Editor’s note: Welcome to another installment of our weekly War Books series! The premise is simple and straightforward. We ask an expert on a particular topic to recommend five books on that topic and tell us what sets each one apart. War Books is a resource for MWI readers who want to learn more about important subjects related to modern war and are looking for books to add to their reading lists.
A recent report on military cyberspace operations declared, “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine demonstrates cyber influence operations integrated with more traditional cyberattacks and kinetic military operations to maximize impact.” Surprisingly, this document was authored not by an intelligence agency or military organization, but by Microsoft. In fact, most of the top thinking on cyberspace and information warfare originates from outside the traditional national security establishment. Yet, from the war in Ukraine to Chinese theft of sensitive military technology, it’s clear that defense officials and military leaders need a basic grasp on the principles of cyber and influence from competition all the way to conflict. That’s why we asked Kyle Wolfley, an MWI research fellow, to contribute this edition of War Books. We gave him the following prompt: What five books would you recommend for readers to better understand cyber and influence operations?
Cyber War Will Not Take Place, by Thomas Rid
Russia’s massive assault on Ukraine has everyone wondering why the cyber dogs of war have not barked, at least loudly. Nearly a decade ago, Rid was one of the first observers to challenge the prevailing wisdom that digital attacks would generate destruction analogous to nuclear weapons or cause the next Pearl Harbor. He tests cyber military thinking with Clausewitz’s theory of war and concludes that cyber war is not a useful construct: operations through wires and signals are fundamentally nonviolent, more akin to intelligence gathering than actual harm to people or computers, and too unwieldy to demonstrate resolve in a contest of wills. His three-part typology of offensive cyber operations as espionage, sabotage, or subversion is powerful because it calls into question whether any cyber incident is really an attack as opposed to intelligence collection or morale deflation, activities that have existed in other forms for centuries, if not millennia. Rid’s mix of social science rigor with skillful narration of technical subjects makes this book one of the best foundational military cyberspace books available.
In a similar vein to Rid’s skepticism of cyber war hyperbole, Buchanan’s work is a careful study of how cyber operations are poor signals of coercion through several deep case studies of newsworthy cyberattacks. He offers readers a glimpse into the minds of hackers and defenders in the persistent fight over advantage through networks and cables. His central premise is that cyberspace operations are far more effective in collecting intelligence and setting the conditions to support other activities than as signals of capability to modify an adversary’s behavior. Through detailed case studies of NotPetya and Russia’s attacks against Ukraine’s power grid in 2014 and 2015, Buchanan demonstrates how resilience and blowback may weaken state uses of destructive cyberspace activities in the future.
Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card
Sometimes the best descriptions of war and statecraft are found not in history books, but in novels. Card’s Ender’s Game—written in 1985—highlights the role of information in competition and combat. The story follows Ender and his perilous journey to become the human race’s last hope for survival against an impending alien invasion. The young boy leaves Earth to train for the upcoming galactic battle, leaving behind an adolescent brother and sister, who, still on Earth, create online personas to lead unwitting factions of society in opposing ideas of governance and geopolitics. Ender’s innate leadership and courage will be attractive to military readers, yet his deft use of information technology—including hacking into a machine to sow doubt in his rival’s leadership—reveals how maneuver commanders could integrate cyber-enabled influence into operations to shape the battlefield by reducing an enemy’s cohesion.
Rid makes a second appearance in this list, this time for exploring the subversion logic he briefly covers in Cyber War Will Not Take Place. This work is notable for his masterful storytelling of the influence contest between the West and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The tales of manufactured jazz magazines to attract East Germans toward the West, leaked field manuals to divide NATO’s collective will, and even the puppet-mastering of retired generals are both fascinating and instructive for the future of what George Kennan labeled “political warfare.” Rid’s conclusion that active measures—whether delivered through megaphones, pamphlets, or social media—will frustrate attempts to evaluate effectiveness will resonate with commanders who often question the usefulness of information operations.
The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, by Jonathan Gottschall
Although Rid reveals how the information tool of statecraft evades simple cause and effect measurement, Gottschall’s journey into the art and science of storytelling offers a key to understanding how compelling narratives really do change our minds. Gottschall convincingly argues that narratives are part of the human experience that makes facts and ideas penetrate our minds, even more so than works of nonfiction like those listed above. From an exploration into children’s preference for danger and conflict during playtime to how ideas expressed in symphonies and novels motivated the most destructive wars in human history, the book reveals the power of mixing fact and emotion to drive human behavior. Like stories, war and competition are filled with characters, plots, dramas, challenges, morality, and reconciliation; policymakers and leaders would be wise to take storytelling as influence more seriously.
Maj. Kyle J. Wolfley is a strategist at US Army Cyber Command and a research fellow at the Modern War Institute. He holds a PhD in government from Cornell University and is the author of Military Statecraft and the Rise of Shaping in World Politics (Rowman and Littlefield, 2021).
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Christoph Scholz