Do Soldiers Read?

Not long ago we were told by a major book publisher that "soldiers don’t read books. They are too tired from driving their tanks around all day." Really?

The many soldiers we have encountered so far on the way to and inside Afghanistan, would laugh at such elitist naivete. The road to war these days passes through airports and involves long hours of the kind of "hurry up and wait" activity that would be familiar to old soldiers, too.

When you are told to report for a flight seven hours in advance, you can anticipate lots of down time. Look over that crowd of soldiers at an air terminal and you’ll find some dozing, some working their laptops, and some—goodness gracious—reading! Actual books; not with pictures.

A great many have taken advantage of technical marvels like Amazon’s Kindle and its competitors to store literally hundreds of books on a device weighing less than the average hardcover.

On the flight from Manas Air Base in Kygryzstan, to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, we joined troops headed into battle. When flying into Afghanistan, the military requires soldiers to wear full-body armor, helmet, and one carry-on bag plus weapons. They had packed all of their other gear onto pallets at crowded loading yards hours previously under supervision of Air Force loading specialists.

Soldiers today deploy with a year’s worth of personal items, uniforms, equipment, and weapons. In contrast to earlier wars, where we were supplied with weapons, field gear, and other necessities once we joined our units, today’s soldiers fly with everything they need for deployment. It makes for an exhausting experience.

So imagine our surprise when a soldier seated in the row across from us pulled out a magazine and began to read. Not only read, but he was making extensive marginal notes and flipping back for cross-reference, totally absorbed. While first guess might be that he was reading something on cars, guns, or physical fitness (no girlie books because the command bans them from theater), he was reading "Food & Wine."

That called for a photo and a chat. Turns out the soldier, Sergeant Khan Eakin, is from Greensboro, N.C., and part of a National Guard unit deploying to conduct military intelligence operations. Sgt. Eakin, in civilian life, owns and is head chef at two restaurants in Greensboro.

Halfway through the conversation he jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "My sous-chef is about three rows back," he grinned.

We met another soldier absorbed in his Kindle. Turns out he was deep into Ayn Rand’s "Atlas Shrugged." Others are reading popular fiction, contemporary non-fiction and history—especially books on Afghanistan, and studying for college credits on-line. Some institutions—University of Phoenix is a major one—offer degree programs that soldiers can access and complete. Many spend off-duty time while deployed inching toward a degree.

One of the things that we have found most offensive among the American elite crowd is their opinion—expressed explicitly by Sen. John Kerry, for example, during his failed presidential campaign—that soldiers are ignorant knuckle-draggers who can’t make it anywhere else other than the military. "Stay in school and study," Kerry said. "Or you may find yourself in Iraq or Afghanistan."

In fact, this military is the most highly-educated and motivated of any our country has fielded. Soldiers are motivated to improve themselves both internally and externally by institutional rewards: want higher pay that comes with quicker promotion? Then get an education. And they do.

They are technologically proficient, dealing comfortably with intricate software on Blue Force Tracker computers that are part of every tactical vehicle, and with GPS and sophisticated communications devices.

On the ground they are conducting the kind of cross-cultural, real-world actions—in dealing with Afghani military, police, and civilians to carry out the assigned counter insurgency mission (COIN)—that would stress out many supposed experts in the field.

After all, how many educators and business people have to factor a fire-fight, suicide bomber, or an IED hit into the daily work schedule?

Soldiers read, and read prolifically. They are curious, questioning, innovative, and resourceful. When you are in a remote location dealing with a foreign counterpart, who you may have to trust with your life and have to convince him to do something he may not want to do, then you’d better have a big bag from which to pull ideas. They get this by extensive reading, training, and internal discussion and debate.

In America we properly respect the World War II generation as "the greatest." While it is good that we give them the respect they earned, it is also entirely appropriate that we recognize that this present generation is also exceptional. Remember this is America and we continue to improve.

The autos of the 1940s were the best in the world at the time. Cars today are better.

Those old soldiers were the best in the world in their day. These soldiers are the best in the modern world. Time marches on and improvements come with it.

It is way past time that we recognize the greatness of the military we are fielding—all volunteers in time of war, dedicated, motivated, and superb in all ways. It is our honor and privilege to be allowed to stand with them even for a brief time.