Category Archives: Book Review

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

By More Than Providence: Grand Strategy and American Power in the Asia Pacific Since 1783

Green, Michael. By More Than Providence: Grand Strategy and American Power in the Asia Pacific Since 1783. New York City: Columbia University Press, 2017, 760pp. $45.00

By Mina Pollmann

Introduction

Michael Green’s latest contribution to the field of strategic studies is, first and foremost, a history. By More Than Providence (Columbia University Press, 2017), the first comprehensive history of U.S. statecraft in the Asia-Pacific since Tyler Dennett’s Americans in Eastern Asia (1922), is a much-needed attempt to answer the question: can the U.S. have a grand strategy in the Asia-Pacific? Green does this by asking whether the U.S. has ever had a grand strategy in this region.

Green concludes that U.S. grand strategy may have been “episodic and inefficient,” but not only does it exist, “in the aggregate[,] it has been effective.” Furthermore, he argues, whether or not the U.S. was able to “[muster] the willpower, focus, and resources to prevail when access to an open order in the region [had] been fundamentally challenged” depended not on the U.S.’s “preponderance of power,” but on “[U.S.] leaders’ clarity of purpose and deliberate identification of ends, ways, and means.” He reaches this conclusion through 15 superbly well-researched chapters.

American Strategy In Asia

Beginning from the 1780s to the present day, each chapter is similarly structured, opening with the introduction of the main cast of characters in the administration under study. Green tastefully offers vignettes of each individual, covering a range of information that shaped the individual’s worldview in policy-relevant ways, whether it is where the statesman grew up, what schools the statesman attended, or what religion they practiced. Each chapter also delivers solid overviews of the interpersonal and interagency dynamics that facilitated – or hindered – the administration’s ability to craft and implement a coherent grand strategy.

From there, Green delves into the narrative of events, interspersed with surveys of what other historians have had to say on the subject, sharing insights from classics, such as David Halberstam’s The Best and Brightest on the Vietnam War, to the most cutting-edge research, including Rana Mitter’s Forgotten Ally on the Sino-Japanese War.

But the book’s real strength is in each chapter’s concluding evaluation of the effectiveness of the administration under study’s grand strategy. 548 pages of this sweeping history is thematically tied together by the five “tensions” that Green identifies and traces over time.

The five tensions in U.S. grand strategy are: Europe versus Asia; continental (China) versus maritime (Japan); forward defense versus Pacific depth; self-determination versus universal values; and protectionism versus free trade. Green does not leave readers guessing how these tensions ought to be resolved – he forcefully advocates for a U.S. grand strategy that appreciates the preeminence of Asia in world affairs, elevates the importance of the U.S. relationship with Japan, does not allow for any retreat, loudly proclaims the ultimate triumph of democratic values, and vigorously pursues an open trading order.

Though unapologetically realist while critiquing administrations that failed to understand the hard logic of balance of power, Green also brings a nuanced appreciation of the importance of ideas to the table.

For example, while Green praises Theodore Roosevelt for “[achieving] an effective balance of realism and idealism,” he faults the “blatant hypocrisy” of the U.S.’s position in Asia during Roosevelt and William McKinley’s administration. McKinley annexed Hawaii over the opposition of native Hawaiians, and Guam and Samoa went decades without self-government. The U.S.’s repression of Filipinos fighting for independence also hurt the U.S.’s image as a democracy promoter. As such, “the anti-imperialist tradition in American political culture created a vulnerable center of gravity that could be targeted by insurgents – as Ho Chi Minh did to great effect six decades later.”

Green credits Woodrow Wilson for being on the “right side of history” for recognizing the Republic of China and setting the Philippines on course for independence, noting that the problem was not with Wilson’s push for such ideals, but pushing for such ideals in a unilateral and piecemeal manner that left Asian leaders ranging from Yoshinda Shigeru to Ho Chi Minh disillusioned with “American moral leadership.”

The U.S. fared less well under Dwight Eisenhower, when the U.S. could only be “reactive and ineffective” due to a failure to understand the power of ideas – of the nationalist and anti-colonial sentiment sweeping the region. A division soon emerged in Japan policy, between those policymakers who wanted a Japan that was “liberal but neutral” and those who saw Japan as “a critical asset in the struggle against the Soviet Union.” Though the immediate postwar era saw the first group ascendant, the priority gradually shifted towards fostering Japan’s economic growth to bolster Japan’s own defense. While the U.S. never gave up its goal of remaking Japan as a democracy, and in this, achieved some success, the U.S.’s Japan policy during this period was characterized by the sobering recognition that Japan’s security was tied to access to its former imperial spaces in Korea and Southeast Asia.

In his effusive praise for Reagan, Green highlights Reagan’s ability to “fuse interests and ideals; to focus on strengthening the institutions of freedom rather than just weakening the hold of authoritarian leaders; to ensure that allies were better governed at home so that they would be more resilient against imperialism from abroad; and to stay on the right side of history.” While Reagan had come into office a critic of Jimmy Carter’s human rights-focused approach, at least in Asia, Reagan found himself increasingly supporting democratization of key allies – such as South Korea and the Philippines.

Speaking of the George W. Bush administration, in which Green served on the National Security Council (2001-05), he raises the examples of the U.S. response to crises in Nepal, Vietnam, and Burma to argue that “We saw no contradiction between American idealism and self-interest.” He is harsh, but articulately so, on the Obama administration for signaling that violations of human rights and democratic principles would not impose costs on the violator’s relationship with the U.S. And this, perhaps, ought to concern us most about the current U.S. administration’s Asia policy (or more accurately, lack thereof).

Strategic Themes from the Current Administration

Donald Trump dismayed human rights advocates when a leaked transcript of his call with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte showed that he had made remarks praising Duterte’s controversial and violent war on drugs, which has killed more than 7,000 Filipinos. Trump said to Duterte: “I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem. Many countries have the problem, we have a problem, but what a great job you are doing and I just wanted to call and tell you that.” The call ended with an open-ended invitation to the Oval Office.

Similarly, Trump’s invitation to Thai Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha, who came to a power in a military coup, is causing consternation. Though Prayuth had initially promised elections in late 2014, they are unlikely to be held until 2018 at the earliest. Even when the elections are held, democratic government will be diminished as the new constitution provides a role for the junta in the unelected upper house, investing it with authority to invoke emergency powers, and restricts the power of the elected lower house. Politicians and activists have been detained, and Amnesty International scrapped a planned report on torture after receiving threats from the police.

The lack of contact between Trump and Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi is unsettling for the opposite reason – because Myanmar has been taking steps towards democratization. While concerns about Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence on the abuses and atrocities directed against Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhine State are valid, Myanmar is a successful case of U.S. engagement encouraging democratization. If Trump does not reach out to Aung San Suu Kyi, offering continued U.S. support despite the bumps on the road toward democratization, we could easily see Myanmar falling back into Beijing’s orbit. The pattern that emerges under the new administration is not a pretty one.

This is not to say that the U.S. had a perfect, or even remotely perfect, track record on the issue before Donald Trump. Historically, the U.S. has condoned extrajudicial killings and violations of democratic principles when it meant advancing U.S. security interests. Morally, the U.S. is reaching bankruptcy – both abroad and domestically. But that is no excuse to stop pushing for the democratic ideals that the U.S. professes.

Conclusion

Balance of power is the hard logic that has most often led to success in crafting U.S. grand strategy in the region. It disciplined resource allocation, and focused U.S. leaders on the appropriate opportunities. The U.S. doesn’t have a perfect track record when it comes to upholding ideals, and its credibility is declining in the region. However, in the present day, as the U.S. becomes stretched thinner, it must consider how it can best utilize non-material sources of power – such as ideals and principles – to pursue its objectives as well.

In the coming decades, our alliances will only become more important to dissuade a challenge by the rising hegemon. Japan, South Korea, Australia – all our allies and partners want the U.S. to stay engaged not only because of the U.S.’s capabilities to balance China, but also because they inherently prefer the U.S. as a partner because of what the U.S. has stood for as the world’s first democracy. If the U.S. wants to remain the preferred partner of states that will help us balance against China, the U.S. also needs to take a position in the balance of ideas shaping Asia today.

Mina Pollmann’s research interests focus on Japan’s security and diplomacy, U.S. foreign policy in East Asia, and international relations in the Asia-Pacific. She received her Bachelor’s from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, and will be beginning her PhD studies at MIT’s Department of Political Science this fall. She also writes for The Diplomat’s Tokyo Report. Follow her on Twitter @MinaPollmann. 

Featured Image: PACIFIC OCEAN (Dec. 10, 2010) U.S. Navy and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) ships underway in formation as part of a photo exercise on the final day of Keen Sword 2011. The exercise enhances the Japan-U.S. alliance which remains a key strategic relationship in the Northeast Asia Pacific region. Keen Sword caps the 50th anniversary of the Japan-U.S. alliance as an “alliance of equals.” (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jacob D. Moore/Released)

Scales on War: The Future of America’s Military at Risk

Robert Scales, Scales on War: The Future of America’s Military at Risk. Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, 2016, 248 pp, $25.46.

By Colin Steele

“Wars break armies, and they have to be put back together again.” — Bob Woodward, paraphrasing Gen. (ret.) Jack Keane 

“Wars may be fought with weapons but they are won by men.” — Gen George S. Patton, Jr. 

In my early teens, I enjoyed former SEAL Richard Marcinko’s Rogue Warrior books. I couldn’t yet drive, so stories of SEAL derring-do provided an outlet for too much testosterone with too little direction. I haven’t read any of the “hop-and-popping, shoot-and-looting” exploits of Demo Dick and Red Cell in years, but the stories planted several seeds that have taken root over time. Perhaps the most enduring of these from the Rogue Warrior books is Marcinko’s quip that the word “war” is itself an acronym for We Are Ready.

As the major ground commitments of the Long War appear to be winding down in Iraq and Afghanistan, the defense establishment is turning to the question of the next war — hybrid or high tech? Gray zone or little green men? Whatever it is, will we be ready?

War prognostication is an infamously fallible industry. In the memorable words of former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, “when it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements, since Vietnam, our record has been perfect. We have never once gotten it right.” The perennial and oft-cited problem of “fighting the last war” only sets in after forces have been committed to a place, region, and conflict that was neither predicted nor prepared for. And once boots touch ground, of course, training is over: the war will be fought with the force — tactics, techniques, procedures, and equipment — we have, not those we “might want or wish to have,” to paraphrase Gates’s predecessor Donald Rumsfeld. 

If we wish to be ready for the next war, two questions follow: whether we can improve our ability to predict the conflict and how we might better prepare our forces to win no matter what. In his latest book, Scales on War, retired Army Maj. Gen. Bob Scales takes up both questions, and, with iconoclastic fervor, tears down the business-as-usual answers to each.

On war forecasting, Scales is especially scathing: “The least successful enterprise in Washington, D.C., is the one that places bets on the nature and character of tomorrow’s wars. The industry remains enormously influential and well financed, because everyone in Washington knows that bad bets cost lives and waste trillions.” He goes on to lay out five lines of wishful thinking, ranging from the “Scenario Development School” to the “Global Trends School” — and to dismiss each of them as implausible wishful thinking.

Even more concerning to Scales than misconceptions of where the next war will be fought is the question of who will do the fighting and how. Namely, his concern is for the infantry, the “intimate killers” who ultimately close with and destroy the enemy. Scales views the capital-intensive, casualty-averse American way of war as disastrous, and, ultimately, deadly to the next generation of infantry that will inevitably be committed to fight. As long as wars will forever be won by infantry, in Scales’s view, we owe it to this minority of soldiers to train and equip them to utterly dominate the enemy. No U.S. soldier should ever find him or herself in a fair fight.

Scales is compelling on both fronts, throwing cold water on the war forecasters and laying out the case for the infantry necessary to definitively fight and win the nation’s wars. Scales on War, however, is more successful in its diagnoses and critiques than in its prescriptions. Perhaps out of reluctance to offer yet another flawed prediction, “the enemy” too often goes unspecified. Too much of the argument also rests on emotional appeal, for example by reference to a “debt” owed to service members by their civilian masters. This is a far too easily contestable basis for law and policymaking. Finally, the book is almost completely silent as to the importance of joint warfare. Wars might ultimately be won by “intimate killing” — and soldiers’ lives should not be wasted — but the much broader strategic, operational, and budgetary context in which the infantry exists and fights receives short shrift relative to its policy implications.

The policy merits of Scales on War will have to be debated and ultimately decided upon by the politicians who will resource and shape tomorrow’s fighting force. What makes the book worth reading for those within (or interested in) the Department of Defense, however, are the lessons Scales points toward in terms of educating and training the force. No matter how policymakers strike the balance between highly trained infantry and high-tech platforms, the services will retain the responsibility for preparing tomorrow’s troops for tomorrow’s wars, wherever they may be.

However badly we may fail to predict tomorrow’s wars (be they anything from messy contingency operations to high-end interstate war) the test of war will be the same as ever: are we ready? As Scales points out, the world is changing, and so are the technology, character, and scope of conflict. Enemies continue to adapt and emerge; the U.S. joint force is still looking for a new normal after Iraq and Afghanistan. Women are being integrated into U.S. combat arms (on which Scales holds a pragmatic and largely positive perspective), new battlefield technologies hold the promise of giving the infantry unprecedented advantages, and education and training will evolve to meet tomorrow’s needs. In fact, education and training may prove to be the most important area for innovation and evolution — and Scales’ limited but clear-eyed suggestions on that topic should be studied and expanded upon by future authors.

Scales on War is the author’s last book — his “last shot to tell the sad story of neglect, ahistoricism, intellectual hubris, corruption, and ignorance about the nature and character of war that has left too many of our [soldiers] dead on the battlefield.” In that he succeeds, though more policy work is needed to find solutions. Others should pick up where Scales on War leaves off so that, when the next war comes, “We Are Ready.”

Colin Steele is a 2018 Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy candidate at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. Find him on Twitter at @bravo_xray12.

Featured Image: A U.S. Army M109A6 Paladin deployed in support of Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve, fires during training operation at Camp Manion Iraq, March 10, 2017. (Photo by Spc. Christopher Brecht)

Hunters and Killers

Norman Polmar and Edward Whitman, Hunters and Killers: Volume 1 and Volume 2. Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, 2015/2016, $44.95.

By Joe Petrucelli

In their two-volume work, Norman Polmar and Edward Whitman have written the first comprehensive history of Anti-Submarine Warfare. As the authors note in their preface, there are histories of ASW campaigns as well as  both adversary and U.S. submarine operations, but no one has examined the discipline of ASW from its humble beginnings. Polmar and Whitman do just that in these two volumes, starting with the rudimentary ASW operations of the American revolution through the massive campaigns of the First and Second World War and finishing with the nuclear revolution and post-Cold War implications. Through their analysis, one can discern four factors that make ASW campaigns effective throughout history: numbers, technology, intelligence coordination, and organizational integration and concepts.

The most important conclusion that can be drawn from Polmar and Whitman’s analysis is that in ASW, numbers matter. While acknowledged as important, most navies do not appear to consider ASW as one of their most important capabilities and invest in it accordingly. Thus, during the interwar period, Polar and Whitman observe that the U.S. and Royal Navies drastically cut their ASW platforms both in absolute and relative terms, preferring to expend limited resources on larger, more prominent line combatants. Unfortunately, all the successful ASW campaigns they examined required presence over a large open-ocean area and a small number of highly capable combatants were not necessarily helpful, leaving the Allies to suffer severe losses until embarking on emergency building programs. To emphasize this point, in 1940 none other than Winston Churchill observed that large surface combatants (even if equipped with ASW weapons and sensors) were not effective escorts because they were valuable enough to become targets themselves. The most effective force structure during the ASW campaigns they examined consisted of long-range patrol aircraft and a large number of small, relatively expendable escorts.

The history of ASW is one of technological innovation by both submarines themselves and ASW forces. Polmar and Whitman do an excellent job explaining these complex technical developments in ASW (i.e. sound wave attenuation, convergence zones, etc) and translating them into layman-ese. However, it is important to note that they do not present technology as the solution for ASW dominance, but rather as a never-ending balance between offensive and defensive technologies. As ASW forces developed new technical capabilities such as depth charges, radar, and sonar, submarines countered with technologies such as snorkels, longer-range torpedoes and air-independent and nuclear propulsion. In the end, technology provided necessary tactical capabilities for an effective ASW campaign, but by itself was not sufficient to practice effective ASW.

Additionally, the authors explores the role of intelligence and cryptology in ASW, a vital factor in historical ASW campaigns. Allied cryptology efforts, known as ULTRA during WWII, were vital to cueing ASW forces and helping convoys avoid known U-boat patrol areas, while HF/DF capabilities deployed on escort ships gave ASW forces more tactical-level cueing. Polmar and Whitman describe a similar cueing role for U.S. undersea surveillance assets during the Cuban Missile Crisis. However, it was not just intelligence and cryptology capabilities by themselves that gave ASW forces an advantage, but the fusion of intelligence capabilities into operational forces. By devising employment schemes to utilize intelligence and cryptology windfalls in the short time window that they were relevant, the Allies gained critical advantages in the ASW fight.

Underlying all of these factors and capabilities is the awareness that ASW is a team sport. Integrating ASW platforms from multiple services, intelligence/cryptology sources, and new technical capabilities into an effective campaign required new organizations and employment concepts. The most well known ASW concept, one that was initially resisted during both World Wars, was the convoy system. While convoys probably had the biggest impact in reducing the effectiveness of enemy submarines, German submarines were able to at least partially adapt to it with their own “wolfpack” concept.  Other operational concepts that proved crucial to effective ASW included the development of hunter-killer groups (including escort carriers) to reinforce the convoys and the creation of dedicated ASW organizations (such as the WWII U.S. Tenth Fleet).

USS Providence (SSN-719) snorkeling at her berth in Groton, CT before having honors rendered by the Sloop Providence. (Source)

Although these volumes are a history of ASW and do not explicitly present policy recommendations, there are some lessons from Polmar and Whitman’s work that seem increasingly relevant today. First, reliance on a breakthrough technology to turn the oceans “transparent” is a risky proposition, as the Royal Navy discovered during World War II when their planned reliance on ASDIC (or active SONAR) for ASW proved not nearly as effective as hoped. Additionally, numbers matter, and effective ASW requires a force structure we lack today – namely small surface combatants and escorts (admittedly the LCS is small, but in this reviewer’s opinion it lacks range, combat capability, and is not designed as an escort). Lastly, ASW requires organizational integration in a way that has not been stressed in recent years. While the U.S. Navy (and close allies) have maintained ASW organizations and periodically exercised those capabilities since the end of the Cold War, convoys were last utilized during Operation EARNEST WILL in the Persian Gulf while the last ASW convoys appear to have been during World War II. It is not clear if we have truly exercised convoy tactics (much less having the merchant shipping in the current era to string together a convoy system) or have war-gamed a theater level war against dozens of commerce raiding submarines.

Overall, Polmar and Whitman’s two volumes are an amazingly comprehensive history of Anti-Submarine Warfare. This reviewer’s only complaint is that the analysis largely ends with the end of the Cold War. While the intensity of ASW operations declined at this time and more recent issues are admittedly difficult to research due to classification issues, there are a number of public ASW incidents that would have been worthy of including, from the 2007 incident where a Chinese submarine surfaced inside a U.S. carrier battle group to the 2009 deployment of a Russian Akula SSN in the Western Atlantic. These recent incidents, as well as changes in technology and command structures, would better complete their description of ASW. Despite that one critique, this is a very readable and informative set of books and one that should be required reading for every naval officer serving with surface combatants, submarines, maritime patrol aircraft, and undersea surveillance organizations.

Joe Petrucelli is a former submarine officer and current Naval Reserve officer. He is a PhD student at George Mason University and a Student Fellow at the school’s Center for Security Policy Studies. His opinions are his own and do not reflect the positions of the Department of Defense or his employer.

Featured Image: An allied ship is seen sinking through the periscope of a German U-Boat in WWII. 

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.