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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.”


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


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.

A Conversation with Naval Fiction Writer David Poyer, Author of Onslaught

By CIMSEC Book Review Team

CIMSEC sat down with author David Poyer, former naval officer and author of the ‘Tales of the Modern Navy’ series of novels, among other exciting modern and historical naval fiction titles. Poyer’s latest title, Onslaught, finds protagonist Dan Lenson in command of USS Savo Island during the opening salvo of the war with China. Poyer’s masterful character development, eye for technical details, and comprehensive understanding of life at sea have made him a favorite of fans of this genre. We asked him about his writing process, inspiration, and more.

CIMSEC: You do an excellent job of combining intrigue and drama with technical details and action. How do you do this and how do you begin the writing process?

DP: Thanks! I’m notoriously process-oriented, having been originally educated as a naval officer and engineer, and worked as a submarine systems designer before going into fiction. These days, though, I teach narrative structure at the Creative Writing Program at Wilkes University. So…here goes!

A quick overview: I begin with a general plot idea, then sketch out how each character will contribute to the overall story. Next, I construct the arcs for those characters. During this process, scenes will have started to come to me. Also, thoughts for more scenes and plot points occur as I do background reading and interviews and ship visits.

Eventually I generate a ten-to fifteen-page single-spaced outline of the action proper of the novel. This “blueprint,” plus the character studies, makes it possible for me to cruise through the first draft at a rate of about four pages a day without too much angst, and without excuses or writer’s block.

Author David Poyer

Of course, six months later, that only gives me the first draft! Lenore Hart, my better half who’s also a novelist, reads the second draft and makes extensive comments I revise. Then a varied stable of retired and active duty Navy, Marine, NCIS, State, physicians, and many other subject matter experts comment on their sections. After that I revise again. (I put a lot of time and effort into trying to make events and descriptions as authentic as possible, while still driving the action forward with drama and suspense). Four to five drafts later, after I’ve cut out every possible excess word, it’s time for my editor at St. Martin’s, George Witte, to see it!

CIMSEC: What do you think readers, especially readers in the naval profession like many of our readers here at CIMSEC, can derive from your narrative? What are you trying to convey?

DP: I started out as a writer simply wanting to recount and reflect on my own early experiences at sea. The Med, The Circle, and The Passage were based on specific cruises, events, and locales I saw during active duty. For example, The Circle was inspired when USS Bowen deployed north of the Arctic Circle in winter, with orders to find the biggest storm around and stay in it as long as we could. (This was to test a new sonar system). So I didn’t have to research what Arctic storms looked and felt like!

In terms of artistic intent, at first I was largely innocent. Mainly I wanted to craft an exciting story. If a deeper theme emerged, great. And over the years I’ve been blessed with some critical acclaim. But the reviews that warm my heart most are from the enlisted, chiefs, and officers who write to thank me for a realistic portrayal of the sacrifices they’ve made. If I can bring such stories to a general audience as well, I’ve met my basic requirements.

A few recurrent motifs or themes do underlay my work, but they’re not buried so deeply you need a PhD in literature or philosophy to winkle them out. After my first dozen or so novels, I realized that every work had been about the question, ‘What is the ultimate authority or guide we can depend on for ethical action?’ I don’t really concern myself much with “identity,” which much current fiction seems occupied with. I know who I am, and my characters, in general, know who they are. That doesn’t mean they aren’t conflicted and uncertain. I’m attracted to deeply-layered, multidimensional characters who act as well as think. But to act means to decide; to choose. As John Gardner, one of my early mentors and exemplars put it, every novel is, at its deepest heart, a morality play.

That, I think, is why some of my novels have been taught at the Naval Academy: they’re not simply thrillers; they’re about difficult choices made in short time frames under terrible stress. Exactly what sometimes happens at sea.

CIMSEC: Onslaught explores a hypothetical conflict with China. How much of what you include in your novels is inspired by current events and what other sources do you call on for inspiration?

DP: I started research and planning of the War with China series – The Cruiser, Tipping Point, Onslaught, and two more books now in progress – well before tensions with that country reached the current near-boiling point. You have to realize, a novel is written at least two years before you see it on the shelves; a year to write, and a year in production. Complex and research-intensive ones take even longer. So I can’t really tune too close an ear to current events. Nor am I psychic! The books are thus based on my own strategic calculations and a knowledge of history. (I did the same thing earlier with The Gulf). Around 2008 I asked myself, What if there were a new Pacific war? Everything downstream flowed from that initial “what if.”

CIMSEC: It seems as though your last two works bore some resemblance to the outbreak of the First World War and the geopolitical tensions that characterized that time in history. Was this intentional?

Very much so; in fact I refer in the narrative to Dan Lenson’s reading of Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August. The problem the U.S. faces in accommodating a previously stable international structure to the rise of a peer competitor is much like that which the British Empire faced in dealing with Imperial Germany, or Rome with Carthage, or even farther back, Sparta vs. Athens. Other influences are Sallust, Gibbon, Thucydides, the battles of Savo Island and Guadalcanal, Korean medieval history, the tactics of Ulysses S. Grant, and Allied op plans (both executed and not) for the latter stages of WWII, among many others.

I loved the comparison between the skills of ancient mariners and modern high-end war; specifically I am thinking of the instance in which your Chief Quartermaster takes a celestial fix – I pictured him doing so on the port bridge wing above the SPY faces. That really conjured an image for me of the juxtaposition of ancient naval practices and modern technology.

I think one of the distinguishing themes of sea fiction, what Professor Herb Gilliland of the Naval Academy calls “techné,” the machinery that’s mastered (or at least used) in sea tales.

The most complicated device existing in the 18th century was a full-rigged warship, and its present-day successors are among the most complex devices today. Think of The Sand Pebbles; if you took the machinery out there wouldn’t be much book left. Or Delilah by Marcus Goodrich, the crew manhandling and shoveling all that coal from the bulkhead bunkers into the boilers. Under technique also falls seamanship, and the skills and even artistry involved in steering safely through changing weather and sea conditions.

And you’re right, at sea today we have to be masters of both an ancient set of skills and comfortable at the very cutting edge of 21st-century technology. Both the fascination and the challenge for me lies in making the advanced technology involved in, say, intercepting an incoming ballistic missile terminal body with an Aegis-steered Standard missile comprehensible to the general or lay audience. Sometimes I fail in that regard; I remember one reviewer wrote, “I learned more about the Navy than I really wanted to know.” Not the impression I wanted to leave!

In general, if I hear equal numbers of readers complaining that I didn’t go deeply enough into the techné, and others that I got too technical and acronymophilic, I should be roughly in the middle of the channel. Complicating that further in the later books in this series will be that war inevitably accelerates technology…which means I may have to go beyond anything currently used in the Fleet.

CIMSEC: Crime aboard ships is a common thread throughout the series – why is that? Is this intentional and is this something you have personal experience with, or is it just a storytelling device?

Well, crime isn’t as prevalent in the USN as it is in my series, that’s for sure. On the other hand, we’ve all read about service-related cases of bribery, sexual abuse, rape, theft, counterfeit parts, murder. Every crime ashore has its cousin at sea. It would actually be unrealistic to pretend it doesn’t happen.

War and crime seem analogous in certain ways. They force choices and actions, and sometimes very difficult ones, on both the participants and those who must find the perpetrator and administer justice. Remember your high school lit classes, where they talked about the various forms of antagonists: human, animal, natural, corporate, governmental, enemy, etc? The more of these conflicts I can layer into the story, the more complex and punishing it becomes for the characters, the greater the forward velocity and the more strongly the reader becomes involved.

CIMSEC: Your story features very competent but very diverse female characters, which is a rarity in this genre of fiction. Is this an important message to you as an author and former naval officer or a reflection of the makeup of a modern crew at sea?

I don’t think it’s as much some kind of “message” as a reflection or realization that this is how things are now, both at sea and ashore. Still, it took me a few novels to feel comfortable with portraying a female voice or point of view. My first two or three novels weren’t that effective in portraying black, female, or gay characters. But as I moved out of the all-white environment I grew up in, and as the rather homogeneous and all-male Navy of the 1970s and 80s changed, my views widened. My first book with a female central intelligence was The Whiteness of the Whale, with Dr. Sara Pollard. I’m happy with the way that turned out and it got some very pleasant reviews.

To take it a step farther, I don’t believe a writer should or can be limited to drawing characters that reflect only his or her own ethnicity and gender. Providing access to the interior thoughts and feelings of what the reader considers the “other” is one of the primary functions of fiction. But with that freedom also comes a responsibility: to portray every character as truly and complex as possible, without defaulting to clichés or cardboard villains. One of the most difficult characters I ever had to inhabit was the treacherous, fanatical Al-Maahdi in The Crisis. But eventually I understood why he became what he became. That’s not the same as sympathizing with his actions, of course.

CIMSEC: Your characters are drawn in a way that is so sophisticated and complex – are they based in any way on individuals you’ve served with?

DP: Sometimes!!

CIMSEC: Onslaught features a total breakdown of the international system and diplomacy, as we know it. Is this something you feel we are moving toward?

DP: Unfortunately, nations do seem to be demolishing or abandoning, one by one, the international structures and norms that promoted accommodation, protected human rights, and acted to prevent war. China dismisses the rulings of international courts. The U.S. behaves more and more cavalierly toward long-time allies. The president of the Philippines brags about his extrajudicial killings. Russia subverts any democracy it can. Combine these with a decline in the former relative preponderance of U.S. power in the western Pacific, and the events in Tipping Point and Onslaught begin to seem not just possible, but all too likely.

CIMSEC: What message do you hope junior officers and sailors reading your novels can take away and apply to their profession?

Nothing unique or new, I fear. Merely this:

Know your job.

Care for your troops.

And always try to do the right thing, even if it may hurt your career.

CIMSEC: Where does the series go from here and what’s next for Daniel Lenson?

DP: After the opening of the Pacific war in Tipping Point, and its first battles in Onslaught, the next strategic question will be: can the Allies hold the central Pacific? IF we can’t, then no recovery and new offensive farther west is possible. Of course Dan, Blair, Obie, and Cheryl will all be in the thick of the action. So look for Hunter Killer in December of 2017…and thanks for the interview!

David Poyer was born in DuBois, Pennsylvania in 1949. He grew up in Brockway, Emlenton, and Bradford, in western Pennsylvania, and graduated from Bradford Area High School in 1967. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1971, and later received a master’s degree from George Washington University.

His active and reserve naval service included sea duty in the Atlantic, Mediterranean, Arctic, Caribbean, and Pacific, and shore duty at the Pentagon, Surface Warfare Development Group, Joint Forces Command, and in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. 

Poyer began writing in 1976, and is the author of over forty books, including THE MED, THE GULF, THE CIRCLE, THE PASSAGE, TOMAHAWK,  CHINA SEA, BLACK STORM, THE COMMAND, THE THREAT, KOREA STRAIT, THE WEAPON, THE CRISIS, THE TOWERS, THE CRUISER and TIPPING POINT, best-selling Navy novels; THE DEAD OF WINTER, WINTER IN THE HEART, AS THE WOLF LOVES WINTER, and THUNDER ON THE MOUNTAIN, set in the Pennsylvania hills; and HATTERAS BLUE, BAHAMAS BLUE, LOUISIANA BLUE, and DOWN TO A SUNLESS SEA, underwater adventure. Other noteworthy books are THE ONLY THING TO FEAR, a historical thriller, THE RETURN OF PHILO T. McGIFFIN, a comic novel of Annapolis, and the three volumes of The Civil War at Sea, FIRE ON THE WATERS,  A COUNTRY OF OUR OWN, and THAT ANVIL OF OUR SOULS.  He’s also done two well-reviewed sailing novels, GHOSTING and THE WHITENESS OF THE WHALE, and several nonfiction books.  Two books will appear later this year: ONSLAUGHT, another Modern Navy novel, and ON POLITICS AND WAR, co-authored with Arnold Punaro.

Poyer’s work has been  translated into Japanese, Dutch, Italian, and Serbo-Croatian, recorded for audiobooks, published as ebooks, selected by the Literary Guild and Doubleday Book Club, etc. Rights to several properties have been sold or optioned for films. 

Poyer has taught or lectured at Annapolis, Flagler College, University of Pittsburgh, Old Dominion University, the Armed Forces Staff College, the University of North Florida, Christopher Newport University, and other institutions. He has been a guest on PBS’s “Writer to Writer” series and on Voice of America, and has appeared at the Southern Festival of Books and many other literary events. He currently a fellow at the Virginia Center of Creative Arts, and teaches in the MA/MFA in Creative Writing program at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre and at the Ossawbaw Island Writers’ Retreat.  He lives on Virginia’s Eastern Shore with his wife, novelist Lenore Hart.

Featured Image: PACIFIC OCEAN (June 16, 2009) – Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN 73), Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Cowpens (CG 63) and Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) steam in formation during a photo exercise June 16. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Bryan Reckard)

CIMSEC Interviews Larry Bond and Chris Carlson On Their New Novel, Wargaming, and More

By Bret Perry

If you’re in the Navy or elsewhere in the defense space, Larry Bond most likely influenced your pursuits.

Whether you’ve poured over one of his explosive techno-thrillers co-authored with Chris Carlson or spent hours trying to break the GUIK gap in their classic Harpoon war game, Bond and Carlson have most likely fed your intellectual interest in defense issues while keeping you entertained.

Larry Bond and Chris Carlson joined me to discuss a wide range of topics, including their recently published Red Phoenix Burning (reviewed by CIMSEC here), the growth of the techno-thriller, war gaming, distributed lethality, and their favorite books.


BP: You wrote Red Phoenix, your second book after co-writing Red Storm Rising with Tom Clancy, nearly 25 years ago. What drew you back to the same fictional universe and Korean conflict with Red Phoenix Burning?

In the 1980s, the threat was all about the DPRK, with one of the largest armies in the world, invading the south. They’d done it once, and would certainly do it again if they thought they could get away with it. But since then, the North has suffered terribly under the Kims. It may be that any closed society, so utterly corrupt, will eventually weaken and fail, and that’s a much more likely scenario these days. Red Phoenix Burning isn’t about an invasion of the south, but a collapse of the north, creating a humanitarian crisis as frightening as a military one.

In Red Phoenix, besides some of the special forces raids, much of the air and ground combat seemed conventional? How is Red Phoenix Burning different? What drove these decisions?

The battle scenes in Red Phoenix were keyed to what most people call a “conventional” war: WW II with better weapons. There are actually very few pitched battle scenes in Red Phoenix Burning; much of the fighting happens off-page. It’s the consequences of those battles, especially the fighting in Pyongyang, that forces the characters to act.

You’ve written/co-written quite a few techno-thrillers featuring large conventional conflicts in Central Europe, Eastern Europe, South Africa, the Korean Peninsula, and more. What drove you to write about the Korean Peninsula, especially after you have already done so once?

My co-author Chris Carlson has discussed this scenario with South Korean intelligence officials, and it’s one of their biggest concerns. We liked the characters in Red Phoenix, but really never planned a sequel back then, because who would want to read about a third invasion? But what about something as unexpected as a coup that leads to a North Korean civil war?

Your readers often praise you for the extensive research that goes into your books. As you’ve already written about a Korean conflict 25 years ago with Red Phoenix, in terms of the tactical and strategic security threats, what are some of the most significant changes you have observed?

Larry Bond’s highly praised 1989 release, Red Phoenix.

The more we learn about North Korea and the regime that rules the country, the more it sounds like an organized crime family, and less like a government. In Red Phoenix we depicted the regime as a Stalinist dictatorship, but still a recognizable government. Revelations about institutional counterfeiting and drug manufacturing, as well as arms smuggling and money laundering, show that the regime will go to any length to get foreign exchange, which flows not to the citizens, but to the top leadership. And, of course, the big new strategic threat is North Korea’s nuclear weapons capability. Although it is still nascent, any nuclear capability changes the very nature of a conflict in the region significantly.

What’s been the reaction out of South Korea, and DPRK, to your past work and what do you expect from Red Phoenix Burning?

We’ve never heard from any Koreans about the story, but I’ve personally spoken to a lot of U.S. service members who tell me the book was almost required reading for American military in the theater. They’re polite enough to avoid mentioning whether it’s for comic relief, but they’re reading it.

In Red Phoenix, the North Korean regime did not possess nuclear weapons. However, as Red Phoenix Burning takes place in the modern day with the North Korean regime maintaining a small arsenal of nuclear weapons, how does this impact the conflict in the novel—without giving away too many spoilers.

The North’s possession of nuclear weapons is a complete game changer, as it is in any conflict. The fact that there are so few, of questionable reliability, and with primitive delivery systems, doesn’t change the basic fact that they can cause untold casualties. Indeed, because they have so little military utility, they would probably be used as terror weapons. The North Koreans also have a lot of chemical weapons, which can be almost as horrible, and the regime is irresponsible enough to use them.

You’ve been authoring techno-thrillers for a very long time, Tom Clancy called Larry the “new ace” of the techno-thriller genre. What are your opinions on how the genre has evolved from its origins now that information is widely available and civilian technology outstrips military innovation? Where do you think it will go?

Information is much easier to find now, not just about weapons, but settings, organization, all kinds of useful stuff. This can mean a lot more detail, which is not necessarily a good thing. It can provide more depth, or even a plot angle that you might not have known about before. It’s a given that people reading military thrillers enjoy the action and the hardware, but you have to provide a solid story, with realistic characters, or it’s just bullets whizzing back and forth to no purpose.

We’ve seen a recent trend in which defense analysts and thinkers have explored how fiction can better inform real-world debates on national security issues. What role do you think fiction plays in this discussion? What are its strengths and limits?

Having read a fair number of security papers and monographs, presenting information as a fictional scenario can engage the reader’s interest and improve comprehension, as well as getting your idea to a wider audience. The use of fiction to present a military-related argument goes way back. While General Sir John Hackett’s the Third World War (1979) was a recent example, there were books written in the 1920s (Bywater’s The Great Pacific War, 1929) and well before World War I (The Battle of Dorking, Chesney, 1871) that described a major conflict between nations. All these authors had things to say about the military, and used fiction as a way to share their thoughts. When an author puts together a plot, he/she pretty much knows what happens and when. Since we have a pre-established ending in mind, some of our assumptions and plot twists seem brilliant to some readers, but contrived to others. But it is the discussion on these points that has the potential of producing the greatest fruit, as it forces the investigation of alternative possibilities.

Following off of the previous question, it was recently revealed that Ronald Reagan advised Margaret Thatcher to read Red Storm Rising, which you coauthored with Tom Clancy. When you first learned of this, what was your reaction?

I hadn’t heard about that before. I hope it’s true. The most interesting story I heard about the influence of RSR was that the Icelandic government renegotiated its treaty with NATO. The old one was cumbersome, with even the smallest change to NATO’s forces (e.g., reinforcements) requiring approval by the Foreign Minster. Also, the Naval War College asked for my write ups of the wargames we played to research Dance of the Vampires, a chapter in the book.

One characteristic that separates your work from others is how you account for a wide range of factors, not just limited to military ones, but also political and economic aspects. Can you describe how you go about accounting for all of these factors and storyboarding?

We both feel that factors like politics and economics are what drive and provide the goals to military actions. While you can write very good fiction about the guy in the foxhole, we want to show the higher-level decisions (and mistakes) that give readers the big picture. As we plot out the book, we stop at each dramatic beat and ask ourselves how each player would react, and indeed, do any new players need to appear.

All of this requires that we read a lot on the countries of interest in a particular novel we’re working on. It’s not uncommon to find us pouring over books, think tank articles, professional journals, or talking to academics about aspects of our plot. The trick is to provide the reader enough background to show how politics, economics, and war are related, but not so much that we get into the weeds with detail—especially as many of these details are hotly debated within government and academic circles.

You have an extensive history of co-writing books. As they entail large, complex geopolitical and military subjects, can you explain how the cooperative process works? Any working tips for creative partnerships?

Co-writing definitely takes more effort than solo writing. I like it because there’s someone to bounce ideas off of, and to go “Auugh” with when you’re behind schedule. We’re systematic, first creating a treatment that the publisher signs off before we get a green light. That gets turned into a chapter-by-chapter “blocking.” Since we’re keeping track of multiple plot threads, often in different parts of the world, it’s mandatory if you don’t want to tangle up in each other’s prose. After the blocking is finished, we can take alternate chapters and start gluing words together. We then review each other’s work, hash out any differences, and move on. And, no, it doesn’t constrain the creative juices between us. We’ve both surprised the other by a slight plot twist that emphasizes a character trait in one of our heroes, or even a villain. Character growth is something we really try to deliver in our writing.

How has your research process changed from Red Phoenix to Red Phoenix Rising?

The Internet is the most obvious change, and is good not only for looking up military details, but grammatical rules. I didn’t sleep through my 7th grade English class, but being able to quickly look up the proper way to use a semicolon, or how to spell “Kyrgyzstan” is a definite help. Equally powerful is Google Earth. Being able to look at satellite imagery of the terrain you’re writing about is a great aid. Especially as hand-held photos of specific objects, buildings, streets, parks, etc, are keyed to the area you’re looking at. It’s very true that a picture is worth a thousand words.

The bottom line is don’t make things up unless you have no other choice. Accurate descriptions resonate with readers, and this helps them to become more involved with the story. Bond’s first law of research is that it’s easier to describe the real world than it is to make something up, and then have to keep it straight in your mind.

As the creators of the Harpoon series, you both have extensive wargaming experience as well. What role does this play in your fictional writing?

A good wargame tries to tell a story, usually about a specific historical event, but it is still a story. After board games and miniatures on a terrain board, something called “role playing” appeared in the 1970s. Most of the players assume fictional identities in some fantasy motif, be it an elf, mage, or whatever, but one player, the referee, tells the others the setting and what they see and hear. The players describe their actions to “the ref” who adjudicates their actions and describes the results. It’s interactive storytelling, with a heavy dose of improvisation thrown in. It’s great practice. Other things that wargaming has provided is a general sense of history and the military’s role, and also the wide range of results that are possible from replays of a single battle.

For the two of us in particular, designing wargames help us understand the basics of how some military piece of equipment works as part of a larger force. We also know where some of the skeletons are buried, like why a system didn’t work as advertised, and we can pull them out of the closet when we need a neat twist in the plot.

There has been a fair amount of recent commentary on some of the challenges with wargaming, and where it should go. What are your opinions on this?

Commercial wargaming is a recreational activity, and fashions come and go in any industry. There’s a constant demand for innovative products, which can create not just new games but entire new genres. Miniatures games go back well before H.G. Wells’ book Little Wars, and board games to Kriegspiel in the 1870s, but in recent times we’ve added role-playing, computer games, collectible card games, and LARPing. Grabbing the players’ interest (and his dollar) will be a constant struggle.

From our own personal experiences, wargaming has a fantastic training and education capability. We’ve watched more “light bulbs” go on when players start to understand and appreciate a particular historical situation. A good game brings history to life and is far more instructive than just reading a dusty textbook about a particular battle. Wargaming, done properly, can be very useful for basic familiarization, looking at alternative courses of action, even analysis. The concept of wargaming is currently on the upswing, but we’ll have to see if this new appreciation is a true change in perception, or just a fad.

Recently, we have seen countries leverage irregular maritime forces and other unconventional methods. From a wargaming perspective, can you describe how you account for these different challenges?

They’re difficult to model in a conventional “force-on-force” game. Usually, one patrol craft plus one narco-boat equals one drug haul. The trick when there’s little random chance in the encounter itself is to model some other part of the process: investigation or detection, for example. The designer has to have a clear picture of the game’s goal. Is it simply to understand the narcotics problem? Or are they evaluating alternative strategies for enforcement?

Due to this maritime security forum and the fact that you both have Navy backgrounds, I have to insert a Navy question here. In terms of future procurements, operating concepts, doctrine, etc., what excites you about the future? Railguns? Lasers? Distributed lethality? Why?

Unfortunately, railguns and lasers are still more science fiction than fact. I equate the first “operational ” laser aboard USS Ponce with the first aircraft flight from a warship by Eugene Ely in 1911. The nature of lasers and railguns will prevent them from replacing other major weapons systems for a long time, if ever. Missiles, as useful as they are, never completely replaced guns. For example, railguns have tremendous speed, but you actually have to hit the thing you’re shooting at. They don’t have proximity fuzes the way gun projectiles do. Minor angular errors in aiming become miss distances that increase with range. Small guns deal with this issue by keeping the range short and using rapid fire, but is that what railguns are supposed to be doing? We don’t think so, given the barrel life issues railguns have to overcome.

Also militarily effective railguns and lasers require huge amounts of power, something that is still under-appreciated in ship design. It’s going to take some time, and a lot of money, to solve both the system and ship-based issues before these new systems are widely deployed.

Distributed lethality is an interesting idea, but most of the articles sound a lot like a Dilbert cartoon with too many buzzwords. The Soviet Navy first implemented a crude capability back in the early-1970s, which has since matured to the third generation “Mineral” system. The Chinese Navy purchased, reversed engineered, and fitted Mineral on many of their surface combatants (Type 054A FFGs, Type 052C and 052D DDGs). Despite the favorable press given the long-range Tomahawk shot, or the recent SM-6 anti-surface mode demonstration, there is still no discussion on how these weapons are to be targeted. There appears to be an unspoken assumption that the information will just be there when needed—not the best of assumptions. The real drivers these days are stealth and electronic warfare. Both relate to finding the enemy, or preventing him from finding you, which is still the most important part of a fight at sea.

Since asking what your all-time favorite books are is too hard of a question, what are some of your current favorite books?    

Larry Bond @ NASA
Author Larry Bond

Larry: I’ve read couple of really good general naval history books lately. The Second Pearl Harbor, by Gene Salecher tells about a little-known fire and explosion aboard navy sips preparing for the invasion of Saipan. Combat Loaded is the story of a single amphibious assault ship, USS Tate, from her commissioning through and after WW II. Both were fun reads. I gave both good reviews in the October issue of ATG’s newsletter, The Naval SITREP.

Carlson Photo 2
Author Chris Carlson

Chris: I’m a huge fan of technical histories, and have just about everything written by Dr. Norman Friedman, although a recent book, Fighting the Great War at Sea: Strategy, Tactics and Technology, is my current favorite—but that will probably change when I start reading his new British battleship book. I also enjoy good general naval histories as well. And although Arthur Marder has come under attack by contemporary revisionist historians, his five-volume set, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, on naval warfare during WWI is still one of the best histories out there and fortunately, now back in print through the U.S. Naval Institute.

Larry Bond and Chris Carlson are the bestselling authors of the Jerry Mitchell series, Lash-Up, and now Red Phoenix Burning. Larry and Chris are the lead designers of the Admiralty Trilogy wargame system, that includes the long time classic—Harpoon modern naval miniature game. Both Larry and Chris are former U.S. Navy officers.

Bret Perry is a graduate of the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. The comments and questions above are those of the author alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily reflect those of any organization.

The author would like to express his thanks to August Cole for his assistance with this interview.

Featured Image Credit: Battlefield 4 Concept Art Team Robert Sammelin, Mattan Häggström, Eric Persson, Henrik Sahlström, Sigurd Fernström, Electronic Arts.

Tom Ricks on Writing, Reading, and Military Innovation

By Christopher Nelson

Tom Ricks is no stranger.  If you follow the US military, then you’ve probably stopped by his blog “The Best Defense” over at Foreign Policy magazine on more than one occasion.  

Sometimes provocative, always interesting, Ricks has provided a voice for civilians, officers, and enlisted, to raise issues, debate defense policies, or often recommend a good book.  In fact, Ricks’ comments on books and reading lists have fed my intellectual curiosity these past few years.  

Tom Ricks joined me to talk about everything from the craft of writing, the size of his library, to one of his favorite books at the moment, a book on military innovation.  

What got you started in journalism and why cover the military?  

What got me started in journalism was I was living in Hong Kong and teaching English and English literature.  I always expected to be a teacher. And I saw, when I was about twenty-two years old in Hong Kong, the people that were enjoying themselves were journalists  the young American, British, and Chinese journalists.  I couldn’t believe that some adult would give them a credit card and just allow them to go around and ask people questions. It seemed like a good gig to me. Also, once I began in journalism, I found that the military really interested me. It was a interesting institution in of itself.  You could write about everything from politics to international relations to technology the basic human stories.  And then I found in about 1995 when I was working on what became Making the Corps, it was also a very good way of looking at America; and looking at where our country is by talking to young recruits and so on. So I found out that I really enjoyed covering the military as well.

What were your favorite books of 2015?  Your top three?  And why?

It’s funny, I don’t really read books as they come out.  I read books as they happen to provoke my interest. I think my favorite nonfiction book that I read last year was about the Comanches. It’s called The Comanche Empire, by Pekka Hämäläinen.  In fiction, I really like Elizabeth Strout. I’d read her book Olive Kitteridge, so recently I went back and read an earlier novel of hers called Abide With Me. I read it in particular because it is about winter in Maine, which is six months long, and which I am living through, so her bringing a novelist’s eye to it really intrigued me. So those are sort of the two books that really struck me lately.  

One other: I also finally got around to reading The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr.  It’s just a wonderfully written memoir about growing up in Southeast Texas near Port Arthur, near Houston in the 1960s. Her style reminds me of Mark Twain, one of my favorite authors.

Professionally, oddly enough, the book that has struck me is one that I read twenty years ago and I picked it up again recently. I liked it then—and re-reading it, I loved it. I wrote about it in the blog, it is by Stephen Peter Rosen, and its called Winning the Next War. It’s about military innovation, what works and what doesn’t. A lot of it is counter intuitive. Money is not important to innovation, in fact it may hurt it; technology is not that important to innovation; what is really important to innovation is organizational change during peacetime. It really is a very different take, and I find it intriguing because I think it is a crucial issue.  

I worry that we have a big late Industrial Age military, which is a problem because we are on the cusp of Information Age. We confuse the ability to throw firepower with the ability to subdue an enemy. In that way today’s US military reminds me of the Royal Navy of 1939. The Royal Navy then was the biggest in the world, it had the most battleships and the ability to throw more firepower, but was almost entirely irrelevant in World War II. They neglected changes; they didn’t understand the submarine; they didn’t understand how to use the aircraft carrier; and they didn’t have enough destroyers.  They won the Battle of the Atlantic but that was with us giving them a lot of destroyers and other help, like providing submarine support.  

Is there a book that is coming out that you are looking forward to? 

The new book that struck me most recently was a graphic novel and I am not a big fan of those. It is by the guy who does Terminal Lance.  It’s called The White Donkey.  It is a graphic novel about his time in Iraq.  It was self-published but now it is coming out by Little Brown, the big publisher, in April. I am looking forward to see how well it does when it comes out.

Terminal Lance: The White Donkey by Maximilian Uriarte/Amazon
Terminal Lance: The White Donkey by Maximilian Uriarte/Amazon

What is your daily routine?  As a writer, do you block off time each day to write? 

I’m definitely a morning writer. I like to get up, make a cup of coffee, and sit down and start writing.  I get the blog out pretty quickly, and then I turn to whatever book I am writing at the time. I usually try to do about four hours a day, stopping around lunchtime.  I’ll have lunch with my wife, and then in the afternoon do some errands, maybe take a walk, and then sit down to read or do some research.  I find that when I am too tired to write I like turn to research.  And for me, the lesson in book writing is to stop when you start feeling tired.  It really takes your full energy and full attention the way research doesn’t.  

That sounds like pretty good advice to anyone who wants to write.

My advice is to establish a routine—that is, do not wait for inspiration. Writing is a lot more like carpentry than it is like poetry. It’s a craft.  You have to get up and saw and sand and screw things together, and then stand back and look at it. Sometimes you’ll say, “OK, that didn’t quite work, let me rework it.” Sometimes it does work.  But the people who tell me, “I’m writing a book on the weekends”—when they say that, well,  I think to myself, no, you’re enjoying yourself and pretending to write a book on the weekends. The only way a book gets written if you really work on it every day. Every morning, for me. 

Do you read with a pencil in hand? Is a notebook close by? Do you do a lot of marginalia when reading?

Totally.  To me that is intellectual capital the marginalia in any book. I remember a professor of mine in college who said, “If you are not reading with a pen in your hand then you are not reading.” I find that is especially true for nonfiction. I’m constantly taking notes. In fact, one measure for me is that how much I’ve learned from a book is the number of pages I’ve marked up. In Winning the Next War by Peter Rosen, which I just re-read, I probably took ten pages of notes the second time I read it even more notes than I did the first time.  Filling up the front and the back of the book with notes and thoughts and connections. And for me that will often become the grist for a blog item or even for something that I’m writing about in a book.

If you had the chance to invite three authors over to your house for dinner living or dead who is coming to your house, and why?  

My favorite historian is David Hackett Fisher. I think I’ve read all his books. I love Washington’s Crossing. I read his Albion’s Seed twice, and Paul Revere’s Ride, also by him, which is just lovely. I’ve never met him. I would enjoy meeting him and asking him what he thinks about books. I would love to see him write about the Civil War.  He’s written about almost every other aspect of American History. I think he is my favorite American historian, and it seems to me that the Civil War is the essential event of our history. I would love to see him tackle that.  

Another favorite writer of mine is actually a friend of mine, Eliot Cohen, who has written several terrific books. My favorite book by him is called Supreme Command.  It’s how really good civilian leaders lead their militaries.  One of the themes of this book is that they are not hands off, and they are not looking for consensus. Instead, they are constantly probing and asking questions, pushing their military leaders. They are especially looking to surface differences. To say, “now you guys disagreed on this, now tell me about this disagreement.” You see this in leaders like Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, and actually Dwight Eisenhower as well.  

For a third one, let’s see, I’ve read almost all the novels by Jonathan Franzen. I think he is a lovely writer. But I also think he is a crank and curmudgeon. I’m not sure I would enjoy dinner with him, but it would sure be interesting to have dinner with him.

How many books do you have in your library?

It’s funny you should ask, because where we live in Maine, we finally have a really good basement, big and dry. So for the first time in my life I have been able to get all of my books in one spot, and I really like that. They’re on long boards and cinderblocks. 

I measure it by the foot. I actually wrote about this in the blog once. The biggest section is World War II, which I think is thirty-two feet. And there probably are seven and a bit shelves of Iraq, which going by the boards I used makes about 31 feet. And then there is 27 feet of Vietnam, 9  of the Korean War. Unfortunately the basement is filling up fast. 

So you’ve been covering the US military for over twenty years.  I’m curious about your readers.  You’ve been blogging over at Foreign Policy for some time. Yet you don’t talk about your readers much.  I’m curious about how many people stop by “Best Defense”?  What types of readers are reading ‘Best Defense’?

I don’t know on the numbers, partly because Foreign Policy’s editors keep the numbers close hold. When I ask them about the numbers I get gobbledygook about unique hits, and you know, “push only visitors” and “unique visitors,” and all that stuff.  It doesn’t tell me anything.  

A few years ago, I believe I was told I was getting 30,000 to 40,000 readers a month. But that could be wildly wrong. I never really pushed the issue with my editors. Maybe they are afraid that if they tell me how many visitors I have, that I’ll ask for a raise.

Now, the types of readers I have, I’m better on. Start with a big military audience.  I’d have to say concentrated on middle NCO’s and junior and middle officers with a smattering of younger enlisted and a smattering of O6 and above. That’s in the military. 

The second big group is academics. And military history is a pretty lonely field, so academics seem to like a place that welcomes military historians.  

The third group is defense journalists, think tank people, guys at corporations in northern Virginia, things like that. It kind of amuses my wife—she says that within three miles of the Pentagon, I’m a minor celebrity. Beyond that I’m totally anonymous and very happy with that.

You’ve probably been to more than a few archives.  What is the most interesting thing you’ve read or discovered?

There are a lot of exciting things in the archives. It just amazes me that you can sit there and if you ask for the right files and explain what you are looking for, and the people in the archives that work there tend to be very helpful, you can sit and hold maps that guys held on the beaches on D-Day. The original maps that have their markings on them, the markings they are making in pencil as they figure out where a German machine gun nest is, or where the lines of communications are.  

But I gotta say, the single most moving thing I ever found were some letters by a general, Terry de la Mesa Allen, who was commander of the 1st Infantry Division in Sicily in August, 1943; a very good division commander, a very tough fighter. Terry Allen was relived of division command by Omar Bradley. It was very public and he didn’t know why. He had just won the key battle of the campaign in central Sicily and then he got fired, along with his assistant division commander, who was Teddy Roosevelt, Jr., the son of the President. He writes back to his wife a series of letters in pencil on blue lined school notebook paper.  And one day he writes to his wife, “Patton dropped by, Patton thinks I’m being promoted to something.” Which is totally BS.  And I think Patton knew it.  Eventually Allen gets sent back to America without a job. George Marshall, the Army chief, admired Allen even though Allen was a very heavy drinker. When Marshall found out that Allen had been fired by Bradley, I found in the archives a note Marshall wrote to an aide that said: “Give Allen another division that is going overseas. Give him the 82nd if that is next to go over.”  And when Marshall was told the 82nd was not the next, Marshall said: “Give him the next division that comes up.” So a year later Marshall has Terry Allen back in Europe commanding the 104th Infantry Division. 

To hold that series of letters where Allen is trying to figure out what is going on, in the midst of just having played a central role in the first American campaign against the Germans on European soil, is just amazing to me. That really was a heart stopping thing for me when doing research.  

Still, I have to mention that one of the hazards I didn’t know about when doing research, is that I’ll be sitting there in the Army archives, reading these things in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and frequently I’ll go back to my hotel room and at night I’d begin hacking, and I’d realize that I’d ingested a lot of dust looking at files that people that hadn’t looked at for years and years. If I go again I think I will wear a mask next time.

What books would you recommend to the next US President?  The next Secretary of Defense?  The next Joint Chiefs of Staff?

I would recommend to all of them Cohen’s Supreme Command. For my money it is the best book about how the civilian leadership should run his military, and how military leaders should deal with their civilian overseers.  It’s also about strategy. Strategy is not easy. If you are not crying than you are not making strategy. If you are not asking hard questions you are not making strategy. If you are not prioritizing between the important and the essential, you are not making strategy. Eliot Cohen’s book brings those points home and does it very well by examining a series of leaders and their decisions. 

You are very good about not pushing your favorite articles on your blog.  And at the end of the year you often run a top 20 most read articles.  But I’m curious what are some of your favorite articles from guest authors?

You’re right, I try not push things, because I often run things I disagree with. Frequently an article will come out and I will make a comment, and then somebody reads it and writes me and says: “Sir, I am a big fan of your blog, but let me tell you why you are dead wrong.”And frequently I will write back and say, “that sounds interesting, why don’t you write it up into an article.” So a lot of articles come out of disagreements with me, or perhaps email exchanges.  

As to favorite, I have two types. There is a special place in my heart for the pieces by the enlisted military personnel. I think officers have too large a voice in policy formulation, and that the enlisted have too small a voice, especially given their numbers.  We have a very well educated, professional enlisted military these days.  I don’t think we take sufficient notice of that or make sufficient use of it. So one of the things I try to do in the blog is I have this group called the “Council of Former Enlisted.” These are people who have been in the military but are now out, so they can speak freely. They are thinking about their experience.  Many of them are in college, some of them are in grad school.  And that council of the former enlisted I have really enjoyed. One of them in particular, Sebastian Bae, a former Marine sergeant has written a bunch of really good articles that I like.  

I also want to mention another guy, Ryan Blum, who wrote a good article about living in Paris the past year.  He said he went to Paris to get away from the war, but he found out with the terror attacks there in November that it followed him there.  

Another article that is a favorite of mine is one that was published recently. It’s by a ninety-one-year-old Marine veteran of World War II. He writes about the country he knew as a child, the country he fought for during World War II. He ends up with a very gloomy conclusion.  He says because of the income inequalities in this country these days, he thinks this country is not living up to the sacrifices he and his buddies made in World War II.  We were fighting for a country of fairness and sharing, relative equality and income, he says, and now we don’t have that. The rich are much too rich in this country nowadays. A lot of people are struggling to get by, even with two incomes. He said that’s not the country I knew, that’s not the country I fought for. By having that country now, he concludes, we are not honoring the sacrifice of people who fought in World War II.

I understand you are working on a book on Orwell and Churchill?  Can you tell us about your next project?  What fascinates you about Orwell and Churchill?

Orwell and Churchill came to me oddly. The commonality is that in their youth they were both war correspondents. And so I came to them as a war correspondent myself. I actually did a staff ride in Spain with Eliot Cohen which I played the character of George Orwell.  

And I’ve always enjoyed reading Churchill. So the interesting thing about these two are that they are so different, but they played such a key role in our understanding of totalitarianism, of fascism, of Communism — through Churchill’s speeches and Orwell’s essays and novels. It’s kind of parallel appreciation of the two. They never met each other, they admired each other, in fact, the hero in Orwell’s novel 1984 is named “Winston.”

At times you’ve been critical about military periodicals, and at other times you’ve praised some of the pieces in these periodicals.  What would you do if you were the editor to make some of these periodicals better?

I look back to certain periodicals have good spells times they should emulate. They shouldn’t do what Tom Ricks says, they should just do their best to be at their best. For example, Army Magazine I think is going through a very good spell and has for the last couple of years, and that’s changed—I mean, it used to be the dullest of military periodicals.  Marine Corps Gazette in the 1980s and early 1990s was very powerful it stood head and shoulders above the other military publications.  And then I think it has been whipped around by the Commandants too much and kind of lost a lot of its bite that it used to have; it used to have really serious intellectual discussions you just don’t really see that so much anymore. Likewise, Proceedings used to be very strong but really seems to me to be too focused on what’s going through Admirals’ minds these days.  It’s run some absolutely fatuous pieces by admirals that just do not do it credit.  So I think Proceedings has fallen down in recent years. And the Air Force, well, I see very little good writing coming out of it. 

Decision time. Would you rather have Orwell’s Why I Write or Zinsser’s On Writing Well on your desk?

Here are the two things I recommend to anybody trying to write: One is Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language.” It’s one of the best things written about the writing and about thinking.  

The other is E.B. White’s book The Elements of Style. I actually tried to propose a rule policy at think tanks that I have worked at, which is that every intern must read this book and take a quiz on it before they start working here. I spent a lot of time working at think tanks, editing interns and translating their writing into English.  And it’s not just interns, it’s also a lot of officers.  Everybody who is trying to write for other people should read E.B. White’s Elements of Style.  It’s short enough that you can read it in one night.  

Tom Ricks, thank you so much for you joining us.  All the best to you.

You are welcome. I enjoyed it. 

Thomas Ricks is senior advisor for national security at the New America Foundation. He also is a contributing editor of Foreign Policy magazine, for which he writes the blog “The Best Defense,” which was named the best blog of the year by the American Society of Magazine Editors in 2010, as well as the best military blog by Military Reporters & Editors. He is currently writing a study of the roles Winston Churchill and George Orwell played in shaping politics and culture of the 20th century.     

Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. Until the end of 1999 he had the same beat at the Wall Street Journal, where he was a reporter for 17 years. He reported on U.S. military activities in Somalia, Haiti, Korea, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Kuwait, Turkey, Afghanistan and Iraq. He was part of a Wall Street Journal  team that won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting in 2000 for a series of articles on how the U.S. military might change to meet the new demands of the 21st century. The series is posted at:


Ricks also was part of a Washington Post team that won the 2002 Pulitzer prize for reporting about the beginning of the U.S. counteroffensive against terrorism.  Those articles are posted at:


He is the author of Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2003-05, which was a no. 1 New York Times bestseller and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2007. His second book on that war, The Gamble: General Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-08, was published in 2009.   He also wrote Making the Corps, which won the Washington Monthly’s “Political Book of the Year” award. His first novel, A Soldier’s Duty, about the U.S. military intervening in Afghanistan, was published by Random House in June 2001–some four months before the U.S. actually did intervene there. He also has written on defense matters for the Atlantic Monthly and other publications. His most recent book is The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today. 

Born in Massachusetts in 1955, he grew up in New York and Afghanistan and graduated from Yale in 1977. He is married to Mary Catherine Ricks, author of Escape on the Pearl, a history of one of the biggest slave escapes in American history. They have two grown children. For recreation he enjoys sailing, hiking, sea kayaking, downhill skiing and reading military history. 

Lieutenant Commander Christopher Nelson, USN, is an intelligence officer stationed at the US Pacific Fleet Headquarters in Honolulu, Hawaii.  Lieutenant Commander Nelson is a graduate of the US Naval War College and the navy’s operational planning school, the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School in Newport, Rhode Island.  The comments and questions above are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the US Department of Defense or the US Navy.