Category Archives: Book Review

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

Take a Seat at the Campfire: TOPGUN’s Top Leadership Lessons from the Cockpit

Commander Guy M. Snodgrass, TOPGUN’s TOP 10: Leadership Lessons from the Cockpit, Center Street, 2020, $17.99/hardcover.

By Graham Scarbro

The image is an iconic one in American culture: after a long day on the range, a group of cowboys settles in for the night at the campfire. Under a starry sky and over chow, they regale each other with stories of gunfights, lost loves, strange sights and sounds, cantankerous horses, and lessons learned from a life on the plains.

In naval aviation, pilots and flight officers have a similar tradition. Around a wardroom table or in the squadron ready room, aviators gather around one or a group of storytellers and discuss the same topics as their Wild West forebears. Gunfights are replaced with dogfights, and horses with fighter jets, but “cowboy time” is a revered institution in the Navy’s fighter squadrons. Cowboy time can sometimes yield nothing more than an embarrassing story or two, but more frequently it involves valuable lessons and mentorship, true confessions of lessons learned through trial and error (mostly error), and occasional (quixotic) attempts to fix the Navy’s myriad problems.

Out of these discussions may come life lessons, new policies, and even war-winning tactical innovations like the World War II “Thatch Weave,” but most often cowboy time is a way to connect with each other and share experiences with colleagues and friends.

Enter Commander Guy “Bus” Snodgrass, retired, an FA-18 pilot who upended the Beltway apple cart last year with his memoir Holding the Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon With Secretary Mattis. Bus’s first book (I will address him by his callsign, the mark of respect between aviators for whom first names are reserved for their mothers and friends from high school days) was a solemn pondering of the highest levels of military bureaucracy, a look at the uncertainty surrounding the relationship between Secretary Mattis and the President. When I read the book, I picked up on the subtext of Bus’s writings: the Pentagon was a long way, physically and spiritually, from the cockpit of a fighter jet. Bus alluded to his time in the jet several times in Holding the Line, mostly to contrast it with the Pentagon, and there was the sense that he was straining to make sense of the byzantine world of the “Five Sided Circus” through the lens of decades in the cockpit.

A year later, and the lessons seem to have crystalized for Bus in his newest book, part leadership lesson and part cowboy time. TOPGUN’s Top 10: Leadership Lessons from the Cockpit (“TOPGUN” written as it should be: one word, all caps) represents a return to Bus’s roots in the jet, perhaps a natural consequence of a tumultuous year of self-reflection, following the publication of Holding the Line after an equally unpredictable stint at the Pentagon.

Bus illustrates his top ten leadership lessons with a series of anecdotes that recall nothing more than an evening in the ready room with shipmates. Stories of screwups big and small that, repeated and examined over the years, shape the course of a career and yield the life lessons learned in the fast-paced community that is naval aviation.

The book is a quick read, and Bus’s facility with speechwriting comes through as each leadership lesson only needs a few pages to make the point. This is typical of strike-fighter culture, in which flight briefers have limited time to communicate essential data before taking to the skies to execute the mission. Another aviation staple, the flight debrief, informs Bus’s use of bold-faced, succinct lessons to punctuate each chapter. After a long flight in which a thousand variables yield incalculable discreet results, identifying and examining key takeaways is a prime skill in aviation, used to good effect in the book. Bus follows his own advice to “Put the bottom line up front,” and despite it being the reviewer’s least favorite military aphorism, he uses the technique to good effect, explaining the intended lesson succinctly, illustrating each with a story, and wrapping up the chapter with a quick revisiting of the main point.

True to his title, Bus draws lessons from the everyday world of strike-fighter aviation and avoids an over-reliance on his days as a squadron commanding officer as a source for lofty words of inspiration. A common trope in leadership tomes is to pick stories designed to underscore the writer’s credibility as a commanding officer: the maneuvering of a billion-dollar warship, the ordering of a thousand troops into danger, the left hook into the Iraqi desert, and so on.

Instead of this approach, Bus chooses stories primarily from times when he was not in command, underscoring that leadership is a function of how one acts, and not necessarily the job one holds. This approach was thoroughly refreshing and a marked difference from many military leadership lessons that begin and end with: “Well, when I was in command…” and despite the fact that Bus was by all accounts a successful commanding officer. Bus’s connection of leadership with the daily grind of life in the cockpit as a junior or mid-level officer makes the stories more relatable. A reader can picture him or herself in so many similar situations, whether confronted with small decisions to do the right thing, the need to prioritize the important over the interesting, or being in need of a wingman.

From the personal: “Don’t Wait to Make a Friend Until You Need One,” to the professional: “Don’t Confuse Activity with Progress,” Bus’s advice applies beyond the cockpit to the boardroom, the office, and, ideally, to the Pentagon. Bus eschews complex acronyms and jargon for the sake of explaining in plain voice what he means. The result is understandable prose that remains accessible to all readers.

Readers with aviation backgrounds will recognize the book as a published version of cowboy time in the ready room, although Bus chooses stories that are more chaste and makes the lessons learned more obvious than in a typical aviator’s sea story. TOPGUN’s Top 10 gives readers a glimpse at why the Navy’s TOPGUN culture sets the standard for honest critique, self-reflection, and progress in the face of challenges both external and internal, large and small.

Commander Graham Scarbro is a Naval Flight Officer on active duty. The views expressed here do not represent those of his chain of command, the U.S. Navy, or the Department of Defense.

Featured Image: ATLANTIC OCEAN (Aug. 1, 2020) An F/A-18F Super Hornet attached to the “Gladiators” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 106 prepares to launch from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) during flight operations, Aug 1, 2020. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Aimee Ford)

A Holidays 2020 Reading List

By the CIMSEC Sea Control Podcast Hosts

Aloha Shipmates! We at the CIMSEC Sea Control Podcast have put our heads together to come up with a “Holidays 2020 Reading List” or perhaps more appropriately named  “What We Were Able to Read This Year…” reading list. We’ve each chosen a few books that we read and loved this year and are at least tangentially related to international maritime security. We’ve also included a few that either we didn’t get to in 2020 or we’re looking forward to in 2021.

Walker Mills

Missionaries, by Phil Klay, Penguin Press, 2020. 

Missionaries is veteran author Phil Klay’s second work, coming after his award-winning collection of short stories Redeployment (2014). Well-received by U.S. and Colombian critics, Missionaries is a wrenching story about several characters coming together in Colombia as the government was finishing a peace agreement with the FARC in 2015-2016. Klay uses his characters and their lives to explore violence at the human, community, and system levels and its impact on the human soul. 

Feeding Victory: Innovative Logistics from Lake George to Khe Sanh, by Jobie Turner, Kansas University Press, 2020. 

Feeding Victory is an eminently readable book about logistics in war. Jobie Turner, an Air Force colonel, breaks down five different case studies in logistics – all unique in their own way. The history is mixed with analysis and takeaways for the contemporary practitioner. Perhaps most interesting to CIMSEC readers will be the Guadalcanal case study where Turner compares and contrasts Japanese and American expeditionary logistics in the months-long struggle for the island. 

Cod: A Biography of the Fish the Changed the World, by Mark Kurlansky, Penguin Books, 1997.

Though over twenty years old, Cod is still a riveting introduction into the world of commercial fishing through a deep dive into the history of a single fish: Atlantic Cod. Fishing is more relevant than ever – in 2020 the United States Coast Guard released an Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported Fishing Strategic Outlook,” massive Chinese fishing fleets off the Galapagos attracted international attention, and the United Kingdom has threatened to use naval vessels to protect its fisheries in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Kurlansky’s book is a quick read and each chapter includes a recipe for cod to help deal with the inevitable craving. Listeners can check out Sea Control 206 about the “Cod Wars” between Iceland and the UK or Sea Control 219 to catch a conversation with USCG Commandant Karl Schultz about the IUU Fishing Strategic Outlook. 


The Kill Chain: Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare by Christian Brose, Hachette Books, 2020.

Adaptation Under Fire: How Militaries Change in Wartime, by David Barno and Nora Bensahel, Oxford University Press, 2020.

Both of these are books came highly reviewed and despite the fact that I pre-ordered them I still have not managed to read them yet. But I’ve followed the authors’ work at War on the Rocks and intently listen to their podcasting. I’m sure these books won’t disappoint.

2034: A Novel of the Next War, by Elliot Ackerman and James Stavridis, Penguin Press, 2021.

Can’t overstate how excited I am for this one. Ackerman is a former Marine who has written several very good books, including the award-winning Dark at the Crossing, and Stavridis has written several previous books about leadership (including another book on this list) and his extensive Navy experience including serving as former Supreme Allied Commander at NATO.

Jared Samuelson

Learning War, by Trent Hone, Naval Institute Press, 2018.

Selling Seapower: Public Relations and the U.S. Navy, 1917-1941, by Ryan D. Wadle, University of Oklahoma Press, 2019.

These books are paired because they address the question “how did we get here?” for two different communities in the Navy. If you are a surface warfare officer, you have undoubtedly spent hours in the darkened cold of your ship’s Combat Information Center. How did that space come to be, why is it designed the way it is, and what problems was the Navy trying to solve? Learning War addresses all those questions and, if that weren’t enough, you get a graduate-level discussion of the evolution of the officer corps and some early 1900s ship design. Listen to Sea Control 209 with author Trent Hone to learn more. I thought Selling Seapower did much the same for today’s public affairs community, from its birth in the Office of Naval Intelligence, the development of the collateral duty Public Affairs Officer, and the Navy’s relationship with mass media (spanning early radio to film). 

The Alice Network: A Novel, by Kate Quinn, William Morrow Paperbacks, 2017.

The best possible endorsement I can give this book is that I read it in less than 48 hours while co-parenting an infant and doing my day job. It was that good. The pace is incredible and the historical setting will have you picking up your phone to Google “did X really happen” multiple times. The author’s follow-up, The Huntress, is sitting on my to-be-read pile.

The Riddle of the Sands, by Erskine Childers, Modern Library, 2002.

Originally printed in 1903, The Riddle of the Sands was a recommendation from an old friend and former CO that took me completely by surprise. The book is the story of two friends ostensibly on a late summer sailing expedition in the Baltic and North Seas who stumble onto a sinister plot whilst being pursued by German agents. No less than Winston Churchill cited the novel as a reason the British ultimately established multiple naval bases on the North Sea prior to World War I.


Grey Dawn: A Tale of Abolition and Union, Balance of Seven, 2020, by Sea Control 163 guest and now host of her own podcast, Friday Night History, Dr. Nyri Bakkalian. 

How the Few Became the Proud, Naval Institute Press, 2019 by Sea Control 184 guest Dr. Heather Venable. I have a literal signed copy just waiting to be cracked open. Massive personal failure on my part.

Wargaming Experiences: Soldiers, Scientists and Civilians, by Natalie Wojtowics, J10 Gaming, 2020.

Battle in the Baltic: The Royal Navy and the Fight to Save Latvia & Estonia, 1918-1920, by Steve R. Dunn, Naval Institute Press, 2020.

This book seemed like a logical successor after reading Michael B. Barrett’s Operation Albion: The German Conquest of the Baltic Islands in preparation for Sea Control 168. Cautiously optimistic the author will be coming to a podcast near you in 2021!

Anna McNeil

Can’t Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds, by David Goggins, Lioncrest Publishing, 2018.

If talks about resilience and hope are ringing empty in your ears this holiday, or you feel depression and disempowering thoughts setting in, this is the book I suggest you begin with. Cultivate the knowledge that you can and will get through to a brighter future. Then, move forward with intention for the new year ahead.

Honor Harrington series, by David Weber, 2002-2017.

Science Fiction. Space Navy. Military-Industrial complex. Vast sprawling strategic positioning and tactical level skirmishes. Personal assistant on the Commander’s shoulder and in her ear. A female protagonist who lives up to the name Honor. The first of this series, On Basilisk Station, was given to me by my grandfather, a retired U.S. Navy Electronics Technician. It was a large part of the reason I considered joining the Navy. The best fiction is that through which we can more clearly imagine possibilities for ourselves in the real world. Fiction lovers can check out the wrap-up of CIMSEC’s Fiction Week in Sea Control 216 with an interview of the winning authors Mike Burke and Nick Nethery. 

The Good Shepherd, by C.S. Forester, reissue by Penguin Books, 2018.

Yes, Hollywood made a movie of this already, but the discussion on social media about the proper use of helm commands doesn’t even scratch the surface of how much justice is done to the seagoing service. Read the first ten pages and you’ll see why I was suddenly inspired to write Steering Casualty and Tactical Signals drill cards.


Navigating the Seven Seas of Leadership: Leadership Lessons of the First African-American Father and Son to Serve at the Top in the US Navy, by MSCM (ret) Melvin G. Williams Sr., and VADM (ret) Melvin G. Williams, Naval Institute Press, 2011.

Wisdom direct from the experiences of one very special military family, written down and offered to the benefit of anyone willing to read it. This book was written with such generosity and goodwill toward all mankind that it simply must be on my holiday reading list.

The Military Lens: Doctrinal Differences and Deterrence Failure in Sino-American Relations, by Christopher P. Twomey, Cornell Studies in Security Affairs, 2010.  

I suppose this could be considered a book about peace on Earth. Or rather, understanding how to use the military to lead options other than shooting wars.

Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World, by Andrea Pitzer, Scribner, 2021.

Get ready to be transported out of your own struggles into the tale of the famous polar explorer William Barentz’s year-long fight for survival in the Arctic. Out in January 2021! 

Jonathon Frerichs

Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations, Third Edition, by Wayne Hughes and Robert Girrier, Naval Institute Press, 2018.

 A Brief Guide to Maritime Strategy, by James R. Holmes, Naval Institute Press, 2019.

During a month-long temporary duty assignment to Naples, Italy, I recognized that I utterly lacked an understanding of how the Navy operates (despite having deployed on three different Marine Expeditionary Units, or MEUs). Seeking answers, I picked up Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations from the Navy Exchange on base. With nothing else to do in the evenings but eat Napoli pizza, I quickly devoured the book and found it immediately valuable in expanding my knowledge of naval operations. Upon completion, however, I found myself thirsting for a better understanding of how naval forces have contributed to obtaining national strategic objectives. 

Enter A Brief Guide to Maritime Strategy – a perfect complement. This short, digestible book is power packed with historical examples and an easy-to-apply framework through which to look at the application of naval forces from competition to crisis to conflict. For either the military historian or the naval practitioner, this book is guaranteed to be a great read and valuable resource. 

The Art of War: A New Translation by Michael Nylan, Sun Tzu, W. W. Norton and Company, 2020. 

I have digested bits and pieces of various translations of The Art of War over my career, but never sat down and read it cover to cover. When I saw @teaandtactics recommend the book, I decided I would bite and resolve my academic shortfall. Combining a depth of Chinese history and a nuanced fluency of the Chinese language, Nylan has created a translation that is easy to read, cover-to-cover. Additionally, in her introduction she provides an opportunity to apply the ideas of strategy and conflict to life outside of war. 


To Rule Eurasia’s Waves: The New Great Power Competition at Sea, by Geoffrey Gresh, Yale University Press, 2020.

Just received my copy of this book. Upon a quick scan, I am excited to digest the multinational look at great power competition in the maritime domain. Many recent books have focused on looking at great power competition through a bipolar lens (Russia/United States or China/United States) but this book appears to take a much more expansive and systemic look at how great powers compete in the maritime domain. If you’re interested in To Rule Eurasia’s Waves, be on the lookout for a future Sea Control episode. 

The Pacific War trilogy, by Ian Toll, W. W. Norton & Company, 2011-2020.

I continue to see these recommended from military history scholars and servicemembers alike.

Andrea Howard

If 2020 did not provide enough existential fodder for society, The Master Algorithm: How the Quest for the Ultimate Learning Machine Will Remake Our World  Basic Books, 2018, by Pedro Domingos serves as one of the best introductions on how machine learning – and the prospective development of a unifying master algorithm – will forever alter the world. Unsupervised learning algorithms can structure and illuminate meaning from raw data, and the naval-oriented mind will see the innumerable applications from fire control systems to underwater mapping. 

Shifting over to a work that explicitly discusses the impact of cyber developments in the warfare domain, I recommend Cyber Security and Cyberware: What Everyone Needs to Know by P.W. Singer and Allan Friedman, Oxford University Press, 2014. While exploring the ramifications of the Stuxnet virus and cyber units within the American and Chinese military structures, the authors outline how future conflicts will touch every individual via cybercrime in the financial realm and attacks on infrastructure. 

To round out the two above choices, the Commandant of the Marine Corps’ top choice for 2020 is a strategic must-read. The Kill Chain: Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare by Christian Brose, Hachette Books, 2020 explores the emerging technologies that present disturbing threats to American military superiority, but he also advocates for the development of a battle network of systems (a “kill chain”) to uphold deterrence and ultimately prevent war. 


For my upcoming deployment, I’m intending to bring along The Leader’s Bookshelf by Admiral James Stavridis and R. Manning Ancell, Naval Institute Press, 2017 to consume the lessons learned from the active and retired four-star military officers’ habits and favorite books. The promised efficiency will be necessary for the small bits of time afforded before hitting the rack and awaking for watch.

Readers and listeners can get to know the podcast team better by listening to Sea Control  214 “Meet the Team!” or finding us on Twitter at @jwsc03@AndreaR_Howard, @WDMills1992, @2BAtSea, and @hoplitemarine

Featured Image: Book collection, photo via the U.S. Naval War College.

Violent Peace: The War with China and the Aftermath of Armageddon

David Poyer, Violent Peace: The War with China: Aftermath of Armageddon, St. Martin’s Press, 2020, $27.99/hardcover.

By Mike DeBoer

David Poyer’s latest book, Violent Peace (to be released December 8, 2020), is the author’s most sobering work to date. This latest edition to the Dan Lenson Tales of the Modern Navy series finds the United States in the midst of armistice negotiations after a devastating conflict with China. The U.S. is also grappling with domestic unrest and uncertainty against the backdrop of depopulated cities, rampant militias, and nuclear fallout. In short, Poyer’s near-future America bears little resemblance to the 1980s-era prosperity and hegemony fans of the series will remember from The Circle. Though the trajectory of the series has been toward entropy, particularly since 2015’s Tipping Point, Violent Peace presents readers with a new depth of pessimism and despair.

Protagonist Dan Lenson’s daughter has gone missing while attempting to distribute influenza vaccines. (One has to wonder if Poyer retains some Nostradamus-like abilities in that he seemingly predicted a pandemic virus with its origin in China in previous works.) In a subplot with echoes of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Lenson, now on leave after his victory in the South China Sea, attempts to find her in a dystopian ride across America, confronting murderous militias, high background radiation, ghost towns, and the detritus of an unrecognizable American heartland.

Fans of the series will find their favorite characters similarly vexed. Unaware of her husband Dan’s search, Blair continues final negotiations with China, harboring great misgivings about the future implications of harsh peace. Dan’s former Executive Officer, Captain Cheryl Staurulakis, now in command of a small surface group, confronts a predatory Russian surface group with her inferior force in the Sea of Japan. Teddy Oberg, the former SEAL and escapee from a Chinese prisoner of war camp, rejects his previous convictions as a result of an religious encounter at high altitude, electing instead to conduct his own brand of unrestricted jihad against the Chinese rulers of Xinjiang province. Marine Corps infantryman Hektor Ramos, injured badly in his assault on Hainan Island, returns to his home and an ungrateful nation, a devastated economy, and few job prospects.

Violent Peace is a solemn book. In the narrative arc of Poyer’s War with China subseries, Peace displays a depth of pessimism that some readers may find overwhelming. If combat is ultimately a test of human will, it follows that war is a test of national will, and an exhausted, divided America is at the precipice of losing its way. Poyer’s latest illustrates just how dire a destination such a path promises. Peace’s United States is slipping toward one-party rule, even as open revolts occur in the South and Central U.S. Impoverished by the war, the nation has scarce funds to train or employ its veterans, further paupered by the large military forces it had previously created. Forced outwardly to validate such sacrifice to the American people, the administration forces a humbling peace on the Chinese, guaranteed, like Versailles, to instigate national fury and further reckoning.

Poyer’s thesis throughout the series holds, that war with China is closer and more terrible than most would believe. In fact, at one point in the story, Blair, typically the most cerebral character and perhaps somewhat of an author surrogate in her views, states that she believed the outcome inevitable. Indeed, it was the natural outcome of the fear, honor, and interest of rising and established powers as the globe reorders. In Violent Peace, Poyer emphasizes the human costs of such a conflict domestically and to dramatic effect. Insulated from foreign policy’s nastier side effects by its bordering oceans for most of their existence, the U.S. population has so infrequently dealt with the hard hand of great power conflict that they have perhaps assumed immunity. In Peace, readers can glimpse the consequence of such an assumption given a modern, great power conflict with a rising China.

Poyer is at his best when he captures the zeitgeist, and in Violent Peace, the author is undeniably on top of his game. Poyer seems to have pulled from the history of Civil War Reconstruction, modern American political turmoil, and married them with the physical and physiological effects of American nuclear strikes in 1945 to create a picture of the devastation that awaits both parties following nuclear war. He captures and magnifies current American political chaos and divisiveness tearing at the connective tissue of American society ably and affectingly. Peace’s near-future United States is far from united – Poyer’s carefully drawn caricatures of the darker factions of contemporary American society give readers plenty to consider. Pitted against an overgrown security state, with violent, paramilitary federal troops, these factions wage a bloody, protracted campaign. Poyer’s message is effective – internal strife is on par with external factors in terms of destructiveness.

One aspect on which the book might have expanded is the intelligence community’s role. For all his very in-depth thought about future war at sea, Poyer did not describe a similar revolution in how the CIA might run covert action in tomorrow’s conflicts. Instead, his CIA Covert Action Team member uses better drones and in-person meetings, vice any new or transformative technologies. In an area where biotechnology is in its infancy, human tracking is improving dramatically, compression software is improving every hour, and lethal technologies abound, it seemed a little regressive to have a case officer riding a donkey, and visiting a Predator control van in a dust-blown portion of the world. Selective viruses targeting individual DNA, messages left in microprint, drone-delivered arms – all could potentially influence covert action, perhaps the topic of Poyer’s next work.

Readers who enjoy the technical accuracy of Poyer’s books will still find carefully painstakingly rendered naval combat, but Violent Peace is ultimately a national and human tale, focused less on the practical aspects of war than the less tangible costs on individuals and societies. Indeed, Poyer’s trademark fidelity only serves to amplify the greater thesis of Violent Peace – the current level of divisiveness in the United States may not, or perhaps will not, meet first contact with the cataclysm of China. The best of Poyer’s writing borrows from contemporary experience and Violent Peace is no exception. This book is highly recommended to fans of the series and students of modern conflict alike, although it is best enjoyed in the context of the complete narrative arc of the War With China subseries.

Michael DeBoer is a naval officer.

Featured Image: A unitary medium-range ballistic missile target launches from the Pacific missile range facility and flies northwest toward a broad ocean area of the Pacific Ocean. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Mathew J. Diendorf/Released)

Burn-In: A Novel of the Real Robotic Revolution

August Cole and P.W. Singer, Burn-In: A Novel of the Real Robotic RevolutionHoughton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020, $28/hardcover, 432 pages.

By LCDR Robert “Jake” Bebber USN

Peter W. Singer and August Cole have once again collaborated on a “useful fiction” project (their term) entitled, Burn-In. A “burn-in” refers to the “continuous operation of a device (such as a computer) to test for defects or failure prior to putting it to use.” In this case, the novel follows the story of an FBI agent, Lara Keegan, who finds herself paired with a “Tactical Autonomous Mobility System” or “TAMS,” an autonomous robot gifted with artificial intelligence and human-like features, though smaller than your average person at only five feet tall.

In a brief epilogue to the reader, Singer and Cole explain why they undertook this project. They argue that we are in the midst of a new industrial and information revolution which touches every segment of society, and will create political, social, economic, cultural, and security disruptions on a scale never before endured. “What is worrisome is how poorly understood [this revolution] is, both by the public and by policymakers. It is not just that too many lack a sense of the scale of change that is to come, but also the ability to visualize it.”

The authors draw the reader into a world that is at once familiar, and yet near-dystopian. The trials of life, raising children, providing for a family and ultimately doing one’s duty are set against a backdrop of immense economic dislocation and social unrest. Throughout the book we are given glimpses into a future America that on some level shows the hope and promise of technology and how it can empower lives. At the same time, the dislocation caused by automation in many cases replaces human decision-making with algorithms, and is brought home to the reader in Keegan’s strained relationship with her husband Jared, whose promising law career has been cut short. The reader can sense the tension and bitterness as Jared had been reduced to a virtual reality “gig economy” to help the family make ends meet. Their young daughter Haley becomes both the anchor for the couple and the bridge between the family and this new way of life.

In many respects, the social and economic dislocation as a result of the quickening pace of technological change is nothing new in history. The late 18th to early 20th centuries witnessed the transition from an agrarian-based way of life to one based on industrialization and commercial exchange. The pace of technological change has only quickened during that time. As the majority of the planet’s population now lives in urban centers, technological change between human generations has sped up exponentially. Futurist Ray Kurzweil suggests there is a law of accelerating returns, arguing that as civilizations repurpose and build upon the technologies of the previous generations, the rate of change is compounded exponentially. With an exponential growth rate, understanding the implications of new technology becomes increasingly difficult, if not impossible. Decision-makers from Congress and corporate boardrooms to family households are likely to find themselves in a perpetual “analysis paralysis loop,” unable to cope. We see much of this manifest today in our world. Consider the following:

  • As men’s employment prospects have declined, so have their prospects of marriage. Overall loss of economic opportunity has only exacerbated an opioid addiction crisis which makes a sizeable portion of the working-age population unemployable.
  • People’s willingness to share personal information has fundamentally changed our notion of privacy. Movement, interaction, and exchange is being tracked and monitored by governments, companies, universities, parents, and employers. Yet the social response has been muted, at best, to this transformation. We live in a world where convenience has taken on a higher value than privacy.
  • The principle means of social interaction is now through some form of platform-based technology, such as Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. However, communication, traditionally defined as a means of transmitting knowledge or information to another person, has evolved into a performance mechanism, designed to either signal our virtue or perpetuate outrage. It has proven to be a very capable tool of social disruption and manipulation.
  • Advancing technology has vastly improved the material condition of humanity to the point where some of the poorest areas of the globe would almost be considered moderately well-off compared to where they were a few decades ago. Technology and material goods that were prohibitively expensive just a few short years ago are almost ubiquitous now, creating change in our patterns of behavior and attitudes toward luxury and class. Today, in an era where almost every child in America has a smartphone, only 30 percent of children in working class families live at home with their biological parents, compared to 85 percent of children in affluent families. In 1960, 95 percent of children of both classes lived with their biological parents.
  • Even now, though, universally available information technology is changing more than our patterns of behavior, it might be creating physiological changes that resemble addictive disorders. These addictive disorders are only exacerbated when policies are adopted encouraging drug legalization without fully understanding the health care costs associated with long-term use, especially on teenagers and young adults, whose cognitive performance is declining.

Singer and Cole paint multiple pictures of America, showing broad landscapes as well as intimate portraits. Early on we find parts of Washington D.C. “occupied” by a veterans’ group in a scene reminiscent of the Bonus Army march from 1932. In the last third of the book, Americans across the demographic and ideological divide take to the streets after a series of major shocks and disasters, looking for someone or something to blame. Much like the ease with which humans psychologically attach sinister motives to unnamed and ill-defined entities like the “Deep State” or “Big Oil,” these Americans lash out at what they think is “out-of-control technology,” without really having an idea of what to do, other than rage. They are ripe for manipulation and corruption without realizing their own vulnerability. And it is when Keegan’s own family gets caught up in the maelstrom that the reader begins to understand both the seething anger of Americans like Jared, as well as the hope and promise of what TAMS can do.

The Keegan-TAMS relationship evolves throughout the novel, trying to answer the question of human meaning and purpose in a world where, on the surface, TAMS might appear to be superior to a human in every way. TAMS can amass and process nearly infinite amounts of data to understand patterns and learn, while being stronger, faster, and in many cases more creative. Yet much eludes TAMS and, like the character Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, it will never be human. The question becomes whether we will remain human.

The book, like the other noteworthy novel the two collaborated on, Ghost Fleet, meets its purpose skillfully. It is both lively, entertaining, and well-written as well as thought-provoking. Some will no doubt quibble with certain fictional elements, which naturally misses the point. The authors hope to leave the reader asking more questions rather than giving ready answers. The characters are engaging, yet flawed human beings, while TAMS is seemingly omniscient, yet innocent and ignorant. The writing is lively and colorful, and should be essential reading for anyone who looks out at the landscape today and sees clouds looming over the horizon.

LCDR Robert “Jake” Bebber is a cryptologic warfare officer assigned to Information Warfare Training Command Corry Station in Pensacola, Florida. LCDR Bebber was most recently the Cryptologic Resource Coordinator for the Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group. He holds a Ph.D. in Public Policy from the University of Central Florida, and his writing has appeared in Proceedings, Orbis, Comparative Strategy, Journal of Information Warfare, Cipherbrief and CIMSEC. He is supported by his wife, Dana, and their two children Zachary and Vincent. LCDR Bebber welcomes your comments at These views are presented in a personal capacity. 

Featured Image: “Cyberpunk Street” by Sergii Golotovskiy via Artstation