Tag: book review

What to Read if You Need to Make an Epidemic Strategy in a Hurry

By Major Andy Forney

The other day, while at the gym, I had the unique experience of viewing CNN’s frontal assault-style coverage of Ebola in the United States. Talking heads, all looking very serious, discussed the prospects of the disease’s transfer among the general public, oftentimes framed with a odd red, white, and blue tinted microscopic image of the virus. The gym had thankfully muted the sound, but the baleful pictures and serious looks seemed to be pulled from a “how-the-zombie-apocalypse-started” montage from the latest horror movie. I wondered briefly if the Ebola patient in Dallas had somehow managed to be on the missing Malaysian plane from last summer. And, from my perspective, such coverage seemed to be working; I witnessed at least two customers at my local brick-and-mortar commercial bookstore holding copies of Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone in just thirty minutes.

            It is not that The Hot Zone is a bad book, or that the experts on CNN do not possess the background to discuss Ebola. Rather, both Preston’s book and cable’s news coverage do not allow those attempting to formulate a strategic response to the Ebola crisis at home, and more importantly in Africa, to think dispassionately about their subjects. The United States appears to be groping towards setting a precedent for using elements from the entire DIME spectrum to respond to pandemic threats. And for the first time, military force looks to become the primary factor in the U.S. response. Strategists, military and civilian alike, now face the daunting task of crafting a strategy that most effectively stops the viruses spread, and then sets the conditions to preclude or limit future pandemic-size outbreaks.

            In this light, what are the best books to read about epidemics, society, and strategy? Frankly, no one books answers these questions. The Hot Zone provides a page-turning read with a nice account of Ebola’s first outbreaks, its morphology, and dramatizes its future spread, but does not place the virus adequately within a joint/inter-agency response campaign. As I looked through my bookshelves, I gravitated to a handful of books that I think best illustrate two central themes we must consider as we look at disease in modern world history: first, how disease and epidemics can quickly destabilize societies and cultures and have real-world strategic impacts; and second, how quickly epidemics and their responses become politicized.

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Reading Perception and Writing Intent

By Kenneth Upsall (Staff Sergeant, U.S. Army Reserve)

In recent readings I’ve been re-hashing a common theme in written work; perception and intent. Authors are, by necessity, constantly placing their own emphasis on the subject matter they write and drawing their own conclusions. A great contemporary example is President Obama’s speech at the recent West Point Commencement. On Foreignpolicy.com alone there were several different takes on this address. Two examples are here and here. If you were researching this speech for future academic endeavors it would be possible to draw two completely different conclusions from each of these sources, located in the same place. On a website like Foreign Policy, much like War Council, the goal is to create and perpetuate debate. Contributors are prone to grenade throwing in order to spark discussion about a topic, and a presidential address is certainly excellent fodder for such an exercise.

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Book Review: The Sleepwalkers

Review of The Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to war in 1914 by Christopher Clark, 2012 Harper Collins Publishers New York, NY. 

By Kenneth Upsall, Staff Sergeant, U.S. Army Reserve

Christopher Clark does an excellent job detailing the root causes of nationalism, economic pressures and diplomacy which led to Europe’s descent into World War I. Clark cites a profusion of primary sources to dissect the pre-war social and political landscape. More than a dry academic work, Sleepwalkers is well written and fast moving, while unsparing in the details that add to the narrative. Clark believes there was a shared political culture in pre-war Europe that created a “multipolar and genuinely interactive” (p.561) environment and facilitated the most complex geopolitical event of modern times.

Clark concedes there is no theory of the war’s origins which cannot be supported from the vast amount of available history, he quickly establishes that official histories from the belligerent nations are inevitably skewed to meet political ends and individual memoirs have been egotistically twisted to deflect blame from their principals. This assertion separates Sleepwalkers  from its cousins; Catastrophe: 1914 Europe Goes to War (2013) by Max Hastings and Barbara W. Hastings seminal account of the summer of 1914 The Guns of August (1962) both veer toward blaming German ambition for the diplomatic crisis of 1914. These two works also spend the majority of their time focused on military operations of the combatant states, while Clark keeps Sleepwalkers focused on the events leading up to 28 July.   

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