War on the Rocks Holiday Reading List


Dear War on the Rocks Readers and Listeners:

Thank you all for supporting this publication with your loyalty.  In the months since we launched in July, War on the Rocks has succeeded beyond my expectations.  We owe that to you.

To mark the holiday season, I asked our regular contributors and editors to name two or three books on strategy, war, international politics, or history (including fiction) that they are excited about this holiday season and that our readers might enjoy.

You can find the list below (or download it here as a PDF). The astonishing range of books selected reflects the diversity in experience and expertise of our family of contributors.

If you’re looking for gifts, for yourself or that special War on the Rocks fan in your life, you could do worse than pick one of these.



Ryan Evans


 2013 Holiday Season Reading List

John Amble

Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power (2013) by Steve Coll – This book offers a view into the workings of a multinational corporation in an era when the annual revenues of some such companies surpass those of the governments in many states where they operate and in an industry constantly shaped by geopolitical developments.

The Terrorists Dilemma: Managing Violent Covert Organizations by Jake Shapiro (2013) – This book is the first to assess the challenges posed by terrorist groups from an organizational perspective.  As the body of terrorism literature continues to expand rapidly, there are fewer and fewer truly innovative analyses being produced.  This is one of them.

B.J. Armstrong

Allied Master Strategists: The Combined Chiefs of Staffs in World War II by David Rigby (2013).

Seapower: A Guide for the 21st Century, 3rd Edition, by Geoffrey Till (2013).

21st Century Mahan: Sound Military Conclusions for the Modern Era by Benjamin Armstrong (2013) – Shameless plug

Tricia Bacon

Storming the World Stage: The Story of Lashkar-e-Taiba by Stephen Tankel (2012)

Bloodmoney: A Novel of Espionage by David Ignatius (2012)

J. Michael Barrett

This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral-Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking!-in America’s Gilded Capital by   Mark Leibovich (2013) – A sad but true tale.

Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President by Ron Suskind (2011) – Another good basic DC-insider book

John Bew

Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House by Peter Baker (2013).

Secret Reports on Nazi Germany: The Frankfurt School Contribution to the War Effort by Franz Neumann, Herbert Marcuse & Otto Kirchheimer, Edited by Raffaele Laudani (2013).

Jason Campbell

Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present by Max Boot (2103) – As with War Made New, Boot provides a comprehensive historical examination of conflict to remind us that many of today’s security challenges are rooted in past battles. While at times lacking in depth, this shows that quantity has a quality all its own and reads great.

Whole World on Fire: Organizations, Knowledge, and Nuclear Devastation by Lynn Eden (2006) – A few years old but something I read this year as part of my PhD research. Great examination of how the human factor plays into the development of a technology and how even the best and brightest can overlook crucial aspects that fall outside their area of expertise.

Elbridge Colby

Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War by Max Hastings (2013).

The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark (2013) Both on how to avoid repeating WWI.

John Collins

At the Center of the Storm: My Years At the CIA by George Tenet (2007) – A much maligned man who I know to be a dedicated public servant tells his side of the story.

The Journey of a Warrior: The Twenty-Ninth Commandant of the US Marine Corps (1987-1991): General Alfred Mason Gray  by Gerald H. Turley (2010) – A Marines’ Marine, who did it all his way and helped me more times than I can count.

Robert Collins

The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece by Victor Davis Hanson (1989).

Asymmetric Conflicts: War Initiation By Weaker Powers by T.V. Paul (1994).

Adam Elkus

War in the Age of Intelligent Machines by Manuel de Landa (1991) – A worthy companion to P.W. Singer’s Wired for War, philosopher of science de Landa tells the story of how foundational concepts and technologies in computer science, artificial intelligence, cybernetics, and control theory coevolved with political, social, and organizational aspects of warfare since the Renaissance. De Landa argues that warfare is becoming increasingly delegated to machine intelligence because trends in conflict have mirrored — and often triggered — the evolution of computational technologies.

Essentials of Metaheuristics by Sean Luke (2013) – What do you do when you have a problem you need to solve, can distinguish between alternatives, but nonetheless can’t envision what an optimal solution looks like? (Hello, Afghanistan!) How do you cope when information is incomplete and you lack the resources to search the full space of possible solutions? We use “good enough” heuristics to solve problems in everyday life, and the growing field of metaheuristics is about how to generate, select, or find heuristic solutions.

Janice Elmore

Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces by Radley Balko (2013).

Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla by David Kilcullen (2013).

Ryan Evans

The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914 by Barbara W. Tuchman (1966) – The hundredth anniversary of the year before World War I is, in many ways, just as important to remember and reflect upon as the war itself.  Europe was enjoying an exciting period of prosperity, cultural flourishing, and stability.  Very few predicted it would implode on itself – a lesson worth remembering.

America’s Great Game: The CIA’s Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East by Hugh Wilford (2013) – A highly entertaining read featuring members of the Roosevelt clan and others as they build America’s intelligence infrastructure in the Middle East.

War, Welfare & Democracy: Rethinking America’s Quest for the End of History by Peter J. Munson (2013) – Peter, one of our columnists, is a talented writer and a deep thinker and this book is a great intellectual achievement.

Brian Fishman

The Terrorists Dilemma: Managing Violent Covert Organizations by Jake Shapiro (2013) – One of the best books on terrorism in years.

Treasury’s War: The Unleashing of a New Era of Financial Warfare by Juan Zarate (2013)

David Fuquea

Testing American Sea Power: U.S. Navy Strategic Exercises, 1923-1940 by Craig C. Felker (2013).

The Wounded Giant: America’s Armed Forces in an Age of Austerity by Michael O’Hanlon (2011).

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross

The Wars of Afghanistan by Peter Tomsen (2011).  This is, in my opinion, the finest English-language history of that country. Tomsen’s volume is a surprisingly engaging read for its prodigious length, containing a great deal of original information and insight, and is a genuinely good book, of which there are too few these days.

Qatar: Small State, Big Politics by Mehran Kamrava (2013) This book examines how a small state like Qatar can wield such influence and power (which Kamrava dubs “subtle power”) in today’s international system, and whether this ascent is sustainable. There is a serious dearth of literature about this state that has done so much in recent years to reshape the international order, and Kamrava makes a serious effort to contextualize Qatari foreign policy.

Robert Goldich

The SADF [South African Defence Force] in the Border War 1966-1989 by Leopold Scholtz (2013).

Mission Commander: Swedish Experience of Command in the Expeditionary Era by Lotta Victor Tilberg and Peter Tilberg (2011).

Admiral John Harvey

Strategy: A History by Lawrence Freedman (2013).

America’s Army: Making the All-Volunteer Force by Beth Bailey (2009).

Robert Haddick

The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 by Margaret McMillan (2013).

1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War by Charles Emerson (2013).

Matthew Hipple

Spymaster: My Thirty-Two Years in Intelligence and Espionage Against the West by Oleg Kalugin (2009).

Brown Water, Black Berets: Coastal and Riverine Warfare in Vietnam by Thomas J. Cutler (2012).

Frank Hoffman

Strategy: A History by Lawrence Freedman (2013).

The Shaping of Grand Strategy: Policy, Diplomacy and War by Williamson Murray, Richard Sinnreich, and Jim Lacey (2011).

Timothy Hoyt

The Republic: The Fight for Irish Independence 1918-1923 by Charles Townshend – One of the best works on Ireland’s war with England from 1916-1921 (2013).

1922: The Birth of Irish Democracy by Tom Garvin – For those interested in national-building, civil wars, emerging democracies, and other contemporary topics.

Mike Jacobson

The Jamestown Experiment: The Remarkable Story of the Enterprising Colony and the Unexpected Results That Shaped America by Tony Williams (2011).

The Generals by Tom Ricks (2013).

Dave Kasten

Confidential: Business Secrets – Getting Theirs, Keeping Yours by John Nolan (1999).

The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham (1944).

Lauren Katzenberg

My Share of the Task by General Stanley McChrystal (2013).

Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country by Andrew Bacevich (2013).

Sean Kay

The River of Doubt:  Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard (2006).

Eisenhower 1956:  The President’s Year of Crisis – Suez and the Brink of War by Jim Newton (2011).

John Kuehn

21st Century Mahan:  Sound Military Conclusions for the Modern Era by B. J. Armstrong (2013)

The Plan that Broke the World by Will O’Neil

Tom Lynch

The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-45 by Rick Atkinson (2013).

Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God by Matthew Levitt (2013).

Myra MacDonald

Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh (2008, 2011) – These are the first two in a trilogy on the opium trade between India and China and the events leading up to the First Opium War.

David Maxwell

Marked For Life: Songbun, North Korea’s Social Classification System by Robert Collins (2013) – This should be required reading for those who want to plan for unconventional warfare  in North Korea, a post Kim Family Regime North Korea and Korean reunification.

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson (2012).  Although some may scoff at the plot of this Pulitzer Prize winning novel, the book actually operationalizes and brings to life the report by Robert Collins.  These two should be read together.

Bryan McGrath

The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command by Andrew Gordon (1995) – Great storytelling.  Incredible research.  Fallible men.

A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin (1991) – One of the most beautifully written novels I have ever read.  Certainly the most beautifully written war novel I have ever read.

Kathleen McInnis

Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft and World Order by Charles Hill (2011) – Don’t expect a grand strategy cookbook from this work. Regardless of what you think about Professor Hill and/or his interpretations of the text, the important point is this: fictional and artistic narrative is key to understanding strategy. Great fiction gives us the intuitive, creative space to explore really big ideas in ways that powerpoints and think tank reports cannot possibly manage.

Steven Metz

The Modern American Military by David M. Kennedy, ed (2013).

The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam by Akbar Ahmed (2013).

Peter Munson

Politics in Hard Times: Comparative Responses to International Economic Crises by Peter Gourevitch (1986).

Warfare in Antiquity, Volume I, Volume II, Volume III, Volume IV, by Hans Delbruck – For its discussion of the drivers of warfare and development of the attrition/annihilation dichotomy.

Michael Noonan

An Introduction to Strategy: with particular reference to problems of defence, politics, economics, and diplomacy in the nuclear age by General D’Armée André Beaufre translated by Major General R.H. Barry (1965).

The new frontier of war: Political warfare, present and future by William R. Kintner and Joseph Z. Kornfeder (1962).

Afshon Ostovar

The War for America, 1775-1783 by Piers Mackesy (1964).

The Violent Image: Insurgent Propaganda and the New Revolutionaries by Neville Bolt (2012).

William Park

Tree of Smoke: A Novel by Denis Johnson (2008).

Elton Parker

The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by Ray Kurzweil (2006).

Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph Ellis (2002).

Tom Quiggin

The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins – This series features the United States at an undated point in the future where the capital city enjoys wealth, power and technology and amuses itself with fancy dress, games and vomitoriums.  The rest of the country is divided into 12 (formerly 13) districts and is forced into servitude.

Seeds of Dystopia  (2012) – This Davos Foundation risk report offers a vision of the future remarkably to The Hunger Games, albeit one fictional and the other by the advisors to the richest and most powerful people in the world.  

Bill Rosenau

Survival City: Adventures Among the Ruins of Atomic America (2002) by Tom Vanderbilt – A witty, evocative, and often moving exploration of “a history that never happened” (Washington Post). Part travelogue, part architectural study, and part nuclear history, Survival City beautifully captures the physical, aesthetic, and psychological wreckage left behind by the nuclear age.

Red Heat: Conspiracy, Murder, and the Cold War in the Caribbean by Alex von Tunzelmann (2011) –  Marxisant folklore would have us believe that regimes in the developing world were mere creatures of their superpower masters. In her shimmering, pulsating narrative, von Tunzelmann shows how “puppets” like Rafael Trujilo, François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, and Fidel Castro pulled their own strings by using the United States and the Soviet Union against their Caribbean enemies.

Jonathan Rue

Buying National Security: How America Plans and Pays for Its Global Role and Safety at Home by Gordon Adams (2009) – Because the budget is policy.

What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 by Daniel Walker Howe (2007) –  This book, of the Oxford History of the U.S. series, explores the growth of the U.S. from 1814-1848. Lots of lessons about the role of government as the U.S. expanded westward and sectionalist sentiments rose.

Fixing the Facts: National Security and the Politics of Intelligence by Joshua Rovner (2011) – Excellent description of the proper relationship between intelligence agencies and the government, and how governments politicize intelligence to their own ends.

Usha Sahay

The Long Peace: Inquiries Into the History of the Cold War by John Lewis Gaddis (1989).

Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America’s Perilous Path in the Middle East by Rashid Khalidi (2005).

Kori Schake

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy (1992) – Populated with his trademark psychopaths’ predations, profligacy of  harm and knowingly resigned victims, it’s hardly a book for the season, but it contains a terrifyingly vivid and accurate description of Comanche raiding.  Unforgettably brings the Indian Wars to life.

Far Bright Star by Robert Olmstead (2010) – An award-winning novel about the moment when warfare became modern, this, too, is about subduing what is now the American southwest at the outbreak of World War I.  Set during an earlier military transformation, from small squads on horseback operating where the physical environment was itself a dominant threat and the enemy had numerous advantages to the dawn of mechanized warfare Americans would come to dominate.  Best of all, though,  it’s a portrait of leadership when all hope is lost.

Anna Simons

The Winds of War by Herman Wouk (1971).

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown (2013).

Stan Sloan

The Guns at Last Light, The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945 by Rick Atkinson (2013).  The third in a series, the author paints a vivid picture of WWII.

MLR Smith

Task Force Black: The Explosive True Story of the Secret Special Forces War in Iraq by Mark Urban – Because I want to find out what really was responsible for the decline in violence in Iraq after 2007…and I don’t think it was the “surge” (2012).

Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II by Michael Burleigh – A monster of a book, but his take on the ethical dimensions of WW2 sounds intriguing (2012).

Daniel Steed

Strategy: A History by Lawrence Freedman (2013).

Structured Analytic Techniques for Intelligence Analysis by Richards J. Heuer Jr. and Randolph H. Pherson (2011).

Mark Stout

Empire of Secrets: British Intelligence, the Cold War, and the Twilight of Empire by Calder Walton (2013) – Written by a protégé of Christopher Andrew’s this shows that there is still much to be learned about the end of the British Empire.  This book will also interest people who are interested in intelligence culture and hints that there would be more to be learned about COIN if we were able to fully plumb intelligence records.

Terrorism and Counterintelligence: How Terrorist Groups Elude Detection by Blake W. Mobley (2012) – Mobley brings together the two fields of counterterrorism and counterintelligence in interesting ways.

Stephen Tankel

Strategy: A History by Lawrence Freedman (2013).

Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding by Husain Haqqani (2013).

John Thorne

Last Men Out: The True Story of America’s Heroic Final Hours in Vietnam by Bob Dury and Tom Clavin (2011) – The organizational cultures of the US military, state department, and intelligence community in Afghanistan have many similarities to their Vietnam-era predecessors.  This book gives a scary preview of what the fall of Kabul could look like.

How China Became Capitalist by Ronald Coase and Ning Wang (2013) – Brilliant book describing the economic transformation in China from Mao to now.

Marc Tyrell

Changing Minds In The Army: Why It Is So Difficult and What To Do About It by Dr. Stephen J. Gerras, Dr. Leonard Wong (2013).

Come and Take Them by Tom Kratman (2013).

Joshua Walker

Headscarf: The Day Turkey Stood Still by Richard Peres (2012) – I just finished reading this delightful gem of a book about the election of 30-year-old Merve Kavakci in 1999 to the Turkish Grand National Assembly to take her oath of office wearing her Islamic headscarf. A near riot ensued; deputies shouted for her to get out and banged on their desks, and the Prime Minister of Turkey told the crowd to put this woman in her place. Ultimately, she was prevented from taking her oath, persecuted by the government, harangued by the Turkish press, threatened with prison, raided by the police, had her citizenship revoked and lost her seat in Parliament. Turkey just recently allowed headscarfed women into Parliament and the main players of this story continue to run Turkey to this day.

Double Down: Game Change 2012 by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann (2013) – Those of us in DC cannot really resist the detailed and intimate beltway gossip this book offers. It was both as satisfying and unfulfilling as I expected. Juicy tidbits such as Michele Obama’s fascination with MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and practice of calling Valerie Jarrett to lecture various West Wing characters along with the allegation that Obama’s team thought of replacing Vice President Biden with Hillary Clinton made up for the mostly chronological flow of news events throughout the 2012 election. Given that I normally focus on international events it was an opportunity to relax and learn about DC’s more humorous and mundane happenings.

John Allen Williams

Cain at Gettysburg by Ralph Peters (2012) – In addition to being a well-written page turner, the book takes a different view on Gen. Meade from the accepted wisdom that he was unconscionably slow in pursuing Gen. Lee after the battle.

Lee: The Last Years by Charles Bracelen Flood (1981) – As the great-great-grandson of a Civil War colonel from New Hampshire, I have been slow to warm up to Robert E. Lee.  The story of his relatively brief life after the war as president of Washington University (later Washington and Lee) shows a different side of him that is far more attractive.



Image: DVIDSHUB, Provincial Reconstruction Team- Kapisa, Task Force Lafayette, December 24, 2010