Fodder for Professional Development: Reference Works for the Air Warrior/scholar

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Reference Works for the Air Warrior/Scholar

NOW HERE IS the ultimate challenge for a reviewer: write a piece on reference books that is interesting enough to get even a single person to read it! Still, in some ways, browsing the Internet is like passing the time of day with a random trek through some reference works, and it can be interesting-even to those of us not given to the accumulation of trivia. But more important to you air warrior/scholars are the efficiencies that a good desk set of reference books can introduce to your professional development program. It can save you untold trips to the library, even when there is one within reach. It can help you get into the habit of a skeptical (not a cynical) approach to the study of war. Doubtless, there are as many armchair generals as admirals, and their pontificating certainly bears checking.

So one of the purposes of this review-article is to weigh the value of three new reference books as candidates for inclusion in your personal professional library. Another is to suggest some ways that you can use reference works to enhance your own participation in the intellectual life of the Air Force. Finally, I offer a list of 10 books I would recommend for the personal reference desk set of the professional student of air war. I limit my discussion to works that are focused on the military art; the officer also will certainly want to acquire a more generic set of references appropriate to all professions and to thinking citizens. Increasingly, the latter are available in an electronic format that is much more economical in space, time, and money than the hard copy, but authoritative reference works specializing in air war are still largely confined to the printed page. I have arbitrarily omitted bibliographies. They become dated so rapidly, and the building of electronic databases in libraries, along with their electronic finding aids, has reduced the utility of the old hard-copy bibliographies in searches of airpower literature.

What Should a Reference Book Be?

There is some virtue in concocting a catchy title. If you don't somehow capture your audience's attention, there will be no transfer of knowledge-nor even any entertainment. But that is the province of novels, biographies, articles, and TV shows-not of reference works. For the latter, a title should be comprehensive and accurate. It should tell the audience what the work is about.

A reference work should be new; it should not merely duplicate something that has already been done just for the sake of keeping the presses running. We have wall-to-wall encyclopedias of World War II, many of them accurate and with all the other virtues of good references. But how much is enough?

Compilers deserve our pity. If they include too much, reviewers will thrash them for being uneconomical or obsessed with meaningless trivia. Further, their work will be too bulky to be hauled all over the world in the hold baggage of Air Force practitioners-not to mention too expensive for their budget. If compilers do not include enough, they will be bashed for being too sketchy-purveyors of abstractions of no use in the real world.

Compilers have no dilemma when it comes to quality. There is no choice to be made. Either their reference works are accurate or they are not reference works. The point seems lost on many people. Accuracy is painful. Accuracy is expensive. Because the fundamental purpose is to produce a reference for use in checking the accuracy of other works, precision must be the paramount value. That brings me to the first new book under review.

The Biographical Dictionary of World War II Generals and Flag Officers: The U.S. Armed Forces by R. Manning Ancell with Christine M. Miller. Greenwood Publishing, 88 Post Road West, Box 5007, Westport, Connecticut 06881-5007, 1996, 706 pages, $95.00.

The authors rightly claim that their dictionary entailed an enormous amount of labor; they (and the publisher) wrongly claim that it is needed and definitive. …