior enlisted member, CMSAF Eric W. Benken, is working with the history office to prepare another reading list for enlisted personnel, while others are working up a list for Air Force civilians.

Each officer list includes books covering four principal categories of study: warfighting, airpower, leadership, and space. Taken together, the 34 books of the officer lists cover all of the nation’s major modern conflicts—the two World Wars and the Korean, Vietnam, and Persian Gulf Wars.

At the heart of the program, however, lies the basic list, comprising 13 books. Over the next two years, the Air Force will give a set of all 13 to each junior officer when he or she attains the grade of captain.

To carry out the program, the Air Force purchased an inventory of books on the basic list. Beginning March 1, the service began to ship sets to those pinning on captain’s bars. The Air Force encourages the young officers to read the books before attending Squadron Officer School. Even so, no one is required to read the books, nor will reading them or not reading them be reflected in any job evaluation.

Many of the books on the basic list were chosen for their readability and for their treatment of fundamental principles. The intermediate and advanced texts increase in sophistication and complexity. Many of the titles on the basic list will be familiar to officers, but some will not, and the following short review of each book may provide some insight.

Basic List

The Art of War, by Sun Tzu. William Morrow and Co., Inc., 1993.

This is the classic Chinese war-strategy text, written by a Chinese general 2,500 years ago. It is the earliest known treatise on the subject of war, well-known for its penetrating sayings. One of the most fundamental of Sun Tzu’s principles is, “All warfare is based on deception.” Another is, “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” The works of Sun Tzu have been widely circulated in the US for decades. The first part of the book is easy reading, and one marvels at the comprehensive nature of Sun Tzu’s insights, covering as they do every aspect of warfare from politics to battle to espionage. It has an immediacy and a common-sense approach that makes browsing interesting. The second part of the book is a commentary on Sun Tzu’s writing. This has been difficult reading in earlier iterations. This edition, a new translation by J. H. Huang, eases the problem somewhat.

A Few Great Captains: The Men and Events that Shaped the Development of US Airpower, by DeWitt S. Copp. Air Force Historical Foundation, 1980.

The title comes from Gen. George C. Marshall’s famous statement, “No Army produces more than a few great captains.” Marshall meant great commanders, of course, but this wonderful book explains in lucid detail just how fortunate the United States was that its air arm produced a varied mix of powerful personalities, many of whom served for a long time as company-grade captains. The names are familiar—Mitchell, Foulois, Arnold, Andrews, Knerr, Chennault, Spaatz, Quesada, McNamey. In Copp’s deft, affectionate treatment, we see how they interacted and how they sacrificed themselves for an ideal. Perhaps the most amazing aspect of their dedication was the probability that they would spend their entire careers as company-grade officers in an air service not highly regarded by the Army or the public. They persevered, and they created an Air Corps that was conceptually ready to fight World War II long before Congress had decided to give it the means to do so.

Heart of the Storm: The Genesis of the Air Campaign Against Iraq, by Richard T. Reynolds. Air University Press, 1995.

This slim, 145-page volume is a distillation of some 4,000 pages of raw transcripts of interviews the author conducted with the principal planners of the Persian Gulf air war. The goal of the interviewing effort was to identify, in the words of the book’s subtitle, “the genesis of the air campaign against Iraq.” Written in a novelistic style, the book paints portraits—warts and all—of the Gulf War’s various commanders, advisors, and lower-ranking officers, presenting them in a way rarely seen in a work of nonfiction. Many believe that inclusion of this book reflects a genuine desire on the part of Fogleman to educate the Air Force’s junior officers about staff workings of the service.

Hostile Skies: A Combat History of the American Air Service in World War I, by James J. Hudson. Syracuse University Press, 1968.

This is another classic war book, a comprehensive survey of the American air effort in World War I. Written by a fighter pilot and scholar whose knowledge of flying and fighting is evident in every chapter, the book puts the lie to the old canard of the so-called “$640 million blunder”—a reference to the huge (at that time) 1917 appropriation that Congress voted in support of a crash effort to catch up with the European standard of airpower. It is evident from Hudson’s work that the $640 million went a long way toward laying the basis for a young, powerful, and potentially dominating air force for the time. Hudson’s book also makes another important point: The American Air Service in World War I established a tradition of courage and determination to fulfill the mission that served the nation well.

Lincoln on Leadership: Executive Strategies for Tough Times, by Donald T. Phillips. Warner Books, 1992.

At first, this book about the Civil War leader seems to be an odd choice for the aspiring Air Force leader of the late twentieth century. Yet a quick glance at the principles that guided Abraham Lincoln in the conduct of a war he hated shows how useful the book is. After reading this, I went back to Shelby Foote’s massive three-volume history of the Civil War and looked up a dozen references to Lincoln. Not surprisingly, in more than half of these, I found a direct connection to the principles Phillips cites in this easily read and very worthwhile book.

Officers in Flight Suits: The Story of American Air Force Fighter Pilots in the Korean War, by John Darrell Sherwood. New York University Press, 1996.

In this book, Sherwood looks at a bygone time, decades before the term “politically correct” came into use or had any meaning. He paints a vivid and realistic portrait of the culture of Korean War fighter pilots, examining their motivations, their methods, and the effect that being a fighter pilot had on their personal lives. The author presents colorful vignettes of famous airmen like Robinson Risner, Earl Brown, Woodrow Crockett, and Jim Hagerstrom, as well as the stories of some less well-known but equally colorful pilots. A too-brief chapter outlines what post–Korean War life was like for some of them—it was often less than ideal—and this serves to underline how much the Air Force has changed and the extent of the differences between the Korean War and modern versions of the Air Force.

The Right Stuff, by Tom Wolfe. Bantam Books, 1980.

Some were surprised at the inclusion on the list of The Right Stuff, Wolfe’s gripping story about the Mercury astronauts, military test pilots, and the first years of the US space program. Alone among the books on the basic list, The Right Stuff truly is a popular classic, having become a major best-seller and the basis for a popular movie. The title itself—signifying special courage, flair, and grace under pressure—has entered the American lexicon, and both book and movie provided a belated but well-deserved national celebrity to Chuck Yeager, the Air Force pilot who in 1947 became the first man to break the sound barrier. Some regard Wolfe’s portrayal of the pilots and astronauts as too cute, but Air Force officials said the book was selected because it covered a critical period in a highly readable style.

A Short History of Airpower, by James L. Stokesbury. William Morrow and Co., Inc., 1986.

This very well-written book presents a brief survey of the history of aerial warfare, but it lacks balance. Most of Stokesbury’s coverage focuses on air operations in World War I, with considerably less attention given to the much larger World War II air operations. The air wars in Korea and Vietnam receive short shrift. Perhaps most puzzling is the virtual omission of the single greatest component of airpower for almost five decades—Strategic Air Command, with its jet bombers, tankers, and intercontinental ballistic missiles.

10 Propositions Regarding Airpower, by Phillip S. Meilinger. Air Force History and Museums, 1995.

This small, 86-page book carries great weight for the Air Force professional. It contains ideas that demand a great deal of thought—provocative propositions that encapsulate the essence of airpower. Meilinger begins with the proposition, “Whoever controls the air generally controls the surface,” and “Airpower is an inherently strategic force,” and then moves briskly down to, “Airpower includes not only military assets but an aerospace industry and commercial aviation.” He deals with parallel warfare, targeting, and redefinition of the meaning of “mass.” In short, Meilinger presents a concise and understandable view of what airmen believe about airpower.

This Kind of War: The Classic Korean War Story, by T. R. Fehrenbach. Brassey’s, Inc., 1963.

In this book, the author provides a succinct and solid recapitulation of the Korean War, one primarily oriented to the ground campaign. Fehrenbach adeptly illuminates each of the major events of the war with short glimpses of human interactions that illustrate the heroism, the hopes, and, often, the errors made in the heat of battle. He weaves the political background of the war around the main events, always conveying the truth that, while wars may be run by governments, they are fought—shot by shot, battle by battle—by individuals. Two good supplements to this might be James Brady’s The Coldest War: A Memoir of Korea and John Toland’s In Mortal Combat: Korea, 1950–53.

Thud Ridge, by Jack Broughton. Imagination Transportation, Inc., 1996.

This is a great book, by a genuine, if sometimes controversial, Vietnam War hero. More than anything else, it is an insider’s book, where the pages ring with authenticity. Broughton, a retired Air Force colonel, flew the Republic F-105 Thunderchief in some of the most demanding missions of the war, and his descriptions of combat are on a par with Pierre Closterman’s legendary World War II accounts. He uses similarly vivid imagery in describing his colleagues, giving quick and sharp portraits of his friends that stamp them indelibly in your mind. Broughton is at his best grousing about the bureaucracy, the idiocy of the rules of engagement, and the frustration of being unable to come to grips effectively with the enemy.

We Were Soldiers Once . . . And Young: Ia Drang, The Battle that Changed the War in Vietnam, by Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway. HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1992.

This remarkable book—a best-seller about ground combat in Vietnam—presents a gritty, ferocious picture of a war at the sharp end of the stick. Tightly written and with a gripping narrative, the book’s real significance becomes clear in its final chapter, when it outlines the crucial issue of the war—the pursuit of a strategy. North Vietnam had a strategy and followed it, learning from each engagement. The United States military managed to learn technically from each engagement, but it had no consistent strategy to follow. The lesson that Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara learned from the battle of Ia Drang was that the North Vietnamese were going to be difficult, if not impossible, to defeat in a ground war, yet he persisted in sending in more ground forces. It was, as the book makes clear, a fatal mistake.

Winged Victory: The Army Air Forces in World War II, by Geoffrey Perret. Random House, 1993.

A joy to read and a fine tribute to the instrument created by the aforementioned “few great captains,” all of whom were becoming generals and leading the fight, this well-researched book covers USAAF’s air war in every theater of World War II. The book immediately brings to mind the difficulty in imagining future conflicts. Very few people in the US (or anywhere else, for that matter) would have predicted in 1933 that 10 years later, the country would be fighting simultaneously in Sicily and the Solomon Islands. Perret has a deft hand with anecdotes, and while airpower buffs may find the occasional technical lapse, Winged Victory is an excellent book.

Intermediate List

Airpower: A Centennial Appraisal, by Tony Mason. Brassey’s, Inc., 1994.

Deke!: US Manned Space From Mercury to the Shuttle, by Donald K. Slayton with Michael Cassutt. Forge Books, 1994.

The First Air War: 1914–18, by Lee B. Kennett. The Free Press, 1991.

General Kenney Reports: A Personal History of the Pacific War, by George C. Kenney. Air Force History and Museums, 1982.

The Limits of Airpower: The American Bombing of North Vietnam, by Mark Clodfelter. The Free Press, 1989.

Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, edited by Peter Paret with Gordon A. Craig and Felix Gilbert. Princeton University Press, 1986.

Over Lord: General Pete Quesada and the Triumph of Tactical Airpower in World War II, by Thomas A. Hughes. The Free Press, 1995.

Storm Over Iraq: Airpower and the Gulf War, by Richard P. Hallion. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.

The United States Air Force in Korea: 1950–53, by Robert Frank Futrell. Air Force History and Museums, 1983.

Advanced List

The Air Campaign: Planning for Combat, by John A. Warden III. Brassey’s Inc., 1996.

Flight of the Buffalo: Soaring to Excellence, Learning to Let Employees Lead, by James A. Belasco and Ralph C. Stayer. Warner Books Inc., 1993.

The Generals’ War: The Inside Story of the Conflict in the Gulf, by Michael R. Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor. Little Brown and Co., 1995.

The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age, by Walter A. McDougall. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

Hoyt S. Vandenberg: The Life of a General, by Phillip S. Meilinger. Indiana University Press, 1989.

Ideas and Weapons: Exploitation of the Aerial Weapon by the United States During World War I, a Study in the Relationship of Technological Advance, Military Doctrine, and the Development of Weapons, by I. B. Holley, Jr. Air Force History and Museums, 1983.

Joint Air Operations: Pursuit of Unity in Command and Control, 1947–91, by James A. Winnefeld and Dana J. Johnson. Naval Institute Press, 1993.

Joint Military Operations: A Short History, by Roger A. Beaumont. Greenwood Press, Inc., 1993.

On War, by Karl von Clausewitz. Princeton University Press, 1976.

The Sky on Fire: The First Battle of Britain, 1917–18, and the Birth of the Royal Air Force, by Raymond H. Fredette. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991.

Strategy for Defeat: Vietnam in Retrospect, by Ulysses S. G. Sharp. Presidio Press, 1993.

Why the Allies Won, by Richard J. Overy. W. W. Norton and Co., Inc., 1996.

Walter J. Boyne, former director of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D. C., is a retired Air Force colonel and author. He has written more than 400 articles about aviation topics and 28 books, the most recent of which was Beyond the Wild Blue, A History of the United States Air Force 1947–1997. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “Wings,” appeared in the October 1996 issue.