War on the Rocks 2015 Holiday Reading List


We are a little tardy with this year’s holiday reading list, but there is still time for Santa (or Amazon) to get these books to you or your loved ones in time! Please see what our contributors think you should be reading this holiday season.

B.J. Armstrong (@WWATMD)

Toward a New Maritime Strategy: American Naval Thinking in the Post-Cold War Era, Peter Haynes

(Read B.J.’s review of Toward a New Maritime Strategy here at War on the Rocks.)

Realpolitik: A History, John Bew

David Barno (@DWBarno76)

The Past as Prologue: The Importance of History to the Military Profession, eds. Williamson Murray and Richard Hart Sinnreich

Supreme Command, Eliot Cohen

Matt Cavanaugh (@MLCavanaugh)

Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction, Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner

I was thoroughly rewarded for packing this to read on a ten-hour flight; the page count doubled owing to the Post-It notes crammed everywhere. I’ve followed Tetlock’s work on judgment quite some time, particularly as it relates to my own writing on military genius and supreme command. The book reports the long-term, Intelligence Advance Research Projects Agency-funded results of the Good Judgment Project – a forecasting tournament Tetlock and his team used to tease out lessons from the brightest and the best. I could drone on and on about this book’s utility, but I’ll leave readers with a short, practical example. I was recently recommended an essay, “The Middle East as It Will Be,” by Eliot Cohen. As the title suggests, this is essentially a written forecast. And in the opening lines, the hedging begins: “It is safe to predict that…” Cohen may be talented, but, armed with Superforecasting, it is safe to predict that Cohen’s essay is the Middle East as it won’t be. Tetlock’s book will help you cut through similarly uninsightful forecasts, a powerful stocking stuffer for anyone charged with duties in international politics.

Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights, Gary Klein

I picked this book up in the Yale Bookstore, which makes it 10% smarter (and 50% more expensive). That hefty cost was worth it for one, single page – four – in which Klein sets out a formula: Performance Improvement = Reduce Errors + Increase Insights. Working in the world’s largest company as I do – the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) – it’s hard not to notice that we tend to focus on driving errors down (“zero defects” and “no fail”) and regularly starve novel ideas of oxygen. The challenge is appropriately balancing the two, particularly as DoD implements sweeping personnel reforms.

The Back of the Napkin; Show and Tell; and Blah Blah Blah: What To Do When Words Don’t Work, Dan Roam

As a U.S. Army Strategist, my core competency is to anticipate, design, and facilitate strategic decisions. I set the table for senior leaders; I aid their judgments. To do this well, I need bright ideas (the lightbulb) and effective communications (the megaphone). This is where Roam’s books come in. Humans have communicated with pictures for an awfully long time; before we could write, we drew. Drawings remain a powerful tool in the arsenal of the modern strategist – images convince, convey, and communicate. Dickens said, “Make me see,” and a documentary on the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough was titled, “Painting With Words.” Roam’s books will help you do both.

Loren DeJonge Schulman (@LorenRaeDeJ)

Since a new (first) baby arrived in my life in earlier this year, my reading lifestyle quickly shifted to short form, with short form often comprising Twitter at best.  The denser fare of years past took a backseat to whatever I could read bleary-eyed at 3AM.  But I’ve still managed to absorb a number of defense and foreign policy lessons this year from unexpected sources (and want to give significant credit to my friend Matan Chorev, who also welcomed a little one earlier this year).

Little Blue Truck, Alice Schertle

A story about smart power – why building coalitions and acting as benevolent hegemon is more effective than unipolar and imperial behavior. Little Blue Truck is America at its best – the dump truck is what Putin/Xi look like to their neighbors.

Goodnight Moon, Margaret Wise Brown

An early guide to intelligence preparation of the battlespace, in which one painstakingly identifies and categorizes all matter of items one must say goodnight to, once the little old lady has said, for the thousandth time, hush.

The Giant Jam Sandwich, John Vernon Lord

A masterpiece of grand strategy.  From building domestic support to technological superiority, wise use of resources, sensible objectives (some flies do escape), a sense of interests, importance of safeguarding values of a society, importance of economic strength, using the right tools, this will be a lifelong reference.

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel

Historical fiction on the life of Thomas Cromwell, not technically about public service or strategy, but from which I garner new understanding of both every time I read it.

Adam Elkus (@AElkus)

The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America, Paul Edwards

Many know a lot about how the Cold War shaped applied research in “thinking the unthinkable.” What many don’t know is just how much World War II and Cold War shaped research in virtually every discipline that sought to understand or automate decision-making. Cognitive psychology founder George A. Miller, for example, produced a classified PhD thesis in 1946 under the aegis of Army research efforts. This book tells the story of how the Cold War shaped a certain shared set of metaphors that can broadly be seen in the social, behavioral, and computational sciences (among many others!).

Von Neumann, Morgenstern, and the Creation of Game Theory: From Chess to Social Science 1900-1960, Robert Leonard

One of the most fascinating things about the 20th century is how the “game” became a shared representation of strategy for academic researchers in the social sciences. This book tells a fascinating story of how tabletop games of strategy such as chess and kriegspiel gave way — due to both some of the most fascinating debates in mathematics and psychology as well as the harsh impact of World War II and the Cold War — to a new and qualitatively distinct view of strategic interaction.

Ryan Evans (@EvansRyan202)

Realpolitik: A History, John Bew

This book is an incredible accomplishment by one of Britain’s greatest living historians, who also happens to be one of my closest friends (I swear I’m not biased). Writing the history of an idea is a much greater challenge the writing a biography of a person or a narrative about a specific period or event. It is a challenge that most historians do not even attempt and when they do, the result is usually boring. Bew has not only met this challenge with his history of Realpolitik, but in doing so produced one of the most fascinating books on foreign policy of this decade. It spans the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, hopping back and forth between Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Unlike many historians, Bew does not shy away from explaining what his subject – this elusive term, Realpolitik – has to tell us about today’s decisions on strategy and foreign policy. I suspect it will quickly make its way onto official reading lists and graduate curricula and become the new “it” book on foreign policy for the smart-set. Don’t be surprised if you soon spot photos of senior British and American officials carrying this book on their way to meetings, moving from a motorcade to a helicopter.

Hubris: The Tragedy of War in the 20st Century, Alistair Horne

The latest book by another of Britain’s greatest living historians, although this one is quite a bit older and is not (yet) my friend (Sir Alistair: If you’re reading this, let’s be friends). I’ve only just started this one, but I am already engrossed. Horne explores how hubris shaped the outcome of six battles that, in turn, shaped the world that we live in today. And I’ve promised Frank Hoffman I’d review this for Joint Force Quarterly so stay tuned.

Lawrence Freeman (@LawDavF)

The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939-45, by Nicholas Stargardt

A vivid and candid account of German attitudes during the Second World War.

Brian Fishman (@BrianFishman)

Objective Troy, Scott Shane

Incredibly well-researched and well-written examination of Anwar al-Awlaki’s radicalization, jihad, and death.

Anonymous Soldiers, Bruce Hoffman

An incredibly detailed look at one of the most successful terrorist movements of modern times — the diverse rebel fighters that created the State of Israel. This book humanizes and explains their struggle without glossing over the blood that required.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross (@DaveedGR)

How Google Works, Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg

Though this book isn’t directly related to foreign policy or national security, its relevance should be quite clear upon reflection. The U.S.’s strategy for its fight against transnational jihadist organizations — and so many other matters — has been a complete mess. While the architects of failed U.S. policies bear their share of guilt, a more fundamental problem is that the organizational design of government doesn’t empower good strategic thinking. Indeed, good strategic thinking is so disempowered in government that when I interviewed various knowledgeable professionals for my 2011 book Bin Laden’s Legacy, most didn’t even know where to start when I asked about possible reforms. How Google Works demonstrates that there is a different way to structure organizations. Organizational design can be better wedded to overarching purposes and goals. Smart, competent people can be more empowered, and organizations can thrive as a result. Learning how this looks in practice in an organization like Google is only a starting point when it comes to thinking about how to overhaul a behemoth like the federal government, but a starting point is more than I felt I had before reading this book.

The Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What They Mean for World Order, Sean McFate

McFate has written the strongest, most consequential volume discussing the role that the private sector is playing in today’s wars. McFate is in a unique position — as a social scientist, and someone who has been both a military officer and also a contractor involved in overseas conflicts — to make this contribution. The relevance of understanding the role of private armies is, for better or worse, only going to grow, and McFate’s book stands out as extraordinarily informed and balanced within a literature that has been decidedly mixed in quality. It’s not often that a book comes along about which one can honestly say that future authors or scholars working on the topic must read it or they haven’t done their job. But this is such a book, and it should be read by anybody with even a passing interest in the topic.

Robert Goldich

Living and Breathing: Just Another Day in Vietnam: 27 Jun 1968, Keith Nightingale

My endorsement of the book on the back cover: “A work of great literary merit and profound human insight. It captures the universal nature and essence of high-intensity infantry warfare; the warfighting skill and valor of Vietnamese soldiers on both sides; and the role and significance of American military advisers from division headquarters down to battalion level. A classic.”

Frank Hoffman

Lessons Encountered: Learning from the Long War Richard Hooker and Joseph Colins (eds)

While admittedly prejudiced as I have a chapter in this book, but it is important that we finally began the process of assessing what we tried to achieve, and where we succeeded and where we can do better in the future. This book is not the final answer and it doesn’t claim to be.

Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World, Ian Bremmer

I disagree with his recommended choice, but this is a great short read for debating what our role in the world should be, and what the costs and implications of that role are.

Burak Kadercan (@BurakKadercan)

Yankee Leviathan, Richard Bensel

Hammer and Rifle, David Stone

The Deluge, Adam Tooze

Lauren Katzenberg (@LKatzenberg)

Seveneves, Neal Stephenson

A science fiction novel about the survival of the human race following the end of Earth and how even at our near extinction, religion and power continue to politicize humanity, bringing the surviving population to the brink of war.

Relentless Strike: The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command, Sean Naylor

A great look at how JSOC evolved from a small organization with a specific and highly focused counterterrorism mission to the high optempo fighting force it is today.

Sean Kay (@SeanKay_Rocket)

Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy, Barry Posen

Conflict in Ukraine: The Unwinding of the Post-Cold War Order, Rajan Menon and Eugene Rumer

Bob Killebrew

Gettysburg: The Last Invasion, Allen Guelzo

You’d think everything that could be written about Gettysburg had been written, but along comes Allen C. Guelzo to put a fresh look on the battle and the commanders on each side. Beautifully written — and recommended to me by an admiral — it provides more depth on some of the historical gaps about the battle, especially Meade’s acceptance of Gettysburg as the field instead of the Pipe Creek line, and Lee’s movements on the critical first day. Highly recommended for the historian and casual reader alike.

Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-First Century, Philip Bobbit

It’s been out for some time now, but Philip Bobbit’s “Terror and Consent; the Wars for the Twenty-First Century” is still worth reading. This is a very, very dense book that plumbs the roots of terrorism, the changing nature of the nation-state and relations with its citizens, the rule of law and the various wars — plural — against terrorism. This profound book is decidedly not for the casual reader.

Tom Lynch

Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War, Peter Singer and August Cole

JFK’s Forgotten Crisis: Tibet, the CIA and Sino-Indian War, Bruce Riedel

David Maxwell (@DavidMaxwell161)

Assessing Revolution and Insurgent Strategies

If you want to be a practitioner and strategist and operate in and develop strategy for the Gray Zone in the space between peace and war and conduct political warfareunconventional warfare, and counter-unconventional warfare, as well as operate effectively in the human domain then you must read, study, and internalize the fundamentals of revolution, resistance, and insurgency as embodied in the Assessing Revolutionary and Insurgent Strategies (ARIS) project first begun by the Special Operations Research Office (SORO) in the 1950’s and 1960’s and now continued under the direction of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command and Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory’s National Security Division.  These are available for free download at the USASOC web site.  This is especially important now that Section 1097 of the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act requires the Secretary of Defense to provide a strategy for countering unconventional warfare.

Assessing Revolutionary and Insurgent Strategies

Casebook on Revolutionary and Insurgent Warfare, Vol. I: 1933-1962

Casebook on Revolutionary and Insurgent Warfare, Vol. II: 1962-2009

Irregular Warfare Annotated Bibliography

Human Factors Considerations of Undergrounds in Insurgencies

Undergrounds in Insurgent, Revolutionary and Resistance Warfare

Myra MacDonald (@MyraEMacDonald)

Borderlines, Michela Wrong

The Arabs at War in Afghanistan, Mustafa Hamid and Leah Farrall

Bryan McGrath (@ConsWahoo)

Lafayette, Harlow Giles Unger

A fascinating biography of a man who played essential roles in three revolutions, one American and two French. I came away from this read thinking that Lafayette was second only to George Washington in ensuring the colonial victory in the American Revolution. That there is no USS LAFAYETTE in today’s fleet is an error demanding of correction.

Burning the Days, James Salter

A memoir by a beautifully talented writer, it includes reminiscences of his days at West Point in the 1940’s and time as a fighter pilot going up against MiGs in the Korean War.

Peter Munson (@peter_munson)

Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling for Less, Robert L. Sutton and Huggy Rao

This is a very well-regarded business book on how to spread and scale pockets of excellence to the rest of an organization. The book has great takeaways for anyone working within a large organization (or trying to scale up a small one) with plenty of takeaways for WoTR readers. The authors refer to failures and successes of the Center for Army Lessons Learned, for example, tying in other examples from business that can inform your efforts.

Why Information Grows: The Evolution of Order, from Atoms to Economics, Cesar Hidalgo

The mention of entropy caught my eye in a review of this book by PhD physicist Cesar Hidalgo. The book is about the uneven growth of information and order throughout the world and how that shapes our economies and societies. It is a great way of understanding the differences in global growth with significant analytical opportunities. The discussion of entropy and order refers to a favorite article, “The Arrow of Time” by David Layzer, a piece which influenced the legendary military theorist John Boyd. This book will give anyone in the foreign policy realm some fresh ways of thinking about big global issues.

Michael Rainsborough

Slim, Master of War: Burma and the Birth of Modern Warfare, Robert Lyman

A concise, nicely written biography about Gen. William Slim’s campaign in Burma — the longest continuous theatre of operations in WWII — and how he turned the 14th Army into a ruthless close quarter killing machine that inflicted the biggest defeat of Japanese land forces in the war.

A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-62, Alistair Horne

A return to a modern classic, originally published in 1977. Forget the latter day back cover endorsements to the reprinted 2006 edition about how it should be compulsory reading for civilian and military counter-insurgency leaders, as there are few true insights that ‘history’ can offer to the present. Simply, it is the definitive study of a brutal and tragic encounter of a deeply disturbing conflict.

Iskander Rehman (@IskanderRehman)

France 1940: Defending the Republic, Philip Nord

For the last seven decades, the French Army’s defeat at the hands of the Wehrmacht in 1940 has been portrayed not only as a massive military failure, but also as a moral judgement on the Third Republic, and on its supposed lack of preparedness and resolve in the face of the rising German threat. Both French and foreign commentators have portrayed the six-week campaign as a the fatal end-result of a protracted form of inner decay, while the Battle of France has become a text-book example of doctrinal failure in the security studies literature.

The reality, however, was far more complex, argues Princeton’s Philip Nord in his meticulously researched and nuanced new history. France’s collapse was not due to a decadent national character, or to a lack of military preparedness.

In fact, the French Army, Nord observes, had “a very good chance of winning” at the beginning of the war. During the six-week campaign, French troops fought bravely, losing 90,000 soldiers out of a population of 40 million. Nord does not gloss over the French Army’s tactical shortcomings, or over its relative deficiencies vis a vis its German opponent, whether in radio communications, or in combined arms and maneuver warfare. At the same time, however, Nord reminds us that these failings were not unique to France, and were largely shared by its allies-and by the British Expeditionary Corps in particular-which fared equally poorly in the early stages of the war.

Rather, the root causes of the disaster are to be to be found in the fateful nature of certain senior-level military decisions (Hitler’s tardy embrace of the Fall Gelb, and Gamelin’s failed Breda gambit), and in the startling rapidity with which Vichy supporters managed to prevail over their Republican opponents during the internal power struggle that was simultaneously unfolding away from the front lines. Had France’s moderate, democratically-minded elites preserved power, the war may well have continued to be waged from France’s vast North African territories.

Perhaps Nord’s greatest contribution is to remind us of the importance of contingency when studying historical events. After reading his balanced expose, one comes away with a clear conclusion: there was nothing predetermined about the Third Republic’s military defeat, or about the victory of French anti-republican forces. Grand meta-narratives of decline and decay may prove seductive in their simplicity, but they rarely hold up to serious scrutiny.

Dying Ever Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero, James Romm

James Romm, a professor of Classics at Bard College, has produced one of the finest accounts of the troubled life of Lucius Anneus Seneca, the Roman philosopher-poet who met his end at the hands of his student, the tyrannical and terrifyingly unpredictable Emperor Nero.

Throughout history, Seneca has either been portrayed as a paragon of stoic virtue, or as a grotesque sycophant, whose luxurious, sybaritic lifestyle provides an example of intellectual hypocrisy on par with that of Rousseau, the French philosopher who abandoned his own children even while writing magnificent treatises on education.

The appeal of Romm’s book lies in its subtlety, and even-handedness, as well as in the formal elegance of its prose. Romm refuses to subject the book’s subject to a posthumous trial, even though, as he notes in his introduction, he himself “oscillated many times between opposing judgments, sometimes in the course of a single day.” The result is not only a superbly immersive account of the vicious court politics of imperial Rome — each chapter providing easily as much suspense as an episode of Game of Thrones — but also a magnificent reflection on the all-too ephemeral nature of political power and influence.

Stephen Rodriguez (@SteveRod78)

Warrior Diplomat, Mike Waltz

How Wars End, Gideon Rose

William Rosenau (@WilliamRosenau)

Stalin’s Englishman: The Lives of Guy Burgess, Andrew Lownie

Drunken, louche, promiscuous, and wildly indiscreet, Guy Francis de Moncy Burgess was an improbable British spy. Most accounts of the Cambridge espionage ring that included Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, John Cairncross, and Anthony Blunt — who Moscow dubbed the “Magnificent Five” — depict Burgess as a tangential, clownish figure. Stalin’s Englishman reclaims Burgess and repositions him as a central figure in one of the Cold War’s most notorious espionage cases. Burgess’s wit, erudition, and charm won him many friends in high places during the 1930s and 1940s and from various perches at the heart of the British establishment, including the BBC, the Foreign Office, and the intelligence services, Burgess supplied Moscow Center with thousands of classified documents. Impetuously, he defected to the Soviet Union with Donald Maclean in 1951. Unlike Maclean, he never took to life in Moscow, spending the next ten years of his life pining over the England he had betrayed and drinking himself to death. Burgess’s squalid legacy helped cripple the British intelligence community and poisoned the Anglo-American intelligence relationship for years to come. Lownie’s book, the product of 30 years of indefatigable research, is a magnificent achievement — Stalin’s Englishman is superb history brilliantly told.

Vanguard of the Imam: Religion, Politics, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Afshon Ostovar

Since 1979, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have been central to defending the revolution at home and advancing the regime’s interests abroad. Vanguard of the Imam is the first comprehensive scholarly effort to explain the origins, development, and power of an organization that has remained largely opaque. Ostovar deftly weaves Iranian history, regional politics, and Shia theology into a compelling narrative and in the process helps us understand the Guard’s transformation from a scruffy militia into a formidable military, paramilitary, and intelligence force with international reach.

W. Jonathan Rue (@wjrue)

Victory on the Potomac The Goldwater-Nicholls Unifies the Pentagon, James Locher

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ben Fountain

Kori Schake (@KoriSchake)

The Hard Thing About Hard Things, Ben Horowitz

A primer for founder CEOs from one of Silicon Valley’s smartest VCs illustrates in the parallel universe of start ups many of the challenges of our military operating in an environment of rapid tech innovation where retaining dominance is a continuous challenge. Nominally about management, it’s a pungent book about leadership. The chapter on peacetime CEOs and wartime CEOs all by itself shows he’d be a terrific SECDEF. Bonus: the acronym WFIO, describing the situation when the real work of strategy begins.

Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command, Andrew Gordon

A thousand page history of the decline of the Royal Navy from “ratcatchers” who understand the commander’s intent and take initiative to “regulators” who follow the detailed administrative rules, thereby losing the fleeting opportunities combat provides. Bogs down badly in the middle detailing how the clubby connections of British society inhibited change, still worth reading because our military is fast on the way to becoming Jellicoe’s at Jutland. Nelson weeps.

Danny Steed

Deciphering Sun Tzu: How to Read The Art of War, Derek Yuen

The Future of Stategy, Colin Gray

Joshua Walker (@drjwalk)

Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson, S.C. Gwynne

As the 150th anniversary of the Civil War comes to a close this year, S. C. Gwynne’s biography of Civil War general Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson arrives just in time for the holidays. A finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, Rebel Yell outlines how Jackson became a tragic national hero who is considered one of the greatest American generals that many non-Southerns have not heard as much about. While only halfway through, its been a page-turner that portrays Jackson’s competing idiosyncratic demons and tactical genius that is full of new information that is relevant even for today’s modern warfare.

Shogun, James Clavell

A Western classic on Japan written that few Japanese or those of us that grew up in Japan have actually read but are constantly being asked about. Written by a Brit in the 20th century about feudal Japan in the 17th century, this historic novel follows the intrigue, nuance, and story of Captain John Blackthorne arrival and adventures to this reclusive island nation that speeds up the European imperial rivalry there that would eventually lead to the opening and modernization of Japan. Beginning as the prototypical outsider, Blackthorne comes to appreciate and even adopt the samurai spirit that is still idolized in Japan and the world around. This epic novel deserves its recognition as a classic and is ripe for a Hollywood movie that would far outpace “Last Samurai” any day. For both casual observers and experts of Japan there is something for everyone in Shogun.

Ali Wyne (@Ali_Wyne)

Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy, Micah Zenko

The Power of the Past: History and Statecraft, Hal Brands and Jeremi Suri

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