Weightless at moments, ground deep into my seat at others. Lit only by red lights and the occasional white-light flicker, that C-130 combat approach to Baghdad International Airport in 2004 was my first real taste of being in a Combat Zone. I gripped my copy of “Unholy Babylon” like others would grip their Bible – hoping I didn’t lose it and that its knowledge will guide me in the coming year. Dog-eared and water damaged, that book went with me everywhere since I had started training for the deployment. And while it wasn’t filled with existential lessons to save me in case I lost my way in the sands of warfare, it offered a glimpse into the enemy we faced amidst those same sands.

Abruptly, the plane landed and we coasted along the tarmac. The aft loading ramp dropped slowly as we cruised and the night air rushed in. A combination of burning trash, open sewage, and diesel exhaust followed, filling my nostrils with a stench I hadn’t smelled in 15 years. It’s a pungency not found at home, smelling of difficulty, death, and adventure.

Around the same time, General James Mattis was preparing to deploy as Commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, mission-bound for that same country. Before deploying, on 20 November 2003, General James Mattis drafted an email to a colleague answering a simple question about reading and history for military officers. That email went viral before “viral” was a thing. Twitter didn’t exist. Facebook didn’t exist. My Space was outlawed for military use. But email was our link to the world, personally and professionally. Mattis’ words soon made their rounds through the ranks of leadership. First in the Theater Command Group, then the Pentagon, eventually rippling out to servers around the world.


The crux of his email was the importance of reading and study. Through this practice he had “never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before.” Quickly crafted, his writing shows General Mattis’ no bullshit approach to everything. It also shows his reverence for history and the opportunity we have today to learn from those who came before us.

I know that many of you are not in the military or have not seen combat. We all have something to learn from this essay. The concepts General Mattis talks about can be applied to every aspect of life, from sports to parenting to business to Book Club. It’s about asking the question “Who has done this before me and what can I learn from them to improve my performance?” Your consequences may not be life and death. They might be quarterly sales or employee relations or triathlon times. But they are important enough for us to study, learn more, and apply what we’ve read to what we are doing. And that’s important enough.


Mattis opens with the most poignant reason to up the ante in our reading game. He’s not just writing an 80’s Reading Is Fundamental PSA, but rather giving us the “So What?” we need to realize.

“The problem with being too busy to read is that you learn by experience (or by your men’s experience), i.e. the hard way. By reading, you learn through others’ experiences, generally a better way to do business, especially in our line of work where the consequences of incompetence are so final for young men.”

A very key point here is not only is it ourselves that suffer the “consequences of incompetence,” but that our “men” do too. That means all the people around us. Our children. Our employees. Our parents. Our clients. For all those times we are moving too fast to learn better ways of doing things, how often do we fail to realize how that impacts others? We can do better.

“Ultimately, a real understanding of history means that we face NOTHING new under the sun.”

A number of years ago I read “Warrior Politics,” by Robert D. Kaplan. In it, he goes through all of the big issues we faced in foreign and domestic policy at the time and related each issue back to points in human history. From ancient Mesopotamia to modern United Nations, through every war, pact, and victory, we have experienced all this before. Mattis, again in his no bullshit fashion, reminds us of this fact – and that we have so much to learn.

“…leaders going into this fight do their troops a disservice by not studying (studying, vice just reading) the men who have gone before us.”

Studying versus reading. Today we are so flippant and consuming with our media that it’s hard to stop long enough to get past the Twitter-feed-style of reading. We read a little bit, nod our head “oh yeah,” and move on to Like or Retweet. Digital Post-It’s with a tasting menu of information, but never a whole meal. But to read something – to really read something – write about it ourselves (in a journal, blog, or Facebook post perhaps), and apply that learning – that makes the difference, I think. That bridges the gap between reading and study.

“As commanders and staff officers, we are coaches and sentries for our units: how can we coach anything if we don’t know a hell of a lot more than just the TTPs?”*

Coaches and Sentries. As leaders, is it not our job to set our people up for success? As a parent, as a CEO, as a Non-Commissioned Officer; don’t we have to look out for our people, take care of them, and give them the tools and knowledge they need to succeed in the jobs we give them? TTPs – or Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures – is a military term for the ways we do things. To Mattis’ point, we need to know more than reciting the textbook answers in order to effectively coach and watch out for our people. The only way to do this is to study more, practice more, and apply that learning to those we lead.


Unholy Babylon,” by Adel Darwish and Gregory Alexander, was only part of my study of Iraq, it’s politics, and it’s personalities. I was working in Human Intelligence at that time, and needed to know all of the backstory I could. I could well be meeting these people, or those loosely related to them, and had to be armed with all the knowledge I could collect. It was a turbulent year, 2004. We got shot at and blown up on a regular basis as the insurgency was kicking into high gear. Our job was to get the neighbors of the bad guys to sell them out so we could stop the attacks. It wasn’t an easy gig. But I could not have done my job well or set my team up for success if I hadn’t taken the time to study before heading in-country.

Today, I share General Mattis’ penchant for learning in order to better lead and teach. I was impressed with the number of takeaways I found in his short email. I’m sure your bookshelves are full of things you’ve collected over the years. Thanks to Amazon, it’s cheaper and easier than ever to line your living room with knowledge. But how often do we sit and study a topic, and then share what we’ve learned from that lengthy chat with the author with others around us?

What are you reading right now?


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COMMENTS in the Comments.
Twitter: @getblacktoenail
Instagram: @getblacktoenail


Business Insider article on General Mattis Email
Reading is Fundamental PSA via YouTube
Unholy Babylon, Adel Darwish and Gregory Alexander on Amazon
Warrior Politics, Robert D. Kaplan on Amazon

2 thoughts on “Dog-Eared and Water Damaged

  1. I’m currently reading Andrew Carnegie by David Nasaw.
    Thanks for the reminder to not only learn from what you read, but be sure to share it with others. Great perspective from a great blog!

    Liked by 1 person

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