Category Archives: Book Review

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

The Russian Understanding of War: Blurring the Lines between War and Peace

Oscar Jonsson, The Russian Understanding of War: Blurring the Lines between War and Peace, Georgetown University Press, 2019, $32.95/paperback.

By McLean Panter

Russia, and before it the Soviet Union, has vexed Western strategists and military leaders for decades, in large part due to a lack of understanding of Russian military thought. Oscar Jonsson seeks to change that with his book The Russian Understanding of War: Blurring the Lines between War and Peace. Using primary Russian national strategy documents and excerpts from senior Russian military leaders’ speeches and writings, Jonsson dives into how Soviet and Russian military thinkers evolved their understanding of the nature of war from Soviet-era foundations to the present day, giving Western readers an insight into the Russian perspective on war and conflict.

Jonsson begins with two background chapters that give an overview of Soviet and post-Cold War Russian perspectives of war and military conflict. When describing Soviet military science, he notes that the Soviet understanding of war is based almost entirely on Lenin’s own perspectives and his view that all conflict should be viewed as an economic struggle between social classes. A knowledge of dialectic materialism will serve the reader well here, as Jonsson’s descriptions sometimes veer into the arcane, perhaps saying more about Soviet military views vis-à-vis economic and social conflict than about Jonsson’s research approach. The Soviets in many ways viewed war as inevitable and critical to furthering the global reach of communism, with peace simply an interlude between armed conflicts. Interestingly, however, Soviet military science was unique in its holistic focus, treating economic, political, and social, as well as military factors, as equal contributors to and tools in support of armed conflict.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union left the new Russian Federation in disarray, and that was reflected in Russian military thought in the 1990s and early 2000s. While many Russian theorists continued to view war primarily through an economic lens, the wars of the 1990s made many question their assumptions on military strategy. The Gulf War, in particular, shocked many Russian military officers and theorists, as a smaller but technologically superior American force quickly and easily defeated the larger Iraqi army. The shock and confusion were exacerbated by the advent of the information age, after which the Russian military increasingly saw the use of information as a weapon. This shaped the emerging view that conflict is continuous and ongoing, and that the only change is between violent and non-violent means of waging war.

Jonsson then examines modern Russian perspectives of conflict, specifically touching on the blurred lines between peace and war when considering information operations as non-kinetic military operations. He notes that the current struggle between Russia and the West is principally in the information domain, emphasizing that Russia’s approach is two-pronged: the “information-technical,” primarily concerned with information systems, architecture, and means of transmission (i.e. physical infrastructure and spectrum access); and the “information-psychological,” primarily concerned with influencing opinions of adversary populations via traditional and social media, including disinformation and misinformation campaigns.

The Russian military views U.S. success in the Gulf War in large part due to their specific targeting of Iraqi command and control infrastructure, showing the importance of the “information-technical” aspect of information warfare. Their view of the “information-psychological” aspect comes from their own experiences in the Chechen Wars of the 1990s and early 2000s. During the First Chechen War, the Chechen separatists used traditional media to shape public opinion of the war both in Russia and internationally, whereas Russian forces essentially declined to use the media in any capacity, finally realizing their mistake too late to change public opinion. Russia was caught flat-footed again in the Second Chechen War, during which Chechen forces took advantage of greater public access to the Internet to broadcast their narrative around the world and rally support to their cause.  

Perhaps Jonsson’s most interesting insight is in the final chapter of the book, in which he examines the Russian view of so-called color revolutions (e.g. the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia, the 2005 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and the 2011 Arab Spring). Whereas in the West such events are seen as admirable expressions of popular desires for democratic governments, in Russia they are viewed as U.S.-backed influence operations designed to sow domestic dissent and effect regime change. Western media, in simply reporting such events in conjunction with praise by Western leaders, creates an appearance of Western information operations in the Russian military view.

This highlights one of Jonsson’s primary insights in the book, which is that the Russian political-military apparatus views its own domestic public support as a critical weakness and color revolutions as Western (i.e. U.S.) attempts to destabilize Russia domestically and possibly prompt regime change. Senior Russian military officers and political leaders view color revolutions as a form of information warfare against Russia, and they conduct information operations in kind against the perceived perpetrators in the West.

The Russian Understanding of War is an excellent work for anyone looking to understand Russian perspectives on the nature of conflict. Although at times it can be esoteric for the lay reader, anyone with a basic background in Russian military thought will appreciate the insight Jonsson provides. Historically, the United States has struggled to understand both Soviet and Russian geopolitical maneuvers. Jonsson’s work will help change that, giving an inside view of current debates within Russian military circles via Russian strategic documents and the writings and speeches of Russian military leaders. It provides valuable context on Russian strategic messaging and decision-making, and anyone working on European or Russian affairs would do well to pick it up.

McLean Panter is a U.S. Navy Foreign Area Officer currently serving in the Security Cooperation Office at the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá, Colombia. He is a graduate of the Command and Staff Course at the Colombian Joint War College, and he previously served in the Theater Security Cooperation Officer at the U.S. Fifth Fleet headquarters in Manama, Bahrain.

Featured Image: Russian Army Tanks (Photo via Russian Ministry of Defense)

The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict

By CDR Robert “Jake” Bebber, USN

Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict (Elbridge A. Colby, Yale University Press, 2021)

An emerging consensus has developed in both foreign policy/national security circles and among the American public that Communist China represents a clear threat not only to U.S. security, but also to a liberal rule-based order that has existed since the end of the Cold War. This is a rather remarkable turn from just a few short years ago. Today, one would have little problem finding books, podcasts, think tank reports, and other media that highlight the threat China poses.

No doubt the few professionals who sought to raise awareness to what China was doing and were subsequently derided as “alarmist” prior to 2015 – Michael Pillsbury, Gordon Chang, Anders Corr, and David Shambaugh, among others, come to mind – perhaps feel a sense of vindication. However, much time has been lost for U.S. policy makers to shift our strategic resources in a meaningful way, time that cannot be regained.

Despite this emerging consensus, few have put forward meaningful strategies to secure American interests while realistically meeting the challenge China poses head on. Fortunately, Dr. Elbridge Colby, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development, has risen to the challenge, putting forward a provocative and perhaps controversial recommendation: a strategy of denial

The logic of Dr. Colby’s strategy can be summarized thus: To ensure America’s freedom, security and prosperity, the United States must maintain a favorable military-economic balance of power with respect to key regions of the world. Asia’s demographic and economic weight clearly place that region as the most important to American interests, and therefore the cornerstone of American policy must ensure that Asia is not subjected to regional hegemony. To maintain a favorable balance of power, the U.S., along with allies, friends, and partners (the anti-hegemonic coalition), must be capable of prevailing in a regional war initiated by an aspiring hegemon. 

China’s own pronouncements and aggressive behavior clearly point to its desire to dominate Asia first, likely followed by the rest of the world. Naturally, China’s desire for regional hegemony will create a backlash, and states with common interests may band together. This anti-hegemonic coalition would effectively be defensive in nature. It would not seek regime change in China, but merely to prevent it from becoming dominant.

As the most important external balancer in an anti-hegemonic coalition, it is critical that the United States preserve its differentiated credibility related to denying China regional hegemony.1 Doing so requires U.S. policy makers to structure its military forces in such a way that preserves and ideally enhances its differentiated credibility. This demands that force structure and capabilities be prioritized around identifying and defeating China’s best strategy to achieve regional hegemony.

Colby walks through the strategies China might pursue before identifying what he evaluates as its best strategy to assume regional hegemony: utilize a focused and sequential strategy to effectively isolate and pick off members of the anti-hegemonic coalition, creating a fait accompli of regional dominance. For both ideological and military reasons, Taiwan is the prime target of China’s focused and sequential strategy, followed by the Philippines, then Vietnam. China’s conditions of victory are met when it seizes and holds territory, while the best strategy for the anti-hegemonic coalition to pursue is a denial strategy, where the core strategic purpose is met by keeping Taiwan on the side of the coalition.

An effective denial strategy is one which prevents China from seizing territory in Taiwan, or if that cannot be prevented, then from holding on to such territory. This requires that the coalition, led by the United States, be prepared to fight a longer, broader but still limited war and be able to end that war on favorable terms. Keeping a limited war limited will be paramount, as the risk of horizontal and vertical escalation will be great. Therefore the coalition should layer cost imposition on top of effective denial to persuade China to accept the defenders’ preferred rule sets for limited war as well as inducing China to agree to terminate the war on favorable terms. 

The challenge of doing so cannot be overstated. China can bring immense military and economic power to bear, and it will be an exceptionally determined foe. The resolve of the American people and the people of allied nations and coalition partners will be sorely tested to bear the costs of adapting and optimizing military forces for effective denial defense and prosecute a potential long, limited war. There is a good probability that denial defenses might fail in part or completely, requiring the coalition to adapt and seek to recapture Taiwan or the other allied and partner nations.

Therefore, considerations must be given on how to influence and shape the resolve of the people and bind them to the outcome of the war. A component of strategy must be to force China to fight in ways that change or reinforce the coalition’s threat perception. China will be made to reveal its aggressiveness, ambition, cruelty, unreliability, power, and disrespect for the honor of other states, which in turn strengthens the resolve of coalition members. The premise of the binding strategy is that military and other material power is employed to create “political, perceptual effects that matter in war.” Thus, military planning must sometimes serve political purposes that shape the war to unfold in such a way that key decision makers and populations “increase their valuation of the stakes at hand.”

The implications of this strategy are clear and come with hard choices and trade-offs. Preventing China’s regional hegemony in Asia must receive top priority in U.S. defense planning and resources. Denial defense must become the preferred standard. In concrete terms, the U.S. and partners must focus first on the effective defense of Taiwan, followed next by the Philippines. The coalition must be prepared to integrate the binding strategy described above with denial defense so that if the war broadens or intensifies, it does so in ways that catalyze popular resolve. These strategies form the “bounding constraints” which inform military-operational planning and budgeting, technological policy, and diplomatic efforts. 

As expected, Dr. Colby’s denial strategy has stirred both discussion and controversy. David P. Goldman, economist and former advisor to the Reagan Administration (as well as the Asia Times columnist formerly writing under the pseudonym “Spengler”) finds the strategy not only a “disappointment” but “a dangerous amalgam of dodges that points down the slippery slope towards war.” Any attempt by the United States and the anti-hegemonic coalition to adopt a strategy that openly postures forces to defend Taiwan is akin to setting in motion the events that led to World War I. Taiwan is “an existential issue” for the Chinese Communist Party, and the eventual integration of Taiwan into CCP control is simply a forgone conclusion he asserts.

For Goldman, any military conflict with China – especially close to its shores – would result in defeat anyway. The American military (and its allies in the coalition one presumes) are so hopelessly outmatched after two decades of “colonial wars,” and China can bring immense destructive power to bear on the American homeland without even having to escalate to nuclear weapons, that defeat is all but certain. Besides, Taiwan “has no intention of offering serious resistance” anyway, so why should American fighting forces die for them? (Or Japanese or Australian or anyone else one assumes.) Given that it would take “a trillion dollars of high-tech R&D funding and several years to counter China’s missile, cyberwar, and other offensive capabilities,” along with strong leaders – a President “with an evangelical fervor for national renewal” – it is best not to provoke a powerful adversary like China, at least not until you are prepared. (And with a maximalist approach such as Goldman’s, one doubts we are ever truly prepared.)

On the other hand, Dan Blumenthal of the American Enterprise Institute, writes in the Wall Street Journal that Dr. Colby’s “book presents a needed path forward.” He is “forcing readers to think concretely about the unthinkable” as he argues that it is indeed possible for the U.S. and coalition members to keep the war limited in scope so long as the burden of escalation remains on China. A denial strategy will “define the basis for future debate about U.S. defense strategy in Asia,” and would serve as the organizing principle around which all elements of national power need to be employed. And yet Blumenthal takes issue with Colby’s core assumptions of the strategy, which he believes are based on mere “political realism.”

Indeed, CCP behavior toward Taiwan remains a “legacy of the Chinese civil war” and is not merely a geopolitical steppingstone toward regional hegemony but is “an imperial idea” and a matter of national honor. The existence of a democratic Taiwan is an existential threat to the CCP in their eyes, and the CCP is currently “intoxicated by notions of reuniting a dismembered Volk,” perhaps prepared to start a world war to settle the matter. This follows the contours of part of Goldman’s critique but does not share his pessimism in the ability of the U.S. and coalition to marshal the forces and resolve.

But this does call into question the efficacy of relying solely on a strategy of denial to counter China’s best strategy, a focused and sequential strategy, to become the regional hegemon in Asia. It requires that the leadership of the CCP – principally one man, Xi Jinping – reach the conclusion that Taiwan cannot be taken, and hence the entire project of reunification, and perhaps global supremacy, must be abandoned. The strategic end state for the anti-hegemonic coalition becomes “winning by not losing,” but it is effectively asking that the American public (as well as the publics of our partners) indefinitely fund and politically support a military force posture designed around defense and maintenance of the status quo.

At some point, political leadership will be asked the same question President Reagan was at the 1988 Moscow summit, what is the strategy for ending the Cold War? Reagan famously stated, “Here’s my strategy on the Cold War: we win, they lose.” He did not hold to the Communist Party in the Soviet Union maintaining its grip on power forever, and upon taking office embarked on a strategy to defeat them. Playing on the defensive is necessary, but not sufficient, to achieve victory.

If China invades Taiwan, and the coalition can beat it back in a war limited in scope and aims as described by Dr. Colby, well then what? An immense amount of blood and treasure will have been spilt, and Taiwan will almost certainly have suffered significant damage. Even though they are a rich country, rebuilding will be expensive, and they will need substantial help. Potentially thousands of American lives will have been lost, perhaps more. Will the American people be willing to accept the status quo ante as the outcome, akin to the end of the Korean War in 1953? Or will the people demand more, such as reparations or perhaps even a change in leadership of China? Can a President and Congress who ask the American people to support the defense of Taiwan easily and readily explain to those people at the end of the war that the Communist regime that started the war needs to remain in place? Or, as Dr. Colby alludes to, what if the failure of China to take Taiwan results in a collapse of the Chinese Communist Party’s monopoly on power, something which I address here. Have we considered what an alternative political structure in China might be, and how might the U.S. shape that outcome?

Strategy of Denial is a well-structured, logically coherent argument for a particular strategic approach, one based largely on conventional forces. Dr. Colby explains as much when in his preface he states his intent is not to articulate a larger grand strategy but rather to “lay out a single, coherent framework that provides clear guidance on what the nation’s defense strategy should be …” It rests on the assumptions that the “unipolar moment” is over, and that primacy is not possible for the U.S. maintain (and was probably illusory to begin with). He articulates how Communist China represents the gravest threat to American security, and why reducing the confidence of China’s leadership in the success of a focused and sequential strategy to achieve regional hegemony decreases the probability of an attempt by China to use military force. At its heart, he is arguing that conventional forces should be organized and employed to conduct denial defense to achieve deterrence.

An alternative, perhaps complimentary, strategic approach toward U.S. security is employing cyber-enabled and other information-based capabilities to alter China’s trajectory altogether. A geoinformational approach that leverages American and allied comparative advantages across all spectrums of power could better shape the Chinese Communist Party leadership’s understanding of its own comparative national power, forcing it into harder resource allocation dilemmas and perhaps even challenge its monopoly on power. Long before the point of a potential invasion of Taiwan or the Philippines, the conflict can be transformed. It opens the door to alternative victory conditions for the U.S. in protecting its security as well as a larger liberal world order.

Dr. Colby concludes his book by acknowledging that at best, deterrence by denial might create “a decent peace” – an uneasy Cold War-like environment. However, Dr. Colby, more than most, was in a position to see how geoinformational approaches could create more than just peace, but victory. That approach deserved more attention. Even so, Dr. Colby has done an immense service by moving the strategic debate beyond platitudes and forcing hard conversations about the resource decisions which must be made. Policy makers must reckon with his analysis and prescriptions, and we are better off because of it.

CDR Robert “Jake” Bebber is the Executive Officer of Information Warfare Training Command Corry Station in Pensacola, Florida. He is a frequent contributor to CIMSEC and his writing has appeared in Orbis, Proceedings, Parameters, the Journal of Comparative Strategy, the Journal of Political Risk, the Journal of Information Warfare, and elsewhere. He welcomes your comments at


1 Colby defines “differentiated credibility” as how allies, friends, and partners will view U.S. commitment guarantees that are similar in nature to their own. “They will look at how [the U.S.] has treated that particular commitment or those similarly situated in the past.” If America has risked and sacrificed much to uphold similar commitments in the past, then it likely views “this kind of commitment” as worth a great deal to its security. Therefore, as the U.S. begins to deprioritize commitments in regions outside of Asia, it is not necessarily true that allies in Asia will question U.S. commitment in Asia, so long as America is following through on those commitments. (p. 60-62).

Featured Image: BAY OF BENGAL (Oct. 17, 2021) – An F-35C Lightning II, assigned to the “Argonauts” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 147, flies over the Bay of Bengal as part of Maritime Partnership Exercise (MPX) 2021, Oct. 17, 2021. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Haydn N. Smith)

The CIMSEC Sea Control 2021 Holiday Reading List

By the CIMSEC Sea Control Podcast Team

Aloha Shipmates! We at the CIMSEC Sea Control Podcast have put our heads together to come up with a 2021 Holiday Reading List. We’ve chosen books that we read and loved, and books that we’re looking forward to reading next year. Enjoy!


Dmitry Filipoff
CIMSEC Director of Online Content

The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life by David Brooks

Brooks has been writing and speaking for years on how individuals discover meaning in their lives and find fulfillment. Philosophical, yet practical and well-grounded in extensive social sciences research, The Second Mountain offers concrete insights into how one can make meaning of their pursuits and redefine their purpose. Brooks dives into specific and fundamental methods of how meaning can be derived, such as through building community, viewing life as a moral struggle, and making sense of individualism and to what extent it can be helpful or self-defeating. Excellently written and candidly delivered, The Second Mountain will enhance self-awareness around some of the most profound concerns of both individuals and societies. 

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguen

A Vietnamese double agent is evacuated to the United States soon after the fall of Saigon, embedding himself into the expat community while faithfully still executing espionage. But while serving as the aide-de-camp to a plotting South Vietnamese general, the sympathizer is torn by questions of identity that return time and time again in his exploits. Northerner or Southerner? Half-white or half-Vietnamese? Victorious revolutionary or dejected exile? The sympathizer deftly navigates both American and Vietnamese society while securing personal bonds against destruction and pursuing his clandestine mission. But how will his conscience evolve in the face of mounting tragedies and double crosses? In this masterfully written work that earned the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, author Viet Thanh Nguyen tells an engrossing tale of torn identity, post-war malaise, and moral tribulation.

The Battle for Leyte Gulf at 75: A Retrospective, Edited by Thomas J. Cutler

The Battle of Leyte Gulf was the last true fleet combat engagement between great powers, and one of the largest naval battles in history. The Japanese and American navies faced off in this climatic engagement toward the end of WWII, and by the end, the Imperial Japanese Navy ceased to exist as a credible fighting force. With no shortage of what-ifs and alternatives, the battle itself was a series of major clashes, deceptions, and controversial command decisions on both sides. In this book edited by Tom Cutler, renowned naval historians analyze and dissect this fascinating battle in all its complexity and scale. The result is a highly insightful work on a historic fleet combat engagement, and a must-read for navalists.

Jared Samuelson
Sea Control Host

The Fall and Rise of French Sea Power: France’s Quest for an Independent Naval Policy, 1940-1963 by Hugues Canuel

This follows the French Navy from its nadir in the smoke and wreckage of Mers-el-Kébir on 3 July 1940, its growth into a mix of French, British and captured Italian and German vessels over the course of World War II, and its gradual reconstruction, in part via NATO funding. Stick around for the notes and bibliography where you’ll find a wealth of NATO history references, and then listen to Sea Control 268 for an interview with the author and Dr. Brian Chao, who compares the French Navy’s rise to China and the PLAN.

The Huntress by Kate Quinn

I don’t make enough time for fiction, but there is a space reserved for the release of every new Kate Quinn novel. Writing aside, I enjoy learning about a piece of history I hadn’t previously encountered. In the case of The Huntress, you’ll be introduced to the Night Witches, the women pilots who served as flying artillery supporting the Red Army during the Second World War.   

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe

Say Nothing appeared on a slew of “best of” lists when it was released in 2019. It explores the disappearance of Jean McConville, a mother of ten who disappeared in December 1972. It is part mystery, part sprawling history of The Troubles from the highest political levels to individual bullet-riddled buildings in the streets of Belfast. 

Voices from the Shoreline: The Ancient and Ingenious Traditions of Coastal Fishing by Mike Smiley

I requested a review copy expecting to find a highly technical description of shoreline fishing techniques. While the book contains excellent descriptions of every method British fishermen have used to bring in salmon and herring over the centuries, it reads like a travelogue. Each chapter is filled with interviews conducted while the author traversed Britain’s west coast fishing towns. The fisherfolk and their slowly dying lifestyle are as much in focus as any specific net type.

Walker Mills
Sea Control Host and CIMSEC Associate Editor

Alpha: Eddie Gallagher and the War for the Soul of the Navy Seals by David Philipps

This new book by Pulitzer-winning, investigative journalist David Philipps not only details the infamous Eddie Gallagher trial and his murder of an ISIS detainee in Mosul, but also the deployment that led up to it. Philipps reconstructs the deployment from interviews with SEALs and other personnel who were there and paints a clear picture of a leadership crisis and an elite culture gone wrong. I found the book to be absolutely riveting and it should be required reading for junior officers.

The Tastes of War: World War Two and the Battle for Food by Lizzie Collingham

I’ve had this book on my shelf for a while now, but I was finally convinced to read it cover to cover by an essay in Strategy Bridge. I had admittedly been pilfering it for primary sources about Guadalcanal…But the book is fascinating and covers an aspect of conflict that most Americans don’t consider, yet one that could be increasingly important – especially with sea resource depletion and conflicts over fisheries.


Developing the Naval Mind by Benjamin F. Armstrong and John Freymann

As someone who has written about and promoted more naval-focused education for Marines, this is absolutely on my list to read in 2022. I’m eager to read it based on the strength of Armstrong’s Small Boats and Daring Men (which also made the list), and his other writing which we’ve been fortunate to cover on the Sea Control Podcast.

Marie Williams
Sea Control Editor

Nothing is Impossible: America’s Reconciliation with Vietnam by Ted Osius

This account of the veteran-led U.S.-Vietnamese reconciliation in the 1990s, and of the famous John McCain-John Kerry friendship, got me rethinking what (I thought) I knew about ‘big wins’ in diplomacy, and what patriotism, duty, and trust-building mean in practice. Also, as Southeast Asia is increasingly a site of U.S.-Chinese strategic competition, this book is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand the legacy of U.S. military engagement in the region, and the importance of military-to-military relationships going forward.


The New Rules of War: Victory in the Age of Durable Disorder by Sean McFate

According to Adm. James Stavridis (ret.) McFate is “a new Sun Tzu.”

Anna McNeil
Sea Control Host

The Great Pacific War: A History of the American-Japanese Campaign of 1931-33 by Hector C. Bywater

Fascinating to think that whether by correlation or causation, this book predicted many of the events of WWII’s War in the Pacific with great accuracy. Writing a whole campaign plan on the basis of a fiction book…surely it is simply not done?!

2034: A Novel of the Next World War by Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis

I have immense respect for Admiral Stavridis and his ability to interpret the trends of today and project them into the future. If imagination is the key to avoiding strategic surprise, then fiction is the best vehicle by which to deliver the bad news. Also check out our Sea Control 247 where we interviewed the authors!

The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone

Finally! A book about Elizebeth Smith Friedman — a linguist, a cryptologist before it was cool, and she worked for the Coast Guard while we were still under the Department of Treasury. She and her husband, William, worked on some of the most important codes of their time. Nothing reads like the life and times of true heroes. This won NPR’s Best Book of the Year.

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

One of my classic favorites, I’m recommending this based on current relevance, it being where the re-branded Facebook name Meta comes from. I’ve read a lot of books written in the cyberpunk genre, and this one was my first; it is the measure against which I compare all others. Not only does it have the Metaverse, but you’ve got a pizza delivery racket run by the Italian mob, levitating skater punks and self-aware robot dogs. Good times. Enjoy!

William McQuiston
Sea Control Editor

Missile Contagion: Cruise Missile Proliferation and the Threat to International Security by Dennis M. Gormley

In the wake of the most recent North Korean long-range cruise missile test and the rapid spread of smaller loitering munitions I found it helpful to sit down with a copy of Dennis Gormley’s prescient 2008 warning.  Dennis Gormley aptly describes the incentives and mechanisms by which cruise missile technology has rapidly spread among smaller regional powers.

Hawaiki Rising: Hōkūle‘a, Nainoa Thompson, and the Hawaiian Renaissance by Sam Low

Hawaiki Rising is an engrossing history of the men and women behind Hōkūle‘a, the modern recreation of a traditional Polynesian double-hulled voyaging canoe which preserved the fading knowledge of traditional Polynesian navigation techniques and helped kick off the Hawaiian Renaissance. Particularly interesting are the traditional Polynesian navigation techniques which allowed Hōkūle‘a to sail from Hawai‘i to Tahiti without the use of any modern navigational aids.

Joshua Groover
Sea Control Editor

Small Boats and Daring Men: Maritime Raiding, Irregular Warfare, and the Early American Navy by Benjamin “B.J.” Armstrong

In Small Boats and Daring Men, Armstrong argues that traditional historical methods of thinking about naval strategy as a “bifurcated structure” focused on guerre de course (attacks on enemy commerce) and guerre d’escadre (naval war by fleet and warship battles) are incomplete. He proposes guerre de razzia (war by raiding) as the missing component and demonstrates its applicability through an analysis of eight events from the early history of the U.S. Navy including the raids of John Paul Jones, the Barbary and Quasi Wars, the War of 1812, and the US expedition to Sumatra. As a newcomer to naval strategy, I enjoyed the book because Armstrong makes a compelling argument for his case while telling a good story of the events.


War Plan Orange: The U.S. Strategy to Defeat Japan, by Edward S. Miller

19 Stars: A Study in Military Character and Leadership, by Edgar D. Puryear, Jr. 

Jonathon Frerichs
Sea Control Host

On Operations: Operational Art and Military Disciplines by B. A. Friedman

On Operations is a fantastic follow-up to Friedman‘s On Tactics. He concisely, yet thoroughly, explores the historical origins of the “operational level of war” while simultaneously challenging its very existence. He clearly frames out his challenge to the concept and proposes instead a focus on the application of operational art — the staff work that connects tactics to strategy. A fun read for any military practitioner. You can also check out our interview with Friedman and Tim Heck about their edited volume on amphibious operations On Contested Shores in Sea Control 220.

To Boldly Go: Leadership, Strategy, and Conflict in the 21st Century and Beyond edited by Jonathan Klug and Steven Leonard

This book is the perfect mix of fictional intelligence and envisioned futures of military conflict. The two editors miraculously string together over 25 short stories from a variety of authors — all connected through the framework of military-themed topics of leadership, strategy and conflict. Naval themes resonate throughout the book — making it a must-read for any naval enthusiast. Lastly, there are Easter Eggs galore throughout — I challenge any reader to read it straight through without jumping on Google to discover one of the Easter Eggs. 

Ed Salo
Sea Control Editor

The ‘Stan by Kevin Knodell, David Axe, and Blue Delliquanti, and Machete Squad, by Brent Dulk, Kevin Knodell, David Axe, and Per Darwin Berg

While we think of books that help us to understand war and its consequences, we do not always look at comic books or graphic novels. These two graphic novels that came out in 2018, but that I finally read this year, provide insight into our nation’s 20 year war in Afghanistan in a way that is accessible. The ‘Stan provides illustrated portrayals of interviews with everyone from a
Taliban member, to refugees, to combat troops. Machete Squad is a memoir of a combat medic, and it tells the story of those on the ground. I highly recommend both of these graphic novels.

Information Hunters: When Librarians, Soldiers, and Spies Banded Together in World War II Europe by Kathy Peiss

Kathy Peiss examines efforts of U.S. librarians and archivists during the Second World War, first to gather open source intelligence, and then to gather and preserve books, manuscripts, and other sources during the war and post-war periods to build the Library of Congress and other research collections across the nation. Peiss’ book is a joy to read. It is the perfect companion piece for Robert Edsel’s The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History or Joshua Hammer’s The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts, which also dealt with efforts to save important manuscripts during a more recent war. The book has a place on the book shelf of anyone interested in intelligence gathering, library science, and the power of information warfare.

Andrea Howard
Sea Control Host

While this book is military-forward in outlining the creation of wargaming, the evolution of its purpose, and its lasting impact on military doctrine, Caffrey interweaves his wit and non-military applications throughout this comprehensive history. His research also extends into the realm of civilian and commercial wargaming utility.
The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History by Alexander Mikaberidze
In his coverage of the Napoleonic Wars, Mikaberidze looks beyond the normal lenses, which typically focus on famous battles (from Austerlitz to Waterloo) or Napoleon’s persona. This book gracefully also captures the global context in which the French Revolutions and subsequent warfare transpired, and he expertly blends interactions at the domestic and international levels.

New this year, this book avoids the trap of oversimplifying Russian politics down to unique Russian culture or the cult of personality that is President Vladimir Putin. Instead, Frye drives home the role of Russian public opinion on the complex tradeoffs made by Moscow, paralleling other governments like Venezuela, Turkey, and Hungary.


That’s all the books for now. On behalf of CIMSEC, we wish you a safe and happy holiday season!

Featured Image: Image: Africa Studio/

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)