Strategic Outpost’s Third Annual Summer Vacation Reading List


Okay, fellow nat sec nerds — we know that you really don’t want to take a summer vacation. But we also know that to keep up your relationships, satisfy your significant other, or maintain harmony in the family, you have to go — and even pretend to love it. So once again this year, we are publishing our best ideas for your summer vacation reading, listening, and watching. And just like our lists in 2016 and 2017, here is the perfect way to hide behind your sunglasses, get a tan, and relax while catching up on great stuff in our field that you may have missed during the school year!

Here you go: our summer 2018 beach go-to list for books, articles, podcasts, and movies. We’ve lined them up by general topic to help you out. We hope you spot at least a couple of new items you’ve not seen before and dive right in. With luck, we might help refresh your “little grey cells” and spark a fresh idea or two while those you’re with are building sandcastles, baking in the sun, and relaxing!

The Future of War

  • Army of None, by Paul Scharre. Former Army Ranger and current think tanker Scharre has written an original and provocative book that foretells an ethically and morally unsettling shift towards autonomous war. He looks at today’s deadly drone warfare capabilities and convincingly projects forward to a far more terrifying tomorrow where humans are no longer needed in the loop, and where machines learn to kill in ever-more-efficient ways. He concludes: “The technology to enable machines that can take life on their own, without human judgement or decision-making, is upon us.” Finding practical ways to prevent that outcome should engage all of us.
  • The Perfect Weapon, by David E. Sanger. Building on his best-selling book Confront and Conceal, about the crippling 2007 Stuxnet attack on Iranian centrifuges, Sanger’s new book details how the rapid evolution of offensive cyber capabilities by a range of nations is transforming geopolitics. The veteran New York Times reporter offers plenty of evidence that clashes in cyberspace are already underway today, with Russian hackers burrowing into controls for American power grids and disrupting the U.S. electoral process, and the United States electronically targeting the North Korean nuclear program. This is a disturbing primer on the emerging global weapon of choice in an era when Americans are ever more dependent upon vulnerable cyber networks for nearly every aspect of their lives.

The Recent Wars

  • Eat the Apple, by Matt Young. Veterans throughout the ages have written about their experiences at war, but few have done so as imaginatively as Young. This marine-turned-teacher of literature and creative writing tells an engaging but brutally honest story about his deployments to Iraq through short letters, miniature plays, and sharp vignettes. His unique story uncovers the messy and dark parts of war that are often overlooked in the far more common stories about heroism and redemption.

American Democracy

  • How Democracies Die, by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. The bad news: American democracy is in deep trouble. These two respected scholars show that democracies often break down through the ballot box rather than at the point of a gun, and that the United States is just as susceptible to this dynamic as many former democracies were. In clear and accessible prose, they warn that the era of hyperpartisanship — which predates the Trump administration but is being accelerated by it — is eroding crucial norms that protect American democracy even more than elections and the Constitution.
  • The Reinvention of America,” by James Fallows. The good news: Local democracy and civic life are flourishing. While national politics grows ever more dysfunctional, Americans across the country are coming together to improve their communities by increasing civic engagement, welcoming refugees, reinventing libraries and downtown areas, and setting aside land for conservation. If that sounds interesting, skip this article and go straight to the book upon which it is based: Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey Into the Heart of America. Still can’t get enough good-news stories about local communities? Try What I Found in a Thousand Towns, in which singer-songwriter Dar Williams shares her observations from years on the road about what makes some towns thrive.

Leadership in Desperate Times

  • Dunkirk. This critically acclaimed film details one of World War II’s most daring and improbable early battles. Innovatively melding the stories of soldiers, airmen, sailors, and stunningly courageous civilian mariners, this epic film highlights the jaw-dropping scope and complexity of the largest and most successful combat evacuation of all time as told through the eyes of several (likely composite) individual participants. For more on the monumental planning and intricate choreography involved, check out The Miracle of Dunkirk by Walter Lord, an inspiring and surprisingly human account of this implausible and heroic operation.
  • Darkest Hour. This (occasionally corny) biopic of Churchill focuses on a few grim weeks in 1940 when Britain’s civilian leadership struggled with brutal decisions about their nation’s fate as France was about to fall to the Nazi juggernaut. The movie brings home the fear, uncertainty, and intense pressure on those leading a nation about to be standing terrifyingly alone against Hitler. Watching the faces of the actors reliving these tense days, one realizes that in the moment, no one really has any idea of what might happen next, and that people — leaders — matter in the outcome of great events. The movie provides an inspiring and thought-provoking portrait of leadership under unimaginable stress, and a reminder that the line separating barest victory from crushing defeat can be slender indeed.

Understanding the Future

  • Make Me Smart with Kai and Molly. This podcast, from the folks at NPR’s Marketplace, offers weekly insights from the worlds of economics and technology — two areas where we national security types are notoriously weak. Co-hosts Kai Ryssdal and Molly Wood share a delightful rapport and manage to make very complex topics more understandable while remaining incredibly engaging. Recent episodes have covered the implications of a global trade war, the basics of blockchain technology, and the effects of undoing net neutrality.
  • How the Enlightenment Ends,” by Henry Kissinger. What could be more surprising than Henry Kissinger opining about the impact of artificial intelligence on the future of Western civilization? In this unexpected essay, Kissinger describes his growing quest to understand how AI may undermine the foundations of our world. He argues that not since the invention of the printing press ushered in the Age of Reason has a technology come along that promises to be so disruptive, and that AI is threatening to replace the guiding human reason of the Enlightenment with pure machine logic. Kissinger warns of the coming of “a world relying on machines powered by data and algorithms and ungoverned by ethical or philosophical norms.”
  • How the Military Fights Climate Change,” by David Titley. This TED Talk by the former oceanographer of the Navy clearly explains how rising temperatures are affecting national security. Noting that “it’s all about the water,” Titley shows how climate changes are contributing to a range of catastrophes and looming flash points around the world, from Syria to the Svalbard Islands in the Arctic. The risks to the U.S. military include a changing operating environment, threats to bases, and growing geostrategic instability. His killer bottom line? “The ice doesn’t care who’s in the White House. It doesn’t care which party controls your Congress … It just melts.”
  • Machine, Platform, Crowd, by Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson. Building on their earlier acclaimed work The Second Machine Age, the MIT-based authors explore three world-changing trends emerging from the ongoing digital revolution: a rebalancing in the division of labor between minds and machines in decision-making; a shift toward open, evolving platforms rather than tightly controlled products; and a recognition that crowdsourcing can now often deliver better solutions to vexing problems than small groups of experts in a given field. In a rush? Watch Brynjolfsson explain the key themes in this ten-minute video.

Other Must-Reads

  • The Undoing Project, by Michael Lewis. A fascinating account of the lifelong partnership between two men, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, whose joint work created the field of behavioral economics — something all national security types need to understand. Both warriors and academics, but otherwise totally different men, the authors’ decades of close friendship and inspired work together overturned longstanding economic assumptions about how human beings make decisions. It’s a remarkable (and often touching) story about the power of two different minds working in creative concert and their wide-ranging effects on our world. For more on how behavioral economics shapes all human decision-making, see Misbehaving, from Kahneman’s collaborator and fellow Nobel Prize winner Richard Thaler.
  • #metoo Is All Too Common in National Security,” by Rosa Brooks. For all of us who labor in the national security realm, this personal reflection about the often-hidden problems of sexual harassment and assault facing women in our field is both jarring and uncomfortable. In thinking back on her 25-year career in and out of government, Brooks realizes how much totally unacceptable behavior by male colleagues she has suppressed and accepted for decades — seeing it as simply “normal” for women on this career path. Men will likely be shocked and women entirely unsurprised by her revelations — the very reason why everyone should read this. (Bonus points to Brooks for being the first author to make our summer reading list twice.)

The Lighter Side

  • Strategy Strikes Back: How Star Wars Explains Modern Military Conflict, edited by Max Brooks, John Amble, ML Cavanaugh, and Jaym Gates. Strategy meets Star Wars? Kudos to the editors for taking an idea that many of us have undoubtedly discussed over late-night drinks and turning it into an actual book. The 28 short essays in this book aim to explain the core elements of military strategy using examples from the first seven Star Wars.  The volume is uneven; some chapters are unintelligible unless you can already tell Alderaan from Hoth or know why the Battle of Yavin matters, and some of the analogies simply fall flat. But Jim Golby’s essay on the relationship between the Jedi and the Senate may well be the best thing you read on civil-military relations all year. Other gems include Jim Stavridis and Colin Steele analyzing why hybrid warfare was the right strategy in the Battle of Endor; Theresa Hitchens arguing that the Empire failed because of toxic leadership and overreliance on legacy technology; and Kelsey Atherton explaining the Death Star as an offset strategy.

Honorable Mention

Loyal Strategic Outpost reader John Strohl responded to our request for suggestions at the end of our last column by recommending a particularly well-known book. We liked the write-up he sent us so much that we are including it in its entirety:

Set on a continent on the brink of war, The Lord of the Rings follows a squad of proto-SOCOM commandos sent on a one-way mission deep behind enemy lines to terminate a tyrannical fascist dictator whose lair rests aside a volcano. Without spoiling much, they are scattered due to poor ISR, resulting in the loss of a veteran non-commissioned officer and the officer in command. How they manage to incite a successful insurgency against a former ally, gain the heart(s) and mind(s) of a hostile indigenous populace, and demonstrate the importance of close air support is left for you to find out.

With that, your dedicated Strategic Outpost columnists are on vacation until Labor Day! We look forward to reconnecting with you in September, ready to take on the next set of national security challenges with renewed energy. Thanks for your continued loyal readership — you keep us motivated every day to continuing to provide you new insights and a fresh take on the many issues across our field. Enjoy the rest of your summer!


Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, U.S. Army (Ret.) and Dr. Nora Bensahel are Visiting Professors of Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and Senior Fellows at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies. They are also Contributing Editors at War on the Rocks, where their column appears monthly. Sign up for Barno and Bensahel’s Strategic Outpost newsletter to track their articles as well as their public events.

Image: Garry J. Welch