By Joe Byerly
Last summer I reached out to friends from around the national security community and asked what they were reading. The collective list became a hit, and for me personally, became the bulk of my reading material for the remainder of 2016. This year I decided to continue the tradition with the hopes of introducing works to readers that they might not have been familiar with before coming across this post. I hope you enjoy the list and find something that you will read while sitting on the beach this summer!
“I am rereading Caesar’s Gallic Wars. Set in Europe amidst ethnic tribal groups we can trace the tensions that exist to this day. Julius Caesar’s work is less about war than it is about diplomacy, governance, and information operations. In seven years Caesar conquers all of Gaul, defeating dozens of opponents, usually outnumbered and often from a position of weakness. As I read I am struck by Cesar’s use of diplomacy and information operations to win many of the fights before they ever take place. The Gallic Wars is also a great tutorial on the design and execution of campaigns, each of which Caesar envisioned as a coherent whole from start to finish. Caesar also offers many insights into large formation leadership at tactical, operational and strategic levels, during periods of peace, transition and in battle.
As we refocus our efforts toward near-peer competitors and major combat operations, I turned back to the ancient classics. In addition to Caesar, I am rereading Xenophon’s Anabasis (The March Up Country), Mercer’s Alexander the Great, and Carey’s Warfare in the Ancient World. Recognizing that much is changing in the conduct of warfare in the information age, my current effort is to get a sensing of what is enduring, what are those aspects of warfare, such as combined arms, campaign design, leadership, innovation, training and leader development that remain as relevant today as they were thousands of years ago. And, if you are a military professional, amateur historian, or just enjoy action, these books are energizing and exciting to read”- Jim Greer, Retired Army Colonel
“I’m currently reading Thomas Ricks’ new book, Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom. The fast-paced narrative is structured as a dual biography of the two men amid the rise of fascism and totalitarianism in Europe. Given today’s political atmosphere, It’s hard to read this book without feeling a sort of low-grade anxiety, as you’re drawn into seemingly familiar events: democracy is under threat, truth is fungible, and it’s unclear how it will all end.”- Sharon Weinberger, Author of The Imagineers of War
“American Ulysses’ clearly establishes Grant’s exceptional leadership at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels as a military commander during the Civil War, and also highlights the exceptional service he rendered our country during the tumultuous presidency of Andrew Johnson and then during his own two terms as president.”- David Petraeus, Retired Army Four Star General
“Early in this book, author and editor, Jean Bou, quotes British official historian of the war, Sir James Edmonds, who wrote in the late 1920s that: “I do not think the Australians of 1916 were, in leading or training, anything like as good as those of 1918. In 1916, they were distinctly amateurs: in 1918, they were finished artists.” This book is a story of tactical innovation, trial under fire, development of commanders and institutional learning of a very young Army. A compilation of chapters from different experts, it charts the course of improvement of the various elements of the Australian forces training for, and fighting, the First World War. While technology has moved on, the culture and spirit of learning and innovation that this book describes remains central to our mastering the Profession of Arms.”-Brigadier Mick Ryan, Australian Defense Force
“For general professional development I recommend Antulio J. Echevarria’s Military Strategy: A Short Introduction. In addition to defining military strategy and the things that causes strategies to succeed or fail, Echevarria uses historical examples to explain the essence as well as the strengths and weaknesses of a variety of strategies. For those unfamiliar with Oxford University Press’s “Very Short Introduction” series, this book provides a good example. It also lists the many other available titles.”- Paul K. Van Riper, Lieutenant General, USMC, Retired
“Fiction has heuristic and therefore strategic power, not because it teaches us the answers to our questions, but rather because it helps us ask new and perhaps better questions. It helps open us to possibilities and mitigate cognitive closure. And I’ve been away from fiction for too long. So, I’m looking forward to Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife. A summary of the book sounds like a chapter from Jared Diamond’s Collapse, but this is speculative fiction considering a future in which drought drives national and international security as well as daily life. I hope this gets the neurons firing; I suspect it will.” Eric Michael Murphy, U.S. Air Force Officer and Editor at The Strategy Bridge
“I am trying to grapple with changes in media and the relationship between humans, stories, and various forms of online content. One can do worse than turn to McLuhan. He has been dead for almost 40 years and is still a few steps ahead of the rest of us.”-Ryan Evans, Founder and Editor-In-Chief of War on the Rocks
“While there’s nothing remotely ‘new’ about Grant’s memoirs, they make for fascinating reading. The popular conception of Grant is a bearded, cigar-chomping, heavy-drinking general who ascended to the nation’s highest office despite not being all that bright. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth, and his memoirs offer a glimpse into the insight and intelligence behind the public persona. With the support and encouragement of his close friend Mark Twain, Grant set to writing his memoirs in what would be the final year of his life. And write, he did: 275,000 words of crisp, thoughtful prose. He brought to life his experiences, his observations, and his thoughts in a way like no other chief executive before or since. The epic that he delivered to Twain in that final summer of 1865 — he died of throat cancer before editing the second volume — was nothing less than a work of literary art.” Steve Leonard, Creator of Doctrine Man
“Currently reading John Adams by David McCullough as part of a commitment I made this year to reread the history of some of our more iconic presidents and/or periods in time when the state of affairs in the United States was particularly tumultuous. Haven’t concluded yet whether it makes me feel better or worse about the current state of affairs. To be determined!” Lauren Katzenberg, Cofounder and Managing Editor of Task and Purpose
“The purpose of a war is framed within a political context. Morris’ book doesn’t address the political causes of particular wars; rather, it addresses the role war has played throughout human history. It is a long duration, about 20,000 years, history framed within an anthropological construct. He highlights that while a war is devastating for those involved, wars, in general, have provided the mechanism for greater security for the majority of civilisations and reduced our chances of dying a violent death. He covers key points in human history such as the Pax Romana, Pax Britannica and the Pax Americana, demonstrating how war has assisted in the establishment of safer societies. A fascinating read that provides a unique perspective of how our societies have not only waged, but benefited from, war.” –Mick Cook Host of The Dead Prussian and War for Idiots podcasts and an Australian Army Officer.
“I just started this comprehensive tome on this complex topic – actually, on recommendation from friend and intellectual mentor, Tom McDermott. I’ve been meaning to read this for ages, but it always slipped back in the reading queue based on professional, academic, and enjoyment reading. Only having just started it, I’ll say that the prose is generally easy to consume and less academic than I anticipated. I do appreciate the interdisciplinary approach Gat takes to address the broad topic…and the ambition such a treatment entails. I can’t recommend it yet, based on just having started it, but I welcome people’s thoughts and welcome others to join Tom and I…maybe Joe and I can revamp the “Read2Lead” summer reading program…” – Nathan K. Finney, U.S. Army Officer, Cofounder and Executive Director of The Bridge
“The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors is the history of what is arguably “The US Navy’s Finest Hour”, when a few, small, disregarded ships held off a battle fleet that included the world’s largest battle ship. This is not just a read for World War II or naval history buffs, but for anyone who wants to read about remarkable levels of heroism. Hornfischer has a talent for setting a scene, pulling you in, and then giving you multiple perspectives to experience along the way, from top officers down. The Last Stand is a book that is not just worth reading, but I’ve found myself often rereading and enjoying just as much.” Peter Singer, Senior Fellow at New America and coauthor of Ghost Fleet
“Lately I’ve been reading a lot about the 1850s in America, because I see our country going through a similarly tumultuous time now. Right now I’m on David Potter’s ‘The Impending Crisis.’-Tom Ricks, author of Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom
And Because Rich Ganske can’t read just one book…
“All too often in national security thinking, and particularly in the military, we either see ourselves as external to the problems we’re trying to solve or we forget that we are creating paradoxical dependencies where we intervene and stabilize. If we are being brutally honest with ourselves even our optimists should recognize that, in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, destabilizing second order effects have grown around our interventions even as we strain for otherwise. Closer to home we see evidence of the same; we can see the same character of long-term paradoxical effects of our “war on drugs,” since even before Nixon’s declaration made that term famous in 1971.
I can recommend two books that bookends the growing instability within our own hemisphere, providing context and consideration of path dependency. First, a history that starts in the mid-19th century with Andean Cocaine: The Making of a Global Drug by Paul Gootenberg and then Gangster Warlords: Drug Dollars, Killing Fields, and the New Politics of Latin America by Ioan Grillo. And for those who are looking for useful fiction that highlights the second-order effects of our “militarizing” the illicit drug trade, one that follows the contextual and referrent dynamics of US involvement in counter-revolution to counter-insurgency to now counter-terrorism, consider Don Winslow’s The Power of the Dog and The Cartel; see also the movie Sicario.” Rich Ganske, U.S. Air Force Officer and Co-Founder and Editor of the Strategy Bridge
As for me, I’m on a dystopian future kick right now. I recently finished Omar el Akkad’s American War, a page-turning novel set in a future America torn apart by a second civil war. The next book I plan on reading this summer is Void Star. The book interests me because it explores a future where we’ve augmented our brains with hardware, giving us the ability to recall any event with perfect clarity. Imagine the implications!