Navy Reading List Includes Anti-Racism Book for Sailors

Book could be included into officer curricula

USS John McCain / Getty Images
February 25, 2021

The U.S. Navy’s reading list for officers and sailors includes books exploring issues in anti-racism and gender politics, potentially overshadowing traditional education in military history and strategy.

Four of the 16 books listed under a section dedicated to personal and leadership development discuss topics such as anti-racism, the criminal justice system, and gender politics. Their titles include Ibram X. Kendi's bestselling How to Be an Antiracist, The New Jim Crow, Sexual Minorities and Politics, and Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward. Kendi's book in particular has garnered significant controversy, with many of its ideas spreading from college campuses to public health institutions and public sector unions.

The 4 books mark a major departure from the other 33 books on the list, which focus on the history of the Navy and naval planning.

Brent Sadler, a former Navy officer and senior fellow for naval warfare at the Heritage Foundation, said the inclusion of such work would not help America’s sailors and, in some cases, could harm the branch’s culture and development.

"These reading lists should be making our sailors and officers better sailors and officers on ships at sea, ready to be effective in combat but also in great power competition," Sadler said. "As I look through this, it’s hard for me to get my head wrapped around that you come out the other end of it a more informed sailor, likely to be a better leader on a Navy ship." He added that the reading list "suffers a real intellectual dishonesty."

Sadler also noted that no books on the reading list include a study of the U.S. Constitution, an oversight that he considered deeply harmful to the education of naval personnel. This month, the Navy’s "Task Force 1" concluded its study of diversity by stating the primary goal of the armed service is to protect and defend the Constitution. For Sadler, a list that does not include lessons about the Constitution makes that goal more difficult to achieve.

The list is for professional development, and sailors will not be mandated to read the books. It is unclear, however, whether the recommended books would be introduced into curricula for officers and sailors alike. The list grants digital access to service members, which left Sadler wondering if any of the three naval educational institutions—the U.S. Naval Academy, Naval War College, and Naval Postgraduate School—will implement the books into instruction.

"If it then becomes part of the curriculum, if books are bought and supplied to students—that’s a problem," Sadler said.

A spokesman for the Naval War College said that the books are not assigned to students and participation in the reading program is "voluntary." He added, though, that the issues raised in them are "integrated" into sailors' education. The Navy’s other two educational institutions did not return requests for comment on how they will use the reading list.

The book list is a tradition in the Navy that dates back over 200 years, beginning with officers creating libraries on ships for their own use. The chief of naval operations must sign off on the list before it is announced, prompting questions about senior officers' awareness of the content of Kendi’s book, among others. One former Navy officer, however, said that the books were likely included due to pressure from Democratic oversight of the branch in Congress.

"You couldn't not include that today and not have every Democrat on House Armed Services glued on you," the officer said.

The contested reading list emerges as other questions come from Republicans and strategists about the future of the Navy under President Biden. Defense planners regard the branch as perhaps the most important in the competition with China and expressed concern to the Washington Free Beacon that dwindling defense budgets could lead to a weakened approach in countering Beijing.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with a comment from the Naval War College.