Strategic Outpost’s Fifth Annual Summer Vacation Reading List


Welcome to the summer of 2020, and a vacation season like no other! Some of you readers may be furtively planning to escape to isolated cabins hidden away in the mountains for a week or two. But most of us will be spending our summer breaks wishing we could do something more than a “staycation” with the very same people we have been trapped with enjoying quality time with since the late spring.

But no matter what your situation, we have something for you: Strategic Outpost’s Fifth Annual Summer Vacation Reading List! Just like our lists in 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019, we’ve once again carefully selected some of the best natsec books, articles, podcasts, and films to engage your brain and divert your attention from the distressing daily drumbeat of news. So make yourself a large quarantini, retreat into a quiet corner if you’re lucky enough to have one, and immerse yourself in this year’s picks!*



The Pandemic and Its Implications

The July/August issue of Foreign Affairs. COVID-19 has not only profoundly changed our daily lives; it is also transforming the world in which we live. The first four articles in this issue help us better understand what these changes mean. Michael Osterholm and Mark Olshaker start off with the sobering reminder that future pandemics could be far worse than this one, and suggest several important ways to improve national preparedness. Francis Fukuyama argues that the pandemic might spur a renaissance of liberal democracy, but is more likely to even further erode the current world order and strengthen global fascist movements. Danielle Allen (who appears twice on this list) argues that the fragmented U.S. response to COVID-19 not only reflects a failure of governance, but also exposes how fragile American democracy can be when the nation lacks a sense of common purpose. And Stewart Patrick laments the “dismal multilateral response” to the pandemic, and worries that global leaders will now only further undermine international institutions instead of trying to make them more effective.

Things You Should Worry About (More Than You Already Are)

The Kill Chain: Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare, by Christian Brose. This book examines the looming threats to U.S. military preeminence, especially from China, and concludes that the United States is badly prepared for a growing number of existential challenges. Brose, a former staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee, provides a cogent account of the systemic missteps in building U.S. military capabilities over the last decade and more, and suggests how to fix the military’s gaping shortfalls moving ahead. This book will raise hackles in the defense industry and even among those tribes in the services whose prize legacy platforms are threatened, but Brose rightly argues that a new approach is needed to ensure that the U.S. military can prevail against high-end potential adversaries.

Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare, by Thomas Rid. Full disclosure up front: Rid is one of our colleagues at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. But even if we didn’t know him, we’d recommend this incredibly important new book motivated by the Russian threat to destabilize the 2016 elections. Rid highlights the extensive history of disinformation over the past century, and how it has been transformed by the digital revolution. But he also argues that Russia was able to fully leverage its long experience with these dark arts against the United States because of the unprecedented level of divisiveness that characterizes American society today. The book provides a chilling warning about the risks of foreign interference in the November election and beyond. For those who prefer their dangers in audio form, tune into Lawfare’s two podcast episodes where Rid discusses the book with experts from Brookings.

War and the Military

The Outpost, available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime, iTunes, and Vudu. This brand-new movie dramatizes the gut-wrenching 2009 battle for a tiny U.S. outpost in the remote mountains of eastern Afghanistan. Drawn from journalist Jake Tapper’s 2012 book of the same name, the film depicts the desperate battle in which eight Americans died, 27 were wounded, and two ultimately received the Medal of Honor. The Outpost provides an incomparable look in realistic, bloody detail at what infantry close combat looks like when fighting against overwhelming odds.

Thank You for Your Service. Alice Friend and Jim Golby are two of the foremost thinkers on civil-military relations, and they’ve teamed up in this new podcast from the Center for Strategic and International Studies. They focus on the often-fraught relationship between the military and its civilian masters, and bring together academics and practitioners to share their different perspectives. Don’t miss the episode called “The Civ-Mil of Hamilton,” which examines the megahit musical’s subtle lessons on military service and social mobility at the time of the American Revolution.

Understanding Tech Trends

The Future Is Faster Than You Think, by Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler. Two acclaimed futurists have teamed up once again for the third installment of their Exponential Technology series. Diamandis, a space and innovation entrepreneur, and Kotler, a peak-performance expert, examine how the unprecedented convergence of new technologies will transform nearly every human activity — from education to longevity to health care, and a great deal in between. They don’t discuss how these trends will affect the future of warfare, but their far-ranging work will better inform the natsec community about these revolutionary trends so we can draw out those implications ourselves.

How to Lead … And How Not to Lead

The Good Shepherd, by C.S. Forester, and Greyhound, streaming on Apple TV+. Forester’s superb 1955 novel has, at long last, been turned into a film. Tom Hanks stars as the captain of a U.S. Navy destroyer during a 48-hour battle against lethal German U-boats in World War II’s freezing North Atlantic. The book and film both brilliantly capture the intense pressure of command at sea and its staggering wartime hazards in a way that few will ever forget. The movie’s CGI effects are stunning, and bring home the reality of war at sea under the harshest of conditions in ways that would have been impossible to replicate otherwise. The story also reminds us of the truly incredible feats performed by ordinary men and women in wartime. Readers and viewers who find this story gripping may also want to plunge into Forester’s Gold From Crete, a finely rendered compilation of World War II short stories that highlight the enormous challenges of naval warfare. (Pro tip: Apple TV+ offers a free seven-day trial. And if you’re desperately trying to entertain small children who are stuck at home, use the trial period to watch Snoopy in Space with them — a mostly educational series where the world’s most famous beagle joins a mission to the International Space Station.)

Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century, by George Packer. Veteran journalist Packer has masterfully unraveled the immensely complex life of Richard Holbrooke, one of America’s most accomplished and controversial diplomats. Holbrooke’s outsize persona embodied the pursuit of power, and was an almost incomprehensible mosaic of professional brilliance, craven influence-seeking, and self-serving ambition mounted atop the personality of a human bulldozer. This book is a cautionary tale for aspiring policy types, and an essential warning about the personal and professional costs of pursuing unbridled ambition without regard for the values or needs of colleagues and subordinates.

Toward a More Perfect Union

Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality, by Danielle Allen. Allen, a Harvard professor, wrote this book partly based on her experience teaching the Declaration of Independence to night-school students in Chicago. In many ways, it is an ode about the deepest meanings of a foundational American text that has most often been associated with America’s individual liberties. But in Allen’s incisive writing, it also becomes a hymn fully affirming the young nation’s deep commitment to equality among all citizens, whose centrality to the declaration is too often overlooked. Her book is an original and uplifting new take on the vision of the nation’s founders, and its emphasis on equality as an enduring national virtue can help inform many of the challenges facing the nation today. (You might also want to watch Allen’s discussion of the book at the Library of Congress last fall.)

Inspired to Serve: The Final Report of the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service. This congressionally chartered commission released its final report in March, which unfortunately got buried amid the deluge of news about the pandemic. That’s a shame, because its findings about how to improve a culture of service throughout the country are needed now more than ever. The commission makes several important recommendations about military service that are directly relevant for our community — including requiring women to register with the Selective Service (something we’ve long endorsed). But the final report also stresses that all forms of military, national, and public service need to be better integrated, in order to help build “a common expectation of service among the American people.” We can think of no better way to help heal the nation’s ever-deepening divides.

We Don’t Need Conversations, We Need Systemic Change,” by Commander Jada Johnson. Johnson, an African American Navy officer, wrote this piece specifically about her service, but its themes apply equally to the rest of the military — and to American society more broadly. She starkly describes her frustrations with trying to discuss her experiences as a black person with her white peers, and the perils of doing so with more powerful superiors. She argues convincingly that those types of individual conversations will never be adequate when deeper institutional changes are needed. Johnson’s recommendations may be controversial for some, but she concludes by sharply reminding us that past, less bold efforts have always fallen short.

Life Wisdom

My Semester with the Snowflakes,” by James Hatch. This short piece should be mandatory reading for anyone who has ever smirkingly put down the Millennials and Generation Z as deeply self-indulgent and delicate individuals who can’t deal with the harsh realities of an unforgiving world. Written by a retired SEAL who was wounded in combat and entered Yale’s freshman undergraduate class at age 52, it demolishes those oft-heard stereotypes as he navigates his first year with young men and women who have often overcome obstacles he could not even imagine before encountering them. (We’ve known this for years, thanks to the many talented and diverse students whom we’ve been privileged to teach.) But this piece will be a bracing and much-needed corrective for those who see nothing but incapacity in those generations rising behind us who will eventually take over — and hopefully substantially improve — our world.

Lighter Beach Reads

The Bruno, Chief of Police series, by Martin Walker. If you’re frustrated that you can’t travel the world this summer, and if you love food, wine, travel in France, and/or foreign detective mysteries, do we have a treat for you! This 15-book series shares the ongoing adventures of a former French soldier turned small town police chief in a rural village in the Périgord. Bruno revels in the slow rural life of southern France, taking care of his eccentric neighbors, cooking simple but exquisite fare, and savoring regional wines all while solving myriad vexing crimes that seem to rattle his peaceful existence. With mysteries that traverse the rolling hills of the Périgord to the government offices and spy agencies in Paris, Bruno methodically unravels the darkest offenses while trying to preserve his idyllic bucolic life. Make sure to start at the beginning of the series, since immersing yourself in Bruno’s world will happily take you far away from your current confines.

Restless, by William Boyd. Boyd’s ninth novel is an intriguing historical thriller about a Russian émigré swept into Britain’s spy service during the early days of World War II — not to thwart the Nazis, but to help draw America into the war. Told through a series of folders given to her daughter many decades later, the narrative contains all manner of twisting and perhaps deeply misleading accounts of the mother’s wartime story and its mysterious aftermath. For the daughter, understanding her mother’s secret life and unexpectedly being driven to find her betrayer becomes a vital and dangerous quest.

Just for Fun

Although 2020 will not go down in history as a particularly funny year, we’ve nevertheless found some small bits of natsec humor that will make you smile — at least for a few fleeting moments.

Never in our wildest dreams did we think that we’d laugh out loud at any video made by an Army general — much less one made by a three-star. Our hats are off to Lt. Gen. Ted Martin, the deputy commanding general of the U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, for this 55-second clip about how he wishes he could respond to internet trolls.

Of course no place in the natsec world provides more rich source material for comedy than the Space Force (the real one, not the TV series, which has some priceless scenes of the joint chiefs). Space Force has already proved itself as the gift of service humor that keeps on giving, including its very sophisticated recruiting efforts, its doctrinal process, and even its recent graduation ceremony.

So that’s our list for this crazy pandemic summer! We hope that it provides you with some engaging distractions to help make your summer days different — and hopefully a little bit more festive! Strategic Outpost is now officially on its well-earned summer break as well. We wish you the best for this most unusual season, and hope you stay healthy and safe. Thanks to all of our readers for your continued interest and support, and we look forward to returning in September!

*We thank Paula Alvarez-Couceiro for recommending Thank You for Your Service; Mara Karlin and Jenna Ben-Yehuda for Our Man; Ray DuBois for Our Declaration; and Mara Karlin and Sarah Crawford for “We Don’t Need Conversations, We Need Systemic Change.”



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: Kyle Pearce