With Thanksgiving behind us, the holiday season is upon us. Back by popular demand, the War on the Rocks Holiday Reading List rounds up the books that our senior and contributing editors are most excited about this season. We hope you find some great reads on this list to gift to friends and family and, of course, to treat yourself. Season’s greetings!
American Sanctuary: Mutiny, Martyrdom, and National Identity in the Age of Revolution by A. Roger Ekirch. What does a brutal and bloody mutiny aboard a Royal Navy frigate have to do with immigration, patriotism, journalism, electoral politics and what it means to be an American? This book looks back to Early American history to examine fundamental questions that are still dominating political discussions today, and at the same time illustrates how naval and maritime history is fundamentally entwined with the very start of the American experiment.
21st Century Corbett: Maritime Strategy and Naval Policy for the Modern Era by Andrew Lambert. Most of our strategic “great minds” wrote more than people are ready to read. This book is a short edited collection of essays written by the great maritime thinker Sir Julian Corbett on naval, strategic, and historical subjects. With Professor Lambert’s succinct introductions and contextualization, the essays offer an expanded look at Corbett’s work and give readers new ways to look at his thinking beyond the classic textbook “Some Principles of Maritime Strategy.”
I’d like to recommend a couple of classic works of political thought that I re-read recently, and which seem particularly pertinent to today’s charged political environment. Both are old enough that they don’t have the rigor of modern social science writing, but they make up for it by exploring a huge range of interesting ideas, and by suggesting as many new questions as they do answers.
The Twenty Years’ Crisis by E.H. Carr. Carr’s book explores the period between the wars. Carr’s writing is often described as an oversimplified attack on utopian or liberal thought in international relations, but in fact he explores the need for policymakers to address foreign policy with both realist and ethical concerns in mind. As an exploration of the chaotic international environment of the 1920s and 1930s, Carr’s work is as relevant to today’s world as more familiar IR works written during the Cold War.
The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes by Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan. On the domestic side of things, I’d recommend Linz and Stepan’s book. Written in the 1970s, the authors present case studies of various crises inside democratic regimes, but it is the introduction — which tries to find commonalities among the collapses of democratic regimes and institutional failures from the 1930s onwards — which is most valuable. History might not be a perfect guide to the future, but as with Carr, this book offers insight into trends which are again sweeping the Western world.
David Barno and Nora Bensahel
Here are two of our favorite books from our class called “The Human Face of Battle” that we teach at American University:
One Hundred Days by Adm. Sandy Woodward. A candid, stirring first person account by the British Task Force commander charged with re-taking the Falkland Islands after Argentina’s 1982 invasion. An exceptional narrative describing a short, bloody and stunningly intense modern air, sea, and land campaign that few Americans have ever heard about.
I Always Wanted to Fly: America’s Cold War Airmen by Col. Wolfgang W. E. Samuel. This riveting anthology covers an amazing series of narratives told by Air Force pilots recounting their dangerous and often deadly missions, from the Berlin airlift to taking secret reconnaissance flights over Russia to aerial combat in Korea and Vietnam. It shines a new and very personal light on the risks taken by American fliers all through the long and often shadowy confrontation with the Soviet Union and its satellites.
Cumin, Camels, and Caravans: A Spice Odyssey by Gary Paul Nabhan. Nabhan’s 2014 work is the foodie’s Robert Kaplan. The author travels the old spice trade from Spain to China, peppering it with plenty of history and economics with surprises every page.
Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill by Candice Millard. There’s a reason Millard’s first three books have been New York Times bestsellers (her first two were The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey and Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President.) Richly researched and clear prose are quickly shaping her to be this generation’s David McCullough.
Nixon: The Life by John A. Farrell. I’m currently halfway through this book, which is a wonderful political biography full of new research. Farrell is highly astute on some of the crucial moments in the Cold War like Nixon’s meeting with Mao and it is a fascinating account of the mixture of instincts that fed into Nixon’s statecraft, from genuine idealism to ego to fear.
The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu. I’m late to this but I’m really looking forward to reading China’s modern answer to H.G. Wells. I’m starting with The The Three-Body Problem, which begins in 1967 during China’s Cultural Revolution.
Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam by Mark Bowden. Bowden is a master at meticulously reconstructing an honest and objective look at key events in warfare. Painting a brutal picture of the chaos, heroism, and varying levels of competence surrounding the battle, Bowden helps illustrate the Vietnam War in a new way. It’s a great complement to the 18-hour Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary, The Vietnam War, released earlier this year.
Earning the Rockies: How Geography Shapes America’s Role in the World by Robert Kaplan. Leave it to Bob Kaplan to release a book on how the history and evolving demography of our country has shaped its place in history in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s rise to power. Reading this in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s inaugural resuscitation of the neo-fascist “America First” phraseology of the 1930s was particularly depressing. But required reading nonetheless for those interested in the deeper roots of today’s uniquely American debate on our role in the world.
Power Wars: Inside Obama’s Post-9/11 Presidency by Charlie Savage. This is the book, replete with detail and rich with insight, that will likely endure as the definitive account of national security law under Presidents Bush and Obama. In its sweeping narrative, it recasts many familiar cases, from Guantanamo to warrantless surveillance, into fresh perspective.
No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes by Anand Gopal. The single best book I’ve read on Afghanistan, this is a testament to the power of immersive journalism and analysis, the kind that takes years to do right. It is filled with one memorable scene or character after the next.
Life 3.0, Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence by Max Tegmark and Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom. Artificial intelligence is the new electricity. It will have a profound impact on the Department of Defense and the rest of society. These are the two best general interest books on the subject. Tegmark, a professor at MIT, has the easier book to read, while Bostrom, at Oxford, offers a terrific summary of the various routes to more capable AI.
Rogue Heroes: The History of the SAS by Ben MacIntyre. The incredible story of how the British Special Air Service began during the North African campaign in World War II and matured into a larger force that later operated with the same élan when the Allies invaded France. Readers who are familiar with the social class structure of the British armed forces in those days will appreciate the almost slapdash manner in which SAS was formed under David Stirling’s (at times eccentric) leadership, and through the heroism displayed by Paddy Mayne (DSO and Three Bars!) and so many others is simply stunning.
Russia: The Story of War by Gregory Carleton. Carleton argues, convincingly, that war and its attendant sacrifice is the essence of Russian exceptionalism. This will resonate, of course, with the current state of affairs in that country, as this theme is invoked to legitimize the regime extant. Even those familiar with the subject will find new insights into Russia’s long and violent history.
All Measures Short of War by Thomas Wright. While scholars and policymakers fret about the risk of a major war between the great powers, Wright explains how regional powers are asserting themselves without triggering major wars. Wright convincingly describes why regional powers are seeking spheres of influence and the strategic logic of doing so while avoiding adversaries’ thresholds for war.
Dictators and their Secret Police: Coercive Institutions and State Violence by Sheena Greitens. Sheena Greitens explains how and why autocrats use force inside their countries, providing a counterpoint to Wright’s explanation of trends in autocratic use external force. Greitens describes how better-organized and more penetrative authoritarian systems are able to avoid violence and maintain regime stability, with obvious implications for today.
A History of the Future: Prophets of Progress from H.G. Wells to Isaac Asimov by Peter J. Bowler. How have expert visions of the future shaped popular views of science and technology? Peter J. Bowler, Emeritus Professor of the History of Science at Queen’s University Belfast, has written a thoroughly enjoyable book about the split between the mugs who fear the danger of technological change and the zealots who worship the same developments as bringing salvation. Anyone who enjoyed Lawrence Freedman’s masterful book, The Future of War: A History, might find this an amusing and yet erudite companion, one that looks at some of the same literature but through a very different lens.
Civil Wars: A History in Ideas by David Armitage. In 2006, while working at the Huntington Library in San Marino, David Armitage, the Lloyd C. Blankfein Professor of History at Harvard University, was struck by how the debate over whether Iraq was now in civil war rhymed with his sweeping understanding of history. He realized that there was Carl von Clausewitz book entitled, On Civil War, and so he decided to write a volume on “the most destructive, and the most characteristic form of organized human violence.” Despite the fact that he ignores East Asian history, his book is both elegant and illuminating.
Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville. Given all that is occurring in our democracy today, it’s fascinating to reflect on what Tocqueville thought about America when he visited 187 years ago. It’s also always good to think about our nation’s origins
Scales On War by Maj Gen. Bob Scales. Since 1945, 80% of our nation’s killed in action have come from the ranks of the .02% of the population that serves in the infantry community, yet this same community is routinely not prioritized when it comes to defense funding. Scales On War explains what must be done about this if our nation wants to win in combat in the future.
The Last Ottoman Generation and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Michael Provence. This innovative work of history follows the careers of a generation of young men who graduated from the Ottoman Empire’s elite military academy on the eve of World War I devoted to saving a state that would soon cease to exist. Provence offers a nuanced account of their evolving political and ideological loyalties in the war’s chaotic aftermath, as some became Turkish patriots and others became political leaders and anti-colonial resistance fighters in the Mandate-era Middle East.
The Tragedy of American Diplomacy by William Appleman Williams. With a president who seems worried that NATO, no less than NAFTA, is a bad deal negotiated at America’s expense, perhaps the best way to save the liberal order is to dig out an old over-the-top Marxist critique of it. Williams suggests that America’s aspiration to global leadership is little more than cynical ploy to enrich US corporations at the world’s expense. Which might be just the argument needed to bring this administration around to it.
The Art of Creating Power: Freedman on Strategy by Benedict Wilkinson and James Gow (eds). You won’t be disappointed by this marvelous collection of essays on the living legacy of Lawrence Freedman, one of the greatest scholars and historians of strategy and international affairs of our era. The contributors include Mervyn Frost, Beatrice Heuser, Mats Berdal, and more.
In Defence of War by Nigel Biggar. In the last 12 months, I’ve been thinking more about the ethics of the measures we take to secure ourselves. This volume by Biggar is a useful guide to some of the more important questions that we ought to grapple with more regularly. Even where I disagree with him vigorously — including and especially his defense of the invasion of Iraq — he offers useful provocations that deserve to be considered.
On Bullshit by Harry G Frankfurt. Need I explain?
Earning the Rockies: How Geography Shapes America’s Role in the World by Robert Kaplan. My colleague Bob Kaplan on the geography that has shaped America’s conception of itself and its foreign policy history. Really, need I say more?
A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East by David Fromkin. An oldie but a goodie, and always relevant for those seeking to understand the Middle East’s manifold perplexities
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Russia’s in the news a bit these days, and Dostoevsky’s take on one family saga, its mentality, and its motivations, is a must-read. For those who would balk at the novel’s length (over 900 pages, depending on the translation), I read the entirety of it on my phone. So you really have no excuse.
Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. Orwell spent 6 months fighting with a leftist militia against Fascism in the Spanish Civil War, from December 1936 to 1937. Homage to Catalonia is a fascinating firsthand account of the reality of warfare, and his experience of information warfare clearly laid the groundwork for his most famous work, 1984.
The War in the Air by H.G. Wells. Aerial vehicles had only just entered the public contentiousness when Wells’ wrote this science fiction vision of how a World War (set some time in the 1910s) that included fighting in and from the air might look like. Told through the eyes of a bystander that is thrown into the action by a series of accidents and mistaken identities, this book makes modern readers understand the era’s uncertainties about and fears concerning aerial warfare.
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein. This is one of the best science fiction books on artificial intelligence. A suddenly sentient computer supports a revolution on the moon — brilliant reading for whoever likes to let his/her imagination wander and highly recommended for those interested in going beyond Terminator-scenarios for AI.
Civil Wars: A History in Ideas by David Armitage. Armitage looks at civil wars throughout history, but from a conceptual point of view in exploring how different Western societies thought about and called certain wars civil, and others not. It provides interesting historical context to my research around modern civil wars.
Warlords and Coalition Politics in Post-Soviet States by Jesse Driscoll. Driscoll proposes that states emerging from conflict that are ruled by warlords will develop central governments through coalition building in the interest of enriching the warlords. The interesting aspect of this book is that it diverges from the bargaining theories that dominate the conflict termination literature.
Rebecca Friedman Lissner
Over the Horizon: Time, Uncertainty, and the Rise of Great Powers by David Edelstein. American strategists debating the optimal response to China’s rise would do well to read Over the Horizon. In it, Edelstein tackles a critical but understudied element of International Relations: the effect of time horizons and long-term uncertainty on political leaders’ decision-making. Although we might expect declining powers to compete with rising powers, Edelstein finds a surprising degree of cooperation — not as the result of naive optimism, but because leaders face incentives to reap short-term rewards rather than bearing the costs of competition.
A Superpower Transformed: The Remaking of American Foreign Relations in the 1970s by Daniel Sargent. Amidst increasing attention to questions of global order, A Superpower Transformed is a fascinating corrective to narratives that treat the post-World War II order as continuous and invariant. In his revisionist account of U.S. foreign relations in the Nixon, Ford, and Carter Administrations. Sargent demonstrates how the emerging forces of globalization imploded the U.S.-led economic order in the 1970s, and forced the United States to reimagine its role in the world.
Be Like the Fox: Machiavelli in His World by Erica Benner. A fascinating revisionist study of Machiavelli’s life and thought. It may go too far in presenting his most infamous realpolitik as an exercise in ironic subversion, but it helps explore the extent to which values and decency can also be part of effective geopolitics.
The Red Atlas: How the Soviet Union Secretly Mapped the World by John Davies & Alexander J. Kent. Apart from being a fascinating study in its own right, this account of the meticulous Soviet programme to map ally and enemy states alike — down to the the load capacity of bridges in NYC and the heights of suburban houses in London — demonstrates how the Russians can make things happen. Careful planning, generous resourcing, and a willingness to combine all kinds of tools, from satellite photography to observations by spy-tourists, all combined into producing these amazing maps, and that helps explain how even today, for all their weaknesses, the Russians can surprise us when they put their minds to it.
The Double Game: The Demise of America’s First Missile Defense System and the Rise of Strategic Arms Limitation by James Cameron. The Nixon administration’s SALT and ABM treaties with the Soviet Union have long been recognized as a cornerstone of the Cold War and nuclear arms control. Yet how much do we really know about what drove and shaped these treaties? History is at its best when an author takes important episodes and issues we thought we understood and reveals them to us in a completely new light. Cameron, a Cambridge trained historian, mines a trove of archives to follow seemingly disparate but ultimately interconnected causal streams – the domestic politics of nuclear weapons and the Cold War in the wake of the fiasco in Southeast Asia, the blending of technology and public policy, and intensive debates over nuclear strategy (many of which remain unresolved today) – to present the best account of these landmark treaties.
Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928 by Stephen Kotkin. In a year when many of us have reflected upon the nature of authoritarianism and malignant leadership, Stephen Kotkin’s masterpiece is a powerful reminder of how much worse things were in the past. Kotkin’s book is as much a biography of the turbulence, violence and disintegration of the late 19th and early 20th century that generated world war, the collapse of empire, revolution, and the rise of totalitarianism that made Stalin possible. His second volume, Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941, has just been released and promises to be just as important.
The Allure of Battle by Cathal Nolan. This book uses centuries of military history to highlight two critical facts — most wars are long and most are won through attrition/exhaustion rather than operational or tactical brilliance.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution by Klaus Schwab. This book explores how the convergence of the entire range of new technologies will fundamentally change the way we all live, work, and interact, from individuals to nations.
Violence and Restraint in Civil War: Targeting in the Shadow of International Law by Jessica Stanton. Jessica Stanton’s first book, Violence and Restraint in Civil War, focuses on the key factors that influence rebel group behavior in civil wars, specifically whether they target civilians. In contrast to what many assume, she shows that many rebel groups do actually pay attention to international law, especially when they rely on international actors for support, which can make them less likely to target civilians. This multi-method book, which includes both in-depth case studies based on field work by Professor Stanton in multiple countries, as well as statistical analysis, sheds new and important light on rebel group behavior in wars.
Dictators and their Secret Police: Coercive Institutions and State Violence by Sheena Greitens. How dictatorships maintain control of their countries over time is not merely an academic question, but a topic with great relevance for contemporary policy challenges. In her first book, Sheena Greitens analyzes the coercive dilemma faced by autocratic regimes: integrated security forces are better at stopping popular mobilization against the regime, but also create institutions more capable of launching successful coup attempts. From Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan to Park Chung-hee in South Korea, Greitens provides new and well researched insights on a critical question for the study of international politics.
The Alice Network by Kate Quinn. This is about a network of female spies in France during World War I and extending into World War II based on a true story. A very accessible read on the unsung role women played at the frontlines.
Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams by Louisa Thomas. A novel about our only other foreign-born first lady and her role in her husband and son’s political careers.
Be Like the Fox: Machiavelli in His World by Erica Benner. This book is for people like me who’ve read Machiavelli’s great works — especially The Prince — yet lack deep historical knowledge about the context in which he wrote them. Be Like a Fox makes the case that Machiavelli’s reputation as dark and cynical is largely undeserved, and that he was actually a tireless advocate of representative democracy.
Making Sense of the Alt-Right by George Hawley. After being blindsided by Donald Trump’s presidential victory, I’ve struggled to understand America’s new political landscape. Hawley’s book is a short, highly accessible genealogy of the alt-right: a diverse, largely online network of anti-feminist, politically incorrect, and racially motivated trolls who fell in love with Trump’s candidacy in 2016.
The Holy Roman Empire: A Thousand Years of Europe’s History by Peter H. Wilson. Wilson provides a detailed yet accessible account of the Holy Roman Empire from its early days in the eighth century until its demise at the hands of Napoleon. Doing so, it accomplishes two difficult feats. First, it gives its readers a clear historical understanding of a resilient political entity that is usually left out of most international relations analyses of the past. Second, it highlights the imperial origins of the modern state system.
Yankee Leviathan: The Origins of Central State Authority in America, 1859-1877 by Richard Franklin Bensel. Bensel’s book offers two insights into the American Civil War, which are of tremendous importance for a fuller understanding of the relationship between war and state-building. First, less controversially, Bensel treats the Civil War as an interstate war between two different kinds of states. Second, Bensel documents that the South was much more like a European, or Westphalian, state at the time than the North was. It was the war itself that transformed the North, which then made the United States, overall, re-constitute itself in the image of the modern nation-state.
Defeat into Victory by Viscount Bill Slim. I’m perpetually excited by this work by the British general who turned around the defeated Commonwealth forces in Burma and led them to victory against the Japanese. It is a particularly timely book because of its applicability to security cooperation — taking wounded allies militaries and rebuilding them to fight our mutual enemies. This is what we just did in Iraq. Slim gives a wonderful personal rendering of the process of rebuilding the confidence of an army by drip-feeding it battles of increasing size, placing each foot surely by building them an unbroken chain of victories. Unsurprisingly, this is one of Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’ favorite books.
All the Kremlin’s Men: Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin by Mikhail Zygar. This book is a fascinating chronicle of Vladimir Putin’s transformation over the years, but it also does a fantastic job charting the battles of Russia’s powerful elites, characters, clans, and the actual milieu behind a modern day court. Zygar takes a winding path through seminal events that shaped Russia’s relationship with the West. The narrative is engaging, and the stories reveal much about the principals who make or inform Russian decision making. It is also an insider’s tale of how Russia and its leader transitioned from a managed democracy to a ‘sovereign democracy’ and finally to the system we see today. The stories help pull back the curtain on Russian decision making in a way few other texts have done successfully in recent years.
The Limits of Partnership: U.S.-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century by Angela Stent. Angela Stent, one of the most well-recognized experts on Russia in the United States, authored a remarkably authoritative account of the U.S. attempts since the end of the Cold War to forge a partnership with Russia and the reason for its failures. Anyone entering the Russia field, or having picked up a Russia portfolio looking to understand why despite genuine effort on both sides over 25 years we have ended up in the present day confrontation should truly start with this book. Stent answers the question on why it has proven so difficult to overcome the shadow of the Cold War and forge a non-adversarial relationship with Russia, offering an insider’s perspective as someone who had spent decades in Washington dealing with the policy towards Moscow.
Sustainable Security: Rethinking American National Security Strategy edited by Jeremi Suri and Benjamin Valentino. This edited volume scrutinizes a number of assumptions within the U.S. foreign policy establishment regarding economic resources, public support, and alliance commitments that practitioners and strategists within Washington have been reticent to debate. That it was published right around the time presidential candidate Donald Trump was challenging a number of orthodoxies in the foreign policy establishment may offer a measure of its prescience.
My Enemy’s Enemy: India in Afghanistan from the Soviet Invasion to the US Withdrawal by Avinash Paliwal. Many observers were thrown when the Trump administration’s August rollout of the new “South Asia Strategy” included a call for a larger Indian role in Afghanistan. This book sheds light on the drivers and trajectory of India’s policy towards Afghanistan. It attempts to distill the domestic level factors—in particular, the enduring internal debates between India’s national security hardliners and pragmatists about how to best advance Indian interests—that may be more malleable than they otherwise appear.
Special Forces Berlin: Clandestine Cold War Operations of the US Army’s Elite, 1956–1990 by James Stejskal. During the Cold War U.S. Army Special Forces maintained a clandestine unit in Berlin with missions ranging from unconventional warfare behind Soviet lines to intelligence collection and counter-terrorism. Stejskal, a former member of the unit, provides an excellent (and so far the only) book length history of this unique unit, including its role in the Iranian hostage crisis.
Unclear Physics:Why Iraq and Libya Failed to Build Nuclear Weapons by Malfrid Braut-Hegghammer. As North Korea’s nuclear arsenal expands relentlessly many readers of WOTR may despair at the prospect of further nuclear proliferation by autocrats. As a small dose of holiday cheer, Braut-Hegghammer’s rigorously researched account highlights the internal challenges many authoritarian regimes face on the road to a nuclear weapon.
Given its 100th anniversary, there’s been a lot of focus on World War I this year. I, however, am going to recommend a couple of books about World War II, both of which cast light on relatively untold aspects of it and put key actors back into the story. Both books — one a scholarly history, one perhaps a more popular one — interweave global dynamics with what was happening on the ground.
India’s War: The Making of Modern South Asia, 1939-1945 by Srinath Raghavan. Raghavvan’s previous two books could also easily be on this list. This book on WWII highlights how India contributed to the war with men (including 2.5 million soldiers), materiel and money, with soldiers fighting all over the world from Singapore to Syria to Sicily. It also looks at the strategic, political and socio-economic impact of the war on India.
Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II by Liza Mundy. Thanks to commemorations, books and TV shows like Bletchley Circle, the role of British female code-breakers is better known today. Mundy brings to light the story of their American counterparts, relating it to the history of the war and of military intelligence. It is particularly interesting to read in the context of our contemporary discussions of women in the workplace, in the military, and in tech.
The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defense and American Strategy in Asia by Ian Easton. In his optimistic take on Taiwan’s defense, Ian Easton makes a powerful and transparent argument about the challenges facing the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) if Beijing ever orders the invasion of Taiwan and Taiwan’s ability to counter a Chinese invasion. Easton combines analysis of PLA and Taiwanese writings on a Taiwan invasion, examination of logistics and geography, and a review of both sides’ capabilities. Taiwanese and American politicians should heed Easton’s argument, because it skewers the notion that the cross-strait military balance makes Taiwan indefensible and returns agency to Taipei in determining Taiwan’s future.
The Spy’s Daughter by Adam Brookes. Adam Brookes completes his Chinese espionage trilogy in thrilling style. If Night Heron (Book I) and Spy Games (Book II) offer thoughtful meditations on the shadowy world of Chinese politics, then The Spy’s Daughter offers guilty pleasure as competing intelligence services race to find a brilliant, young woman wavering in support of her parents’ cause. Brookes closes the China gap in spy fiction with a story that bears increasing resemblance to the stories emerging from Xi Jinping’s China.
Strategy: Context and Adaptation from Archidamus to Airpower edited by Richard Bailey, James Forsyth, and Mark Yeisley. This collection of essays on strategy focuses on why the U.S. military needs to instill critical thinking on strategic issues to its future leaders. The authors write not only about the importance of good strategy, but also dive deep into the need for thinking strategically about space power, cyber space, and irregular warfare in addition to airpower.
The Future of Strategy by Colin Gray. Colin Gray rarely disappoints with his ability to describe and outline grand strategy and military strategy topics as highly important areas to discuss and develop. In this book, he makes the argument for developing good strategy and how we ought to approach it within a short 122 pages (minus the endnotes). He remains one of the best scholars in describing how nuclear weapons fit into the larger scope of military strategy.
The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea by Bandi (a pseudonym, translated by Deborah Smith). Although this work is fiction, it is very much worth reading to understand the life of the people living in North Korea. The author still lives inside the system, according to the afterword, and some reviewers have noted the author could be the North Korean version of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
Inside Terrorism, 3rd Edition by Bruce Hoffman. This seminal work by one of the most accomplished scholars on terrorism has been completely revised and updated and remains one of the most important books on terrorism for scholars and laymen alike.
#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media by Cass Sunstein. Long-term threats to the security and stability of the American republic are now much more self-imposed and non-military than external and military. Sunstein raises important questions about the role of information in a democracy — and the need to begin treating the information ecosystem, not as a marketplace, but as a common good.
True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society by Farhad Manjoo. This NYT reporter is becoming the go-to expert on the companies and trends in the technology sector. Here he forces us to come to grips with the implications of a social context in which objectivity, truth and “proof” become even less significant than they have been. Although he doesn’t make the direct connection, it’s an open question whether the United States can be a decisive actor on the global stage if Americans can’t sustain any agreed truths.
Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy by Shivshankar Menon. This book provides a front-line view of some of India’s critical geopolitical and security decisions from Menon’s time in government as foreign secretary and then national security advisor. For a system that is often opaque, Menon’s book provides a rare first-person glimpse into five key security moments or decisions that confronted India, including its decision to refrain from conventional retaliation against Pakistan after the Mumbai attacks in 2008. The chapter on nuclear doctrine and “No First Use” offers some tantalizing hints of how India’s key security managers — during at least the Congress Government through 2014 — may have been thinking about trying to escape from the dilemma of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism backed by the threat of tactical nuclear weapons to deter an Indian response. This is a must-read for anyone interested in how at least one of India’s most sophisticated geopolitical and security thinkers sees the world, India’s place in it, and its relationship with the United States.
Unclear Physics: Why Iraq and Libya Failed to Build Nuclear Weapons by Malfrid Braut-Hegghammer. This book could not have come at a more timely and important moment as North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong Un, sprinted in his nuclear and missile program this year. Braut-Hegghammer offers novel historical accounts of why other dictators, notably Saddam and Gaddafi, failed to build nuclear weapons, as neopatrimonial dictators. Though they failed in different ways, they both ultimately failed. As a dictator with domestic pathologies and constraints, and under significant American pressure, Kim Jong Un was supposed to fail too. Yet he defied the odds. Braut-Hegghammer’s book offers critical insights into what Kim Jong Un had to overcome and the technical, organizational and pathological hurdles that otherwise prevented Iraq and Libya from acquiring the bomb. As future potential dictators purse the bomb, Braut-Hegghammer’s book offers both a riveting historical account of the failed Iraqi and Libyan programs but also suggests that we cannot necessarily count all dictators out — not all are so incompetent, weak, paranoid, and repressive that they cannot master a program based on what is essentially 1950s technology. An important read as we stand on the precipice of potential future nuclear proliferation by authoritarian states.
Religion and State in Syria: The Sunni Ulama from Coup to Revolution by Thomas Pierret and Syria’s Peasantry, the Descendants of Its Lesser Rural Notables and Their Politics by Hanna Batatu. These two books provide rich historical insight into local power-dynamics in Syria. While each focuses on different aspects of Syrian society and politics — Batatu’s attention to the peasantry and Ba’athists in the rural areas and Pierret’s analysis of the ulema — both underline the significance of local institutions and power relations that extend beyond the central government in Damascus. The attention to distinct forms of local autonomy and group competition, drawn from extensive use of local documents and texts, not only challenges ethno-sectarian narratives about Syria, but offers alternative ways of thinking about governance and stabilization after the Islamic State and the Syrian civil war.
Poppies of Iraq by Brigitte Findakly and Lewis Trondheim: A graphic novel about a woman’s reflections of growing up as the child of an Iraqi Arab father and French mother in Mosul, Iraq, and then life as an Iraqi in France. The novel – which is of the same genre as Marjane Satrap’s Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood – captivates beyond a traditional history book by providing insight into her daily life in Mosul, as well as key events of Iraqi history, and changes in politics and society over time.
Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself — While the Rest of Us Die by Garrett M. Graff. Raven Rock is a concise history of America’s continuity-of-government plans and civil defense plans throughout the Cold War, and shows how continuity-of-government (ensuring decision makers survive a nuclear conflict) eventually came to take priority over civil defense (protecting the population at-large). In an era where many states and municipalities are re-examining both continuity-of-government and civil defense, an understanding of such a history has never been more vital.
A Poisonous Affair by Joost R. Hiltermann. This book details the chemical weapons attack on civilians in the Kurdish citizens in Halabja by Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War, and the political struggle to both attribute blame and levy acceptable punishment on the perpetrators. With chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian government continuing against civilian targets unabated, and both Syria and Russia obfuscating attempts to investigate these attacks and attribute blame, this book has continued relevance.
A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East by David Fromkin. Published in 1989, Fromkin lays out how the modern Middle East emerges in the wake of the First World War (spoiler: It’s mostly the fault of the British and has a lot to do with keeping the Russians out). As he points out in the 2009 Afterword (A good 8 page summary, by the way), prior to to the war, “Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia did not exist.” Knowing the history of these states that often dominate headlines is worth this long read.
Grant by Ron Chernow. Chernow continues the overdue rehabilitation of this great, though hardly perfect, soldier and President. An excellent biography, though I doubt Chernow would be offended by the comment that Grant’s memoirs themselves are the better read.
Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James M. McPherson. In a politically polarized environment where the myth of the “Lost Cause” still holds sway, a (re) reading of a classic examination of the Civil War Period may be in order.
Hammer’s Slammers by David Drake. This is a work of science fiction, but it is potentially relevant today. David Drake, a Vietnam veteran with a Cav background, conceptualizes an environment where powerful energy weapons dominate the battlefield. The book is important because he sketches out conditions where aircraft do not and cannot survive on the battlefield in the face of lightspeed weapons. It is even more relevant as the DoD pursues more and better directed energy, apparently unaware that placing these weapons on the battlefield spells the end of the tactical aircraft.
When the World Seemed New: George H.W. Bush and the End of the Cold War by Jeffrey A. Engel. The 41st president confronted a daunting challenge: managing the peaceful denouement of the Cold War, but critics, then and since, routinely scorned Bush’s excessive caution. Engel’s thoroughly researched and engaging narrative shows that Bush 41 deserves credit for his “Hippocratic impulse,” as Engel describes it; “do no harm” served us well in the early 1990s, and would serve us well today.
Over the Horizon: Time, Uncertainty, and the Rise of Great Powers by David Edelstein. Power transition, when established great powers confront rising powers, is a perennial topic in international relations. Edelstein explores a critical but strangely understudied aspect: when do established powers cooperate with rising powers, and when do they compete? And why?
By More than Providence: Grand Strategy and American Power in the Asia Pacific Since 1783 by Michael J. Green. In his extensive, detail-rich tome, Mike Green traces the history of American strategy towards Asia from the early republic to present day and fills a much-needed gap in the strategy literature. Green’s terrific book should be of particular interest to maritime strategists and those curious to learn more about the historical antecedents of America’s role in contemporary Asia.
Over the Horizon: Time, Uncertainty, and the Rise of Great Powers by David M. Edelstein. Why do dominant powers often cooperate with rising competitors? How does the variable of time factor into a reigning hegemon’s strategy towards an emerging superpower? And what does the distinction between uncertainty and risk have to do with it? David Edelstein makes a significant contribution to the literature on power transitions by examining the role of time and the way it shapes the incentives of dominant and rising powers.
The Coming of the Third Reich by Richard J. Evans. There have been many fine studies of German national-socialism and of the Third Reich (Ian Kershaw’s magisterial work immediately comes to mind) but for years friends had been urging me to tackle Richard Evans’ sprawling trilogy. Having just finished the first volume, which charts the rise of aggressive German nationalism from the post-Napoleonic era to the death-throes of the Weimar Republic, I can see why. This an awe-inspiring example of historical scholarship, which effortlessly weaves incredibly detailed observations on German history, politics, culture and diplomacy into a grim, blood-spattered tapestry of democratic decay. Despite the depressing subject matter, I’m very much looking forward to reading the next two volumes: The Third Reich in Power and The Third Reich at War.
Three Byzantine Military Treatises by George T. Dennis (Translation and Notes). As I recently argued here at War on the Rocks, the field of Byzantine military history remains astonishingly underexplored by contemporary students of strategy. This crisply translated collection of three military treatises, The Anonymous Byzantine Treatise on Strategy (6th Century AD) Skirmishing (10th Century AD), and Campaign Organization and Tactics (10th Century AD) provides a precious window into a remarkably sophisticated strategic tradition — one that can provide contemporary national security practitioners insights on topics ranging from unconventional warfare and special operations to diplomacy or alliance management. As Dennis notes in his introduction, a major part of their timeless appeal lies in the fact that these treatises were written by “real people — the retired officer with his collections of books on strategy, the hardened veteran from the mountains far from the imperial capital, the efficient administrator who sees to every detail.”
The Future of War: A History by Lawrence Freedman. Yes, yes, I know I always recommend his books. For a reason: he asks interesting questions and utilizes all his learning to take us along for exploration of perspectives about warfare. I delight in watching ideas and themes recurrent in his work (like the fallacy of the decisive battle) take on different timbres as the kaleidoscope turns.
The Ugly American by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick. No better, truer book about America and the world: “the little things we do must be moral acts and they must be done in the real interest of the peoples whose friendship we need,” and it’s a great lead-in to…
The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam by Max Boot (Lansdale was the model for Lederer and Burdick’s noble protagonist). We learn and unlearn these lessons every generation.
Loren DeJonge Schulman
A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of World War II by Sarah Helm. While this is the story of a veteran of the Special Operations Executive’s “F Section” and her hunt for the more than 100 British agents missing at the end of the war, the most striking element to me was the incredible resistance within SOE to understanding they had been catastrophically betrayed. Such was their desperation and optimism that even the (retrospectively) obvious tripping of key indicators rang no alarms — a sad but pointed lesson in how we measure our own strategies.
The Song of the Lioness Quartet by Tamora Pierce. Alice Friend recommended this old YA fantasy series on the Bombshell podcast and I inhaled all four glorious odes to warrior-girl-power. These books found me in exactly the right moment as the public discussion of what women bring to national security has grown personal, emotional, and surprisingly fun
The Butter Battle Book by Dr. Seuss. Teach your adorable tot about arms races and the concept of mutually assured destruction through the lens of the Zooks and the Yooks, who start by disagreeing on butter’s proper location on toast and end, after a number of military strategy evolutions, with both possessing the world-ending Bitsy Big Boy Boomeroo, which neither can defend against. Yes it is meant to be this obvious.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. A charming and humane story of a man sentenced to house arrest in a Moscow hotel in the 1920s. Everyone who wants to remember there are lovely things in the world should spend a weekend with these characters.
The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis. The history of the field of behavioral economics as told through the story of the relationship between Amos Taversky and Danny Kahneman. Come for the Bayesian updating, but stay for the intensity and tragedy of this complex friendship.
Life 3.0, Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence by Max Tegmark. I’m interested in the impact of technology to society and national security. This book examines the future of Artificial intelligence and its impact to war, crime and jobs and how these systems should be built and employed to minimize the dangerous aspect of AI on humanity and society.
Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia by Karen Dawisha. This reads like a novel, but it is also a well researched account of how Putin came into power and the relationships that helped him and their influence on present day Russia. This is a disturbing and compelling case of how Putin has amassed enormous wealth from rich oligarchs and the Russian state ties to corporate profits and corruption.
The Direction of War: Contemporary Strategy in Historical Perspective by Hew Strachan. The book is a wonderful primer on the lack of strategy underpinning the war on terror. It also documents the disconnect between strategy and policy, using historical examples to tell the reader how we’ve entered the “astrategic” age, despite everyone in Washington writing about the “S” word.
The Exile: The Stunning Inside Story of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda in Flight by Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy. This account of al-Qaeda on the run and gives the reader unique insights into the squalid conditions Bin Laden and family lived in before coming face-to-face with their demise.
Jihadi Culture: The Art and Social Practices of Militant Islamists edited by Thomas Hegghammer. This may be the most ground-breaking contribution to the field of jihadist studies for the entire year. Sunni jihadists have rich social, aesthetic and inner lives. The fact that this may be surprising underlines the importance of this scholarly and yet readable–even fun–book.
Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself–While the Rest of Us Die by Garrett M. Graff. This is a fascinating journalistic account of the U.S. government’s continuity of government efforts in the face of a possible nuclear war. The pejorative title is unfortunate.The intractability of the problem was evident to nearly everyone involved but they were obliged to try.