Strategic Outpost’s Seventh Annual Summer Vacation Reading List
How can the summer be ending already?? Temperatures are soaring, vacations are wrapping up, and many of you are realizing that you have only a couple of weeks left to rest and relax before the new national security school year begins after Labor Day! Luckily, your loyal Strategic Outpost columnists are happy to present our seventh (!!) annual list of what we think you should be reading, watching, and listening to as you navigate your way back towards the real world from your last chance for sunburns, hangovers, and lost luggage! As we have in each of our previous summer reading lists, we’ve provided an eclectic blend of serious and not-so-serious recommendations that we think will pique your interest and set you up for being one of the smartest office pundits around. Enjoy!
War in Ukraine
Anything involving Michael Kofman. Whatever this impressive analyst at CNA has to say about the war in Ukraine is worth listening to. Kofman consistently provides penetrating insights about the conflict, expertly drawing upon his deep knowledge of the Russian military. We recommend listening to his frequent conversations with Ryan Evans on the War on the Rocks podcast, especially the most recent episode on the next phase of the war, and one from June that focuses on how both combatants are dealing with relentless battle and attrition. Also check out his Twitter feed for excellent Kofman facts and analysis in real time.
David Johnson’s articles. Given the tsunami of publications about the tragic war in Ukraine, it can be hard to separate the true gems from the ever-growing analytic clutter. While Kofman, the good folks at the Institute for the Study of War, and others continue to do excellent work on the day-to-day conduct of the war, Johnson adds unparalleled analysis of what it all means for the United States. Whether making the case for the continued relevance of tanks and modern armor, warning against the wrong lessons being learned, or reminding us of the grinding nature of long wars, Johnson has been unerringly on the mark. Don’t miss these, and anything else he writes on this topic!
The Future of Warfare
Connected Soldiers, by John Spencer. A deeply insightful memoir that is simultaneously a very personal account of small-unit leadership, and an exploration of how nearly unlimited connectivity while at war may be undermining the bonds of battlefield comradeship that are so critical in combat. Spencer led soldiers during the initial invasion of in Iraq in 2003 and returned five years later to find his troops spending their free time checking social media and FaceTiming with loved ones instead of connecting with each other — and much later experienced connected warfare from the home front, as the spouse of a deployed soldier in 2018. Spencer readily acknowledges that he does not have all the answers, especially about how leaders can intentionally foster environments to promote the critical bonds of wartime cohesion that used to occur naturally. But he raises all the right questions, in a story that also stands as one of the best combat memoirs of the recent wars.
7 Seconds to Die, by John Antal. This small gem dissects the little-known second Nagorno-Karabakh war, which Antal calls “the first modern war primarily decided by unmanned weapons.” Loitering munitions, lethal drones, battlefield transparency, and the inability to protect forces from modern forms of attack all unexpectedly tipped the balance of this conflict to the underdog. Many of these dynamics are currently playing out at scale in Ukraine and have tremendous implications for the U.S. military and the future of warfighting — including the consequences of the newly-transparent battlefield, the urgent need to mask forces for survivability, and the vital importance of mission command in a dispersed and degraded environment.
“The Tactical Defense Becomes Dominant Again,” by T.X. Hammes. This National Defense University professor persuasively argues that the offense — long seen as the only decisive way to win a war — is now being replaced by the ascendency of the defense. Hammes suggests that the proliferation of new and relatively inexpensive technologies such as commercial drones and satellite imaging, together with the advent of AI applied to military problems, now provides huge defensive advantages to those seeking to rebuff an attacker. If he’s right, the U.S. military may need to shift much of its doctrine and investments that have long been prioritized for offensive operations to a whole new way of thinking that achieves victory by leveraging new defensive strengths to deny the goals of an adversary’s aggression.
Strategy and a Rising China
“What Makes a Power Great,” by Michael Mazarr. This provocative article in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs reminds us that enduring power and influence in the world rely upon factors that may not always be obvious in the short term: strong national ambition, a culture of learning and innovation, and vibrant diversity and pluralism that can provide depth and resiliency. Mazarr offers a thoughtful corrective to those who view the United States as facing an inevitable decline. But he also stresses that retaining a competitive edge may require “nothing less than a new national project to reinvigorate its essential characteristics” — including rebuilding a shared national identity, addressing rising inequality, and especially addressing the “corrosive information environment.”
The Avoidable War, by Kevin Rudd. Rudd, who served nearly three years as Australia’s Prime Minister, thinks about the unthinkable in this sobering piece: A full-blown war between the United States and a rising, nationalistic China. Rudd knows what he’s talking about: He is reportedly fluent in Mandarin, has visited China more than 100 times, has met Chinese leader Xi Jinping personally, and, in order to intensively study Xi’s nationalism, may well have become the first former head of state to enroll in a doctoral program (at Oxford) after leaving office. Ultimately, he advocates a policy based on “managed strategic competition” between the United States and China, though he acknowledges the very real risks of that competition spilling over into a devastating war.
Americans and War
Uncertain Ground: Citizenship in an Age of Endless, Invisible War, by Phil Klay. Former Marine and acclaimed novelist Klay returns with a compilation of the non-fiction essays that he has published since 2010. The common theme that unites these otherwise disparate works is the growing civil-military gap in the United States, and the problems that result from the fact that the nation’s wars are “mostly invisible” to average Americans. He writes eloquently about “the personal stake in war that the veteran experiences viscerally, and which is so hard for the civilian to feel.” But he also includes an essay that offers a stinging rebuke to those like former Marine general and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, for example, who have long expressed “disdain for those who haven’t served and yet dare to have opinions about military matters.” Klay decisively dismisses that view, noting that if he has any “authority to speak about our military policy, it’s because I’m a citizen responsible for participating in self-governance, not because I belonged to a warrior caste.”
Looking for the Good War: American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness, by Elizabeth Samet. Has the prevailing narrative of World War II and the Greatest Generation done more harm than good for the United States? Samet answers this provocative question in the affirmative, arguing that the myths of national unity and purpose only arose decades after the war. A natural storyteller, Samet beautifully weaves together themes and ideas from hundreds of different movies, books, articles, and art to show the far more complex and ambivalent views of Americans between 1941 and 1945. Yet these powerful myths continue to shape how we think about war, and the American “need to return to some finest hour” has only increased in the aftermath of the messy, long, and largely unsuccessful wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Space and Intergalactic Insights
To Boldly Go, edited by Jonathan Klug and Steven Leonard. This fascinating collection of 30 short essays examines the challenges of future wartime leadership and strategy through the lens of science fiction. Klug, an Army War College professor, and Leonard, best known as the voice and pen behind Doctrine Man, have compiled a full plate of stories to educate, inform and provoke. The short stories are penned by authors both famous and obscure, and who draw their examples from well-known sci-fi hits such as Dune, Star Wars, and Ender’s Game.
Images from the James Webb Telescope. If you’re a fellow space geek, nothing can beat the jaw-dropping pictures on the telescope’s official web page. The Webb is the largest optical telescope ever sent into space and uses infrared technology to capture images of celestial objects heretofore inaccessible. These stunning pictures are some of the first images released to the public of phenomena dating as far back as 4.6 billion years ago. Breathtaking and unprecedented, these new pictures remind us of just how small and fragile our tiny spinning blue-and-green speck of the universe continues to be.
An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, by Chris Hadfield. Yes, we know, we mentioned this book briefly on last year’s list. But the author of this column whose name is not Nora just read it cover-to-cover on his summer vacation and was so impressed that he deemed it worthy of a standalone entry this year. Hadfield flew on two NASA space shuttle missions, and later served as commander of the International Space Station. He offers up a fascinating and philosophical account of his 20 years as a Canadian astronaut, and what he learned about himself and those around him. His impressive account goes far beyond a spaceflight travelogue to share what his experiences have taught him about leadership, ego, and what it takes to be good member of a team — and a better human being. And for those of you intrigued by just how astronauts perform everyday human tasks while in orbit, check out Hadfield’s charming short videos (which have drawn tens of millions of views) of such things as brushing his teeth and making a peanut butter sandwich in space.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams. This classic and wacky sci-fi adventure tells the story of Arthur Dent, who is rescued from Earth seconds before the planet is demolished by interplanetary travelers in order to build a space freeway. Dent’s rescuer is Ford Prefect, an intergalactic researcher who was marooned on earth for 15 years finding material for the newest edition of the eponymous Hitchhiker’s Guide. This hapless pair are flung across the galaxy, meeting a constellation of equally improbable travelers in a series of bizarre adventures that are sure to bring a smile to your face. It provides answers to questions big and small, such as: Why are we born? Why do we die? Why do we spend so much time in between wearing digital watches? And why should space hitchhikers carry a towel at all times?
A Practical Tool for Many of Us
How to Hold a Grudge, by Sophie Hannah. This cheerful text helps us understand that there is a constructive way to deal with those frustrating people in our lives whose offenses can sometimes build up and threaten to become overwhelming. Hannah, the writer chosen by Agatha Christie’s family to continue writing the famed Hercule Poirot mystery series, offers some remarkably practical advice on how to file, discard, and, at times, nurture grudges when we need to find a way to deal with those truly irritating people who occasionally pop up in our world. If you work in the Pentagon — or practically anywhere else in Washington — this book is for you.
Just for Fun
The Children’s Illustrated Clausewitz, Volume I, by Caitlin Fitz Gerald. Get them started early on the classics! In this slim volume, author and illustrator Fitz Gerald takes the first three books of On War — otherwise known as the natsec nerd bible — and re-casts them in a light-hearted children’s story. Gorgeous illustrations depicting a forest full of woodland creatures learning some big strategic ideas in the simplest of terms highlight this unique interpretation of the dead Prussian’s most famous work. It’s fun to see how Fitz Gerald grasps a key chunk of the master’s important lessons and reduces them to something that even children can understand. A great gift for the small people in your life. Just don’t blame us if they start out-strategizing you!
Well, that’s it for this year’s almost-end-of-summer list! If we made you think, and helped you laugh — even just a little bit — we can call this year’s list a summertime success! Thanks to each of you for your readership, feedback, and continued support, and we’ll see you after Labor Day when Strategic Outpost returns to work!
* We thank Kevin Benson and T.X. Hammes for recommending 7 Seconds to Die; T.X. Hammes for recommending Connected Soldiers; Richard Lacquement for recommending To Boldly Go; Carrie Lee for recommending Uncertain Ground; Maggie Feldman-Piltch for recommending The Children’s Illustrated Clausewitz; and David Aronstein for his work on the James Webb Space Telescope — and for showing it to us while it was still on Earth!
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 regularly. Sign up for Barno and Bensahel’s Strategic Outpost newsletter to track their articles as well as their public events.