Learning from the Marine Corps Commandant’s Professional Reading List

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Access the 2020 Commandant of the Marine Corps Professional Reading Program here. This article refers to the 2017 reading list. 


The Marine Corps Commandant’s Professional Reading List (CPRL) is published annually, providing books ‘most pertinent for professional development and critical thinking at each level’. It is a comprehensive list organised into: Commandant’s choice which all Marines must read, and further divided by grade level. The expectation is that all Marines, officers and enlisted, read five books within their grade per year before reading those in other levels. What can we learn about professional development from the CPRL?

Overall Observations

1. Achievable. A graduated, rank (position) appropriate and brief list provides manageable goals for individuals. Conversely, some ADF reading lists represent a grand or insurmountable challenge to soldiers and officers, particularly junior leaders. The CPRL provides an achievable professional development pathway.

2. Integrated. USMC Commanders will direct books from the reading list as part of annual performance requirements. Commander’s discussion guides are available that cover how to run discussion seminars on each book. PME and Schooling further this integration, where these lists form a basis of assumed knowledge across the Corps. The CPRL is integrated throughout USMC training and education.

3. Accessible. The Marine Corps Library on each base has a dedicated section, front and centre, with multiple copies of each of the reading list books. The 2017 list also contains relevant fiction, or “real fiction” such as Enders Game, Starship Troopers, and Ghost Fleet, which creates an easy avenue into the theory and practice of war; Another Bloody Century does the same through non-fiction. The CPRL is accessible both physically, and by content.

4. Accountable. This assumed knowledge is part of the marine story and this requires every marine to know their history. Part of being a marine is therefore knowing how the “Old Breed” fought at the Chosin Resevoir as much as it is understanding that “America has a Marine Corps because it wants one,” or “Don’t break up the MAGTF.” These are well-crafted narratives that the Corps wants to perpetuate. Marines are held accountable for knowing the relevant lessons from the CPRL at each rank level.

5. Deliberate. These lists are not books someone found interesting, the selection of Commandants Choice books is a “structural” or “embedding” mechanism, according to Schein’s organisational culture model. The CPRL is a deliberate tool used to influence the intellectual, therefore fighting power of the USMC.

Observations about 2017 CPRL

The first books on the 2017 CPRL are no surprise. First to Fight will always be required reading. It is purposeful history. MCDP 6-10A, Sustaining the Transformation explains the “transformation” of a civilian to a marine. Whilst seen as indoctrination, indoctrination implies naivety, whereas transformation implies informed consent to the change which is entirely true.  MCDP 1 Warfighting is a simple document that describes complex ideas like systems theory and manouevre warfare. Like great novels, it provides the reader with something new every time. John Schmitt’s articulation under General Gray’s guidance is unparalleled.

However, the inclusion of the last two books is interesting. Along with Scales on War, the NZ Rugby book Legacy is a popular topic in the US joint community. The inclusion of Legacy shows that the US services are also wrestling with the responsibility of leadership to develop resilience in the professional forces. From an Australian/NZ perspective, much of it shows what we know to be right, but perhaps have not done as well as we should. The inclusion of Moneyball, along with an ongoing fascination with the movie Miracle, shows the USMC attempt to energise innovation, embrace systems or design thinking, and focus on the purpose of a mission rather than the method.

The pre-requisite reading for Marine Corps University courses is revealing. Command and Staff College pre-requisite reading is First to Fight, Warfighting, and Campaigning. For the School of Advanced Warfighting (SAW) pre-requisite reading is First to Fight and Moneyball.

Of note, are the books that are not here, but could be: 21st Century Ellis: Operational Art and Strategic Prophecy for the Modern Era by Friedman is one of these. Although covered in First to Fight, reading Pete Ellis’s original work gives a greater understanding of how a Senior Officer’s support for a talented, albeit unconventional Junior Leader can change an organization, and even prepare a nation for winning the next war.

About the author

Matthew Dirago is an Australian Army Infantry Officer, having completed Marine Corps University Command and Staff College and School of Advanced Warfighting.