Some suggestions to kick off your 2024 reading plan!

Now that we are more or less settled into the new year, permit me to offer some suggestions to kick off your 2024 reading plan.  I hope to have full reviews for several of these books, but for now let me just give you the list. 

This set of recommendations does not focus on law-centric books (though law appears in several of them) because I think it is important for lawyers and non-lawyers alike to understand the circumstances in which the law applied (or, in the case of the fictions novels, may apply). That said, stay tuned for reviews of more law-focused books in future posts.

Anyway, in no particular order, here are my current recommendations:

White Sun War: The Campaign for Taiwan, by Mick Ryan.  A novel set in the not-too-distant future about a war with China involving the U.S. and its Indo-Pacific allies.  What makes this book rather unique is that the author is a retired Australian Army major general. 

Consequently, the book is informed by a realistic assessment of the potential of advanced technologies–and especially artificial intelligence–to impact the character of war.  Yet humans still play a decisive role; indeed, here’s what the publisher says:

“In an era when humans no longer just use machines, but partner with them in all aspects of military operations, this fictional account views this future war through the eyes of the American, Chinese, and Taiwanese caught up in the ,maelstrom, revealing the heartbreak, courage, leadership, and despair of high-tech warfare played out on land, at sea, in space, and in cyberspace.”

Degrade and Destroy: The Inside Story of the War Against the Islamic State, from Barack Obama to Donald Trump, by Michael R. Gordon.  This is an authentic “inside story” by a veteran journalist who does a terrific job addressing the many aspects of this complicated conflict.  Requires a real intellectual investment but it’s very much worth it.

Conflict: The Evolution of Warfare from 1945 to Ukraine, by General David Petraeus and Andrew Roberts. Though I don’t agree with everything in the book (among other things, the chapter on Ukraine preceded the Ukrainians failed summer offensive so the assessment suffers accordingly).

However, Petraeus’ chapters on Iraq and Afghanistan (which he personally narrates in the audio version) are invaluable and not to be missed.

By All Means Available: Memoirs of a Life in Intelligence, Special Operations, and Strategy, by Michael G. Vickers.  Vickers had quite a career in Special Operations, the CIA, and then in the Pentagon. His book gives you an insider’s perspective on national security events over a 40 plus career. 

While his penchant towards self-aggrandizement can be annoying at times (and unnecessary as the facts of his remarkable career speak for themselves), his memoir provides a number of really interesting stories and insights I haven’t seen elsewhere.

Road to Surrender: Three Men and the Countdown to the End of World War II, by Evan Thomas.  Thomas does an in-depth examination three different people who had key roles at the end of World War II:  Henry Stimson, the U.S. secretary of war; General Carl “Tooey” Spatz, responsible for strategic bombing in the Pacific; and Japanese foreign minister Shigenori Togo. 

This book will not go down well with those who have convinced themselves that the use of atomic bombs to end the war was unnecessary.

Mastering the Art of Command: Admiral Chester W. Nimitz and Victory in the Pacific, by Trent Hone.  This is another World War II book (and, yes, there are still lessons to learn), and it’s one that examines the leadership of not just Admiral Nimitz but also other military leaders who led the Pacific campaign. 

While casual readers might find it too detailed for the liking, the book lays out the many challenges (including dealing with difficult personalities) Nimitz faced in forging and executing a strategy to defeat a smart and resourceful enemy.  As an aside, I marvel at the ability of these leaders—in the era before computers and advanced communications technologies—to control (and supply!) huge numbers of military personnel and assets spread over the vast distances of the Pacific.

As world events force us to contemplate war in the Pacific, now is the time to learn the lessons of history, and Mastering the Art of Command is the right resource to help us do that.

The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder, by David Grann. This is an incredible true story that very much reads like thriller.  What struck me is what sailors could–and did–endure in the era of sailing ships is astounding.  The book is also something of a meditation on command, discipline, and perseverance under extreme circumstances.  A quick and entertaining read.

Ancient Wisdom for the Modern World: Life Hacks from the Greek Philosophers, by Nikkos Pappas.  Not really a national security book, per se, but it is a very short (under 100 pages!) read which, as the publisher puts it,  unlocks the “wisdom that has stood the test of millennia.” 

It adds, (correctly in my view), that the book “offers practical insights for anyone looking to navigate the modern world.”  For those who had a classically liberal education, it is a great refresher; for the many very bright young people whose otherwise excellent education did not include a study of the ancients’ philosophies (a sadly common fact!) it is a superb introduction.

The British Occupation of Wilmington: An Untold Story of the American Revolution, by William S. Knightly.  This is another brief volume that delivers a lot in less than 100 pages of text.  Bill is a Lawfire contributor and self-educated historian whose perspective was honed over a 30-year career as an infantry officer, along with decades more as a civilian Department of Defense employee.

You’ll want to read Untold Story not just because it gives a fascinating perspective on the Revolution (which came much closer to defeat than some modern minds seem to appreciate), but also because it illustrates warfighting verities that continue to vex commanders today.  Among other things, these involve logistical challenges such as the burden of caring for the wounded.  It also uncovers, as the publisher puts it, “the effects of a wartime occupation on the population of a town that just preferred to be left alone.”

Want more ideas?

Take a look at the posts here and here.

The books to be released in 2024 that I’m most anticipating

The Melting Point: High Command and War in the 21st Century, by General Kenneth (Frank) McKenzie.  General McKenzie commanded U.S. Central Command during the evacuation of Afghanistan, but was also involved in several high-profile operations in the Middle East, including the killing of Qassem Soleimani and the fights against ISIS. I know General McKenzie a bit, and we can expect a very candid analysis of his wartime experiences, including his relations with civilian leaders.

2054: A Novel, by Elliot Ackerman and Adm Jim Stavridis. Due out in March, it is something of a follow-up to 2034, the bestselling novel by the same authors about war with China (reviewed here).

The publisher describes 2054 as an explosive work of speculative fiction set twenty years further in the future, at a moment when a radical leap forward in artificial intelligence combines with America’s violent partisan divide to create an existential threat to the country, and the world.”

Concluding thoughts

Allow me to reiterate what I’ve said in a previous postIn 2022 Gallup made this troubling report:

Americans say they read an average of 12.6 books during the past year, a smaller number than Gallup has measured in any prior survey dating back to 1990. U.S. adults are reading roughly two or three fewer books per year than they did between 2001 and 2016. (Emphasis added.)

Additionally, it made this surprising finding:

The decline is greater among subgroups that tended to be more avid readers, particularly college graduates but also women and older Americans. College graduates read an average of about six fewer books in 2021 than they did between 2002 and 2016, 14.6 versus 21.1.

The reason(s) for these disturbing findings are beyond the scope of this post, but they do say something to me: I believe those that do read will enjoy an asymmetric advantage in their careers and, really, life.

In his final book (Leadership) Henry Kissinger observed that “Intense reading can help leaders cultivate the mental distance from external stimuli and personalities that sustains a sense of proportion.”  It can also provide a “storehouse” of knowledge from which “leaders can reason analogically.”  He then adds:

“More profoundly, books offer a reality that is reasonable, sequential and orderly—a reality that can be mastered, or at least managed, by reflection and planning. And, perhaps most importantly for leadership, reading creates a ‘skein of intergenerational conversation’, encouraging learning with a sense of perspective. Finally, reading is a source of inspiration. Books record the deeds of leaders who once dared greatly, as well as those who dared too much, as a warning.” 

Reading is actually a lifelong project.  General Jim Mattis puts it bluntly:

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