It’s a new year, which means resolutions aplenty. At the top of the list for many across the military and national security community is a commitment to continuing or expanding their professional reading. So for those of you looking for the first few books you’ll read in 2022, we asked members of the Modern War Institute team to share some of the books they have recently read, enjoyed, and learned from.
John Amble, MWI editorial director
Just as the US military is undergoing the fitful transformation from the post-9/11 wars to strategic competition with China and Russia, people across the US defense enterprise who got smart on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency are working to learn as much as possible about America’s pacing threats. This book won’t make a reader an expert on Russia, but it will give an important foundational understanding. And it serves as a gateway leading interested readers to other works by Galeotti, inarguably one of the most insightful analysts of Russia.
The Truth Machine: The Blockchain and the Future of Everything, Michael J. Casey and Paul Vigna
This book has almost nothing to do with war—at least directly. But it’s also impossible to read its description of how blockchain technology has the potential to massively change the way almost everything is done and not think about the ways it will disrupt the conduct of war, as well.
Grant Barge, MWI plans officer
For the first time in its nearly one-hundred-year history, the world’s largest and most watched sporting event is coming to the Arabian Peninsula when the tiny country of Qatar hosts the FIFA World Cup in November 2022. This global soccer spectacle is significant to the United States as Qatar is currently home to the forward headquarters of both US Central Command and Special Operations Command–Central, with over ten thousand military personnel stationed at al-Udeid Air Base, located on the outskirts of its capital city of Doha. With 3.5 million tourists expected, the US military has an opportunity to leverage the event’s popularity to build trust and confidence throughout the Middle East and further our strategic interests in the region. This book, named by Sports Illustrated as one of the five most influential sport books of the decade, looks at soccer’s impact on historical issues, from the clash of civilizations to the global economy.
Joel Blaxland, MWI nonresident fellow
This book is slightly older but still apropos. Janet was the outside reader for my dissertation and this book is the culmination of years of very hard work by her. She is a fantastic scholar and the theory she proposes in this book is excellent.
Elizabeth Buchanan, codirector of Project 6633 and lecturer of strategic studies at the Australian War College, Canberra
I am dusting off an oldie (but apparently a goodie). Teaching at Staff College here at the Australian War College I am always looking for engaging and new ways to contextualize and explore Sun Tzu’s classic. Visualization is an awesome tool for bridging the existing academia and defense policy or practitioner “divide.” War isn’t just interested in the warfighter, or the soldier; war is interested in us all. I think finding engaging ways to teach Sun Tzu’s thousands-of-years-old military literature is a win for everyone.
Ryan Burke, Project 6633 codirector
The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, John J. Mearsheimer
Nearly twenty years old, Mearsheimer’s classic remains an influential read for those seeking to better understand international politics through the realist lens. He argues that the world is condemned to strategic competition in perpetual anarchy, marked by states’ insatiable thirst for military power, motivated by uncertainty of others’ intent and the necessity of survival. We need more in the international security community to think like a realist and see the world for what it is, not what we hope it to be—and to make security and defense policy according to these edicts. Mearsheimer sets the tone.
American Contagions: Epidemics and the Law from Smallpox to COVID-19, John Fabian Witt
This citizen’s guide meets the fight of the moment, asking how we will confront today’s infections. John Fabian Witt’s scholarship offers essential insights into this new national conflict, exploring the impact of a novel pathogen on American security and our collective good, rendering visible our public limitations, and analyzing how this recurrent disease may shift our country’s equities and responsibilities.
Routledge Handbook of U.S. Counterterrorism and Irregular Warfare Operations, Liam Collins, Erich Marquardt, and Michael Sheehan (eds.)
Essential reading for a new generation of practitioners and scholars. Providing vibrant firsthand accounts from experts in counterterrorism and irregular warfare, from 9/11 until the present, the contributors offer a blueprint of recent efforts and impending challenges. Collectively, they provide a vital path forward in irregular warfare.
Alex Deep, MWI nonresident fellow
I like this book because it challenges some of our preconceived notions about what makes for successful capacity building with partners. Rather than focusing on the volume of training, equipment, advisors, etc., Karlin argues that the nature of US involvement and the role of unhelpful external actors are most determinative of a successful or unsuccessful capacity-building endeavor.
Austin Doctor, MWI nonresident fellow and assistant professor of political science at the University of Nebraska Omaha
I highly recommend Nonstate Warfare, in which Biddle presents a novel and parsimonious framework for understanding how armed nonstate actors fight. A growing number of militant organizations are today engaging in the type of conventional methods traditionally assumed to be the exclusive purview of state forces. Speaking to this dynamic and the broader landscape of modern warfare, Biddle adeptly explains how militants’ internal politics shape their choice of military method.
Sandor Fabian, MWI nonresident fellow
Revolutionary vision about the future of war (how to fight and win) in a context where nation-states will have less power while nonstate actors such as corporations, mercenaries, terrorists, and multinational criminal organizations will have more. Fascinating and disturbing argument against fighting wars in the “old ways” and overreliance on technology.
The Transformation of War, Martin van Creveld
Similar to the previous book this one also discusses the future of war, specifically who will fight, for what these actors will fight, and why and how fighting will happen. It is a cautionary tale warning traditional military institutions to adapt and innovate to avoid future impotence and even irrelevance. The author argues that from a military perspective we must resist the temptation to think about our age as the best of all time and continue to struggle to become better and understand what the future brings.
Ryan Grauer, MWI nonresident fellow and associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public and International Affairs
This trilogy masterfully mixes advanced physics, military strategy, and the foibles of human nature. As we begin to expand humanity’s reach into space, Liu considers what might await. His vision of the future is sobering as both prognostication and commentary on the relationship between emerging technologies and military strategy today.
Tim Heck, MWI deputy editorial director
A revision to the classic narrative of strategic defeat within sight of the Kremlin, Stahel examines German efforts to maintain unit integrity, equipment, and end-strength against the Red Army’s onslaught. Stahel’s examination of the operational impact and ability to retain the initiative, as well as examining cohesion amid chaos, is a reminder that retreat does not mean defeat.
Pat Howell, MWI director
Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, James McPherson
While a book that covers the approximately twenty-year time period from the outbreak of the US-Mexican War to the end of the Civil War seems to have nothing related to modern war at face value, it does show that, even when a country is engaged in existential large-scale combat operations (such as during the US Civil War) that seem to exclusively focus on the “M” instrument of national power, the other elements of the “DIME” model still play critical roles.
The Defence of Duffer’s Drift, Ernest Dunlop Swinton
Although this book was written to give tactical advice and insights to young lieutenants based on the author’s experiences from the Boer War, and some of that advice is just as applicable on the modern battlefield, I’m not recommending this book for tactical-level leaders. Instead, this book could be of value to leaders at all levels by demonstrating the importance of critical and creative thinking to understanding the situation and then visualizing how to succeed.
Michael Kelvington, MWI nonresident fellow and professor of military science at the Ohio State University
Written by the Ohio State head wrestling coach, this book shares incredible insight into what makes those in their field elite. We all face tough circumstances in life that include unchosen suffering outside our control, but it’s those who opt into chosen suffering that makes people elite in their fields. Those who are willing to put in the extra effort, go the extra mile, and carry a heavier load set conditions to succeed—this applies to leadership in the military just as much as on the wrestling mat.
Cole Livieratos, MWI nonresident fellow and concept developer at Army Futures Command
Command: The Twenty-First-Century General, Anthony King
As land warfare becomes more complex due to the introduction of new technologies and domains that impact Army operations, the character of military leadership must adapt. Anthony King provides historical context and offers evidence from the tactical level of war to explain how Western military command has evolved over time to account for increasing battlefield complexity. This detailed work serves as a reminder that the Army cannot rely solely on new technology and tactics, but must continue to evolve its approach to leadership to prepare for future wars.
Though reading doctrine is usually neither stimulating nor fun, ATP 7-100.3 is as well written as it is informative. The publication offers an excellent overview of the People’s Liberation Army, including China’s strategic and operational context, the PLA’s organizational structure, and how the PLA prefers to fight. After being optimized for conventional operations in Europe and then for counterinsurgency, the US Army must now prepare for a near peer with excellent strategic capabilities and weapons systems designed to keep land forces at a distance.
Justin Lynch, MWI nonresident fellow and term member at the Council on Foreign Relations
This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends: The Cyberweapons Arms Race, Nicole Perlroth
Given the importance of cyber operations, it is helpful for military leaders to understand zero-day exploits and how they are sold on the market. Perlroth provides a narrative that differs from most accounts, and shows how smaller states and nonstate actors can quickly acquire cyber weapons.
There are a number of competing narratives about the Chinese Communist Party’s intent and strategy, and they are difficult to disentangle. Doshi relies on official party documents and Chinese resources more heavily than usual to lay out a clear and accurate portrayal of the evolution of CCP strategy across military, economic, and diplomatic elements of power.
Harrison “Brandon” Morgan, MWI nonresident fellow
Despite my service as an active duty Army officer, I found that scholar and retired Navy Captain Henry Hendrix’s work provided a compelling case for why US naval primacy is both a historic and contemporary strategic imperative now facing serious challenges against a rising China and revanchist Russia. Readers of different service backgrounds may find themselves quite surprised to learn about the dramatic post–Cold War decline in the quantity of frontline naval ships, shipbuilding facilities, and ship repair yards, and the potential consequences for today’s strategic competition. As DoD faces potentially flattening budgets in the coming years, readers will better understand the importance of making difficult service tradeoffs to provide and maintain a powerful Navy as America’s “first, best” military strategy.
Zero-Sum Victory: What We’re Getting Wrong About War, Christopher D. Kolenda
While there seems to be no shortage of scholarly works on how wars begin, retired Army Colonel Christopher Kolenda’s publication stands unique as one that carefully examines how wars end. He explores American military practitioners’ and policymakers’ historical fixation on “zero-sum victory”—where the United States completely defeats its opponent on the battlefield and dictates nearly absolute terms of surrender—and how this fixation proved unrealistic and ultimately doomed the counterinsurgency campaigns of Afghanistan and Iraq. When one considers how a US military conflict with a nuclear-armed state power such as Russia or China would evolve, negotiated outcomes broader than zero-sum victory can help policymakers and military practitioners develop a more realistic array of options for war termination.
J. Overton, MWI nonresident fellow
On Wide Seas: The US Navy in the Jacksonian Era, Claude Berube
An accessible but in-depth study of President Andrew Jackson’s use of, and imprint on, a young Navy and Marine Corps, and how the country’s attitudes and self- perception were manifested in its sea services.
An exploration of the non-warfare uses of early American seapower and its contributions to national wealth, prestige, and identity. Recommended as good background on the growth of America’s empire in the nineteenth century, and prompts speculation on seapower’s role during that empire’s (potential? inevitable?) contraction.
Maggie Smith, MWI affiliated faculty
The USMA International Affairs Forum hosted Dr. Lyall for a talk in the fall and I dug into his book shortly after—it’s a dense but valuable read. In Divided Armies, Dr. Lyall tests the hypothesis that ethnic inequality within a country’s polity and society undermines its military effectiveness in wartime. This type of study has been done before, but what distinguishes Divided Armies is that Dr. Lyall looked at the composition of the belligerent armies and was able to show causality between the levels of equality within a military and its effectiveness on the battlefield.
An Open World: How America Can Win the Contest for Twenty-First-Century Order, Rebecca Lissner and Mira Rapp-Hooper
My brainiac friend recommended this book to me and I’m so glad she did. The book changed how I think about American grand strategy by arguing that the United States must pursue openness to protect American security and prosperity in the modern era. Only a disciplined grand strategy of openness—a naturally forward-looking lens—can counter the emergence of closed spheres of influence that our authoritarian competitors seek to create.
Urban Warfare in the Twenty-First Century, Anthony King
Dr. Anthony King’s book is the most detailed and relevant book to be published on the topic of urban warfare (arguably the most frequent type of conflict in the last few decades and what we predict will be the future of warfare) in a long while. King provides analysis and criticism of popular urban warfare theories and makes a strong case that because of the small size of modern armies, urban warfare is unavoidable. It is a must read for any national security student or practitioner.
Andrew Szarejko, MWI nonresident fellow and Donald R. Beall defense fellow at the US Naval Postgraduate School
Engineering Expansion: The U.S. Army and Economic Development, 1787–1860, William D. Adler
Adler persuasively argues that the US military, despite its relatively small size, was central to antebellum American political development. Of particular interest for its contemporary implications, however, is the discussion of civil-military relations. Engineering Expansion portrays civilian control of the military as having been relatively weak, especially on America’s shifting periphery, and Adler draws our attention to the prospects for civilian and military officials alike to reconstitute this relationship for good or for ill.
Christian Tripodi, MWI adjunct scholar and postgraduate and research committee chair in the Defence Studies Department at King’s College London’s School of Security Studies
Strategic Instincts: The Adaptive Advantages of Cognitive Biases in International Politics, Dominic D. P. Johnson
Johnson, professor of international relations at Oxford University, draws upon his background in the natural sciences to illustrate the way in which cognitive adaptions shape international relations. In his latest book he identifies the way in which cognitive biases, far from being detrimental to policymaking, lend significant benefits and advantages.
Buchanan provides a masterful, fluent, and highly informed analysis of the way in which cyber capabilities, in the hands of both state and nonstate actors, shapes modern geopolitics.
Larry Wortzel, MWI adjunct scholar
On Operations: Operational Art and Military Disciplines, B. A. Friedman
A comprehensive historical overview, this book discusses the influences of weapons and technology on operational art—multidisciplinary and multi-domain.
Rethinking Chinese Politics, Joseph Fewsmith
Joe does a great job with a critique of contemporary schools of thought on Chinese politics. The books focuses on the Leninist influences in Chinese politics and the formation of cliques and factions.
Diane Zorri, MWI nonresident fellow and assistant professor of security studies and international affairs at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University
Silk Roads: A New History of the World, Peter Frankopan
Oxford historian Peter Frankopan weaves an alternative to the Western-centric history of the Middle East. In doing so, he illuminates the vacillating importance of raw goods, commodities, religion, and the protection of the supply chain. His account gives depth beyond classical histories and showcases the complexity of how events unfold throughout time.
Editor’s note: This list was updated with additional entries after it was first published.
Image credit: Ginny