The 2021 War on the Rocks Holiday Reading List
Every year we kick off the holiday season with a roundup of books recommended by the War on the Rocks and Texas National Security Review team. Enrich your friends’ libraries, get a family book club going, or treat yourself to something new. We hope you enjoy!
The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, Christopher Clark. This classic 2012 book is perhaps the best history book I’ve ever read. It combines large-scale historical trends with the minutiae of diplomatic history: what the key actors across the European continent were thinking, saying, and doing in the run-up to the Great War. The characters and actions trip off the page in ways curiously reminiscent of today’s interconnected world. More importantly, they remind us of the ways in which even the best intentions in foreign policy can easily go awry.
Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of Post-Cold War Stalemate, Mary Elise Sarotte. In 1991, the fall of the Soviet Union was greeted with a wave of optimism about the future trajectory of European security and Russian politics. Today, U.S.-Russian relations are locked in a damaging, dead-end, and hostile stalemate. Sarotte’s broad yet detailed history explores how we went from one state of affairs to the other and suggests it will be near-impossible to rewind the clock. A must-read for anyone interested in U.S.-Russian relations or the study of U.S. foreign policy since 1991.
The British Way of War: Julian Corbett and the Battle for National Strategy, Andrew Lambert. Who knew, after all the scholarship surrounding the centenary of World War I, there would still be something new to say? This book challenges ideas about the British role in the Great War and returns naval strategy to the center of British strategic thinking. Brand new, and well worth your while.
On Wide Seas: The U.S. Navy in the Jacksonian Era, Claude Berube. American naval history readers seem to always skip from the War of 1812 to the Civil War. Berube’s new book dives deeply into the middle of those missing decades, focusing specifically on the years of Andrew Jackson’s presidency. He reveals Jackson, an Army general who prior historians have assured us had no interest in maritime affairs, as a naval leader who learned that the United States is a maritime nation, and one that needed sea power for its defense and its economic success. A vital contribution to the understanding of the U.S. Navy.
Mary Kate Aylward
Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry. This is one of many stories the Kentucky author and farmer has set in the fictional Port William, based on his own hometown of Port Royal. His portrait of small-town America may seem too good to be true, but I think that’s a measure of Berry’s sadness at what was lost to highways, agricultural mechanization, and the pursuit of speed and profit — all of which Jayber observes from his perch as the town’s bachelor barber.
Whereabouts, Jhumpa Lahiri. Lahiri won the Pulitzer Prize for her first short-story collection and then evidently decided she needed to level up, so she moved to Rome, learned the language, and wrote her latest novel in Italian. In short, self-contained chapters, we follow an unnamed older woman around her life in an unnamed Italian city as she explores the boundary between a solitary life and a lonely one.
David Barno and Nora Bensahel
Urgent Fury: The Battle for Grenada, Mark Adkin. Written by a British Army major stationed in Barbados during the 1983 U.S. invasion of neighboring Grenada, this account remains the most definitive tactical account of the conflict. Adkin describes in painful detail the stunning array of errors, confusion, and jaw-dropping lack of coordination that went into the hastily organized invasion. A sobering reminder that major U.S. military operations in the future may be far more fraught with chaos and confusion than those of the last three decades.
Over the Beach: The Air War in Vietnam, Zalin Grant. A striking narrative that describes the air war over North Vietnam as fought by Navy carrier pilots flying from the Tonkin Gulf. Grant, a veteran Vietnam War correspondent, drives home the incredible dangers and staggering losses to the airmen and their machines that fought over the heavily defended skies of the north. Told both through the eyes of the author and the personal accounts of those who fought and the spouses they left behind, this book brings home the intensity, fear, and dangers of combat flying in the last war in which the United States took heavy losses in the air.
Bankrupting the Enemy: The U.S. Financial Siege of Japan Before Pearl Harbor, Edward S. Miller. Any policy wonk or strategist worth his or her salt knows there are multiple instruments of national power. This book details the history of the secret economic campaign the United States waged against Japan to financially strangle the country in the years leading up to Pearl Harbor. This book isn’t the easiest read (it was written by a former Fortune 500 chief financial officer), but the strategic insights gained make it worth the effort.
Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries, Peter Sims. This easy read is not about national security, but the example-rich concepts detail how breakthrough ideas emerge from small discoveries. Highly recommended for any commercial, government, or military organization that wants to accelerate change without failing epically.
Washington Irving: An American Original, Brian Jay Jones. America’s first superstar in the literary field is given his due in this extensive biography of Washington Irving. Satirist, businessman, civil servant, and writer, Irving was as popular in England as he was in the United States and associated with giants like Byron, Mary Shelley, and Walter Scott as well as kings and queens. Military historians will also appreciate his ties to the U.S. Navy and diplomacy. Aspiring writers will also understand Irving’s periods of writer’s block and need to find old unpublished manuscripts simply to pay the bills.
The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz, Erik Larson. Nearly 30,000 citizens of London were killed during the Blitz and another 28,000 were seriously injured. Larson guides the reader to the streets and throughout the countryside as well as in the minds of the country’s leaders in defying Germany. If you liked Larson’s Dead Wake, you’ll love The Splendid and the Vile.
Tami Davis Biddle
The best book on war, hands down, is Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War. It has everything: causes of war, coercion theory, democracy in war, morality and ethics, escalation theory, leadership, war termination, alliance theory — everything! And it’s all just as relevant and useful as it was when first written.
And Karl Marlantes, What It Is Like to Go To War. If you read the preface and the first few pages, you will be hooked — and you will never think about war the same way again.
My two recommendations focus on the last year of World War II, one as regards Germany and the other Japan: Ian Kershaw’s The End (Germany) and Max Hastings’ Retribution (Japan). Key takeaways: Germany is one of the very few countries in history that refused to sue for peace and instead fought to the very end. Even though I knew of Japan’s gruesome record of atrocities, I had no idea that it was as bad as Hastings describes, especially in China. I did know that the horrific casualties on Okinawa helped convince U.S. senior leadership to go ahead with the atomic bombs and shorten the war. Also, Hastings is very sympathetic to LeMay’s firebombing campaign for the same reason.
Audrey Kurth Cronin
Akhil Reed Amar, The Words That Made Us: America’s Constitutional Conversation, 1760-1840. I picked up this book for deeper insight into the origins of the U.S. Constitution. Amar is a Yale University law and poli-sci professor who delves into the lively “conversations” that produced words Americans revere but also fight over. It’s well-sourced and based on primary documents from 1760-1840. Understanding the stories, history, and context in greater depth was valuable, but what grabbed me was the author’s optimism, reminding me of ideas and values that can still unite us — if we can stop shouting at each other.
21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Yuval Noah Harari. This book brings together some of the key dilemmas facing humanity in the digital age, connecting concepts across disciplines and topic areas in 21 short thematic chapters. I’m a fan of Harari’s Homo Deus and Sapiens, and this book has the same sweeping erudition in bite-sized pieces. The chapters on terrorism and war are good, of course, but my favorites are those on equality, liberty, and civilization. Great for shaking your brain out of familiar ruts.
Blood and Ruins: The Great Imperial War, 1931-1945, Richard Overy. (Note that this is the U.K. version, which you can order online. The U.S. edition is not available until April.) Overy’s masterwork offers a brilliant framework for thinking about World War II as a broad and lengthy military-political-economic contest of old and new would-be empires. Overy’s blend of historical narrative and conceptual thinking ensures every reader looking for insights into today’s major-power competition will find a treasure trove of insights.
To Rule the Waves: How Control of the World’s Oceans Shapes the Fate of the Superpowers, Bruce D. Jones. The author delivers on his promise of a book focused on the struggle for political and economic power from the vantage point of the world’s oceans. Beautifully crafted and told in such a way that the reader will hardly notice when Jones crosses the customary barriers erected to separate naval operations from trade, undersea internet cables, and climate change. Read this book to come away with a deeper understanding of why the world’s oceans are both vital and connected to core defense, economic, and environmental security.
We Are Not Born Submissive: How Patriarchy Shapes Women’s Lives, Manon Garcia. Incredibly well-written, engaging, and extremely provocative, Garcia’s tour de force is a must-read for anyone who is wondering about the status of feminism and its reverberations at a key moment in global history. In a thoughtful reinterpretation of past luminaries like Simone de Beauvoir, she points out how, rather than serving merely as a default strategy to avoid conflict, “submission” takes a lot of work and involves incredible labor for women who decide to follow the dictates of their societies, workplaces, and partners. For some, submission to such expectations can even be pleasurable. Garcia unfolds a bold tapestry of questions and philosophical musings on a topic that is bound to provoke and stimulate animated discussion.
Breasts and Eggs, Mieko Kawakami. Kawakami’s fascinating book examines a plethora of issues facing three women in a working-class Japanese family as they head down roads toward adolescence and adulthood, a successful professional career potentially without children, and aging in a profession based on looks. The author’s prose is immensely suspenseful as readers become curious onlookers into how each woman’s life unfolds and encounters a variety of issues concerning female embodied experiences.
The Circassian: A Life of Esref Bey, Late Ottoman Insurgent and Special Agent, Benjamin Fortna. A compelling real-life spy story that doubles as a brief history of the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
The Complete Short Stories of Saki, H.H. Munro. A century on, still the funniest thing written in the English language.
City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas, Roger Crowley. This fascinating story of how Venice built and lost a maritime empire over the course of hundreds of years has so much for students and practitioners of strategy. I came away both enthralled and horrified by the Venetian leaders of the era. Their systematic and single-minded pursuit of profit and trade led them to change the world forever, in ways both admirable and ghastly.
The Fall of Constantinople 1453, Steven Runciman. Inspired in part by Crowley’s book (the Venetians played a large role in weakening the Byzantine Empire, running it, and later defending it unsuccessful from the Ottomans) and in part by the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, I picked up this classic account of the final end to what was once the greatest empire and civilization the world had known.
América: The Epic Story of Spanish North America, 1493-1898, Robert Goodwin. More time passed between Columbus and George Washington than between Washington and our present day. We don’t think much about the fact that Spain owned half of the modern United States at our country’s founding or about what went on for the 300 years of its North American domination. This book tells you.
Sovietstan: A Journey Through Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, Erika Fatland. Think you can’t make a profile of Turkmenbashi breezy and entertaining? Think again. A Norwegian anthropologist saddles up and hits Central Asia. Fascination ensues. (Hat tip to my colleague Nathalie Grogan for the rec.)
I have particularly enjoyed Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun. If you want to think about the forms that love might take, the uses we make of others, our degrees of attachment, and what the end might look like, this book provokes you to think about these things and much more.
I’ve also enjoyed Andrey Kurkov’s Grey Bees. Set in the grey zone in Ukraine between separatist and loyalist forces, it is about one man’s devotion to his bees and to finding the right place for them and, therefore, perhaps, for himself, at a time of war. This is very sparingly written but has a particular beauty that comes from the underlying idea rather than the prose itself.
The Responsibility to Defend: Rethinking Germany’s Strategic Culture, Bastian Giegerich and Maximilian Terhalle. Germany’s security policy no longer fits the strategic challenges that it faces. That is the verdict of Giegerich and Terhalle, two observers of German defense policy. The book lays out the changed security situation for the Federal Republic and explains the reasons for the “fundamental unseriousness” of the German discussion on these topics. To Germany-watchers, the authors’ analysis may not come as a surprise, but for those wanting to understand Germany’s often surprising policy decisions better, this book gives a full account in less than 150 pages.
Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, Jung Chang. This 1991 book, which enjoyed enormous success at the time, deserves another read today. Chang tells the story of her mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and finally herself in an ever-changing China between 1900 and 1978. She gives fascinating insights from the time of the emperor to the absurdity of Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution.
Pastoral Song: A Farmer’s Journey, James Rebanks. Between COVID-19 and climate change, I have begun to ask some fundamental questions about my own relationship with nature, and I’m certainly not alone in this. Rebanks is a farmer in the Lake District and author of the best-selling The Shepherd’s Life. While part autobiography, the book is about rethinking food production from animal health and preventing natural disasters to sustainable land management. Rebanks offers a philosophy of farming that builds on millennia of knowledge, mostly forsworn in the last half-century, but updates it for the modern world.
Guarded by Dragons: Encounters with Rare Books and Rare People, Rick Gekoski. Gekoski, possibly the most important book dealer of the last 50 years, fills page after page with witty anecdotes on dealing with the rarest books in the world, the people who wrote them, and the people that collect them. Beyond great stories well told, it’s an education on the book trade itself. An absolute must-read for book lovers.
Gangsters are people too, even if often deeply damaged and/or unpleasant ones with questionable impulse control. Federico Varese‘s brilliant Mafia Life: Love, Death, and Money at the Heart of Organized Crime draws on his fieldwork amongst the hoodlums of the world to explore the texture of their day-to-day lives, from their working days to their dying ones. A fascinating tour de force.
While on the subject of gangsters, I’ve been on a bit of a retro, noir kick this year and Dashiell Hammett remains one of my favorite writers of the era, with an almost Hemingway-like telegraphic taciturnity to his prose. The Maltese Falcon may get more attention because of the film, but for my money, his Red Harvest is the best of the crop, a tale of moral corruption in Poisonville, a town torn between rival gangsters and corrupt officials, all ready to be played against each other. Apart from inspiring both Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, it also set the standard for hard-boiled interwar “morality imposed by immoral means” tales.
Wars of Revelation, Rebecca Lissner. This book doesn’t come out until December, but I had the opportunity to read a preview. Lissner asks how U.S. military interventions in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq transformed grand strategy, especially perceptions of its own power. She uses original historical material and, on top of that, the book is beautifully written.
The Consequences of Humiliation: Anger and Status in World Politics, Joslyn Barnhart. There has been a lot of work on status and great-power politics, and this is a welcome and original addition. Barnhart looks specifically at reactions to humiliation in world politics and how shameful events can spark future aggression. What’s particularly impressive is her ability to dive down into the individual level to really unpack the psychology of humiliation in world politics.
The Exponential Age: How Accelerating Technology is Transforming Business, Politics, and Security, Azzem Azhar. A journalist and serial entrepreneur, Azhar has written a highly readable book that illustrates the essential skill of thinking in terms of exponential change. Every field is being affected by this trend.
The Hardest Place: The American Military Adrift in Afghanistan’s Pech Valley, Wesley Morgan. This meticulously researched book provides a sharp analysis of how initial tactical success in the Pech Valley led to long-term defeat. Of particular interest is the continuity it provides to the inherently disconnected narrative of the units rotating through the hardest place. Great companion to The Afghanistan Papers.
Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water, Marc Reisner. Though somewhat dated (first published in 1986), the issues described in this history of water and the American West have only grown more acute since its writing. Reisner is an engaging writer, devoting time to vivid descriptions of the out-sized (and occasionally outlandish) personalities of the farmers, ranchers, real estate developers, conservationists, bureaucrats, and engineers who fought over whether and how to bring irrigation to naturally arid regions. The nobility and hubris of the American impulse to shape nature to suit human desires are on clear display, and the implications for the future are sobering.
Squeeze Me, Carl Hiaasen. Florida is as much a character in Hiaasen’s novels as any of the men and women whose misadventures he chronicles. Most of his main characters are the human equivalent of “factory seconds” — genially flawed people who wouldn’t pass the quality check to be brand-name humans and are the more fascinating and lovable for their many imperfections. In this novel, Hiaasen assembles an absurd collection of characters, all of whom travel in or intersect the orbit of a collection of Burmese pythons (an invasive species) and an unnamed U.S. president (only ever referred to as “POTUS” or his Secret Service call sign) living in a resort/Winter White House near Palm Beach. Like most of Hiaasen’s books, this is a fast, breezy read that will result in at least chuckles and perhaps a few belly laughs.
The Ratline: The Exalted Life and Mysterious Death of A Nazi Fugitive, Philippe Sands. Sands, a renowned international human rights lawyer and law professor at University College London, has written the year’s best thriller — an achievement even more impressive given that it is a work of nonfiction. In this sequel to his equally magisterial East West Street: On the Origins of “Genocide” and “Crimes Against Humanity,“ Sands tells of an unrepentant Nazi, his doting wife, and their now elderly but still admiring son — interweaving it with the story of the son of another World War II-era Nazi who reviles his father and Sands’ own family’s suffering as a result of the genocidal campaign overseen by both fathers. The late John le Carre also makes a cameo appearance in this riveting tale of mass murder and familial love, Nazis and the Vatican, the onset of the Cold War, and the infamous “ratline” that facilitated the escape from postwar Europe of some of the world’s most wanted war criminals.
2034: A Novel of the Next World War, Elliot Ackerman and James Stavridis. Reminiscent of the “invasion literature” popular in Great Britain at the beginning of the 20th century that eerily presaged World War I, this scarily plausible work of fiction by a former U.S. marine (and award-winning novelist) and a former U.S. Navy admiral who commanded NATO is as gripping as it is incisive. Many thrillers are hyped as “real page-turners,” but this one delivers in terms of narrative arc and the authors’ intimate familiarity with military operations and crisis management.
Stronger: Adapting America’s China Strategy in an Age of Competitive Interdependence, Ryan Hass. This concise and engaging book examines how the United States can improve its approach towards China by building upon its advantages rather than focusing on what it can do against China. While Hass underestimates Beijing’s ambitions, his arguments for renewing U.S. economic power are compelling. Stronger argues for improving our deterrent posture “through a credible ability to impose massive costs on potential aggressors, though not necessarily at the geographic point of attack.”
The Art of War in an Age of Peace: U.S. Grand Strategy and Resolute Restraint, Michael O’Hanlon. O’Hanlon’s unique threat framework is valuable. He uses the Pentagon’s “4 plus 1” threat construct, which covers China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and transnational terrorism for the front half of this book. Then, the author introduces a functional threat framework that he calls “the other 4 plus 1.” This construct includes nuclear, biological, digital, climatic, and weakened domestic support. When these challenges “interact with the classic list of threats, they can make every problem more serious. They can exacerbate, intensify or accelerate the dangers posed by more classic, human adversaries.” The author offers reasonable approaches to mitigate the enormous risks posed by their combination.
After I selected my two books, I realized that they take place in the years 1943 and 1944, respectively. Perhaps this is no coincidence. In ways that still resonate and even haunt us today, the fraught and tragic World War II era brought out both the worst and the best in humanity. These two books, different as they are, emphasize the best.
The Year of Our Lord: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis, Alan Jacobs. With Advent season upon us, it is fitting to include a reading in the Christian tradition. This marvelous book profiles five Christian intellectuals — Jacques Maritain, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Simone Weil, and C.S. Lewis — during the year 1943, and their wrestling with the meaning of democracy and Christian faith amidst the horrors of totalitarianism, carnage of war, and uncertain future of the world.
The Last Stand of the Tin-Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the U.S. Navy’s Finest Hour, James Hornfischer. “Gripping” is an overused word, but it obtains for this remarkable story of the U.S. Navy’s last epic surface warfare battle. In the 1944 battle off Samar in the Philippine Sea, a resolute band of destroyers and destroyer escorts fought off a much larger Japanese fleet, at great sacrifice and loss. Many Navy officers have described this book as the single best testimony to Navy valor in combat. The book holds particular poignancy since the author, who died of brain cancer earlier this year, was my literary agent, and friend. Shortly before his death, the Navy presented Jim with the Distinguished Public Service Award, its highest award given to a civilian.
Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942 (Vol. 1); The Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands, 1942-1944 (Vol. 2); Twilight of the Gods: War in the Western Pacific, 1944-1945 (Vol. 3), Ian Toll. This is a brilliant and very readable history trilogy of the Navy in the Pacific during World War II. It takes the reader from the strategic political environment in Washington, D.C. to the individual sailor, soldier, and marine. What I found particularly useful is the description of how the Navy adapted rapidly to a war for which it was not prepared. This involved technical corrections to weapons — most famously torpedoes that were duds — and ruthlessly replacing prewar officers were not up to the demands of the war. A fascinating work on many levels.
The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict, Elbridge Colby. Colby was the lead for the current National Defense Strategy when he was in the Department of Defense early in the last administration. He is a noted strategic thinker, particularly in areas that have gone neglected since the Cold War, e.g., nuclear weapons. This book is a tour de force providing direction for a U.S. strategy to confront the regional challenges now and in the future, particularly China. You may not agree with everything in the book, but it will be one of the yardsticks against which other strategies will be measured.
Yankee Leviathan, Richard Bensel. In his now-classic take on the American Civil War, Bensel examines the relationship between war-making and state-building from a comparative perspective. For Bensel, it was in fact the South, not the North, that acted more like a typical “modern [European] state” in terms of organizing the society for war efforts. The book covers not only the war itself, but also the war’s paradoxical impacts on the evolution of Republican and Democratic Parties in the century that followed the war. Now that “polarization” has become a robust feature of American politics, it is perhaps a good time to revisit the causes, conduct, and consequences of the most polarizing episode that the United States experienced in its history.
Faith in Nation, Anthony Marx. In the last decade, the term “populism” has gained considerable traction in academia and policy debates. Marx explores the “dark” side of populism in the context of nation-building in Spain, England, and France during the early modern era: Leaders at the time needed to consolidate their domestic support and, in order to do so, they singled out religious minorities as internal enemies and “others.” Times might have changed, but the logic of populism remains the same: Populist leaders around the globe single out internal enemies in order to galvanize support for their regimes, sometimes with deleterious consequences. In this context, revisiting the exclusionary origins of the so-called modern nation-state may provide insights into the present and future of world politics.
How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States, Daniel Immerwahr. Immerwahr’s book, among others in the genre of hidden U.S. history, walks the reader through the histories of U.S. territories and how they came to be part of our nation, and also weirdly invisible to us. The histories are fascinating, funny, and horrible all at once. Email me when you get to the guano part.
Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry that Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate, Rose George. When everybody is worried about cyber effects and supply chain, my first instinct is to look at the human side of the issue. George embarked on her research by going aboard the Felixstowe and capturing life aboard a container ship and the complexity of our global supply chain as told through its workers.
Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe. I had never read this classic about a man marooned on a Caribbean island but figured that a pandemic year was an opportune time to read about solitude and survival. The protagonist’s mantra is that things can always get worse and one has to consider the ways that good fortune has been planted in one’s path, which seems like a useful guide. On the other hand, I couldn’t help but notice the sometimes jarring ways in which race shaped the interaction between people from different lands who have never encountered each other but immediately understood the structural hierarchy.
American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin. The prologue opens with a quote from Oppenheimer: “Damn it, I happen to love this country.” The contradictions that sentence insinuates run throughout the book and give the 736 pages of the Oppenheimer biography a novel-like quality. We have Oppenheimer, a brilliant but eccentric mind; the United States, nascent but changing the course of history; and technology, piquing intellectual curiosity and innovation yet raising grave questions about its consequences. In many ways, the book foreshadows the contemporary landscape of politics and technology and thereby offered a twist on the implications I took away when I first read it several years ago.
Achilles in Vietnam, Jonathan Shay. This was an important book in its time that has been instrumental in helping me walk through how the fall of Kabul has impacted our veterans and the national security establishment more broadly. It uses one of my favorite pieces of literature —Homer’s Iliad — to examine combat trauma in Vietnam veterans and the inadequacy of America’s response. Written with a variety of audiences in mind — from medical professionals to veterans to their loved ones — it is a creative and thoughtful treatment of the causes and effects of moral injury that is well worth a read in today’s context.
I’ve just received Mara Karlin’s The Inheritance in the mail and can’t wait to crack it open. Karlin tackles what is perhaps the most pressing and important question in the civil-military relations community today: What effect has twenty years of war had on the relationship between the all-volunteer force, the government, and the society it is sworn to protect? There is little doubt that the lessons that the United States learns from the post-9/11 war years will have important implications for the future of national security, and as one of the best scholar-practitioners in the country, Karlin is well-placed to conduct such a wide-ranging analysis. An absolute must-read for anyone trying to understanding how past becomes prologue in the wake of Afghanistan.
At first glance my two books of the year could not be more different. The Fortress by Alexander Watson is a masterly account of the siege of Przemysl in the opening months of the Great War. Although the makeshift Austrian garrison eventually surrendered its desperate defiance slowed the Russian steamroller heading into Austria-Hungary. The siege also showed the profound weaknesses of each great empire. Watson is a talented story teller who manages to combine what was happening on the ground with the grand strategic picture. It is a fascinating and grim story which gave early warning of the fanatical nationalisms and ethnic hatreds, including anti-Semitism, which were going to tear apart the center of Europe in the postwar years.
My second choice is of another time and place altogether. Mary Lawson’s new novel, A Town Called Solace, is set in a small town in the north of Ontario in the recent past. Her protagonist — hero is too strong a word — is escaping a failed marriage and an unsatisfactory life. Slowly and without his fully realizing it he gets drawn into the lives of his neighbors and that of the town and does find his solace. An unremarkable story, so it seems, but in Lawson’s hands as in Chekhov’s in his stories it gently illuminates the big questions of what it is to be human. Perhaps that is what unites my choices: that intense interest and sympathy both authors have for the people they describe so well.
The Long Game: How the Chinese Negotiate with India, Vijay Gokhale. Like its namesake — Rush Doshi’s Long Game — this is a very worthwhile and informative book that is well-written to boot. Gokhale was India’s foreign secretary and ambassador in Beijing, and one of its leading China hands. The book offers a perspective from Delhi on what it’s like to deal with China across a negotiating table. The chapters on the 1940s–1960s highlight how long India has seen China as a challenge, as well as the debate within India on the approach to take toward its largest neighbor. The chapters covering Sino-Indian interactions since the Indian nuclear tests in 1998 are particularly insightful, not least because they allow the reader to compare how Beijing deals with India versus the United States.
There Is Nothing for You Here: Finding Opportunity in the Twenty-First Century, Fiona Hill. One of the benefits of this book is that it is not a Trump administration tell-all, despite what the former president seemed to think. Instead, it manages to combine Hill’s personal experience in the United Kingdom, Russia, and United States, domestic politics, and geopolitics skillfully. I listened to the audiobook — narrated by the author herself — and would recommend that version for those open to audio editions of books.
Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee, John Bew. The full and complex portrait of the quiet but monumentally influential Attlee, Britain’s post-war prime minister and longtime Labour leader, gives Bew (a Kings College London historian and Boris Johnson adviser) a free hand to tell the story of twentieth-century Britain, an era of remarkable and enduring change in both domestic and foreign policy. The reader has a front-row seat to the political, social, economic, diplomatic, and defense debates of the time, and it is nearly impossible to avoid feeling some affection (and longing) for personalities who believed their fights to be for the national interest. Bew’s splendid writing, understanding of practical politics, and knack for selecting and telling stories make this award-winning history a captivating read.
To Provide and Maintain a Navy: Why Naval Primacy is America’s First, Best Strategy, Jerry Hendrix. Agree or disagree with the precise prescriptions Hendrix provides, he makes an undeniable case that the precious peace and prosperity built on free and open seas could be lost, quickly, if we do not change course. This book is clearly written, accessible to anyone interested in politics or national security matters, and short enough to read in a few hours, so there is no excuse for not picking it up!
Britain at Bay: The Epic Story of the Second World War, 1938-1941, Alan Allport. There’s so much packed into this beautiful and provocative history (e.g., a reassessment of Neville Chamberlain, the British military’s approach to the defense of France, and Anglo-American ties), but for me the book is at its most captivating when discussing Belfast. My grandparents were from the city and I was raised on the stories they told (and retold) of their childhood there during the war. Allport dedicates a chapter (“Ulster Kristallnacht“) to the cruel realities of British (and Irish) life in Northern Ireland, demonstrating that Britain was not a peaceable kingdom on the eve of World War II. Later in the book, he describes how unprepared Belfast was for the night of April 15, 1941, when the Luftwaffe bombed the city and its shipyard, the largest in Europe. Close to 1,000 people were killed in the Belfast Blitz. My grandparents, luckily, were spared. Britain at Bay helped me understand a little more about the history of a country, a conflict, and my own family.
Grey Wars: A Contemporary History of U.S. Special Operations, Dr. Nancy Walbridge Collins. Collins had incredible inside access at the highest levels of U.S. Special Operations Command. She provides a unique assessment of special operations over the past two decades from a perspective few outsiders can attain. While the past is important, this book provides an understanding of the foundation from which special operations forces will evolve for future challenges operating in the grey zone of strategic competition among the revisionist and rogue powers and the continued threat of violent non-state actors.
Patterns of Impunity: Human Rights in North Korea and the Role of the U.S. Special Envoy, Dr. Robert R. King. King was the last U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights, a congressionally mandated position that has been vacant since 2017. With the Biden administration’s desire for a “human rights up front” approach this is a must-read for all who work in the human rights space and who want to understand the human rights tragedy in North Korea. Hopefully, King’s successor will soon be named and this should be the first book he or she reads when nominated.
Eisenhower 1956: The President’s Year of Crisis—Suez and the Brink of War, David A. Nichols. Not a new book but rigorous, detailed, and supremely entertaining — a critical reminder of how a thoughtful, pragmatic president navigated one of the worst crises of the Cold War. Eisenhower managed to balance vigorous anti-communism with a determination to avoid nuclear war, which he fully recognized would represent the end of civilization. Never theological about U.S. interests, always looking to the long term, Ike’s worldview could not be more timely.
The Origin of Wealth: The Radical Remaking of Economics and What It Means for Business and Society, Eric D. Beinhocker. Nations and defense establishments will thrive in the 21st century, in major part by finding ways to be more adaptive, creative, experimental, and fast-moving. That much is a truism, but the degree of progress made in that direction, especially in the U.S. government, remains modest. Beinhocker’s fascinating study points to ways organizations can cultivate bottom-up “portfolios of experiments” that provide a competitive advantage. Along the way, he tells a fascinating and insightful story of the collision of neoclassical economics and the complex reality of human social life and large systems.
False Alarm: How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet, Bjorn Lomborg. Far from a climate denier, Lomborg puts forward sound and rational policy ideas that counter the prevailing narrative. A useful corrective to the modern-day Cassandras of the climate movement.
The Admirals: Nimitz, Halsey, Leahy, and King, The Five-Star Admirals Who Won the War at Sea, Walter R. Borneman. I somehow missed this when it was published and someone gave it to me a few years ago. It sat on the shelf while I looked and said, “I know these guys. There are more important things to read.” Then I read it and it reminded me how unserious we are about seapower and just how serious these men were.
The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order, Rush Doshi. The title reads like a conspiratorial pamphlet. But Doshi is as mainstream as an author/analyst gets — Yale- and Brookings-affiliated, now on leave to serve on the China desk at the Biden National Security Council. Doshi outlines how China has used a series of “displacement strategies,” first “blunting” and more lately primarily “building,” to compete against Chinese perceptions of U.S. power. The Long Game is simultaneously a diagnosis of the U.S. situation relative to its closest rival and a primer in how to shift strategies in response to changing circumstances.
Faces of Moderation: The Art of Balance in an Age of Extremes, Aurelian Craiutu. It may not be too strong to say that Craiutu foresaw our political polarization. A lifelong student of the concept of political moderation, Craiutu uses a series of exemplar thinkers — from Raymond Aron to Adam Michnik — to demonstrate how a center might hold. Craiutu uses these figures to provide a model (or a vision?) for how a future political actor might attempt to steer a moderate course through America’s current Manichean divide.
Whirlwind: The American Revolution and the War that Won It, John Ferling. If you’re looking for a one-volume history of the Revolutionary War, Whirlwind is the way to go and Ferling’s prose style makes it an easy and pleasurable read. It may not get into all of the detail that a true lover of the Revolutionary War could want, but for someone just looking to learn about the war in fairly broad strokes, this is a must-read.
The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas. While you might not be able to finish this one before the holidays are over, this book cannot be matched when it comes to adventure, revenge, and swashbuckling fun. It’s the perfect story to escape into during the holidays, or really any time.
India’s War: World War II and the Making of Modern South Asia, Srinath Raghavan. Raghavan’s military history of India’s involvement in World War II is richly sourced and well-written. Unlike some military histories that can get bogged down in the trees and miss the forest, Raghavan helpfully contextualizes what World War II meant for pre-independence India and how the colonial politics of the 1930s and 1940s weighed on the emergence of what would become independent India’s armed forces.
When France Fell: The Vichy Crisis and the Fate of the Anglo-American Alliance, Michael Neiberg. An invaluable and highly readable contribution on a key moment in American diplomacy by one of our most talented historians. In lively prose, Neiberg engages in a fascinating — and at times excoriating — dissection of the Roosevelt administration’s policies, largely “marked by panic and ineptitude,” toward France in the wake of the cataclysmic events of 1940. Washington’s continued dalliance with Vichy and Roosevelt’s visceral, often irrational, distrust of de Gaulle was not only strategically ill-advised and morally questionable — it also fostered serious tensions with decision-makers in London and cast a lasting pall over Washington’s relations with post-World War II France. Neiberg should be commended for taking such a nuanced and clinical approach to one of the less glorious moments in U.S. statecraft, for doing so in such an engaging style, and for providing such a vital contribution to the field of 20th-century diplomatic history. It’s also extremely timely in an era where leading far-right presidential candidates in France, such as Eric Zemmour, have been propagating their own revisionist defenses of the Vichy regime.
Romans in a New World: Classical Models in Sixteenth-Century Spanish America, David A. Lupher. One of the more impressive examples of scholarship I have had the good fortune of coming across over the past year. In this remarkable study, classicist Lupher examines how, in 16th-century imperial Spain, both proponents and opponents of colonization drew on examples drawn from antiquity — and from Roman history in particular. Beautifully written and veritably brimming with erudition, this volume reminds us of the importance of acquiring a working knowledge of the classics. Not only does it provide us with the ability to intellectually engage with the ancients — it’s also essential to understanding the conceptual templates, strategic mindsets, and cultural reference points of the hundreds of generations of decision-makers who succeeded them. And nested deep within the Spanish imperial class’s richly agonistic debates on classical antiquity, Lupher reminds us, are a number of enduring insights on the nature of imperialism, expansion, and warfare. Hugely worthwhile for any contemporary student of grand strategy and an embarrassment of intellectual riches, this is strategic history done right.
The Polaris System Development: Bureaucratic and Programmatic Success in Government, Harvey Sapolsky. Sapolsky provides the definitive account of one of the greatest defense acquisitions: developing and fielding Polaris nuclear missile-carrying submarines. He points out that success came not from brilliant management or engineering but the political capital that came from everyone knowing the United States needed this capability in the nuclear age. A great reminder for everyone who wants to blame the acquisition system when it’s really the lack of consensus that their pet project is as critical to national security as nuclear-missile submarines. The equivalent story for ICBMs is told in Neil Sheehan’s A Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon. Tom McNaugher tells what happens when you don’t have complete consensus that your project is the most important task in New Weapons, Old Politics: America’s Military Procurement Muddle.
Organizing for Defense: The American Military Establishment in the 20th Century, Paul Hammond. The standard story is McNamara changed everything in the Department of Defense. But his reforms were mostly rolled back shortly after he left office. Hammond takes us to the moment right before McNamara and traces all the attempts up until then to resolve the tensions the Pentagon still faces: civil-military relations, centralization versus decentralization, staff versus line, and balancing military expertise with civilian judgment. Admittedly a dense read but worth the trouble to cut through the assumptions and shibboleths of today to see what are new operational imperatives, what are thorny problems with downsides no matter what choice made, and what are just hurt feelings.
Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War, Howard French. This powerful book writes Africans and their descendants back into Western history, challenging the idea that African societies were isolated from global connection or needed contact with Arab and European civilizations to produce their modernity. The continent’s rich diversity collapsing into unitary “blackness” invites solemn contemplation of all that has been lost with the crushing of so much human potential.
2034, Elliot Ackerman and James Stavridis. We are living through a great renaissance of veteran writing. Mostly it’s about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Ackerman has written some of the best of it — the novels Green on Blue and Dark at the Crossing, his memoir Places and Names. Most strategy failures are failures of imagination, and this blistering read by Ackerman and Stavridis will hopefully have the same shock effect of helping us imagine war with China that August Cole and P.W. Singer’s Ghost Fleet did in 2015.
Loren DeJonge Schulman
The Rose Code, Kate Quinn. It feels like there’s a new book out every six months on women codebreakers and some miss the mark. This one, though fiction, doesn’t, telling the story of three women at Bletchley Park and ticking off all the boxes of a good holiday World War II read: romance with a prince (Prince Philip no less), a mystery spy, solid but not too esoteric exploration of “need to know” in wartime, and just enough about cryptography to keep you interested but not dizzy.
Missionaries, Phil Klay. I’m late to this, but felt like it was waiting for me when I picked it up. Every character is real and deeply recognizable, not terribly likable but loved by those who know them; I am certain their lives were progressing or fumbling before I opened the book and continue on now that I’ve finished. This does not mean Missionaries was predictable — its familiarity was like that of a glimpse in a mirror where you are shocked that the person there is you. I’m waiting to go back to it.
The Library Book, Susan Orlean. One part unsolved mystery, one part history of Los Angeles — this narrative treatment of the massive 1986 library fire was perfect for getting me out of a reading rut. East Coast readers will benefit from a bit of history about the West and all will enjoy Orlean’s story-telling skills.
The Perfume Thief, Timothy Schaffert. Another historical mystery, this one fictional. Set in occupied Paris, it explores collaboration, transgression, love, and survival. A surprising page-turner.
The Idealist: Wendell Wilkie’s Wartime Quest to Build One World, Samuel Zipp. I loved the idea of using Wendell Wilkie’s 1942 trip to illuminate the place of the United States and Americans in the world as well as to reveal the evolution of American attitudes toward post-war internationalism. A deeply researched book, it was still a very engaging read.
In Camps: Vietnamese Refugees, Asylum Seekers, and Repatriates, Jana Lipman. Based on extensive international research, Lipman shows how American allies and Vietnamese citizens confronted the refugee crisis precipitated by the American withdrawal from Vietnam. I particularly liked how this book examined the legacies of the war from different perspectives and geographic vantage points than many earlier accounts.
Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait by Bathsheba Demuth proved a wonderful mental escape during the COVID-19 lockdowns. In this rich book on life on both sides of the Bering Strait from the mid-19th century to the present, Demuth weaves together ethnographic detail with the evolution of global trade, all the while writing a most stimulating story of how regional ecological richness was turned into state (or imperial) power, driven by relentless hunger for economic growth and by ferocious ideological competition formulated in the metropoles to exert control over peripheral lands, seas and peoples — much to the detriment of local culture and the environment at large.
Sleeper Agent: The Atomic Spy in America Who Got Away by Anne Hagedorn is a deeply researched and enthralling tale of American Communist-turned-spy George Koval. Born to Russian-Jewish parents who returned to the Soviet Union in the 1930s, he was then recruited into Soviet military intelligence before being sent back to the United States as a sleeper agent in New York. From there he entered the Manhattan Atomic Project during World War II and began passing highly sensitive information to Moscow, leading to the 1949 Soviet production of an atomic bomb identical to that of the Americans, years earlier than anybody had expected. It is a fast-paced and gripping thriller, one that truly tickles the historian’s interest.
From Warsaw with Love: Polish Spies, the CIA, and the Forging of an Unlikely Alliance, John Pomfret. Pomfret provides a breezy journalistic account of a U.S.-Polish intelligence partnership that began to flourish even before Poland was out from under the Soviet yoke. The account includes a fair share of derring-do but it also shows how both strategic interests and personal relationships play into international intelligence cooperation and how such cooperation can take on a life of its own, insulated from the broader diplomatic relationship between the countries.
Errand into the Wilderness of Mirrors: Religion and the History of the CIA, Michael Graziano. Graziano describes how the OSS and the CIA used intelligence both as a weapon and to build bridges to potential partners during World War II and the Cold War. It is a fascinating read that can also stimulate useful thinking about the strategic use of soft power and of information competition in today’s environment.
Tales of the South Pacific, James A. Michener. This collection of loosely related short stories illustrates war’s reach into private lives and personal connections. The stories take place during the height of World War II’s Pacific War, but much of the action centers on the relationships between Americans, colonials, and locals on islands in the Coral Sea. Michener’s vivid writing transports readers to the islands and reveals both the excitement and the monotony of war with equal parts gravity and humor.
Misalliance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and the Fate of South Vietnam, Edward Miller. A central problem in the history of U.S. nation-building efforts has been identifying a local leader who is both popular with the masses and friendly to the United States. In the early years of U.S. intervention in Vietnam, American advisers hoped Ngo Dinh Diem was such a leader for South Vietnam. Previous histories of the Vietnam War cast Diem as a puppet of the U.S. government, but Miller upends the conventional wisdom by presenting Diem as a legitimate historical actor whose very act of asserting a vision for postcolonial Vietnam caused Americans to turn against him.
Photo by Ivan Radic