Attention all defense nerds! We know you. We are you. You are getting ready for your August vacation, when normal people take a break from work. You, however, are not normal people. Your vacations are really just a chance to surreptitiously catch up on juicy work reading while pretending to relax with family and friends (or to escape them entirely).
So before you grudgingly flee your keyboards and cubicles and take your pasty bodies to the beach, here is our list of top reads (and looks and listens) that you may have missed during the past year. Catch up and keep those brain cells energized after slathering on the sunscreen! Not all of these are obviously about defense and national security, but all will sharpen your thinking and help you think more creatively about future as well as the world we live in now.
The Recent Wars
Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, by Sebastian Junger. The best-selling author of War and co-director of the striking Afghan war documentary Restrepo (which is an absolute must-see), Junger wrestles in this book with the vast discontinuities between the surprisingly uplifting experience of bonding in combat and the reality of coming home to a fractured nation lacking any sense of solidarity. He finds that the veterans of today’s wars “often come home to find that, although they’re willing to die for their country, they’re not sure how to live for it.” This unusual meditation is not so much about veterans as it is a reflection upon the deep divisions in American society today and what to do about it, drawn from the lessons of those who have fought.
Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield, by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon. This engaging book tells the story of the first women to serve in the Army’s Cultural Support Teams (CST), which were attached to special operations forces fighting in Afghanistan. Although women were not technically allowed to serve in combat positions at the time, they faced the very same dangers while gathering vital intelligence that their male colleagues could not obtain from Afghan women. Lemmon weaves together their combat experiences with the more personal details of the sisterhood that these trailblazers formed and beautifully describes how these women and their male counterparts grieved together when the first CST member was killed in action. (While you’re at it, read Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s December 2015 announcement that opened all positions in the U.S. military to women — it’s the true epilogue to this book.)
Youngblood, by Matt Gallagher. A gripping novel that navigates the often unique challenges of small unit leadership in today’s wars, combining thriller, mystery, and love story into a compelling account. Narrated by “Lieutenant Jack,” a young Army platoon leader in post-surge Iraq, the tale veers in surprising directions with an unexpected ending that highlights the irony and complexity of our recent wars — and what we are asking our young men and women in uniform to do. This might be the best fictional piece yet from the wars of 9/11.
Season 2 of Serial. This 11-episode podcast interviews Army soldier Bowe Bergdahl about his disappearance from an outpost in eastern Afghanistan in 2009. This fresh and riveting chronicle exposes the bizarre mindset that led him to leave his base and the immense efforts of the soldiers who put themselves at risk to find him. More than just a story about Bergdahl, this series does a remarkable job explaining the larger context of the war with all its frustrating and often inexplicable contradictions. Listening to this account in the words of those who were there makes it starkly clear why his fellow soldiers were so outraged upon his return.
The Wars of Today and Tomorrow
“The Obama Doctrine,” by Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic. Whether you agree with the president or not, there is no doubt that his decisions about Syria, Iran, Russia, terrorism, and beyond will shape the U.S. national security agenda for years to come. This fascinating article, based on extensive personal interviews, reveals both the practical reasons and the deeper philosophical underpinnings of some of his key decisions —including his dim view of foreign policy experts and why he chose to break, in his own words, “the playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow.”
Eye in the Sky, a film thriller on the moral dilemmas of drone warfare. Helen Mirren stars as British Colonel Katherine Powell, directing a U.S.-operated drone mission in support of a U.K. counterterror raid in Kenya. It is the best depiction to date about the gut-wrenching decisions and consequences of drone warfare — including the civilian and military leaders agonizing over potential collateral damage, those killed and wounded when the missiles strike, and the drone operators who get to absorb the carnage they have wrought in high-definition detail. It’s a powerful story as well as a lesson in the moral conundrums of modern warfare and the fight against terrorism.
War Stories from the Future, edited by August Cole. This innovative collection from the Atlantic Council’s Art of Future Warfare project includes a series of science fiction short stories and eye-catching art. Drawing on established authors as well as contest-winning writers and visual artists, this anthology brings new voices and new ideas to emerging defense and national security topics. As former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey writes in the introduction, these stories “invite us to shed the shackles that bind us to our current constructs and instead imagine things as they might be, for better or for worse.” (For more on the “critical task of forecasting the future of warfare,” check out the WOTR podcast with August Cole, B.J. Armstrong, and John Amble.)
The Industries of the Future, by Alec Ross. A striking book about the “next economy” and its world-changing implications for all of us. Ross, former Chief Innovation Officer for the secretary of state, outlines in concise terms what technology-driven industries will transform the world we know now — in enormous but deeply unequal ways — over the next two decades. Chapters on the “future of the human machine,” “the weaponization of code,” and data as the “raw material of the information age” provide important clues on how to prepare our nation, our societies, and our families for what’s coming (and sooner than you think).
Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction, by Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner. Tetlock’s last book demonstrated the real limitations of expert predictions, famously concluding that they did about the same as a “dart-throwing chimp.” Based on the findings of the Good Judgment Project, this sequel of sorts examines the characteristics of “superforecasters” — otherwise average people who can consistently make better predictions with openly available information than intelligence analysts using classified information. Fortunately for the rest of us, the authors show how these skills can be learned — including a very handy appendix called “Ten Commandments for Aspiring Superforecasters.”
The Duffel Blog. Yes, we put this on our last reading list, but you can’t ever get enough of the military version of The Onion. Articles from the last couple of weeks alone include CENTCOM Commander Can’t Believe It’s Not His Problem For Once and Army Replaces Benefits with Rolled Sleeves. Our line of work may be serious, but every now and then you just gotta laugh about it.
Finally, a bit of shameless self-promotion: our article in The Atlantic called “Can the U.S. Military Halt its Brain Drain?” It tells the story of how the military must transform its archaic personnel system through the tales of two remarkable junior officers.
With that, dear readers, we bid you a fair summer farewell. Strategic Outpost is taking its own August vacation and will be back right after Labor Day. Until then, happy reading, watching, and listening!
Lt. General David W. Barno, USA (Ret.) is a Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, and Dr. Nora Bensahel is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence, at the School of International Service at American University. Both also serve as Nonresident Senior Fellows at the Atlantic Council. Their column appears in War on the Rocks every third Tuesday. To sign up for Barno and Bensahel’s Strategic Outpost newsletter, where you can track their articles as well as their public events, click here.
Image: DoD photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Jeffrey S. Viano, U.S. Navy