The 2018 War on the Rocks Holiday Reading List
Every year to kick off the holiday season, we round up a list of the books that War on the Rocks senior and contributing editors are most excited about. This year’s list is a fantastic mix of military, economic, and political history, thought-provoking fiction, illuminating biographies, familiar classics, and more. We hope you enjoy digging into the recommendations as much as we did. Happy holidays from the WOTR family!
Seapower States: Maritime Culture, Continental Empires and the Conflict That Made the Modern World by Andrew Lambert. We are often assured that we are in an era of Great Power competition, but there are different types of great powers. Andrew Lambert examines the history of sea powers and continental powers, and in the process offers an intriguing analysis of national relationships with the sea that has implications for naval and national power in the modern day.
Safe Passage: The Transition from British to American Hegemony by Kori Schake. The rise of regional and eventually great powers is never as quick as our presentism suggests. Kori Schake’s examination of the transition of hegemonic power from Great Britain to the U.S. is a long-term look at how nations manage rise and decline, and the multifaceted nature of competition, which includes diplo-poltical, economic, and military tensions in fluctuating intensity.
The Hell of Good Intentions by Stephen Walt. Walt’s book says exactly what you expect it to say, but it’s absolutely still worth reading. It’s a scathing indictment of U.S. foreign policy that describes how elites effectively squandered the greatest peace dividend the world had ever seen.
The Consuming Fire by John Scalzi (and the prior book, The Collapsing Empire). A trilogy all about the politics of huge systemic change: how people react to change, refuse to acknowledge it, and scheme to benefit from it. Sure, it’s a thinly veiled metaphor for climate change set in a Dune-style space empire, but it has great characters and a fun plot. Definitely one to put on your Christmas list.
A Few Great Captains: The Men and Events That Shaped the Development of U.S. Air Power by Dewitt S. Copp. Ever wonder what the giants of airpower were like as captains? Passion, determination, and imagination, supported by strong family and friendships, combined with unbelievable antics and accomplishments that grew an insurgency from within the U.S. Army in the 1910s and 1920s.
Fighter Pilot: The Memoirs of Legendary Ace Robin Olds with Christina Olds and Ed Rasimus. The man, the myth, the legend — the mustache! A staple of every modern fighter pilot’s library throughout the world, once you read it you’ll know why. While the book does have some sections about flying, its enduring quality is the story about the trials and tribulations that forged a unique brand of leadership of one of the most popular airmen in modern history.
The Gallic War by Julius Caesar. Although this was likely written by Caesar to bolster himself as the eventual Roman ruler, The Gallic War is a useful history recounting his campaigns and battles, setting tribes against the other to ensure they wouldn’t unite against him, and, above all, the issue of logistics. If plastics were the future in “The Graduate,” The Gallic War can be summed up with one word: corn. Caesar is nearly — and understandably — consumed with the availability of corn to feed his troops and horses. Caesar’s understanding of human nature and politics may have won the wars against the tribes, but it was his focus on logistics that enabled him to use force when necessary.
The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses Grant. It’s unfortunate that this president’s memoirs don’t include his tenure in office, but readers of military history will find a compelling and well-written narrative of the Civil War. This book gives us the insight from the victorious but often magnanimous general.
Lords of the Desert: The Battle Between the United States and Great Britain for Supremacy in the Middle East by James Barr. This is an elegant corrective to the idea of a “special relationship” when it comes to the land of oil. In the best style of British writing on the Middle East, it’s also beautifully crafted and can be read in a couple of days.
The Muslim Brotherhood and the West: A History of Enmity and Engagement by Martyn Frampton. This book is an immense feat of historical scholarship, with almost 200 pages of endnotes from Arabic, British, and American sources. It is the type of book that will set the intellectual agenda on this subject for decades.
Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations by Ronen Bergman. A journalist with incredible access, Bergman details the brave, frustrating, ambitious, sometimes horrifying rise of a tactic once eschewed by the United States but now heartily adopted.
Astropolitik: Classical Geopolitics in the Space Age by Everett Dolman. Dolman is the Air Force’s designated “space theorist,” and this book, while older, is more relevant than ever, as the United States — and its adversaries — move toward weaponization of outer space, the president urges a Space Force, and Congress grants property rights to mineral-laden asteroids.
By More than Providence: Grand Strategy and American Power in the Asia Pacific Since 1783 by Michael J. Green. Passionate debates about the future of American strategy in the Asia Pacific are increasingly common today. Less common, however, are discussions that address America’s strategic decisions in the region over the past 235 years. Michael Green’s masterful work explains the reasons behind these decisions in detail. In so doing, his work also provides a solid foundation for thinking about American strategy in Asia in the years ahead.
The Fighters: Americans in Combat in Afghanistan and Iraq by C.J. Chivers. Powerful. If looking for a realistic account of what Americans fighting at the pointy edge of the spear in Afghanistan and Iraq have experienced and continue to experience, C.J. Chivers, a Marine infantry officer and Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent, provides it.
On the Brink: Trump, Kim, and the Threat of Nuclear War by Van Jackson. Someone asked me today what the best part of my job is. The answer to that is easy: I get to spend a lot of time listening to, editing, and learning from smart and experienced people on topics that I find fascinating. This book and the next exemplify that quality of my job. Van has written a fantastic and engaging book about North Korea, America’s history of kicking the can down the road, and this president’s, shall we say, disruptive efforts to do something about the threat the Kim regime poses to Northeast Asia and the United States. It is jam-packed with knowledge. And it is both interesting and accessible to the security nerd and curious reader alike. If you choose to read one book about North Korea, this should be it.
Small Boats and Daring Men: Maritime Raiding, Irregular Warfare, and the Early American Navy, by B.J. Armstrong. I confess I have not yet read this book yet. It’s not out (but it is available for pre-order) and the publisher hasn’t sent galleys yet (getting books for free and early is another cool part of my job!). Still, I’ve been learning from B.J. about this history and editing his other writing for years. He has a talent among professional historians that is increasingly rare: He tells a heck of a story without sacrificing rigor (see for example this prize winning essay on helicopters and the Marine Corps). And, given the topic of this book — irregular naval warfare during the early decades of the American republic — the fact that he is a Navy man himself certainly doesn’t hurt!
Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World by Adam Tooze. Tooze, an economic historian, tells the story of what led to the economic crises of 2008 and beyond. Importantly, these crises not only demonstrated the interconnectedness of the United States and Europe, but have forged closer dependence between the two, while also showing that the United States is still an essential economic global power.
Alliance Curse: How America Lost the Third World by Hilton L. Root. Even though this book is now 10 years old, the subject of U.S. relations with autocratic powers for security and economic reasons is again relevant. Root analyzes the trade-offs that American administrations make for short-term security interests at the expense of long-term stability, and provides some recommendations to overcome this trap.
The Romanovs: 1613-1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore. The history of the czars provides important context in which to understand why Moscow today does what it does. There are many books on the Russian monarchy, but this one-volume history by Montefiore (whose Stalin: Court of the Red Tsar is a must-read companion) puts it all together.
The Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. Like you, I’ve read bits and pieces in school and over the years. Like you, I knew that there is a lot of wisdom in those essays. Now that they seem, let us say, more relevant than in the recent past, I’ve dipped back in. Suggest you do as well.
Army of None: Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War by Paul Scharre. It seems unlikely that there are many War on the Rocks readers left who have not yet read Army of None, this year’s go-to book on one of the hottest international security topics at the moment: autonomous weapons. But if you are one of these few people, go and get it, as there is no better primer on the topic. Paul Scharre is more knowledgeable than almost anyone on the use of artificial intelligence and autonomy in warfare and in this book is presenting the evidence in a compelling and useful way. The only thing missing is a stronger indication on where he stands on the all-important question of autonomous weapons: to ban or not to ban?
The World of Yesterday: Memories of a European by Stefan Zweig. The Austrian Stefan Zweig is one of the best German-speaking, and internationally most undervalued, authors. He has written a wealth of fiction (most notably The Royal Game) and non-fiction (his biography of Maria Stuart is unrivaled). The World of Yesterday is his most personal book, his memoir, which begins in the dying days of Austria-Hungary under Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria, and ends, tragically, with the beginning of World War II. Zweig, in his inimitable humanist voice, describes the Europe that was — and that has been lost.
Understanding the causes and consequences of the 2008 global financial meltdown is of fundamental importance. The extraordinary complexity of international finance, banking, and monetary relations, to say nothing of both the domestic and international politics of the crisis, can make this difficult to do. In Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World, historian Adam Tooze — the author of far and away the best history of the Nazi economy, The Wages of Destruction — deftly and clearly explains what happened and why. In the process, he makes several compelling arguments: that the real action driving the crisis was transatlantic, not transpacific, as many had feared; that the response by the United States, and especially the Federal Reserve, was unprecedented and innovative, saving the world far potential catastrophe; and that the European response was far less impressive; all with enormous consequences for our contemporary and future economic and political landscape.
Jill Lepore is not only our most thoughtful, interesting historian of the United States; her engaging prose and willingness to engage audiences outside of the ivory tower hails back to a commitment to public engagement, once represented by compelling scholars like Richard Hofstadter but long since abandoned by the increasingly narrow, inward looking academic discipline of history. These Truths: A History of the United States, a breathtaking history of America, reveals a historian at the height of her powers, offering a compelling, synthetic look at our past and how we’ve ended up where we are today.
Few conventional wisdoms are more widely shared than the belief that China’s extraordinary economic rise will lead, inevitably, to increasing military power and replacing the United States as the world’s leading power. Michael Beckley pushes back against this received wisdom in Unrivaled: Why America Will Remain the World’s Sole Superpower. Beckley contends that the United States possess great demographic, geographic, economic, and institutional advantages over China, a large but relatively inefficient country whose ability to threaten the United States’ great power capabilities will be limited by its own pressing limitations and burdens.
The Future of War: A History by Lawrence Freedman.
Strategy, Evolution, and War: From Apes to Artificial Intelligence by Kenneth Payne.
Readers will find this intellectual juxtapositioning ironic, especially given that both authors are associated with King’s College London. Freedman details the historical record of our efforts to anticipate emerging trends in the conduct of war. He demonstrates the dangers of the persistent illusion of an idealized concept of war as short, limited, and decisive. His essential warning, to examine forecasts as speculative but worthy of serious study and healthy skepticism, may be lost on Payne. He explores the human cognitive process (and its limitations) in the formulation of strategy, and how the biological basis of strategy will be dramatically altered by the advent of artificial intelligence. Without spoiling an extremely erudite study, Payne argues that AI will revolutionize strategy more than anything else we have experienced in the last few millennia.
Secret Wars: Covert Conflict in International Politics by Austin Carson. Cooperation under anarchy has stimulated decades of scholarship, but “collusive secrecy” between clashing nuclear-armed adversaries — a recurrent feature of modern conflict hidden in plain sight — offers a particularly fascinating puzzle. Austin Carson’s book takes on this subject and offers a novel and elegant theory of escalation control. Case studies ranging from the Spanish Civil War to the Korean War to the Afghan jihad illuminate consistent motives and conflict patterns across different theaters and the spectrum of conflict, which can also help scholars and practitioners make better sense of future conflict strategies, from little green men to cyber-war.
The Collaborator by Mirza Waheed. In South Asia, sometimes fiction rather than social science better articulates the disturbing, heroic, yet absurd clashes between state authority and the governed. This book has been sitting on my shelf for years, but as I’m trying to better understand how and why an insurgency (like the one in Kashmir) can persist for decades, I’m curious to see if this novel may provide some clues.
Rebecca Friedman Lissner
Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World by Adam Tooze. From the historian who brought you The Deluge and Wages of Destruction (bonus picks!), Crashed is an exquisitely detailed contemporary history of the 2008 financial crisis and its aftershocks. Tooze’s narrative highlights the systemic vulnerabilities hiding in plain sight before the crash, reminding us how difficult it is to predict the next crisis; his praise for Fed intervention to stabilize the global financial system highlights the power of intelligent and well-timed policy interventions.
Red Sparrow Trilogy by Jason Matthews. The books in this Bombshell-approved spy trilogy were easily my most fun reads of 2018. Don’t let the horrible movie adaptation deter you.
Military Anthropology: Soldiers, Scholars and Subjects at the Margins of Empire by Montgomery McFate. Dr. McFate is the premier military anthropologist, and this book is an excellent source for cultural understanding. However, all practitioners of — and scholars with an interest in — unconventional warfare must read chapter four on Tom Harrisson and Unconventional Warfare, with specific emphasis on the issues of “going native” and adapting to indigenous ways of warfare.
North Korean Military Proliferation in the Middle East and Africa: Enabling Violence and Instability by Bruce E. Bechtol. While the world rightly focuses on nuclear negotiations with North Korea, we cannot overlook the Kim family regime’s extensive proliferation activities, which both fund the regime and destabilize regions where there are critical U.S. security interests. Dr. Bechtol has written the most authoritative work on North Korea’s proliferation activities that continue to this day, despite sanctions and the efforts of the international community.
Grant by Ron Chernow. Chernow brings his superb pen to the biography of our greatest general and an under-rated President. He pulls no punches is dealing with Grant’s use of alcohol, ensuring that we know how he got the reputation he earned, and how much of it was legitimate.
The Framers’ Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution by Michael Klarman. A meticulously researched and well-written history of the Articles of Confederation, the Constitutional Convention, the ratification process, and the Bill of Rights addition. Your estimation of the Framers will increase as a result of this work, irrespective of how highly you currently regard them.
The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States: A Speculative Novel by Jeffrey Lewis, because it starkly shows how North Korea and the United States — and nuclear states in general — could still stumble into nuclear war through a series of unrelated and otherwise minor incidents, and random bad luck. It also scared the sh*t out of me, and it will scare the sh*t out of you too.
Fighting for Status: Hierarchy and Conflict in World Politics by Jonathan Renshon is, for my money, one of the most theoretically informed and empirically persuasive argument for when, how, and why states fight for status. It is rare for a book to make me think about the causes of World War I even slightly differently, but Renshon succeeded in doing so.
Nikki Haley’s tell-all book as U.N. ambassador whenever it is written. Because who doesn’t want to see her unload on the Trump Administration?
The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States: A Speculative Novel by Jeffrey Lewis. Part of a long tradition of using fictional works to examine very real threats, Lewis’ new book details a hypothetical nuclear war between the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Combining history, international relations theory, and a flair for dramatic fiction, Lewis creates a chillingly realistic scenario that demonstrates just how precarious nuclear deterrence can be, and how rational actors working with the best intentions can inadvertently bring about disaster. A compelling read, which paints a riveting picture of just how easily the nuclear balance can go awry.
The Code of Putinism by Brian D. Taylor. Why does Vladimir Putin do what he does, and how does he maintain control over Russia? Taylor, in attempting to explore how modern Russia is ruled beyond mere stereotypes and popular tropes, paints a nuanced picture of just how Putin and Russia’s elites view the world, view themselves, and the rules of the road that they follow. An essential guide for understanding Russian decision making beyond mere cable news talking points.
The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States: A Speculative Novel by Jeffrey Lewis. Decision-making in a crisis is hardly ever as neat or orderly as we’d like it to be. Jeffrey Lewis’ book does a great job of illustrating the extant nuclear dangers on the Korean Peninsula and the perils of information asymmetries in a crisis.
Duterte Harry: Fire and Fury in the Philippines by Jonathan Miller. It’s impossible to make sense of the current trajectory of the Philippines and the U.S.-Philippine alliance without understanding Rodrigo Duterte. Jonathan Miller’s book delves into Duterte’s political start in Mindanao and describes how the Philippine president exported the brutal model of governance he developed in Davao City to the entirety of the Philippines.
Montaigne by Stefan Zweig. Stefan Zweig’s soulful biography of Montaigne is so much more than a summary of the life and thought of a man he fervently admired, and in whom he believed he had found a philosophical soulmate. Written in the midst of World War II, and shortly before Zweig’s decision to take his own life, the slender volume is also a pained reflection on the role of the public intellectual in times of mass fanaticism and bitter civil strife. That Zweig ultimately — and tragically — chose the path of isolation, withdrawal, and moral resignation doesn’t make it any less poignant or powerful. I recommend getting the Pushkin Press edition — if only for Will Stone’s superb introduction and translation.
Survivors’ Songs from Maldon to the Somme by Jon Stallworthy. An elegantly crafted and erudite discussion of the British literature and poetry that burst out from the trenches of WWI. Stallworthy is a fine writer, and his prose has a hushed, almost reverent quality to it. As he himself notes in the introduction, he views the book’s essays as extended “thank you letters” to that savagely mauled but terrifically talented generation of writers and poets.
Twilight of the Titans: Great Power Decline and Retrenchment by Paul K. MacDonald and Joseph M. Parent. A terrific contribution to the debate over the so-called Thucydides trap. MacDonald and Parent survey great power transitions starting in 1870, hegemonic and not. They find declining powers surprisingly good at retrenchment and no more likely to choose war, and rising powers not particularly tempted to attack the declining ones (and the decliners tend to win the wars they fight). So much good data, smart analysis, and beautiful writing (describing Britain as “the most experienced declining power”) to argue over.
Painter to the King by Amy Sackville. It takes a little to settle into the prose, which is intensely visual as Velasquez would see the world, but as with hearing Shakespeare performed, you settle into the perspective and are rewarded with watching the corrosion of imperial Spain in the 17th century. Even the plunder of the Americas isn’t sufficient for solvency, the court wearing only black to signify a piety it didn’t practice suffocates, endless war in the Netherlands and rebellious provinces at home siphon vitality, a ruler without the will or creativity to change course grows despondent. This is what imperial decline feels like: Velasquez paints it and Sackville writes it.
Loren DeJonge Schulman
Taxing War: The American Way of War Finance and the Decline of Democracy by Sarah E. Kreps. After years of following Dr. Kreps’ incredible work on drones, I’m excited to pick up her new book, which postulates that the way Americans have born the financial burden of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (that is, not at all) has a lot to do with the length of these conflicts. Public opinion — and public knowledge —- of these wars is barely discernible, and while we civil-military nerds usually lay the blame on a host of squishier scapegoats, Kreps focuses on the pocketbook. This alternative is refreshingly depressing (or depressingly refreshing), if all the more hopeless.
Transcription by Kate Atkinson. Atkinson has to be read breathlessly in a sitting or two; The New York Times calls her a “devious” author, and with multiple jumps around in time, I expect no less of her latest. Life After Life and A God in Ruins were incredible stories of the Blitz and the sacrifice of Bomber Command, respectively, and the men and women who lived during and through them. Transcription offers a similar formula with a new recruit into MI5 in 1940, tracking Fascist sympathizers in Britain. If you have a long plane ride during the holidays, Transcription will be a good companion.
Macbeth by Jo Nesbo. A clever adaptation of the classic story makes for a genuine page-turner. Norwegian author Nesbo brings Scottish noir to Shakespeare’s play, mixing a brew of crime, corruption, and revenge.
These Truths: A History of the United States by Jill Lepore. An extraordinary single volume history. Lepore’s prose and instincts for narrative make quick work of 250 years of the American experiment (and excellent as an audiobook). Not quite revisionist, but not your high school history textbook either. The modern history we all need to read.
Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South by Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen. I’ve become fascinated with how reputation management drives conflict. Reputation is generally (and I believe wrongly) dismissed in the current IR corpus, at least whenever it seems inconsonant with interests. This book provides experimental findings on how cultures of “honor” arise among groups as deterrence systems to stabilize social order in otherwise anarchic conditions. Short and concise.
Collision of Wills: How Ambiguity about Social Rank Breeds Conflict by Roger V. Gould. This is probably my favorite sociological book on the value of dominance and deference in sustaining most political orders, particularly under anarchy. Sound relevant? It uncovers the logic of apparently negative-sum cycles of retaliatory violence, like multigenerational blood feuds and other costly theaters of conflict. The short book argues why human conflict is more likely to occur in symmetrical relationships than in hierarchical ones, wherein the difference of social rank between the two individuals is already established. Implications for IR, even if it doesn’t fit with current mainstream IR theories.
Image: R.J. Zimmerman