Weekend Reading: January 17-19

January 17, 2014

Happy Friday, War on the Rocks readers! It’s been another exciting week in the realm of national security and as you get ready for this long holiday weekend, be sure to check these recommended readings that caught our attention from the last week.

The Wrong Criticism of the NSA: This week Paul Pillar of the National Interest looks at conventional wisdom that criticizes U.S. government agencies, commonly accusing it of ineptitude. Specifically, “intelligence failures” within intelligence agencies are viewed as a result of organizational incompetence, rather than the alternative: ill intent. However, recent revelations about the NSA demonstrate that it employs some of the best and brightest and is actually quite competent when it comes to its central mission: breaking codes. Therefore, the question is not whether the NSA is capable is fulfilling its mission effectively, but whether this mission should be more deeply expanded on.

For more on the NSA leading up to President Obama’s speech today, read the New York Times’ piece tracing Obama’s path from from critic to defender of government surveillance.

Weird Roundup of the Week: NPR has a roundup of the bizarre items that world leaders present one another when gathering for meetings. The list includes whale teeth (Fiji to the U.K.), a camel (Mali to France), and a giant coffee bean (Colombia to the U.S.).

Reflections by Gates: With this week’s publication of Former defense secretary Robert Gates’ memoir Duty, the Washington Post has a stirring review not just of the book, but also Robert Gates, a man coming to terms with his past and the role he played in both the Iraq and Afghan wars. The second sentence is enough to get you to keep reading: “The war is fought in the throat, and lost in the eyes.” Excerpts of the book stirred controversy even before its publication, and we look forward to readers’ feedback now that the book is available for purchase.

Sticking with the Gulf War Paradigm: In the winter 2014 issue of Orbis, published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Philip A. Brown and M. L. R. Smith have a great article analyzing the U.S. armed forces’ focus on high-tech capability and “decisive force” as a means to win wars following the success of these tactics in the Gulf War. However, the “Gulf War paradigm” proved inadequate in the 2000s as the U.S. found itself in a two-front war on terror in Iraq and Afghanistan and military doctrine shifted towards a strategy of counterinsurgency. However, Brown and Smith make the case that as the duration of these wars extended, the U.S. military reverted back to the Gulf War paradigm. Rather than configuring its strategy to meet the unique challenges presented in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military reverted back to the form of warfare that it knows best.

(Note: this article may only be available to users with access to Science Direct, however, it is well worth the read for those who have a chance to download it.)

Einstein and Freud Contemplate War: Brain Pickings has a very interesting exchange between Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud from 1932 when Einstein posed to Freud the question: Is there any way of delivering mankind from the menace of war? The letters between these two men were published in 1933 in a small pamphlet called Why War?. Freud makes an interesting point, which will resonate with some to this day: “…wars, as now conducted, afford no scope for acts of heroism according to the old ideals and, given the high perfection of modern arms, war today would mean the sheer extermination of one of the combatants, if not of both. This is so true, so obvious, that we can but wonder why the conduct of war is not banned by general consent.”

One Word: Spermbots. The Dresden Institute for Integrative Nanosciences has developed live sperm cells in little tubes that can be magnetically controlled to move in a desired direction, and in time can hopefully be used as an alternative to in-vitro fertilization. Scientists are also looking at ways that these spermbots can be used for drug delivery and gene manipulation. We give it five years before DARPA has turned these little guys into weapons.

The Wrong Policy Toward Iran: Mira Rapp-Hooper writing for the Diplomat this week, looks at the arguments for the support of “The Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act”, a Senate bill intended to impose new oil and financial sanctions on Iran if it fails to uphold its end of the interim agreement negotiated with the P5+1 powers in late November. While some members of Congress seem to think that more sanctions would yield greater progress, Rapp-Hooper argues that this form of coervice diplomacy contains only punishments and no credible signs of relief, leaving Iran with few alternatives but to continue resisting U.S. ultimatums.

Afghanistan’s Future: The Afghanistan Analysts’ Network’s Martine van Bijlert examines the questions on everyone’s mind regarding Afghanistan: what will happen next, and will Afghanistan be all right? With a solid analysis of what is to come in 2014, Bijlert concludes that there must be a greater emphasis on looking at Afghanistan in a way that includes both its problems and realistic solutions. She also recommends that people stop trying to predict the future, because “none of us knows what is going to happen.”

WOTR Weekly Roundup: And finally, a WOTR ICYMI – some highlights from this week.

  • For our newest series, Five Questions, we sat down with Steven Metz, Ph.D., who has been an analyst and writer on national security policy and military strategy for three decades specializing in American strategy, strategic futures, and insurgency.
  • Daveed Gartenstein-Ross takes down Dana Milbank’s most recent Washington Post column, which questioned what the expansion of al-Qaeda’s franchises actually means for U.S. security.
  • Myra McDonald offers a great review of Forged in Crisis: India and the United States since 1947 and dispels some long-held myths about U.S. and Indian relations.
  • Janice Elmore looks at U.S.’s role in the birth of the Republic of South Sudan in 2011 and its subsequent failure to effectively support stability within the country in the following years.


Lauren Katzenberg is an assistant editor at War on the Rocks.


Photo credit: John Verive