Summer reading (and listening!)

If you are interested in national security, but don’t have much of a background, how can you close the gap?  Reading (and listening) is a great way to do so, especially as the summer ‘reading season’ is upon us.  Allow me to offer some recommendations.

A little background: some years ago I published Dunlap’s Very Subjective Reading List for Air Force Judge Advocates for new military lawyers. I had found that many of them knew a lot about the law, but less – and sometimes significantly less – about the military and warfighting. (I also see this phenomena in academia from time to time).

For those who may feel they have a “gap” in their understanding of the military, I still recommend taking a look at the thirty-one books (something for everybody’s taste!) on my original list, but I thought I would update it a bit.  Importantly, these books are not law-centered (I hope to put out such a list soon).

The “musts” for the nascent national security enthusiast:

Since we have been talking about reading, it’s kind of ironic that my first recommendation is not a book, but rather an audio course (twenty-four 28-minute lectures) by the Teaching Company entitled American Military History: From Colonials to Counterinsurgents. Getting the basics about America’s military experience is fundamental, particularly in an era history education is not exactly flourishing.

What makes this course especially interesting is that the teacher is retired Army general Wesley Clark. General Clark has a wealth of personal experience, and he brings it to bear in his discussions of America’s wars.  His insights are really worth the price of admission.

My next recommendation is Paul Scharre’s Army of None: Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War.  Autonomy in weapons and warfighting is a very hot topic, and Scharre’s book is for my money the clearest and most up-to-date explanation of the technological, legal and policy issues associated with it.  What I especially like about Army of None is that it provides a broad background on the infusion of information-age science into military technology.

Another book I recommend is retired Admiral Jim Stavridis’ and R. Manning Ancell’s, The Leaders Bookshelf.  After surveying 200 active and retired admirals and generals, the authors came up with a list of fifty of the best books on leadership and, in my opinion anyway, military matters writ large.

Not only do the authors include the rationale that each senior officer gave for the recommending a book, they distill its essence and the lessons it teaches. The list – which includes both fiction and nonfiction – gives enormous insight into how military leaders think. In addition, it obviously gives an overview on a remarkable number of military classics – something of enormous value to those who are new to the national security field. Has bonus chapters on other reading lists, writing for publication, building a personal library, and the value of reading.

The title of Eliot Cohen’s book, The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power and the Necessity of Military Force, summarizes its theme rather well. It is extraordinarily helpful in understanding recent conflicts, and why force is still needed in certain instances. You won’t find many academics of his stature making this case.

If you have time, I highly recommend John Keegan’s classic of military history, Face of Battle, as well as David McCullough’s foundational 1776.  Face of Battle was revolutionary when is came out in 1976 because it looked at battle from the unique perspective of individual combatants.  No serious student of military history would omit reading this one. 1776 is beautifully written history that reminds us of how close a thing the creation of the United States really was.   Both these books really are indispensable.

A novel! 

Do you want a novel? From my original list I recommend Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae.  Here’s what I say about it in my original reading-list essay:

“A book along the lines of The Killer Angels but better in my opinion. Here’s what David Hackworth says about it: “A must read by warriors—past, present and future—for within the pages of this magnificent book are the secrets of developing the critical warrior ethic and what combat leadership, discipline, superior training techniques and the Brotherhood of arms are all about.” I could not agree more—I am very, very high on this book; it’s my all-time historical fiction favorite. Runner-up: Nevil Shute’s, A Town Like Alice, 1950. If you dismiss this as a romance novel, you lose the chance to enjoy a fantastic story of human courage and perseverance.”

My own summer reading ambitions:

What am I personally reading?  The “non-law” list includes Hew Strachan’s The Direction of War: Contemporary Strategy in Historical Perspective  (among other things, this cogent and clear discussion of strategy has a provocative interpretation of Clausewitz); Ron Chernow’s Grant (a fascinating and well-written book, but one that weighs in at 1,104 pages!); and The Book of Why: The New Science of Cause and Effect which is an intriguing and lucid study by award-winning scientists about how understanding the “causal revolution” explains many events, and is essential to understanding the potential – and limits – of autonomy.

On the recommendation of a student I’m reading a curious but mesmerizing science fiction novel that was an award-winning best-seller in China (and recently translated into English by Ken Liu): Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem.  Apart from everything else it illustrates how differently another culture might look at an event (in this case alien contact) than we might in the West.

I also want to get to Jim Stavridis’ Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World’s Oceans.  (I realize this is the second Stavridis’ book, but he was my war college classmate and is – literally – the smartest person I met in the military.)  Richard Haas’ book, A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order, is on my list based on the endorsement from a friend. And I’m also looking forward to David Sanger’s new book, The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage, and Fear in the Cyber Age which is due out in June.

Blogs and more:  

Finally, if you want to stay current on the latest in military happenings, I recommend you subscribe to the Early Bird, a ‘clipping service’ of articles related to national security produced by the Military Times company.  Yes, their own publications are kind of over-represented, but it is still worth a daily scan.  In terms of blogs, War on the Rocks is the best in my opinion, but Task & Purpose  has some excellent (if occasionally cranky) pieces.

And, of course, subscribe to Lawfire ®!!!

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