2019 War on the Rocks Holiday Reading List
Kick off your holiday season with War on the Rocks and our annual roundup of favorite books from the WOTR family. From novels to nonfiction to weighty academic tomes, we hope you’ll find something for everyone, including yourself.
Naval Diplomacy in the 21st Century: A Model for the Post-Cold War Global Order by Kevin Rowlands. Naval historians and strategists have a tendency to focus on the big battles of blue-water wars, and the construction and development of the forces for those battles. However, there is another equally vital element of naval power and strategy: naval responsibilities in peacetime. Dating back centuries, maritime forces have had what the British call “constabulary” roles beyond fighting in wars, missions that are central to the maintenance of international order. Rowlands’ book is a vital contribution to our thinking on naval affairs in the 21st century. A ludicrously expensive academic publisher? Unfortunately, yes. A theoretical and complex work? Yes. A brilliant and vital study for understanding navies and maritime strategy? Absolutely. Maybe try the e-book — the price is closer to reasonable — or ask your local library. But if you’re interested in sea power or what competition looks like in an era of rising great powers, this will need to be on your reading list.
Progressives in Navy Blue: Maritime Strategy, American Empire, and the Transformation of U.S. Naval Identity, 1873-1898 by Scott Mobley. The history of America’s rise to great power status is a history intertwined with the growth and professionalization of its Navy. Mobley’s book is a critical look at the era that began the development of the professional Navy and Marine Corps we know today. It is a book about how sailors are also thinkers, and how ideas and the “software” of strategy are just as important (and maybe sometimes more important) than the “hardware” of weapons and new ships. It is also a story of successful innovation and reform, topics that remain high on the list of buzzwords in the military and national security thinking today.
The Saga of Pappy Gunn by George C. Kenney. How often does a general write a book about someone who served under him? The Battle of the Bismarck Sea was a naval victory that didn’t involve a single Allied ship, forced the Japanese to rethink their convoy shipping logistics, and arguably shifted the Japanese strategy from offense to defense for the rest of the war. Thank Pappy for that, and much more. Spoiler: He was a mechanic — not a pilot (sort of, it’s complicated, read the book).
American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880-1964 by William Manchester. Though written 40 years ago, this book remains the standard to understand Gen. Douglas MacArthur and his career through three wars. It is also a literary masterpiece.
Master of Seapower: A Biography of Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King by Thomas B. Buell. Published just two years after Manchester’s tome, this biography is an excellent complement to American Caesar, as it journeys into the life of Fleet Adm. Ernest J. King, the chief of naval operations during World War II. Together, these two lengthy biographies (totaling 1,000 pages) are windows into the rise of America’s military power in the early 20th century and the decision-making from Army and Navy leaders during World War II.
Grand Improvisation: America Confronts the British Superpower, 1945-1957 by Derek Leebaert. The book does a good job of presenting the history of a turbulent and critical time. Leebaert has deep sourcing and an eye for the telling detail.
The Caravan: Abdallah Azzam and the Rise of Global Jihad by Thomas Hegghammer. This book doesn’t come out until March 2020, but I was fortunate to receive an advance copy, and I can’t recommend this biography more. Azzam is an essential figure in the rise of militant Islam and, alongside Ayman Zawahiri (his possible assassin), stands as a founding father of our terrorist adversaries. If you really want to understand the origins of al-Qaeda, Heghammer’s book should join those of Lawrence Wright and Marc Sageman on your reading list.
Leap of Faith: Hubris, Negligence, and America’s Greatest Foreign Policy Tragedy by Michael J. Mazarr. The author is one of our best defense intellectuals (and a contributing editor at War on the Rocks). Most people now seem to agree that the Iraq War was, well, not what the United States had hoped. But how did it go so wrong? How did so many smart, experienced people make such fatal misjudgments? Read Mazarr, and you’ll discover not only the best answers to these questions, but guidance to hope against hope that future such disasters can be averted.
Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan by Steve Coll. The sequel to his 2004 Pulitzer Prize winner, Ghost Wars, this massively researched and very readable account of U.S. engagement in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region picks up on Sept. 11, 2001, and takes this complex and frequently troubling drama through the end of combat operations on Dec. 28, 2014. As with the previous volume, there is evidence throughout that Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence worked at cross-purposes with American and allied interests, but the real heart of this book is the extraordinarily detailed look into the heart and operations of the Taliban. Spoiler alert: After reading the part about the early attempt to kill Mullah Mohammad Omar (pages 73–76 in the paperback edition), ask yourself whether you would have taken the shot. At 691 pages plus notes, this is a serious undertaking but well worth the effort.
Near Abroad: Putin, the West and the Contest over Ukraine and the Caucasus by Gerard Toal. From one of the top scholars in the field, this is a deep dive into what he terms the “thick geopolitics” underlying the present crisis in the contact zone between the West and Russia. It provides a conceptual framework with which to analyze the complexities that have led to rising tensions and, at times, kinetic warfare in the region. Given the sudden salience of Ukraine and its ongoing war with Russia, Toal’s book is all the more relevant as the United States attempts to recalibrate and, hopefully, salvage what remains of its policies vis-a-vis Ukraine.
Loren DeJonge Schulman
The Optimist’s Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age by Bina Venkataraman. When a former government climate change adviser suggests there is a tiny bit of potential for the future, who doesn’t pay attention? I’ve spent the past year reading about how technology and political trends are going to destroy everything we value, and I am hoping to close 2019 with something less than rampant misery.
Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger by Rebecca Traister. Hysterical, irrational, crazy — women’s anger historically has been dismissed as unwarranted or diminished by repression. Traister, an amazing writer, digs into the role of women’s anger in social movements throughout history.
Thunder at Twilight: Vienna, 1913-1914 by Frederic Morton. This vivid, deeply researched portrait of a magnificent capital on the brink of cataclysmic war was, without a doubt, the best book I read this year. It was recommended by my colleague Megan Oprea and her husband John. In the style of a novel and with the discipline of a historian, Morton gives account of everything from the tempests of high politics to cultural clashes that were contested just as fiercely. I knew the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was around the corner. I knew the ending. But couldn’t tear myself away. It was the sort of reading experience that made me fall in love with books.
Mussolini’s Enemies: The Italian Anti-Fascist Resistance by Charles F. Delzell. War on the Rocks readers have hopefully learned to indulge my deep interest in this period of Italian history. This indispensable text shows how people of different political stripes chose to stand against Benito Mussolini. Or not.
1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by Charles C. Mann. An amazing ecological and economic history of the Columbian exchange, which altered the world profoundly. It’s why tomatoes, from the Americas, became a staple in Italy and why cowboys and Indians rode horses from Spain. Learn why anopheles quadrimaculatus stands tall among the Founding Fathers.
Ten Caesars: Roman Emperors from Augustus to Constantine by Barry Strauss. Everybody knows the biggies and baddies: Augustus, Nero, Claudius, Constantine. But do you know your Tiberius from your Vespasian? Can you tell Trajan from Hadrian, or Septimius Severus from Diocletian? Now is your chance!
The Wall: A Novel by John Lanchester. “OK boomer” has become late 2019’s catchphrase. Published in March, Lanchester’s The Wall was thus slightly ahead of the curve. In this Britain-based near-future novel, climate change has revealed its dystopian consequences, and Britain seals itself off from the rest of the world. Come for the dystopian future, but stay for Lanchester’s description of how the link between parents and children, the “before” and “after” generations, is cut by the immense responsibility the parent generation has for the terrible present. Plus, its insights into defensive walls and defensive strategy make it a great read for War on the Rocks readers.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Despite everything, we tend to think of our civilizationary advances — and civilization itself — as somewhat permanent. Maybe there are changes, maybe crises — but could civilization just end? Mandel’s book allows you to ponder this question. Not exactly a fun read, but one that stays with you for a long time.
Death’s End by Cixin Liu. Liu’s The Three-Body Problem series is no longer an insiders’ tip, but of the trilogy, the last installment, Death’s End, is not only the best book, but by far the most relevant for strategists. Are you interested in deterrence, bunker defense, civilizational complacency? Then this is the book for you, giving incredible insights on all these topics and more — plus it is one of the most fascinating sci-fi books in years.
Rebecca Friedman Lissner
At the top of my reading list this holiday season is Open: The Progressive Case for Free Trade, Immigration, and Global Capital by Kimberly Clausing, which takes on anti-globalization arguments from the left and right to make the case for open economies, while also investigating the domestic policy interventions required to address inequality in the United States.
Francis J. Gavin
2019 was the year in which the cumulative consequences of the Donald Trump administration’s inept statecraft fully came home to roost, dissipating American advantages built up over decades and increasing global disorder. Therefore, my two book recommendations are reminders of the profound impact that thoughtful, wise, and forward-looking diplomacy could have for advancing U.S. interests in the world.
At first glance, Philip Zelikow and Condoleezza Rice’s To Build a Better World: Choices to End the Cold War and Create a Global Commonwealth appears to be an update of their important 1995 book on the end of the Cold War. While To Build a Better World does incorporate new evidence and perspectives from a variety of international sources to (successfully) take on arguments made in the interim about the wisdom of NATO expansion, it does much more. At heart, the book identifies the profound, seismic shifts in global politics that roiled the international system from the mid-1970s through the late 1980s, and chronicles the often bold efforts of Western statesmen to harness and redirect those forces for the greater good. Zelikow and Rice brilliantly connect what appear to be distinct 1980s narratives — the emergence of new digital technologies, the desire to dampen the arms race, Western efforts to coordinate international macroeconomic policy, the deepening and expansion of the European Community, and U.S.-led efforts to manage profound political changes in the Soviet empire — into a holistic, convincing narrative. They also reveal a key, often overlooked variable in the transition to the post-Cold War world: the remarkable and largely successful adaptability and transformation of extant institutions, from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to NATO and the G-7/G-20.
The fundamental importance of effective, thoughtful diplomacy for advancing America’s interests around the world — and the potential disasters that could emerge if these practices dissipate — is the powerful and especially timely message of William J. Burns’ The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal. Ostensibly, the book is a memoir, a recounting of Burns’ fascinating life and experiences in the Foreign Service and State Department. From Amman to Moscow to the seventh floor at Foggy Bottom, Burns has participated in some of the most interesting diplomatic efforts of recent history; I can’t imagine a better recruiting tool to convince young people to join the U.S. Foreign Service. The Back Channel accomplishes far more, however. The book contributes to ongoing debates over the nature of world order and America’s role in the world. Most importantly, Burns offers much-needed advocacy and instruction in the arts of diplomacy and statecraft, highlights the need for empathy and humility, and demonstrates how this complex, subtle, misunderstood, but vitally important craft is essential to America’s success and safety in the world.
The Food Explorer: The True Adventures of the Globe-Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats by Daniel Stone. Stone’s book focuses on the adventures of David Fairchild, a late 19th-century food explorer who traveled the globe and brought back foods that would become staples of the American diet. Through exploration and diplomacy, Fairchild broadened the American palate by introducing the country to avocados, mangos, kale, flowering cherries, and so much more. Stone beautifully stated on CBS This Morning: “Our foods came to this country like many of our families did, as immigrants.”
Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson. Realizing that I have been lacking in my fiction reading over the past several years, I sought out recommendations from friends for a good sci-fi thriller. To my surprise, multiple people suggested that I start with Red Mars by Robinson. In the first book of Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, a group of colonists embark on an ambitious mission to transform Mars into an Earthlike planet. However, many people will fight to the death to keep the red planet a barren, desolate landscape.
The Outlaw Ocean: Journeys Across the Last Untamed Frontier by Ian Urbina. A great view into activities at sea that bend, stretch, or break the bounds of international law. Urbina combines first-rate journalism with incidents that shed light on the strength and limitations of international law beyond national boundaries. Urbina does a wonderful job of capturing quirky personalities, untold stories, and the sense of isolation that comes with being at sea, while contrasting these very personal stories with the larger national and international issues that determine how much or how little attention is paid to these seafarers.
American War: A Novel by Omar El Akkad. A disturbing dystopian look into America after a second civil war. El Akkad begins the story with a college professor who discovers that a distant relative had played an important role in shaping the war’s outcome. Most of the book is told from the point of view of this relative as she experiences life as a civilian in a war zone, an internally displaced person, and ultimately a young woman who becomes radicalized. The book engages themes of climate change, pandemic, populism, extremism, and current American foreign policy in a way that made each of those issues salient and urgent.
The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order by Hal Brands and Charles Edel. This pair of Yale-educated strategists offers a concise but eloquent call for sustained U.S. global leadership. Instead of complacency, they counsel a return to the study of history and the need to embrace a sense of tragedy to better avoid disaster.
The Culture of Military Organizations by Peter R. Mansoor and Williamson Murray, eds. These two well-known military historians have carefully designed and curated a collection of studies of the military cultures of the four main U.S. military services and numerous peers from the past and present. The insights into British, Indian, and Israeli cultures are quite informative, as are Mansoor’s candid insights on the U.S. Army. Given the contribution that organizational culture plays in shaping the effectiveness of military formations, students of leadership and force development will find this anthology fascinating.
Radha Iyengar Plumb
The Only Woman in the Room: A Novel by Marie Benedict. Fast-paced and enlightening, this novel provides an inside look at the inspiring Hedy Lamarr. Discussing her escape from Nazi occupation and exploring her technical contributions to key warfighting too, this book reminded me that people are always more complex than you think!
Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez provides an interesting tour through the different ways in which biases in how data have been applied make things harder for women. From office temp to hospital care, it’s an eye-opening, experience-affirming, and often infuriating read. Page through and increase the temp in your house by 2 degrees.
After the Enlightenment: Political Realism and International Relations in the Mid-Twentieth Century by Nicolas Guilhot. Not so much a light read, but a fascinating read and useful reference for anyone trained in international relations. Guilhot manages to take well-argued swipes at the way rationalism and microeconomics have distorted the discipline of political science. Many scholars have done something like this. But Guilhot shows that the rationalist paradigm — and, by extension, the realist project — were deliberate political projects in the 20th century that unhelpfully shackle our thinking about the world.
The Harvest Gypsies by John Steinbeck. This super short book is a collection of reportage Steinbeck wrote in the midst of the California Great Depression. It was the experiential well from which he drew The Grapes of Wrath. Be human. Make yourself read this.
After the Caliphate: The Islamic State & the Future Terrorist Diaspora by Colin P. Clarke asks important questions that policymakers and scholars need to face in the aftermath of the physical destruction of the Islamic State. Offering a concise and accessible analysis, After the Caliphate is a must-read for policymakers, scholars, and anyone interested in not only the evolution of the Islamic State so far, but also its future trajectory.
Covert Regime Change: America’s Secret Cold War by Lindsey A. O’Rourke is a tour de force, and the culmination of meticulous archival research as well as parsimonious theorizing about the causes, conduct, and consequences of attempts at covert regime change. Dissecting the myths and facts surrounding America’s covert operations during the Cold War, O’Rourke makes an important contribution to one of the most-debated — but rarely scrutinized — dynamics of statecraft.
The Absent Dialogue: Politicians, Bureaucrats, and the Military in India by Anit Mukherjee. India’s military has to deal with insurgencies, terrorism, and two nuclear-armed neighbors — China and Pakistan. Civilian and military policymakers in New Delhi don’t coordinate, making the job that much tougher. In his excellent new book, Mukherjee explains how India’s unique brand of civil-military dysfunction came to be, and makes a case for how to fix it.
Mexico’s Cold War: Cuba, the United States, and the Legacy of the Mexican Revolution by Renata Keller. When I think of the Cold War in Latin America, I think of missiles in Cuba, coups in Argentina and Chile, and Sandinistas in Nicaragua. But what about Mexico? Keller tells the story of Mexico’s Cold War, and how its leaders had to respond to revolutionary ideas from Havana, pressure from Washington, and instability at home.
The Future of War: A History by Lawrence Freedman. This book came out a few years ago, and I’ve finally made time to read it. Freedman is a well-respected expert on deterrence and nuclear weapons, but in this book, he takes the broader view of examining a history of war from the 19th century to the present. He looks at trends in future warfare in the last section, and like his deterrence books, he covers it succinctly and yet with just the right level of detail. Spoiler: He doesn’t offer a prediction of the incidence or form of future war, as he has demonstrated how hard prediction is. It’s a powerful narrative, both from a historical point of view and because of its analytical observations.
Cross-Domain Deterrence: Strategy in an Era of Complexity, by Jon Lindsey and Erik Gartzke, eds. This collection of 13 chapters tackles the challenging topic of “cross-domain deterrence,” also known as multi-domain or full-spectrum deterrence. While most deterrence discussions focus on the use of nuclear weapons, political and military leaders have sought other options of deterring or coercing an adversary from using one form of technology by threatening the use of different technology. In particular, we’re still looking for tools and approaches for deterring adversaries in outer space, in cyberspace, and the conventional domains of air, sea, and land, as well as during nuclear operations. While we don’t hear the term cross-domain deterrence used much in current policy discussions, this should still be very much a topic of interest to the general military community.
The Green Berets in the Land of a Million Elephants: U.S. Army Special Warfare and the Secret War in Laos 1959-74 by Joseph D. Celeski. This book is a labor of love by the author to honor the veterans of this little-known and little-studied war. His extraordinary interviews and first-person accounts tell the story but also provide lessons for the modern employment of Special Forces “through, with, and by” indigenous forces to support the achievement of U.S. strategic objectives.
The Hermit King: The Dangerous Game of Kim Jong Un by Chung Min Lee. The most current, detailed, and important book on Kim Jong Un, written by a former Korean ambassador for national security affairs and well-known scholar on Korea and East Asian security issues. This scholarly but very readable work provides the insights we need to understand the long-term strategy of Kim, his mafia-like crime family cult, and the “long con” game he and his regime are waging against the United States, its alliance with South Korea, and the international community while denying the human rights of the Korean people living in the North.
The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War by Ben Macintyre. This tale of the most senior KGB officer to spy for the West seems at times so improbable that it cannot be true, but of course it is. Brilliantly written and skillfully plotted; a simply amazing read.
Click Here to Kill Everybody: Security and Survival in a Hyper-connected World by Bruce Schneier. Dozens of books have looked at the classic cyber threat to critical infrastructure. Schneier is one of the few who takes seriously a more fundamental, insidious threat — the potential for persistent, often clandestine manipulation of a world in which “everything is a computer.” As the role of algorithmic decision-making and the Internet of Things — and the connections between them — become ever more decisive, we’re creating societies with vulnerabilities we don’t even understand. Schneier is an expert and entertaining guide to these emerging risks.
In the Hurricane’s Eye: The Genius of George Washington and the Victory at Yorktown by Nathaniel Philbrick. Beautifully written, Philbrick’s book lays out an accessible case for George Washington to be designated our country’s first geo-strategist. The degree to which the father of the country understood the impact of sea power on his army’s fortunes — and thus the proto-nation’s — reveals another side of this most singular of men.
The Origins of the American Constitution: A Documentary History by Michael Kammen, ed. One-stop shopping here for those interested in how we arrived at the particular form of government we have today. I use this book quite a bit when reading fallacious takes on modern political questions on topics such as presidential authority, impeachment, and term limits. Indispensable.
She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey. The story surrounding Harvey Weinstein’s attempts to conceal the multiple sexual harassment complaints made against him over the course of multiple decades is an involved and now very public one. While She Said goes into a remarkable number of details about the case, what makes it special is how it masterfully details the hard, dedicated, and honest investigative work done by the two New York Times reporters who broke the case. She Said also details the remarkable support provided to Kantor and Twohey by their editors at The New York Times. In an era when a robust accounting of the truth is essential to the public discourse, Kantor and Twohey’s work should be a textbook example for aspiring reporters, analysts, and readers all.
First to Fight: The Polish War 1939 by Roger Moorhouse. The German campaign into Poland is often glossed over as a sort of prologue in much of the popular history of World War II, mentioned almost as a brief exposition to set up the invasion of France and the Low Countries in 1940. Worse, large amounts of misinformation, some from misunderstanding and some from the uncritical acceptance of what was largely Nazi propaganda, have seeped into the public consciousness. One example? Polish cavalry uselessly charging at tanks. Polish cavalry actually proved effective against dismounted infantry, and they largely used their horses to transport themselves to the battlefield, where they then fought dismounted. Moorhouse’s work goes into great detail on the German invasion, and rightfully highlights the brave defense of the Poles as the first Allied power in Europe to face the Wehrmacht.
Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict by Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan. This book made a big splash when it was published in 2011, but it seems even more relevant to the current moment as protests rock Algeria, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, France, Hong Kong, Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon. The authors highlight their key finding that the low “cost” of participating in a nonviolent movement makes mass participation, and therefore success, more likely. This text is also remarkably readable (for an academic press book).
To try to get inside the heads of these worldwide protesters, I returned to a book by my mentor Jeffrey C. Isaac from 1992, Arendt, Camus, and Modern Rebellion. While I strongly doubt many of these protesters have read Arendt or Camus, Isaac uses these two authors to rethink the possibilities of “rebellious politics,” as these young activists seem to also be doing.
Dreams of El Dorado: A History of the American West by H. W. Brands is an ideal holiday book. Written in his usual readable style, Brands paints a picture of America’s westward expansion, albeit in broad strokes, from Lewis and Clark, to the Texas frontier, to the Oregon Trail, and beyond. Even if Brands doesn’t go into minute detail, his book gives readers a real sense of the people who traded the safety and stability of the east for the unknown lands of the west. This is a perfect book to read between big holiday meals and during long visits with in-laws.
The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un by Anna Fifield. Fifield’s biography of Kim provides an accessible and compelling portrait of the North Korean leader, his transition to power from behind his father’s shadow, his effort to realize a robust nuclear capability, and his approach to diplomacy with world leaders.
Active Defense: China’s Military Strategy since 1949 by M. Taylor Fravel. Taylor is an authority on the People’s Liberation Army, and his latest book is deeply researched and based on primary materials, providing a picture of the ways in which strategic thought in the Chinese military context has evolved over the years. It’s easy to recommend as a necessary reference volume for anyone writing on China’s contemporary approach to military affairs, rich in context and history.
Covert Regime Change: America’s Secret Cold War by Lindsey A. O’Rourke. Attempts to overthrow undemocratic or uncooperative regimes often end in tragedy, especially for the people in the countries where regime change takes place. This book documents the many ways in which even well-intentioned covert operations have failed, but it also shows why policymakers try to keep them covert in the first place: because the operations are often directed at democratic or popularly elected governments, and thus violate America’s purported commitment to democracy and self-determination.
Aiding and Abetting: U.S. Foreign Assistance and State Violence by Jessica Trisko Darden. The United States provides assistance to foreign states to help maintain those states’ power against foreign pressure or internal dissent. The object is to build popular support for the government by expanding the state’s capacity to meet its citizens’ needs. But the aid can also be diverted to coercion — and, in extreme cases, violence, including mass killing, torture, and gross human rights abuses. This book is a sobering but necessary corrective to the notion that foreign aid delivers only beneficial ends.
I’ve enjoyed Haunted by Chaos: Chinese Grand Strategy from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping by Sulmaan Wasif Kahn. The foreign policy cognoscenti in Washington have spent the past three years in a collective China reckoning, based in part on the presumption that China’s foreign policy has radically changed. Kahn argues that since before the People’s Republic of China’s founding, Chinese rulers have held remarkably consistent objectives, even as their definition of security has expanded.
Between Rome and Carthage: Southern Italy during the Second Punic War by Michael P. Fronda. A thoroughly absorbing examination of how smaller Italian polities chose to navigate Romano-Carthaginian rivalry during the Hannibalic War. Nuanced, engagingly written, and rife with insights for the present era. Should be required reading for any student of great power competition, and of the agency of small to medium-sized states caught in the midst of a bipolar struggle.
De Gaulle by Julian Jackson. A truly remarkable treatment of the life of one of the greatest statesmen of the 20th century, and a master class in how to write a political biography. With the rise of increasingly assertive authoritarian challengers, and the steady decline in U.S. relative power, U.S. security managers will need to double down on the preservation of their most precious competitive asset — the American alliance portfolio — if they wish their preferred model of order to have any chance of prevailing in the brave new world that awaits us. This will require a deep and unfeigned intellectual effort to understand partners and allies, along with the alternative strategic traditions and views they bring to the table. In short, U.S. policymakers will need to invest as much mental energy in understanding their allies as they do in understanding their adversaries — even when some of those perspectives may prove as nettlesome to some folks in Washington as those once held by de Gaulle. This magnificent biography of a man whose foreign policy views have all-too-often been crudely simplified or mischaracterized provides a good point of departure for such efforts toward a shrewder and more empathetic mode of alliance management.
The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War by Nicholas Thompson. This book has been around for a while, but I just checked it out of the library as part of my research on Cold War nuclear strategy. The book traces the story of the Cold War through the lives of Kennan and Nitze, two towering thinkers who maintained a warm friendship despite being very different temperamentally and intellectually. Thompson is the editor-in-chief of Wired and Nitze’s grandson, so I’ll be very interested to see how he brings his formidable journalistic skills, as well as his deeply personal connection to one of the protagonists, to bear on the story of two fascinating men and an equally fascinating time in history.
A Gentleman in Moscow: A Novel by Amor Towles. This popped up on the last few WOTR reading roundups, and I finally got a chance to devour it while on vacation before starting grad school, so I’ll belatedly add my two cents. I actually went in assuming that this would be more of a book about Soviet Russia than it actually was. In reality, it was much more about human nature — the unexpected connections people forge with one another, how people handle solitude, what it’s like to be far from home. Moscow in the 1920s provided historical flavor and lots of color and detail, but ultimately I loved this book for its elegant, subtly funny prose and Towles’ ability to highlight the very many small things that are universal to the human condition, no matter where or when we live.
The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931 by Adam Tooze. The term “tour de force” is overused, but I’ll use it anyway to describe Tooze’s ambitious effort to understand the international order that emerged in the interwar years. He complicates the conventional narrative of America’s steady rise to power in the 20th century by highlighting just how much internal social and economic turmoil the United States experienced immediately during and after World War I, as well as how its tumultuous history and the contradictions of its unique political project rendered it unprepared for the challenges of world leadership. As is his wont, Tooze does us all a service by helping us understand how global economic forces shape our past and present — but never at the expense of rich historical detail and a compelling, important narrative.
Shadow Strike: Inside Israel’s Secret Mission to Eliminate Syrian Nuclear Power by Yaakov Katz. Very little has been written about the secret 2007 Israeli mission to destroy the nascent nuclear reactor in Syria. Katz’s book walks through the high-stakes bureaucratic process of discovering the reactor, testing the intelligence, approaching the George W. Bush administration with the dilemma, and — most interestingly — designing a military operation to destroy the reactor in a way that was least likely to force a response from President Bashar Assad.
The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 by Garrett M. Graff. When this book was released, I ignored it because I believed there was no value in another book about 9/11. But an excerpt I read pushed me to read it over a single weekend. Using chronological, firsthand accounts, Graff turns to the most human way to tell the events of that day.
Divided Armies: Inequality and Battlefield Performance in Modern War by Jason Lyall. A data-driven political science exploration of what makes for war-winning armies. Much military analysis of unit cohesion argues against diversity, and Lyall shows the counter case: that political and social inclusiveness is the dominant factor in willingness to fight.
Places and Names: On War, Revolution, and Returning by Elliot Ackerman. An incredibly poignant journey of making your peace with the war you fought by one of the very best of our renaissance in veteran writers. His bittersweet description of war nostalgia in “A Prayer for Austin Tice” sums up both his own sentiment and what he realizes is also true of those he fought: “in the end, he settles on ‘to be close to it.'”
Erin M. Simpson
Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe. One part murder mystery, one part political history — all parts compelling. A rare nonfiction page turner, Keefe plumbs the depths of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, providing a fresh look at what violence does to a community and those who employ it. I remember gasping out loud at the New Yorker story that started it.
The Secrets We Kept: A Novel by Lara Prescott. A story told in many parts about the women working at the CIA in the 1950s. Centering on the effort to publish Doctor Zhivago outside the Soviet Union, Prescott gives life to the many supporting voices omitted from our traditional view of spy tradecraft. A great read for anyone who thinks they’ve read all the good spy novels!
A Savage Order: How the World’s Deadliest Countries Can Forge a Path to Security by Rachel Kleinfeld. The United States, its Western allies, and multilateral institutions have spent decades trying to strengthen weak states prone to violence and corruption. Kleinfeld’s examination of why some states emerge from the abyss and others continue drowning in violence suggests external interveners are often doing it wrong. State weakness is not the problem, although many of the states in question are weak. Rather, political and economic leaders enable violent groups to protect their own interests, and contribute to the decivilization of their societies in the process. This globe-spanning book is critical reading not only for anyone interested in the challenges related to so-called fragile states. It is also more entertaining than a book about violence has any right to be. Not all of Kleinfeld’s proposed solutions are equally convincing or viable, but, like the rest of the book, they demand engagement.
Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America by John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck. After having spent years attempting to understand political and security dynamics in other countries beset by division, I, like many other Americans, am struggling to understand what’s happening in my own country. Identity Crisis provides a data-driven key for decoding the 2016 election, whose outcome was influenced more heavily than recent ones by racial and ethnic identity. The implications, although informative, are not comforting.
A Corpse in the Koryo by James Church. What better time than the holiday season to curl up with a noir murder mystery? Written under a pseudonym by “a former Western intelligence officer,” the book offers a visceral look at life in contemporary North Korea, so you can pretend you are reading it for professional reasons.
I, Claudius by Robert Graves. If you’ve read this far, you are in need of a little intellectual escapism this holiday season. A classic that holds up to multiple reads, this story of the Caesarian dynasty is a tale of palace intrigue like no other, told from the point of view of Tiberius Claudius. It will put into perspective any family squabbles you may have around the dinner table this year, but it may incline you to hire a sacrificial food taster.