A Civilian’s Guide to the U.S. Military: A Comprehensive Reference to the Customs, Language and Structure of the Armed Forces

by Barbara Schading with Richard Schading, Writer’s Digest Books, 2006, $16.99.

To the uninitiated, the inner workings of the American military can be opaque. If you’ve never been through boot camp, A Civilian’s Guide is a handy, if imperfect, introduction to its structure, history and culture. It has all the basics: guides to rank and pay grades, a catalogue of weapons, an entertaining glossary of slang and tips on avoiding such gaffes as calling a former leatherneck an “ex-Marine” (a term reserved for dishonorable types such as Lee Harvey Oswald).

Civvies will find many answers, but unfortunately the guide doesn’t offer much insight into how the military really does its job. For instance, it doesn’t explain how an order gets passed down the ranks or how a military campaign is planned and executed.

It’s also marred by some sloppy research. A hyperbolic claim that Navy SEAL training is designed “to prove that the human body can do 10 times the amount of work the average man thinks possible” appears to have been lifted from the SEALs Web site. A section on the clandestine Marine Corps Force Reconnaissance reads almost verbatim like a page from the online encyclopedia Wikipedia. A Civilian’s Guide is a useful compendium for casual readers, but does not pass muster as a one-stop reference.


Originally published in the June 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.