Strategic Outpost’s Sixth Annual Summer Vacation Reading List
It’s the end of July – and that means it’s time for Strategic Outpost’s Sixth Annual Summer Vacation Reading List! We all need a break from Zoom squares, email overload, kids doing their science experiments on the dining room table, and worrying about what you’ll wear when you finally return to the office. We began these summer vacation reading lists in 2016 to help our fellow national security nerds to keep their high-powered brains engaged while hiding behind a pair of big sunglasses, and continued the tradition in 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020.
So here’s our decidedly unscientific list of suggestions for your summer reading, watching, and listening. These books, podcasts, and videos will help to tone your brains as you suntan your pale work-from-home bodies when you head out this summer to the beach, the mountains, or just your local park.
The Recent Wars
Alpha: Eddie Gallagher and the War for the Soul of the Navy SEALs, by Dave Philipps. You’re going to have to wait until Labor Day weekend to read this book by New York Times reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner Philipps, since it won’t be released until the end of August, but make sure to pre-order it now. This devastating book tells the story of how the members of Gallagher’s platoon faced the horrors he committed during their deployment to Iraq in 2017, and the ways in which the Navy’s insular Special Warfare culture led so many of its leaders to cover up his criminal behavior. But it also shows how a few extraordinarily courageous SEALs fought their superiors every step of the way to ensure that Gallagher was brought to justice — and, at the end of the book, how senior SEAL leaders sought to ensure some form of accountability for Gallagher after he was pardoned by the president. Our friend and colleague Tom Ricks called Alpha “the best military-related book I have read this year, by far,” and we couldn’t agree more.
The Hardest Place, by Wesley Morgan. As the United States leaves Afghanistan after 20 years of conflict, pundits and professionals alike will spend years dissecting the reasons for the nation’s striking failure to win this war. Morgan’s book goes a long way to helping us to understand the ever-shifting shape of U.S. military operations by focusing on the fight for the Pech valley in remote eastern Afghanistan. Starting in 2001, Morgan takes us on a year-by-year journey that shows how the U.S. policy of constantly rotating units and commanders on an almost random basis undermined any possibility of achieving a successful and lasting outcome. The heroism and pure grit of the U.S. forces who fought there stand in stark contrast to the lack of any coherent strategic plan.
The Daughters of Kobani: A Story of Rebellion, Courage, and Justice, by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon. The widely acclaimed author of Ashley’s War (which was featured on our 2016 list) tells an unexpected and compelling story of the fierce Kurdish female fighters who battled the Islamic State in northeastern Syria in 2014. She describes their battlefield prowess and shocking successes, as well as their battles against the male-dominated culture that marginalizes women in every part of society. It’s an extraordinary story of an all-female militia waging war against one of the most brutal foes in modern times, while at the same time elevating women’s rights and becoming an unexpected political force. If you don’t have time to read the whole book, you might want to check out the episode of the Irregular Warfare podcast that features the author alongside retired general and former U.S. Central Command commander Joe Votel.
The Splendid and the Vile, by Erik Larson. Best-selling author Larson takes us on a captivatingly intimate, almost day-by-day account of Winston Churchill’s first year as prime minister during the 1940-41 Blitz, as told through the diaries of his family members, personal servants, government luminaries, and average British citizens in the street. The horrors and heroism of meeting the German threat to Britain’s survival shine through in ways that uniquely bring home what life (and love) was like under incessant bombing. Of even more interest to those of us in the national security arena, the pressures and uncertainties of crafting successful strategies, cajoling balky allies, and leading a wavering nation under existential threat have never been told more strikingly.
The Greatest Beer Run Ever: A Memoir of Friendship, Loyalty, and War, by John “Chick” Donahue and J.T. Molloy. This story from the Vietnam War is so improbable, so ridiculous, and so absurd that it seems like it must be fiction — but it’s true. At the height of the Vietnam War protests in 1967, Donahue was a former Marine and active merchant seaman living in a blue-collar corner of New York City. Challenged in his local bar to do something to show the neighborhood’s support for three of their own young men serving in Vietnam, he promptly signs on to a merchant cargo ship headed for the war zone, packing several cases of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. The story gets even more astonishing from there as he tracks down each of his friends, at times in combat, and shares the beer with them. The entire adventure is totally and completely unbelievable, and it will send your heart soaring as you laugh out loud. Watch the 12-minute video of the story here if you don’t believe us. It’s also being made into a movie that will reportedly star Zac Efron as Donohue, and feature Russell Crowe and Bill Murray as well.
Lessons from the Pandemic
Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe, by Niall Ferguson. Renowned historian Ferguson helps us to figure out why COVID-19 led to such a severe global pandemic, while suggesting ways to both prevent and mitigate future catastrophes. He examines a wide range of disasters throughout human history to provide some much-needed context. Ferguson cogently highlights the complex roots of disasters from plagues to earthquakes to the crash of the Challenger — finding “operator error” and “managerial error” in nearly all — and seeks to provide some commonsense remedies to make society more resilient for the inevitable calamities to come.
Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World, by Fareed Zakaria. A chronicler of disparate trends that impact all of us, best-selling author and CNN host Zakaria tries to explain how the world is changing in the aftermath of the worst global pandemic in over a century. Rather than focus on immediate trends, his analysis helps us take the long view and reflect upon how COVID-19 will deeply re-shape our world for decades to come. Ranging across economics, diplomacy, politics, and health, this book starts an important assessment of the immense scope of disruptive changes — including many that would previously have been unimaginable. Though many books will eventually be written on the enduring and diverse global disruptions triggered by COVID-19, this is one of the best of the early entries.
Tangled Up in Blue: Policing the American City, by Rosa Brooks. “A middle-aged female law professor decides to become a D.C. cop” may sound like the premise of a bad novel, but it is actually the true story that Brooks recounts in her latest book. The author of How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything provides an inside look at how she was trained to be a reserve officer at the police academy, and what it’s like to patrol the streets of Washington’s Seventh District — a predominantly black district that is the poorest and most violent in the city. Though her personal experiences are fascinating, the deeper value of this book lies in the insights that result from her unique ability to see the legal system from so many different perspectives. Perhaps most importantly, Brooks explores the very real problems of policing and race from many angles without any obvious bias. She offers a nuanced discussion, for example, about the reasons why black communities are so often overpoliced. And though she readily admits that there are “far too many” bad cops who target black people, she also notes that racism “seems like a non-issue to many street cops” because “it’s baked so deeply into the system that it’s invisible.” The book provides extraordinary personal insights into one of the nation’s most pressing challenges.
Leadership and Decision-Making
Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment, by Daniel Kahneman, Oliver Sibony, and Cass R. Sunstein. The authors take us on a fascinating journey that explores an often invisible source of bad decision-making — random variability in our judgment — and how to overcome it. That variability leads to confusing and otherwise inexplicable deviations in human decision-making that seem to defy logic. They examine why doctors viewing identical medical tests make different diagnoses at different times, for example, and analyze colleges whose admissions criteria seem to vary based upon — amazingly — the weather. This important and entertaining book helps us to better understand how we make decisions, and provides a useful set of tools to improve them.
The Leader’s Guide to Unconscious Bias, by Pamela Fuller and Mark Murphy, with Anne Chow. Before Kahneman wrote Noise, he was best known for his Nobel Prize-winning work on how all human beings have unconscious biases that systematically impair our judgment. (We’ve also written about how some of those biases can skew predictions of future war.) Here, Fuller and her co-authors focus on how leaders can help overcome such problems. They discuss ways to identify bias, to connect with others in deeper ways that overcome initial perceptions, to cope with bias and support those affected by it, and to apply these to improve recruiting and retention. Though tailored to a business audience, the ideas and exercises at the end of each chapter will help leaders of all kinds to think more objectively about themselves and the people they manage, and ultimately get the best performance from an increasingly diverse workforce.
Writing and The Creative Process
Jerry Seinfeld – A Comedy Legend’s Systems, Routines, and Methods for Success, episode 485 of the podcast The Tim Ferris Show. This funny and insightful interview is not just another Jerry Seinfeld standup routine, but an intriguing explanation of how a talented performer rigorously approaches his art. Even if you don’t like his sense of humor, his insights will surprise you and may even help you sharpen your own work habits. Seinfeld describes his own rigorous personal writing routine, which he still maintains every day. He also notes the painful truth that 95 percent of writing is actually rewriting, and surprisingly shares that experiencing abject failure in Hollywood as a rising young comic became the driving force behind his ultimate success. It’s a fascinating and engaging interview — and there’s also a transcript available if you prefer to read instead of listen.
A Classic Revisited
Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card. Though many of you are already very familiar with this classic, Strategic Outpost reader Matt Deffenbaugh offered this insightful reason to read it again. (Warning: spoilers follow!)
Ender’s Game has been a staple on military reading lists for entry-level officers and non-commissioned officers. But at the operational and strategic levels of command, senior leaders should consider Ender’s situation during the final problem. Much like today’s senior leaders during wargames, Ender was willing to risk his entire fleet to destroy the Formic civilization when he thought it was a simulation. However, he questioned whether the military was the right element of [national] power and second-guessed his risk decisions when he learned the stakes were real. Our senior leaders are taking the threats we as a nation face seriously; are they taking simulations designed to test the advice they will offer and the decisions they will make in combat just as seriously?
What to Watch After a Full Day at the Beach
Lupin, on Netflix. If you haven’t watched this terrific French show yet, you’re in for a treat! The phenomenal Omar Sy stars as Assane Diop, the son of a Senegalese immigrant who was deliberately framed for a crime he did not commit. Diop seeks revenge against those responsible by modeling himself after the classic French character of Arsène Lupin, Gentleman Burglar — who only steals from the rich and powerful who deserve it, through creative disguises and seemingly impossible escapes. The first episode involves an amazing theft from the Louvre that will keep you on the edge of your seats, and it only gets better from there. But the dazzling heists and beautiful shots of Paris and the French countryside remain leavened with the realities of race and class that motivate Diop in the first place. Ten episodes are now available, which makes this the perfect show to watch on your vacation evenings or to binge on a rainy day!
Still Our Favorite Book of the Year
Adaptation Under Fire: How Militaries Change in Wartime, by David Barno and Nora Bensahel. We confess that this is shameless self-promotion, but with all the years of work we put into our very first book, we had to include it on our annual reading list! In all seriousness: if you want to understand the central importance of adaptability in military operations, and read a no-holds-barred critique of recent U.S. military wartime adaptability, this is the book for you. We also render judgment on whether today’s U.S. military is adaptable enough to win the wars of the future, and what we can do to improve those chances. It’ll also be released as an audiobook in a few months, so you military types can listen to it while you work out!
Just For Fun: Space Edition
It was inevitable — every service has to have a song. And while the Space Force has now officially adopted this stirring John Philip Sousa piece as its official interim march, they still need a rousing anthem with inspiring lyrics to motivate their slowly growing legions of Space Guardians. Cue the Miami-based group Voices of Freedom, with their, um, spirited nomination for a Space Force anthem. Who wouldn’t be inspired by lyrics that include “We fly upwards, blast through the void,” and “Not a foe nor any terror, not an alien invader, shall hinder our destiny to go forth!” Yikes. We much prefer Space Force – The Theme Song, which has been out for a couple of years and is a whole lot catchier!
After that, settle down to watch one of the best songs about outer space, performed in outer space. Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield filmed this stirring tribute to David Bowie that is a paean to our human resilience and our sometimes forgotten out-of-this-world accomplishments. This amazing music video truly warmed our hearts and souls, and we hope you enjoy it as much as we did. (And if you want some of Hadfield’s other-worldly insights, check out his book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth.)
And that’s a wrap! Strategic Outpost is now officially on its much-anticipated summer break! We hope your summer is filled with sun, fresh air, and cool breezes — and time to relax, refresh, and recharge your batteries. We have all been through an astonishingly stressful and challenging year and a half, and we hope that the time between now and Labor Day gives each of you some well-deserved time to recover. We thank all of you for your continued readership and support, and we look forward to continuing the conversation when Strategic Outpost returns in September!
* We thank Tom Ricks for recommending Alpha, Tim Anderlonis for The Greatest Beer Run Ever, and Mike Barno for the Bowie tribute video.
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: Pixabay (Image by StockSnap)