Your 2020 summer reading and listening list! (And it’s curated for those who may be new to the national security enterprise!)

Thinking about your summer (or, perhaps, your “lockdown”) reading and listening plans?  Consider this stark warning from legendary Marine general and former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis:

“[T]here’s no substitute for constant study to master one’s craft…If you haven’t read hundreds of books, you are functionally illiterate, and you will be incompetent, because your personal experiences alone aren’t broad enough to sustain you.”

“History lights the often dark path ahead, even if it’s a dim light, it’s better than none.”

So where to start?  Lawfire® readers may recall the 2018 post, “Summer reading (and listening!)”, in which I offered suggestions for those interested in national security, but don’t have much of a background in it.  I invite you to look at that post as those recommendations still stand.  Today’s post offers some more suggestions.


With the recent case of the Navy aircraft carrier captain (see my take here) and other developments, it’s a great time to focus on leadership.  Although the recommended books below come mostly from retired senior military officers and focus on military or wartime leadership, I would suggest that the leadership lessons, tips, and illustrations they contain have very wide applicability.  Anyway, here are some recommendations for your consideration:

General Jim Mattis and Bing West, Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead,  While I plan to write a detailed review of this magnificent book, suffice to say that it is among the finest expressions of military leadership thinking I’ve ever read.  Like so many others, I’ve long admired General Mattis (and not just because he came to my military retirement ceremony or because he was a LENS speaker!).

This book offers a wonderful learning opportunity and provides a window into the mind of one of the nation’s greatest military leaders of all time.  There’s also plenty to interest any aspiring (or current) national security attorney, as Mattis talks about military lawyers a bit, describes his role as the court-martial convening authority in the Haditha cases, and discourses on rules of engagement as well as efforts to avoid civilian casualties.

Everyone absolutely needs to put this one at the very top of their reading list!

Admiral Jim Stavridis, USN (Ret.) Sailing True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character.  Despite the seeming emphasis on naval leadership, this eminently readable book actually centers on character and how it empowers leadership of all kinds.

ADM Stavridis

Besides being the former commander of NATO among many other distinguished posts, ADM Stavridis was my war college classmate.  He was – literally – the smartest person I ever met in more than three decades of uniformed service. In this book, he analyzes great naval leaders from across a vast span of history, from Themistocles to RADM Grace Hopper.

While Stavridis’ portraits of these distinguished leaders is phenomenally perceptive (he’s a genuinely gifted writer), I found fascinating the often self-deprecating insights that he’s learned about himself in his long career in public leadership (which, I’d bet, isn’t over!) sprinkled throughout the book – particularly in the chapter entitled “Resilience and the Modern Admiral” as well as his concluding essay.

Doris Kerns Goodwin, Leadership in Turbulent TimesI am a huge fan of this author, and if you missed this book when it came out in 2018, now is exactly the right time to read it. As the Amazon review puts it: Goodwin “demonstrates how leaders are made, not born, as she thoughtfully explores the highs and lows of four U.S. presidents who faced moments of horrific national crisis.”  Seriously, is there a better time to read about how leaders overcome calamities?

Andrew Roberts, Leadership in War: Essential Lessons from Those Who Made History.  This relatively short (227 pages) and clearly written book is an easy read.  What makes this book so unusual is that in addition to such leaders as Horatio Nelson, Dwight Eisenhower, and Margaret Thatcher, we find chapters on Hitler and Stalin.  Why?  Roberts explains what he calls the “leadership conundrum” this way:

That’s a very important – but often overlooked – take on leadership that almost alone makes this volume a worthy ‘read’.

Contemporary warfighting

Dana J.H. Pittard and Wes J. Bryant, Hunting the Caliphate: America’s War on ISIS and the Dawn of the Strike Cell.  I find it really frustrating when I read something about military operations by an academic, non-governmental organization, or reporter that is materially wrong in some way.  Unfortunately, it is not all that uncommon, particularly when it comes to air operations and civilian casualties.

Wes Bryant

I’ve written about this often myself (see e.g., here, and here) but far better to hear from the actual warfighters about the tremendous effort that goes into avoiding civilian losses.  These two authors are just such warfighters as they were on-the-ground executing combat operations against ISIS: MG Pittard at the senior leadership level; MSgt Bryant at the tactical level.

Dana Pittard

Read the inside story told by combat vets who have “been there and done it” for a perspective few others have.  I honestly don’t know of any other book that can give you a more timely and more accurate understanding of how U.S. and coalition airpower was employed in the fight against ISIS.

I guarantee you’ll be surprised at how much you’ll learn.  This book gives you unvarnished insight (and lessons learned) from actual combat operations conducted in an extraordinarily complex coalition and political environment – not to mention an invaluable perspective about the role of law (and lawyers!).


Rick Atkinson, The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777.  For my money, Atkinson is the finest writer of military history today.  Period.  Already the author of the magnificent Liberation Trilogy about World War II in Europe, his newest effort is volume one of “The Revolution Trilogy.”

Atkinson somehow takes an enormous number of events and masterfully blends them into a narrative accessible to everyone.  You will learn how close a thing the American Revolution really was, and how indispensable one person – Washington – was to the genesis of the United States.  No serious student of military or, for that matter, American history can fail to read this book (I have both the audio and hard cover versions).


Dr. Audrey Kurth Cronin, Power to the People: How Open Technological Innovations is Arming Tomorrow’s TerroristsIf you saw Dr. Cronin’s presentation at LENS’ 25th Anniversary National Security Law conference last February, your appetite has surely been whetted for the book.

Dr. Cronin
PC: Joy Dunlap

Dr. Cronin wrestles with the disturbing reality that advanced technologies with great lethal potential are increasingly within the grasp of terrorists.  In a fluid and “accessible” way, she charts not just the technologies, per se, but also how a range non-state actors have adopted (and, really, adapted to) emerging technologies of violence to serve their political ends.  Researchers will find her amazing appendix and notes section goldmines.

Some fiction?

Please take a look at my 2018 post that speaks about Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae as it’s my all-time favorite.  Here are a couple of new ones you might want to consider.

John Lanchester, The Wall. This dystopian novel is set in the not-too-distant future where climate change has led to a dramatic rise in sea levels.  As a result, Great Britain has built a wall encircling the entire island nation, and manned it with young defenders generationally embittered by the fact that their fate is a result of climate actions and inaction by their elders.

Moreover, the defenders are constantly under threat of being set adrift in the surrounding ocean if “others” (persons from elsewhere in the world seeking access to the relative ‘livability’ of the UK) manage to breach the wall.  I found the book a very haunting and remarkably timely read.

Pat McKee, Ariel’s Island This is an entertaining novel by a first time author and lawyer with many years of practice.  This really isn’t in the national security genre, but it does involve a super-empowered artificial intelligence (AI) entity called “Ariel.”  Frankly, that aspect of the novel may have a more deus ex machina flavor than serious AI aficionados might like, but McKee’s presentation of its potential is interesting. Personally, I enjoy “lawyer” novels written in the character’s first person, so I’m very much looking forward to reading more lawyer-fiction from Mr. McKee.


Do you like to round out your reading with some podcasts?  If you missed the 25th Anniversary National Security Law conference now could be a good time to catch up.  Links to some of the sessions can be found in the 2020 posts below:

Podcast & essay: Mark Nevitt on “Climate Change and National Security: Top 10 Questions that Demand Answers”

Don’t miss this podcast: Mike Schmitt on “Inside the Enemy’s Camp: ‘Offensive’ Cyber Ops and International Law”

Podcast: Dr. Aurel Sari on the concept of “Grey Zone War” – and more!

Podcast: Dean Cheng on “The Challenge of China: Lawfare, Technology & More”

Podcast: Dean Mary-Rose Papandrea on “Whistleblowers and National Security”

A couple of podcasts from earlier LENS conferences by my truly brilliant colleague Nita Farahany are “must listen” items. (Nita gives new meaning to “super-smart”: she has her law degree, a masters in philosophy, an ALM in biology from Harvard, and a Ph.D.  She’s both a professor of law and a professor of philosophy here at Duke!):

Podcast: Professor Nita Farahany on “Neuroscience, Ethics and National Security” (2019)

Podcast: The Legal and Ethical Complexity of Developing ‘Super Soldiers’ (2018)

It’s now up to you!

It may seem like a daunting list (especially if you also take a look at my 2018 post, “Summer reading (and listening!)”), but I think you’ll have a good time while learning a lot.  Put yourself on a schedule, and take advantage of every opportunity (I almost always listen to a book while doing what I still call “running” – though unkind observers may not give it that appellation!)

Anyway, don’t forget the Chinese proverb (which I often repeat to myself!): “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” (千里之行,始於足下).

Happy reading and stay safe!


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