Strategic Outpost’s Fourth Annual Summer Vacation Reading List


When normal people go on vacation, they try to get as far away from work as possible. When national security nerds go on vacation, we like to take more work with us! In that spirit, we offer you our fourth annual list of the best books, podcasts, and shows to catch up on during your summer break. Like our lists from 2016, 2017, and 2018, these juicy items can all be consumed on your iPad, Kindle, or iPhone while you hide out at the beach, in the mountains, or at your favorite coffee shop. We promise to keep your brain happily immersed in stuff you just can’t find time to read, see, or listen to during the rest of the year. Just don’t tell your family, friends, or needy significant other what you’re really up to behind those oversized sunglasses!

Personal Accounts of the Recent Wars

The Fighters: Americans in Combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, by C.J. Chivers. War correspondent Chivers eloquently tells the stories of six members of the U.S. military who served on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan. His passion, empathy, and sharp eye capture the courage, pain, and futility of those who have fought our wars for the last 18 years. Not all will agree with his harsh critique of senior U.S. military leaders, but his account will inspire tears, compassion, and even more respect for those among us who continue to fight America’s wars with no end in sight.

Places and Names: On War, Revolution, and Returning, by Elliot Ackerman. Ackerman, a Marine veteran and acclaimed novelist, now turns his literary talents to his own story, and to explore the higher purpose that binds warriors together in combat. This spectacular book reflects on the themes of war, morality, and comradeship though the lens of the current civil war in Syria. Ackerman also dives back into his experiences in Iraq, including an especially powerful and detailed remembrance of the bloody urban battle that earned him a Silver Star. He provides a riveting account of war and its aftermath, and the mysterious forces that cause some of those who have fought to be pulled inexorably back toward that still-burning flame.

Learning from Fiction

The Heart of War: Misadventures in the Pentagon, by Kathleen J. McInnis. This breezy and somewhat satirical novel by first-time author and former Pentagon civilian McInnis traces the adventures of anti-war activist turned Pentagon advisor Dr. Heather Reilly as she navigates the byzantine culture and outsized personalities of a mythical five-sided building that looks all too much like the real version. With names, dates, and places changed to protect innocent and guilty alike, McInnis captures the spirit and travails of the many young men and women who seek careers in the Department of Defense. Aspiring young Pentagon staffers and long-suffering civil servants will relish her sharp-edged but humorous account that takes the reader from the E-Ring to downtown Kabul.

The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States: A Speculative Novel, by Jeffery Lewis. This chilling work of fiction is written as a retrospective analysis of a surprise nuclear attack that North Korea launched against the United States in March 2020, which killed 1.4 million Americans. The unusual framing enables the author to explore what U.S. leaders really understood about Pyongyang’s decision-making at the time, and assess whether the Trump administration adequately defended the nation in the face of this threat or inadvertently took steps that made the attack more likely. Lewis, an expert on nuclear proliferation issues (and who NPR devotees may recognize from his appearance on This American Life), provides a sobering reckoning of what went wrong, and a cautionary tale to all of us about a frightening and all-too-credible future scenario.

Strategy and Policy

“Searching for a Strategy,” in the May-June 2019 issue of Foreign Affairs. The four terrific articles in this section of the journal present a range of views on where the United States finds itself today, how it got there, and what should be done next. As the editor notes, “This package has the feel of an intervention — a group attempt to deliver a sobering message to someone in real trouble who refuses to admit it.” The collective diagnosis of the authors is quite gloomy — that American decline began before the Trump administration took office and has rapidly accelerated since then. But even though they argue that American global hegemony is never coming back, they offer a few ways for the nation to right itself and regain at least some of its global influence in the future.

Rational Security. This weekly podcast from the highly regarded Lawfare blog features a regular roundtable including Shane Harris of the Washington Post and Benjamin Wittes, Susan Hennessey, and Tamara Cofman Wittes from Brookings. The foursome covers current news, hot topics, foreign policy, and law in a fast-paced and entertaining format that includes lots of laughs as well as plenty of serious ideas. It’s a great weekly review of the important and often neglected issues at the intersection of law and policy in the national security space. (Credit goes to reader Michael D. Purzycki for reminding us to include this.)

Technology and Economics

Shaping the Future of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, by Klaus Schwab. Expanding on his last book (which made our list in 2017), Schwab explores the critical next steps in understanding and responding to the convergence of disruptive trends he dubbed the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Drawing on the expertise of more than 200 experts working with the World Economic Forum, he examines the latest advancements in 12 critical fields ranging from AI to quantum computing, biotechnologies to Blockchain, and robotics and drones. Throughout, Schwab and his experts explore the ethical and practical dilemmas of these rapidly changing developments. This is a great one-stop book for understanding the sweeping changes that are affecting every corner of the world. (Cheat sheet: If you’re short on time, each chapter ends with a summary box of its five key ideas.)

“The Metamorphosis,” by Henry A. Kissinger, Eric Schmidt, and Daniel Huttenlocher in the August 2019 issue of The Atlantic. At age 96, Henry Kissinger has unexpectedly emerged as one of the leading thinkers about how artificial intelligence will revolutionize our lives and societies. Last year, we recommended his article on the implications of substituting AI for human judgment in decision-making. This year, we recommend the sequel to that piece, which he wrote with the former chief executive of Google and the dean of Cornell Tech. They raise “a more detailed set of questions” that we all need to be asking about the consequences of self-learning machines. The section that examines how AI will affect grand strategy and security highlights some fascinating questions about the future of deterrence, diplomacy, and intelligence.

The Indicator. No matter how busy you are, you can surely find 10 minutes each weekday to listen to this podcast, which provides “insight into work, business, the economy, and everything else.” Recent episodes include “The Rise of American Oil,” “Whether L.A. is Ready for a Big Earthquake,” and our personal favorite, “The Battle for the Office Thermostat.” (We’ll let you try to figure out who wins that one here at Strategic Outpost World Headquarters.) The podcast is produced by the folks at NPR’s Planet Money — a podcast we also recommend if you can carve out just a bit more time twice a week. Both shows help us better understand the incredibly complex world in which we live, but do it ways that keep us engaged, entertained, and ultimately, far better informed. (Thanks to our former research assistant Joel Carter for this suggestion.)

Sage Advice for Our Profession

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, by David Epstein. This book comes from the Freakonomics school of sometimes too-simple stories that are easy to read, but it offers a very important cautionary tale for the national security community. Epstein argues that generalists are often more creative, insightful, and effective than those who are highly specialized in one specific area (such as sub-tribal conflicts in Outer Mongolia or the Pentagon budget process), because they can draw new and innovative connections from a wide variety of experiences. He stresses the value of unplanned and meandering career paths, which mirrors advice that we often share with our very focused and talented graduate students. Epstein also points out that creativity and solutions to difficult (even wicked) problems often come from having teams with porous boundaries — a very different approach from our highly siloed government and academic bureaucracies. (Thanks to Steve Leonard, aka Doctrine Man, for this inspired recommendation.)

New Histories

Madame Fourcade’s Secret War, by Lynne Olson. We’ve been thinking a lot about the French resistance during World War II ever since we returned from our spring break staff ride that focused on it. But even if we hadn’t, we’d still recommend this stunning new book. If you read only one history book this year, make it this one. The author traces the extraordinary yet little-studied journey of the woman who led the largest and arguably the most successful intelligence network inside occupied France. Olson’s beautiful writing reads like a mystery novel. It captures Fourcade’s terrifying captures and breath-taking escapes so well that you find it nearly impossible to believe that she can survive the war — even though you know that she does. And it equally highlights the entrenched sexism of the time, in which her gender turns out to be an invaluable and perpetually underestimated advantage in outwitting the Germans.

The Cold Blue, streaming on HBO.* Using newly discovered combat footage of the U.S. heavy bomber offensive over Nazi Germany in World War II, this short documentary reminds us of the immense costs of total war on a generation of young Americans. Drawn from 34 reels of documentary outtakes that have been painstakingly restored, the film provides a vivid color display of a war and its very young participants that are nearly always seen in sterile black and white. More of these 8th Air Force airmen died in action in Europe than the total number of U.S. marines killed in the entire war, and this film tells their courageous stories by interspersing combat scenes with narratives of aging survivors looking back on their dangerous missions. It captures the grim realities of a period when few airmen survived the 25 combat missions required in order to rotate back home. (If this is news to you, make sure to move Twelve O’ Clock High to the top of your summertime must-watch list. This 1949 Oscar-winning film presents a fictionalized but no less powerful portrait of the psychological toll of unrelenting bombing missions on the airmen and their commanders. We keep a Green Toby in our office as a reminder.)

Chernobyl, streaming on HBO.* This five-part limited series dramatizes the disaster that occurred at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in 1986. Set against the backdrop of a Soviet Union still immersed in the Cold War, this engrossing drama walks through the events that led up to the catastrophe while showcasing the mind-boggling ineptitude, egotism, neuroses, and fear that led to the meltdown — and the inspiring heroism that prevented it from becoming an even greater disaster. Painful but essential viewing, with lessons for every organization whose responsibilities may put lives in danger — including the Department of Defense.

*Pro tip: HBO offers a free seven-day trial, so if you time it right, you won’t have to pay (or bogart your friend’s password) to watch these.

Just for Fun

We always end these lists with something light to leave you with a smile. Since this year has not been all that notable for its humor, we scrutinized the archives of the world-famous Duffel Blog to pick out our favorite articles from the last 12 months. Needless to say, its sharp-eyed contributors found plenty of material in the day-to-day headlines and in the general absurdity of serving in uniform. Whether poking fun at the political imbroglios involving the White House and the Navy, the long-running war in Afghanistan, the never-quite-right world of Pentagon acquisition, or the Coast Guard and its ever-expanding missions, the Duffel Blog is never short of stories that sound almost plausible enough to be real and often make you laugh out loud. Enjoy!

That concludes our 2019 list, which means that Strategic Outpost is now officially on vacation until after Labor Day! We look forward to seeing you in September — happy, relaxed, and sun-tanned — and ready to jump into the national security fray once again. Thanks to you, our loyal readers, for your continuing interest and support — we continue to stay energized and motivated by your enthusiasm and feedback. Have a great 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: U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Brandon Kalloo Sanes