Some books over the last six-eight months that I enjoyed reading, in no particular order:
1. James J. Schneider, The Structure of Strategic Revolution: Total War and the Roots of the Soviet Warfare State, 1994.
This book is foundational not only for its discussion of the rise of Soviet strategy, but it's very concise and convincing explanation of how the function of what we understand as "strategy" changed significantly from the end of Napoleon's era to the end of the First World War. Schneider, a professor at the Army's School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS), makes a significant contribution that is relevant to today's debates over the wars of the future.
2. Steven Metz, Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy, 2007.
There is a reason I keep citing this book: out of all of the Iraq war books it is the only really foundational one, because it puts the conflict within a grand strategic and strategic context going back thirty years. Army War College professor Metz's points about the nature in which we handled the strategic problem of the Persian Gulf and its relationship to our larger grand strategic concepts are excellent. Long after the COIN debate becomes a thing for the history books, the larger strategic currents that Metz discusses will continue to be relevant to American strategy.
3. Jack Kem, Campaign Planning: Tools of the Trade, 2006.
Army Command and General Staff Professor Kem cuts through a heady mess of doctrine and theory to describe the rationale and logic of the American system of campaign planning. If you are looking a how strategic objectives are accomplished through the employment of force, this book explains in remarkably clear language the processes involved and how they came to be.
4. Ka Po Ng, Interpreting China's Military Power: Doctrine Makes Readiness, 2004.
In the midst of the COIN vs. anti-COIN battle, it's easy to lose track of the wider spectrum of threats. Aichi Bunkyo University professor Ng looks the evolution of Chinese military doctrine from the Maoist era to the modern day. He casts a refreshing light on the way Soviet, Maoist and more recent MTR/RMA-doctrines have meshed together, eschewing the "Sun Tzu explains everything" theory of Chinese military strategy.
5. James McPherson, Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief, 2008.
In a new analysis, Civil War historian McPherson looks at how Abraham Lincoln made himself the center of the war effort. In the words of Joseph Fouche, Lincoln was a "strategic aggregator" who concentrated every detail of the conflict and broke them down into a concrete concept of victory. McPherson's clear and detailed description of Lincoln's victory over the cognitive challenge of war has great applicability today.
6. Gregory W. Ellison, Operational Art: The Missing Link in the Iran-Iraq War, 1988.
Major Ellison, a then-student at SAMS, wrote an interesting analysis of the Iran-Iraq war using the emerging tenets of American operational theory. As an military analysis of the conflict, it has limitations due to its lack of Iranian or Iraqi sources. That being said I am more or less unaware of any single-volume history of the conflict that contains copious Iranian or Iraq documentation. Most of the work on this conflict (such as Dilip Hiro's early 90s history of the conflict or Wagner and Cordesman's "Lessons of Modern War") were written around the late 80s or early 90s. Ellison's thesis examines the campaign processes for both sides, and may be a useful reference to consult the next time a medium-scale Third World conventional conflict breaks out in the region. It is also clear, thoughtful and persuasive.
My last entry made me wonder about something I've often seen Sven Ortmann bring up in Small Wars Council discussions and blog postings: the lack of attention to modern non-Anglophone foreign policy, geopolitical and military thinkers.
So a question to readers: which thinkers outside of the US-UK-AU group do you like and think deserve more attention from Anglophone audiences? A big plus if they're recent (e.g. post-70s).
In France, for example, I've often enjoyed the writings of Raymond Aron, Ferdinand Foch and Andre Beaufre. But I have no familiarity with any French geopolitical or military writers of the last twenty years.
Thomas P.M. Barnett's Blueprint for Action has gone into Chinese printing. Which leads me to wonder - why aren't American publishers more interested in geopolitical and military treatises from Chinese authors?
You can't go to an airport bookstore without seeing a dozen "OMG, Rise of China!" books. But the only works of Chinese strategic thought most Americans are familiar with are that of Sun Tzu (ancient), Mao (foundational in some ways but written for mainly guerrilla warfare) and Unrestricted Warfare (interesting but only one side of defense debates within China). You aren't, however, going to see any books written by Chinese thinkers after the Deng Xiaopeng era in print from foreign policy and military publishers.
Americans outside of the Chinese military studies commhity are not as familiar with other important and timely Chinese geopolitical and defense texts such as 1999's Zhanluexue (The Study of Strategy) or 2000's Zhanyixue (The Science of Military Campaigns). I have read the latter and it is an interesting exposition on campaigning from the perspective of Chinese strategic and grand strategic requirements. But you won't find either in Barnes and Noble, and you'll be lucky to even get an English copy through interlibrary loan.
The point is that American publishers evince absolutely zero interest in open-source Chinese foreign policy, geopolitical, and military texts. Given China's status as a rising power, it is immensely frustrating that we'd rather read the airport books I mentioned earlier than look at China's emerging foreign policy thinkers and strategists in their own words. The translation is difficult, as is the fact that the strategic and ideological context is different. But I'm sure that there is - if judiciously edited and marketed - a market for Chinese grand strategic, strategic and operational thinking in America.
First off, I should point out that I've borrowed this bad, bad pun from Robert Farley. But even if he hadn't come up with it, I probably would have. In Iron Man 2, Tony Stark declares to an incredulous senator that he has "privatized world peace." The movie as a whole, however fantastic in its nature, points out an basic truth that is often eluded in movies that stereotype military contractors and private security firms as either praetorian guards or trigger-happy guns for hire. When it comes to the spectrum of force, state power alone is not the only game in town and never has been.
Feral Jundi reinforces this point by linking to an article describing the calls by some groups to bring back the premodern concept of "letters of marque and reprisal" to enable private groups go after Somali pirates. Regardless of the fitness of the concept, it illustrates what kind of conditions produce a reliance on private force.
Major states are often uneasy (or unable) to produce security in peripheral areas or advance their strategic objectives directly. This is especially true in areas that require international collective action - an area which is often more aspiration than reality. It is common sense that those who can pay for it will act on their own to deal with the problem. John Robb and others have also written persuasively about shifts in international trends that enable - for better or worse - an expansion of private entities acting in both domestic and international contexts to provide security and military advantage. Moreover, major powers wanting to act in an "indirect" sense often use private groups to act as their surrogates. In this mode, private groups are just one of several possible proxies that can be employed to do our bidding.
The point is that not that the use of privatized force is desirable. For a variety of reasons it is a drastically more limited tool than traditional state force. Anyone familiar with the 1960s and 1970s participation of mercenaries in African conflicts understands that in many cases these actors can also drastically worsen the problem as well. But privatized force can and will be employed by those with the ability to pay for it in the absence of credible alternatives. A variety of actors will operate on the lower rung of the spectrum of force. And in some cases they will be better placed to handle security problems than the United Nations.
We might as well come to terms with it, because it is most emphatically not new and will not be abolished by a supposedly more enlightened international order.
A new article linked by SWJ points out that military strategists are emphasizing foreign internal defense (FID) over direct counterinsurgency (COIN) involvement. This, of course, is not a new trend - even the most enthusiastic of COIN thinkers have always emphasized a preference for this "light footprint" option over direct involvement. In comments, Crispin Burke points out that we may not have a choice where, when and how we fight. This is true - and not just in irregular warfare as well.
Ideally, grand strategy would determine the most advantageous purpose for the use of military force - a tool of limited utility and high risk. However, the production of grand strategy is not an area that the U.S. excels in. Diplomatic historian Walter McDougall points out that even idealized grand strategies such as the Cold War "Containment" concept had massive flaws. Additionally, the grand strategic and strategic trends and conditions may leave intervention as the best of two bad options.
Steven Metz's description of the Persian Gulf security problem in Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy shows how our involvement in the region and our difficulties with producing a coherent grand strategic approach set the stage for our later interventions in 1991 and 2003. Operation Desert Storm is a perfect example of when action through proxies is no longer tenable and one's hand is forced.
This doesn't mean we have no choice about how to employ force - strategy is not a Greek tragedy. But it does mean that our level of choice in this area - like everything else in life - is not as instrumental as we assume. Clausewitz points out that war doesn't always flows smoothly from a political design, although this is the ideal. What he means is that war is an extension of the interaction between politics and policy, with the added element of violence. And politics is far from something we can always perfectly control. Nor can we predict or control the politics and designs of others or necessarily always shape strategic and grand strategic trends to our will.
There's a good deal of interesting stuff as well in the rest of the quarterly issue as well, from close analyses of the drone offensive to discussions about space warfare and European military operations.
Wired's Kevin Kelly has an interesting post on the how early adopters of innovative technologies come to sour on their favorite toys. Key point:
"Many of the qualities that early adopters love -- the way it can be modified, tweaked, owned, and directed into all manner of directions -- and its unlimited potential -- are also the same reasons why many others shy from trying to use it. In the same way, the very hardening and convergence that draw the masses to a technology also turn off those who like its earlier kind of generativity, when things were lose."
To Kelly's credit, he doesn't simply make the point that technology becomes boring when it "sells out:"
"A device become more specialized and 'complete' as it evolves. As it does, it becomes more specific in what it does, more closed in its identity, more clear in what it is. It becomes more powerful in evolving its identity. As it matures it becomes more completed, more approachable, more understandable, more able to do things for more people."
A lot of tech writers have an tendency to glorify and romanticize the individual tinkerer and shun the mass product. But Kelly points out that while the creativity of the tinkerer is important, it also a product of a given technology's incompleteness. The same "closed" nature of the mass product that turns off the tinkerer can be a boon for innovation of a different kind. Usenet postings in the 1980s were certainly creative, for example, but now we can blog!
Ultimately, the cycle between the incomplete innovation at the edge of chaos that tinkerers can play with and the mass product that can (sometimes) enable new creativity produces a consistent margin of innovation inhabited by those who want to play with immature technologies.