Category Archives: Book Review

Reviews of recent and upcoming foreign policy and maritime books of merit.

The Leader’s Bookshelf by Admiral James Stavridis & R. Manning Ancell

By Christopher Nelson

The Leader’s Bookshelf  by Admiral James Stavridis and R. Manning Ancell. U.S. Naval Institute Press. 288pp. $29.95.

The Leader’s Bookshelf by ADM James S. Stavridis and R. Manning Ancell/US Naval Institute Press

“Reading has the power not only to demolish time and span the ages, but also the capacity to make one feel more human — human meaning at one with humanity — and possibly less savage.”

– JAMES SALTER

“After owning books, almost the next best thing is talking about them.”

– CHARLES NODIER

Some years ago I met Admiral Jim Stavridis. The conversation, while short, turned to books. If I recall, it was in Stuttgart, Germany, sometime around 2010 or 2011. Because he was the Supreme Allied Commander Europe and the U.S. European Commander (EUCOM), he had to divide his time between two locations: his NATO headquarters located near Mons, Belgium and his EUCOM headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany. At the time, I worked in the intelligence directorate at EUCOM when we heard he was coming by to meet the staff. 

It was a gray, overcast afternoon when he arrived. He promptly made his way down a long line of officers and enlisted, each of them posed to shake his hand and say a few words. I had only a few seconds to make a connectionto say something interesting or ask him a question. But this I knew: I loved books; he loved books; and while standing there, I thought of something he wrote that might prove that I, like him, believed that books are essential to our profession, if not our lives.

Months prior, he had written one of his regular blog posts. In it, he said that his wife noticed that his love of books and his growing library had evolved into a “gentle madness.” That phrasea “gentle madness”refers to a wonderful book by author Nicholas Basbanes. Basbanes’ bookA Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books  is a long, discursive work: one part discussion of historic book culture in America and Britain, the other full of profiles of quirky and dedicated book lovers and collectors. 

When the admiral finally reached me, I mentioned the blog post and the book. His eyes lit up and he said something about few people knowing the reference. He then told me he owned 4,000 books. Surprised, I said something about wanting a library that large. He then simply said, “You’ll get there.” The conviction in his voice floored me. I believed him. And he was right. I’m getting there (the featured image of this post is a picture of my library; today I have around 2,000 titles, give or take).

Fast forward a few years and, no surprise, the admiral’s library has grown. Stavridis, in the introduction to the entertaining The Leader’s Bookshelf, says that he has in his “house today… more than four thousand books.” His wife, Laura, “has spent far too much of her life packing and unpacking them in postings all around the world.”

Adm. James Stavridis, center, browses through the Naval War College’s bookstore, October 2012. (U.S. Naval War College)

Stavridis and his co-author, R. Manning Ancell, have written a book that is somewhat similar to Richard Puryear’s fine booknow unfortunately out of printAmerican Admiralship: The Moral Imperatives of Command. Puryear interviewed 150 four star admirals on a variety of topics. One of those topics was the importance of reading. And like Puryear, Stavridis and Ancell take a similar path. In The Leader’s Bookshelf, they interviewed 200 four-star generals and flag officers, and from those discussions, they determined the 50 books that “stood out most…with top military readers.”

Using no particular scientific method, they rank ordered the books in descending order by the number of mentions. Thus, the first book on the list, Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels (1974), was mentioned most often. While the last on the list, How: Why HOW We Do Anything Means Everything by Dov Seidman, was mentioned least frequently.

For each title, there is a short essay by a senior officer as to why they choose the book, followed by a quote from the book, a biography of the author, then a summary of the book by either Stavridis or Ancell, concluding with a few sentences about why the book is important for leaders today.  

For folks that regularly follow the reading lists that are published by the Chief of Naval Operations or the other services, there are, unfortunately, few surprises. The regularly cited titles appear: Anton Myer’s Once an Eagle, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, Clausewitz’s On War, John Keegan’s The Face of Battle, E.B. Potter’s Nimitz, and the always popular Steven Pressfield with his Gates of Fire. They all made the cut.

While there is nothing wrong with the oldies but goodies, it was refreshing to see some unusualor rather, some outliersfind a place in the top 50. Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court makes a showing as does Norman Mclean’s A River Runs Through It. In fact, General Stan McChrystal is the senior officer that recommended Twain’s satirical novel about a man from the 19th century, Hank Morgan, traveling back in time to King Arthur’s court.

The Leader’s Bookshelf, I confess, would be ho-hum if not for the additional essays that Stavridis and Ancell add to the book. It is these essays on publishing, reading lists, and building a personal library, that raise this book from mediocrity to must have. And here, Robert Ancell pulls his weight, adding a nice cherry on top with an interview with General Mattis. 

Mattis beats Stavridis in the book department. With some 7,000 titles on his shelves, he probably is the best read military leaderretired or activeout there. In the interview, Mattis mentions books that apply to each level of war. Of note, he recommends Lucas Phillips’ book The Greatest Raid of All. A book about a British raid that shattered the Nazi’s dry docks at Saint-Nazaire, France during World War II, preventing the Germans from using the docks for large battleships for the duration of the war. The raid resulted in no less than five Victoria Crosses. I had never heard of the book nor the raid. It is these little-known reading recommendations that make books like this exciting. You simply do not know what you might find.

Ironically, the only criticismor rather, observationI have about the book is that senior officers still do not carve out enough time to read. And this in a book in which one of the early essays is about “Making Time for Reading.”  

In one essay, a senior officer admits that while working in the Joint Staff that he only read one book in a year. One book! While another, in her recommendation, wrote only two sentences to praise the workand even then those two sentences were footnoted. Sigh.  

Nonetheless, The Leader’s Bookshelf will appeal to all types: The newbie looking for a good book to read and the bibliomaniac who may have read all 49 on the list and owns each first edition, but unaware, or didn’t realize there was just one more interesting title out there.  

But alas, there always is.

Lieutenant Commander Christopher Nelson, USN, is an intelligence officer stationed at the U.S. Pacific Fleet Headquarters in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The views here are his own.

Featured Image: A picture of the author’s personal library. Courtesy of Christopher Nelson.

Onslaught: The War With China – The Opening Battle

Poyer, David. Onslaught: The War With China – The Opening Battle. New York City, St. Martin’s Press, 2016, 320 pp. $20.99
By Michael DeBoer

When I was in high school I was walking through a Borders (I know this dates me) when a book caught my eye. Its cover featured a small ship, photographed from directly above, in a sea of red. The book was China Sea, and when I read it, I made a lifelong friend. I’ve followed David Poyer’s character, CAPT Daniel Lenson, from his junior officer tour to the present series of novels of his major command, starting with The Cruiser published in 2014. Lenson’s integrity and competence was a part of my inspiration to accept an appointment to the Naval Academy when I was an enlisted Sonarman, and his stories provided me some measure of context when I was there and later, as I read the books through my career. In short, I’ve loved following Dan Lenson’s career and I’ll miss him when he is gone.

Poyer’s stories feature a mix of the high drama and the cold technical nature of combat at sea. In that aspect the author’s latest story, Onslaught, is an excellent contribution to the series, I would argue one of the most notable collections of sea literature of the modern era. Fans of the series will find old friends inside, while new readers will discover a set of strong, relatable characters: Teddy Oberg, Poyer’s Navy SEAL, Aisha Ar-Rahim, NCIS Special Agent, ADM Jung, South Korean Navy commander, Cheryl Staurlakis, indefatigable XO, Matt Mills, ultra-competent Ops Officer, and Amy Singhe, impertinent upstart JO, are all back. Poyer’s characters are believable and rich, with complex motivations and deep emotions. Moreover, all are strongly affected by events around them. In Poyer’s typical fashion, the work features four concurrent stories: Lenson’s command of USS Savo Island on an ASW barrier in the Miyako Gap, Special Agent Aisha Ar-Rahim’s investigation of a violent rapist onboard Savo, SOCM Teddy Oberg’s assault on Woody Island, and Lenson’s wife Blair’s participation in strategic planning for the coming war with China at SAIC. These four stories are interspersed with the searing exhaustion that only members of the sea services can recognize as an authentic portion of Navy life.

Poyer’s Onslaught describes where many think the series was always headed: an all-out war with the People’s Republic of China. However, despite my expectations that the book would take off into ultra-intense combat immediately, the novel instead features the slow burn of increasing tensions and asymmetric tactics. Lenson’s Savo Island heads a surface action group on ASW station in the East China Sea attempting to hold against attempts by PRC submarines to gain the Philippine Sea while providing missile defense to Taipei. Lenson’s Savo, a notional Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) configured cruiser, allows the author to write rich and genuine series of combat. Only Poyer’s shootout in the Strait of Hormuz during Tipping Point exceeds the vignettes in this book. Moreover, the author’s depiction of BMD operations makes a complex and often arcane art easily accessible and exciting.

Poyer’s story features many operational considerations familiar to CIMSEC readers. The ballistic missile barrage across the Taiwan Strait, PRC aggression in the South and East China Seas, Anti-ship Ballistic Missiles, and a U.S. Navy struggling to maintain access to the East Asian littoral remain the major security issues of our time. Moreover, lack of ASCM inventory, of launcher capacity, and the vulnerability of multi-mission ships when operating in a BMD role are tactical issues well known to U.S. naval planners.

Onslaught, like Poyer’s previous book Tipping Point, has an air of the coming of a cataclysm. Images of the Guns of August abound, as do instances reminiscent of the Solomon Islands and Sunda Strait. Poyer clearly fits the difficult portions of America’s last naval war in Asia, entirely forgotten by the American public and largely ignored by the strategic community, into his narrative. The result is a sense of high tension and intense foreboding.

If I could provide a slight criticism, Special Agent Ar-Rahim is at times irritating. She remains the worst developed Poyer character and contributed little to the story. Aisha can, at times, who at times comes off as more of a caricature than an actual person, though Poyer’s effort to convey diverse viewpoints is indeed commendable and usually very effective.

Poyer’s work should be strongly recommended by CIMSEC readers, especially to friends who may not understand both the complexity, tension, feeling, and exhaustion of combat at sea. In an era where many question the value of allies, the importance of forward naval forces, and likelihood of great power war, Onslaught provides a stunning and believable narrative of the importance of all three. The pace is fast, the combat visceral, and the emotions intense. Poyer remains one of our modern masters of nautical fiction and the emotions of war at sea. Tipping Point and Onslaught are strongly recommended to anyone who is interested in potential conflict with a hegemonic China, loves a good story, or lives their professional life at sea.

Read CIMSEC’s interview with author David Poyer here.

Michael DeBoer is part of the CIMSEC book review team.

Featured Image: Illustration by Sarah Eberspacher. (Getty Images)

Lessons Encountered: Learning From the Long War

Hooker, Richard D., and Joseph J. Collins. Lessons Encountered: Learning from the Long War. National Defense University Press 2015 473pp. 

lessonsencounted
Click to read.

By Ching Chang

Lessons Encountered: Learning from the Long War is a collection of research reports edited by Richard D. Hooker, Jr. and Joseph J. Collins published by the U.S. National Defense University Press in September 2015. It originated from a top-down request from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to respond to two inquiries: What were the costs and benefits of the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, and what were the strategic lessons of these campaigns? The final product of this instruction may eventually benefit many military professionals, and possibly, certain politicians who may have ambitions to be the national or political leadership within the national security community of the United States.

Success could never be easily repeated by itself, yet, mistakes causing failures always repeatedly occur in different occasions in human history. When conducting a war, mistakes happen everywhere from the strategic level jointly formulated by the national leadership and their subordinated senior military commanders, to those operational and tactical decisions made by the military professionals in varying levels of command and authority. Certain tactical decisions may have some devastating consequences at the strategic level. Specific bias and selfishness in higher level decision making may increase the statistics of fatalities in the battlefield. To grasp the mistakes that have occurred in the history of war is more important, therefore, than understanding the rationales assuring victory, since all the theories of victory are fundamentally similar. Following previous tracks, however, is no guarantee of success. Such is the well-known truth for every military professional.

Of course, this publication is tailored for  senior military professionals who may attend the Joint Professional Military Education programs offered by war colleges or command and staff colleges in various services of the United States Armed Forces. Nonetheless, senior national security civilian executives who also join these courses may also enhance their understanding of coordination with military professionals. On the other hand, how the military professionals should serve their political masters by following the principle of civilian control of the military is another vital issue addressed by this publication. The best lesson of this masterpiece is to help the leadership of the national security community learn principles related to advocating armed conflict, as opposed to the opposite approach of gaining awareness only through battlefield experience and lost blood and treasure.

Many lessons encountered and learned during the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq are listed at the beginning of this text. The whole course of these two warfighting cases include high tier decision-making processes as well as very detailed situations of the battlefield, described and analyzed thoroughly.

Any war itself is essentially a dynamic process. Situation assessment and adaptations at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels are routines for warfighting. Likewise, the associated politics are also a dynamic progression. Criteria changes are necessary to reflect the concerns from the general public. Positions and arguments held by political leadership may also vary accordingly. From observing the developments of establishing the security in these two different battlefields and the exit strategy formulated by the U.S. political leadership for two different operational situations, we may notice the difficulties inherent in conducting two simultaneous campaigns.

The legal issues discussed in the final chapter may be the most striking content to readers whose concerns include the directives and moral cause for fighting the next war. However,  the sincerity of self-criticism is valid evidence that conscience remains a central element of military ethics. Likewise, the courage to face those mistakes is the fundamental indication of hegemony. Many people may question how long the United States may sustain its position as a superpower in the world. As long as the United States military produces such reports that honestly review all the mistakes, oversights, and downright stupidities that occur in their war efforts, no one should underestimate the capacity of the United States to amend those mistakes at some point. Particularly, many of the military professionals interviewed and pointed out those flaws may have the possibility to continue their careers in the political realm in the foreseeable future. We may discover how well they may perform after shifting their roles to be politically appointed features in Washington.

Chinese translation of the reviewed text. (Author photos)

As a foreign reader and translator reading this text, the author would like to mention that the Chinese translation of this book was recently published by the National Defense University, Republic of China, in December 2016. As many other civilizations pay their efforts to understand the United States by translating these texts, we hope that the United States should also pay the same scale of effort to understand other civilizations in order to avoid the many mistakes analyzed in this book. After all, si vis pacem, para bellum, is quite true, yet, the Chinese wisdom of “winning a war without fighting” can also be worthy of consideration after reading this text.

Ching Chang is a Research Fellow with the Society for Strategic Studies, Republic of China. The views expressed in this review are his own.

Featured Image: by Ron Haviv, April 9 2003, Reproduced as part of TIME’s series, A Decade of War in Iraq.

Chinese Naval Shipbuilding: An Ambitious and Uncertain Course

Andrew S. Erickson, ed. Chinese Naval Shipbuilding: An Ambitious and Uncertain Course. Naval Institute Press, 2016 pp 376. $39.95

chinesenavalshipbuilding

By Michael DeBoer

Chinese Naval Shipbuilding Capability: An Uncertain Course, adds the most recent volume to Dr. Andrew Erickson’s excellent edited collections on the increase of the People’s Republic’s military, economic, and industrial power published by the Naval Institute Press. Erickson’s credentials include a professorship in strategy at the Naval War College, a research associateship at Harvard’s Fairbank School for Chinese Studies, and a regular congressional witness on areas pertaining to Chinese capabilities and strategy. He is a giant in the field. The work combines seventeen articles written by thirty-two authors, among them storied names such as CRS naval analyst Ronald O’Rourke and former former Director of Intelligence and Information Operations (N2) for U.S. Pacific Fleet CAPT James Fanell (ret). The volume provides a nuanced and insightful view of a major Chinese strategic investment, its shipbuilding industry, and is required reading for anyone, academic or laymen, trying to understand the associated capabilities and implications of the People’s Republic’s maritime rise.

The three hundred-forty-page tome is broken into five sections, describing the PRC’s shipbuilding industry’s foundation and resources, infrastructure, approach to naval architecture and design, remaining challenges, and a section which provides strategic conclusions and predictions for the future of American naval and maritime power. The articles are easily readable, each approximately ten to fifteen pages of crisp, synthesized content, with end notes allowing readers to further explore the author’s research, although most references are translated from Mandarin Chinese. The works also feature multiple graphs, tables, and illustrations, providing further resources for students and researchers. While each article provides fascinating insights into the past, present, and future of Chinese shipbuilding, four areas of study especially stood out as enjoyable, informative, and useful.

First, Christopher P. Carlson and Jack Bianchi’s Chapter I review of the People’s Republic’s naval and maritime history from the formation of the communist state to Xi Jinping provides a concise review of the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) strategic development. Carlson and Bianchi first review the PLAN’s operational shift from Near Coast Defense, to Near Seas Active Defense, and finally to Near Seas Defense and Far Seas Operations, as the PLAN’s resources, capabilities, and objectives adapted to match the nation’s goals. The pair provide an excellent linkage between China’s strategic situation since Mao’s victory and the requirements of PLAN platforms as the force shifted from a coastal force to a limited blue water force and finally to a force intended to defend Chinese interests on both the near and far seas. This evolution brought an increase in the complexity and technical sophistication to the Chinese military shipbuilding industry.

Second, Leigh Ann Ragland-Luce and John Costello provide insight into a major limitation of Chinese military shipbuilding: combat electronics. Ragland-Luce and Costello point out that, while PLAN hull and mechanical systems are regularly manufactured using modern industry standards such as modular construction, the PLAN remains unable to field a top-tier indigenously developed combat control system. The authors use the Jiangkai-II (054A)-class guided missile frigate, a modern warship by any standard, whose combat control system (CCS) is based upon the French TAVITAC, vice a comparable Chinese design. This potential lack of integration between the French CCS and developing Chinese weapons and sensor systems might well prove a combat handicap for PLAN forces in future conflicts. Similarly, editor Andrew Erickson with Jonathan Ray and Robert T. Forte provide an excellent dissertation on the limitations of Chinese propulsion plant designs. According to the trio, the PLAN appears proficient in coastal diesel submarine propulsion technologies. The PLAN effectively integrates Sterling Engine Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) systems into its Yuan-class diesel-electric boats (SSPs), and it leads research into safe Lithium-Ion battery storage systems, potentially increasing coastal submarine endurance. It still lags considerably in both modern integrated surface propulsion plants and nuclear powered propulsion designs.

Third, the work uses present shipbuilding capacity to extrapolate future PLAN capability and force structure. CAPT James Fanell (ret) and Scott Cheney-Peters (Founder of CIMSEC) provide a realistic warning regarding the long-term challenge of Chinese strategic depth in military shipbuilding. Ronald O’Rourke caps the work with a set of implications for the U.S. Navy if PLAN force structure continues to expand.

Fourth, the work also provides an excellent overview of the curious public-private nature of an industry. The ten-year old split of Chinese shipbuilding into competitive public-private corporations Chinese State Shipbuilding Company (CSSC) and Chinese Industrial Shipbuilding Company (CSIC), induced formidable challenges to reintegrate as demand for commercial Chinese-built shipping demand drops and the People’s Republic attempts to cut excess overhead in its public ventures. The work also appropriately conveys the confusing and byzantine structure of the Chinese military-industrial complex, broken into multiple institutes and directorates with potentially overlapping responsibilities.

The edition could have improved by better integration between authors. Several articles re-visit the growth of PLAN naval strategy over the PRC’s history, which becomes redundant. Secondly, in some cases, it is difficult at times to compare Chinese shipbuilding structure and practices to those of other industries worldwide. Is China’s anticipated post-merger structure in line with other shipbuilding industries? The work does not, at times, draw clear comparisons.

Overall, Chinese Naval Shipbuilding provides a very useful window into an area of intense Communist Party strategic investment. The work gives the reader an excellent overview of the industry as a whole, overlapped with strategic context and geopolitical implications. As discussed, the volume also provides a unique look at the industry’s challenges, including increased engineering costs, poor integration with modern combat systems, and challenges in surface ship engineering plants and nuclear propulsion technologies. Nuanced and complex, it describes both the accomplishments of an industry that now leads the world in commercial tonnage produced, but also lags behind in critical areas mastered by much smaller and less-rich nations. Erickson’s volume is a worthy addition to his series and an enjoyable read.


Read CIMSEC’s interview with editor Dr. Andrew Erickson on this book here.

Michael DeBoer is a U.S. naval officer. The views herein are his alone and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Navy, or any other organization.

Featured Image: China’s first indigenously produced aircraft carrier CV-17/001A under construction at Dalian shipyard. (CJDBY.net)