The High Ground Cover

The High Ground

Leading in Peace and War

R. D. Hooker Jr.

Casemate, Philadelphia, 2023, 192 pages

Book Review published on: September 22, 2023

Mention the subject of leadership and there will be no shortage of discussion. It is an area where everyone has their own opinions, and many consider themselves experts on the subject. Consequently, there are people in all fields who have crafted articles and books detailing their unique perspectives on leadership. Within these publications, authors have looked at leadership from countless angles and lenses and crafted their thoughts in various techniques. R. D. Hooker Jr. joins this vast group in exploring leadership in his recent volume, The High Ground: Leading in Peace and War.

Inevitably, the first thing readers wonder about a book tied to leadership is what the author’s credentials are. Thus, let me begin by addressing Hooker’s experience and career. Hooker served thirty-two years in the U.S. Army as both an enlisted soldier and a commissioned officer. During his service, he participated in nearly every significant military conflict that the United States was involved in, including Grenada, Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Along the way, he led soldiers from the platoon through the brigade level and served in many key staff officer positions at the Pentagon and White House. A full resume afforded him valuable personal leadership experience and the opportunity to observe others in a variety of leadership positions and environments.

I believe it is also important to address Hooker’s writing experience. This prior experience is key when I discuss the volume’s underpinning and the author’s approach to addressing leadership. First, Hooker is a prolific writer of articles and essays, which have appeared in a wide variety of forums. His articles have been a long-time mainstay of Army Magazine. These articles are the foundation for The High Ground. Second, Hooker is a seasoned author whose latest volume, The Good Captain, was reviewed by me in January 2023 on this same website. I found it to be one of the best memoirs I had read in many years. This writing experience coupled with his leadership experience is a powerful combination.

Hooker quickly provides readers with his approach to the volume and initial thoughts on leadership in the book’s foreword. He states,

This small volume makes no attempt to explore the topic of military leadership from an academic, psychological or intellectual perspective. Good leaders learn by experience and through the example of others, both good and bad. The best are guided by intuition—an inner light that can be polished and perfected but is also innate—and by sound values that begin with the love of soldiers. From that foundation, young leaders can begin to master the fundamentals: know your trade; lead by example; treat others—senior and subordinate—with dignity and respect; make your word your bond; be brave; both physically and morally. (xi)

Within The High Ground, as highlighted earlier, Hooker primarily utilizes articles/essays he wrote for Army Magazine as the foundation for the volume. Additionally, he has added articles he crafted for Infantry Magazine and some previously unpublished material. Hooker packages these and organizes them into four sections: “Leadership Fundamentals,” “Leadership in Action,” “Profiles in Leadership,” and “In Memoriam.”

As the title suggests, “Leadership Fundamentals” is Hooker’s opportunity to focus on his personal leadership essentials. I believe readers will find Hooker’s approach both unique and effective. Instead of providing a generic checklist or bullets which can be found in many “leadership” books, Hooker relies heavily on correspondence to his sons during key periods or events in their own Army careers. (These letters were published in Infantry Magazine.) The subjects include entering the service, becoming an infantryman, the roles and responsibilities of an officer, leading a rifle platoon, becoming a staff officer, and assuming command of a company and of a battalion. In each, Hooker provides wisdom and nuggets that I’m sure were invaluable to his sons and will be beneficial to all readers.

The volume’s next section, “Leadership in Action,” keys on specific events in the author’s Army career. These articles perfectly highlight points emphasized in “Leadership Fundamentals.” Many of these are short vignettes or true war stories. One of the most beneficial aspects of these articles is Hooker’s decision to conclude many with a discussion of ramifications of the event. This “so what” adds significantly to the article and provides the reader overall context.

The “Profiles in Leadership” section focuses on those soldiers Hooker has admired from near and afar for their leadership qualities and styles. Within each article, Hooker provides a brief biography on the soldier. He then proceeds to detail a vignette or two highlighting the soldier and his leadership strengths or philosophy. As in the previous section, these profile articles do an excellent job of reinforcing Hooker’s ideas in “Leadership Fundamentals.”

Hooker concludes the volume with a section honoring those soldiers who have passed on. The preponderance is soldiers who he had served with or knew well. The most impactful story of this section is his final one that he saves to remember his father. In it, he looks back on his father’s (a soldier himself) funeral. Following the funeral, he reflects on his father’s life and service and what he learned from his dad regarding life and leadership. Hooker puts these thoughts in writing to pay tribute to his dad. It is unquestionably a fitting way to close the book and more importantly to honor his dad.

Within these sections, Hooker connects one theme which resonates throughout—the foundation for successful military leadership is the love of soldiers. Although this echoes throughout the volume, it is clearly emphasized in the following passage:

But it all begins with love of soldiers. Without it, a leader may advance in rank but will never command the respect and willing obedience that wins in battle. Each young trooper represents a gift—an offering to the nation of the most precious thing a mother or father has in the world. All have signed what’s called a contract of unlimited liability, agreeing to place their lives and futures on the line when called. No leader can ask for more. In the day of battle, we win or lose based on our soldiers, not ourselves. This is why, for my money, the first and best of all leader attributes is love of soldiers. If you’re a leader and don’t have it—you’re in the wrong business! (92–93)

The component that brings this all together for the reader is the superb readability of the volume. I don’t know if there is a book that is any more readable than The High Ground. Hooker achieves this through several factors. First, is the volume’s subject material. Certainly, this should appeal to the vast majority of Military Review readership. Second, the entire volume is written in a highly conversant style. After reading his earlier memoir, I had no doubt this would be the case. Finally, this is an extremely fast-paced volume because of the length of the articles. The preponderance of the articles are two to three pages and very quick reads.

To label The High Ground as another book on leadership is clearly an injustice. This is much more than a primer on leadership. Clearly, readers will find numerous nuggets on the art and science of leadership that they can place in their kitbag. However, this is a book that more importantly pays tribute to the soldiers which Hooker served with and the soldiers we have all served with. In total, this is a superb book which will educate, entertain at times, and truly draw out emotions.

Book Review written by: Rick Baillergeon, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas