On Writing “How to Think Like an Officer”

Hello! This post constitutes a return to this blog after a long absence. If not exactly a triumphant return, I hope it will be enjoyed by at least a few readers. I plan for two more posts on my new book, How to Think Like an Officer, and then more to come on other subjects.

My latest book, How to Think Like an Officer: Lessons in Learning and Leadership for Soldiers and Other Citizens, was published by Stackpole Books in September, 2020.  This was my third book, if you count a doctoral dissertation that was eventually published in book form. I continue to write, and another book may be on the way. Meanwhile, like an anxious parent, I’m trying to gauge the reception and influence of a book the publisher described as “genre-bending.” Of course, the book was more than a marker in my literary career. It is the culmination, thus far, of military service that covered three decades. It was a kind of capstone exercise, although maybe the beginning of something as much as an end, as capstones generally are.

I served in the Marine Corps for close to thirty years combining active duty and reserve service, as an infantry officer and field historian, with deployments to Lebanon and Iraq. In Iraq, on the day the task force I was assigned to entered Nasiriya, a lieutenant, upset at the casualties (many, we later realized, from friendly fire) and what seemed the general muddle, asked me why, “after 225 years” we hadn’t learned to do thing better.  My latest book draws on my service the questions it raised about how to do things better. Along the way were a few moments and connections that were especially important, moments when I was inspired and encouraged to write a book.

Writing a book is always a matter of sitting down in front of a keyboard (every day, preferably) and pounding at the keys. Along with the persistence, or “perspiration,” inspiration is important too.  Writing a book is a search for sources of inspiration, for a flow of ideas that can be sustained over months or years of writing and finally across hundreds of pages, each one carefully reworked as the main object is enlarged and refined. To give an idea of how this works, or at least as it worked in my case, I will briefly discuss some major sources of inspiration for How to Think Like an Officer in rough chronological order.

Teaching and Getting Started

Two episodes in my second career as educator provided impetus. As a distance education adjunct with the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, I would sometimes rather grandiloquently say I wanted the course to be an inquiry into the nature of military professionalism. At one point, in reply to some remark of mine, a student said, “What you really mean is that the military profession is a branch of the humanities.” This was a “a-ha” moment, opening up for the importance of such neglected areas as language, creativity, and self-knowledge to military professionalism. Later, during my years at Kings Point, the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, I would sometimes tell the midshipman, “I’ve got (x) months/years to get you thinking like an officer.” (In addition to becoming licensed officers in the merchant marine, all midshipmen who are U.S. citizens were required to accept a reserve commission in some component, unless, as about 25% chose to do, they enter active duty after graduation.) Needless to say, some midshipmen wanted to know what I meant by that, sir? I also encountered Academy colleagues (some of them officers) who I thought needed to think more like officers.

In my years teaching for the Command and Staff College and Kings Point, an idea of what constituted officer thought was gradually coming to me. I wanted my students and colleagues to be able to think like organizers and tacticians, but I was also formulating a broader view of officership, of officers as more than mere “managers of violence,” as sometimes resembling scientists, sometimes artists, sometimes dreamers and visionaries, but other influences had to make themselves felt to help me complete the picture.

To be continued…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s