View Full Version : What are you currently reading in 2018

12-26-2017, 02:21 PM
A new thread for 2018, prepared early on a quiet day.

The 2017 thread has a low number of 60 posts, but had 56.5k views.

Backwards Observer
12-31-2017, 11:55 AM
Overthrow by Stephen Kinzer

The Dawn Watch by Maya Jasanoff


01-01-2018, 03:23 PM
The actual book title is 'True to Their Salt: Indigenous Personnel in Western Armed Forces by Rob Johnson', which I volunteered to review for the publishers - hence a thread for visibility purposes.

The book was published in 2017, by Hurst & Company of London. it is in hardback only, price UK£25 and 512 pgs. See:http://www.hurstpublishers.com/book/true-to-their-salt/

(http://www.hurstpublishers.com/book/true-to-their-salt/)It is available via Amazon.

This is a weighty book, with 418 pages of text, an extensive bibliography and an index - even if the author says it is a short and preliminary study!
The author, Rob Johnson, is the Director of The Changing Character of War Programme at the University of Oxford; he was a British Army infantry officer, a military historian and has been an adviser on ‘Small Wars’ to the British Army, the US Army and the US Marine Corps.
The purpose of the book is to establish a clear, enriched understanding of how non-Western personnel contributed to the successes and failures in historical and contemporary conflicts. Whether in military intervention, counter-insurgency and the development of local security forces (summarised from pg. XI & XIII).
The historical survey, mainly from the British, French and American experience, touches upon all the factors that today cause so much concern, for example loyalty and trust that came to the fore in Afghanistan with ‘green on blue’ attacks. There is a reminder that one of the biggest imperial era crises was the ‘Indian Mutiny’, when regular locally recruited army formations mutinied and led to a bitter repressive campaign. The explanation of the slave West Indian Regiment is a revelation; whose successors proudly feature in a local commemoration service every year in Birmingham, UK.
The importance pre-1914 of irregular or frontier units is amply explained, they were often recruited from defeated enemies, for example the Ghurkhas. In both world wars mobilization of imperial manpower resources became a key factor. In the Middle East in WW1 13 of the 17 British and Imperial divisions deployed in Mesopotamia and Palestine were Indian. Once hostilities were over 85,000 Indian soldiers were deployed to end the 1920 revolt in Iraq.
Thomas Edward Lawrence, known as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, is amply covered (pgs. 251-269); his two writings ‘are also detailed and often brutally honest guides to the challenges an adviser could face’. Captain Barry Petersen, an Australian adviser to the Montagnards in Vietnam is given attention (pgs. 326-329). He concluded “advisers were best” and this would have strained the regular armies – all too evident more recently. (Added his book was ''Tiger Men: An Australian Soldier's Secret War in Vietnam', pub. 1988 and in 2011 another book 'The Tiger Man of Vietnam'. Her arrived secretly in 1963, unknown when he left).
The long, gruelling East African campaign 1914-1918 against the German Schutztruppe is covered briefly; each company had 5 German officers and 150 Askaris (local term for soldiers). These were the troops von Lettow-Vorbeck led in a brilliant guerrilla campaign, one fought with almost no external direction and at a huge local cost – to the native porters primarily.
There are similar chapters about WW2, the post-colonial struggles and the building of Afghan and Iraqi forces 2003-2014. In Afghanistan we have seen the repeated creation of a national army and experiments with irregulars, local police and mercenaries such as the Kandahar Strike Force.
Today we consider partnering and invariably overlook what happens when there is an exit – odd considering the many examples as the empires ended. Let alone the debacle in Mosul when ISIS launched their attack. The Harkis episode in Algeria is well-known and sits alongside the less well-known end of British rule in Aden in 1967.
Is this a “how to do it operationally” guide? No, and the concluding chapter explains why. Partnering, advising and recruitment – let alone fighting – will never be in an ideal environment.
Will these options for those who intervene and seek to use cheaper and abundant manpower meet both our objectives and those of the locals?

Bill Moore
01-03-2018, 07:58 AM
A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order, by Richard Haass

A good book on World Orders and why the current order is in disarray, with recommendations for foreign policy to help manage the transition from the current world order to world order 2.0.

The World America Made, by Robert Kagan

Still working my through this book, but it is a well written argument on how America reluctantly became a world power, and historically as one of the most powerful countries in the world shapes the world order.

He describes the American people as being rife with potent national myths that both inspire and mislead. For example, he points out we have been one of the most powerful and expansive peoples in history, yet we think of ourselves as aloof, passive, generally inclined to minding our own business.

I'll provide further thoughts on both books in the Strategy in the 21st Century over the next couple of weeks.

01-07-2018, 07:01 PM
I'm currently listening to an audiobook (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7b2NIuXmJDM) of the Xenophons Anabasis (http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Xen.%20Anab.). What a gift it is to be able to follow the steps of men living roughly 2500 years ago! And what a pleasure to listen to such finely crafted language.*

[13] Now what it really means to have such a dream one may learn from the events which followed the dream—and they were these: Firstly, on the moment of his awakening the thought occurred to him: “Why do I lie here? The night is wearing on, and at daybreak it is likely that the enemy will be upon us. And if we fall into the King's hands, what is there to prevent our living to behold all the most grievous sights and to experience all the most dreadful sufferings, and then being put to death with insult?


[36] Be sure, therefore, that you, who have now come together in such numbers, have the grandest of opportunities. For all our soldiers here are looking to you; if they see that you are faint-hearted, all of them will be cowards; but if you not only show that you are making preparations yourselves against the enemy, but call upon the rest to do likewise, be well assured that they will follow you and will try to imitate you.

[37] But perhaps it is really proper that you should somewhat excel them. For you are generals, you are lieutenant-generals and captains; while peace lasted, you had the advantage of them alike in pay and in standing; now, therefore, when a state of war exists, it is right to expect that you should be superior to the common soldiers, and that you should plan for them and toil for them whenever there be need.


[41] If, however, we can turn the current of their minds, so that they shall be thinking, not merely of what they are to suffer, but likewise of what they are going to do, they will be far more cheerful.

*Of course the speeches were sometimes written how best they would have sounded on those occasions, but that changes for me little.

01-08-2018, 05:59 PM
Also, credit to the translator.

01-08-2018, 06:24 PM
Also, credit to the translator.

Indeed. Some terms may be old-fashioned or not so precise but this fits my personal bias for, well old texts...

And still today much can be read between the lines.

Backwards Observer
02-16-2018, 11:43 PM
A History of the Future by Peter J Bowler

The Water Will Come by Jeff Goodell


02-23-2018, 05:32 PM
My review of Yuri Slezkine's great book (http://www.brownpundits.com/2018/02/09/review-the-house-of-government/) about the Russian revolution is up on Brownpundits.



Yuri Slezkine is a Russian-American historian (he is also technically Portuguese-American, since he first emigrated from Russia to Portugal and then came to the US with a Portuguese passport) who has written a number of interesting books, and “The House of Government; a Saga of the Russian Revolution” is his latest and greatest offering. At over 1000 pages, it is not a lightweight book, literally or metaphorically. What he does is follow the lives of a large number of Bolshevik revolutionaries, from their origins as young rebels (they were almost all very young; very few were over 40 when they took over the largest country in the world) to the heady days of the Bolshevik revolution, to the civil war that followed, the first compromise (the NEP), the second and more serious attempt at “true communism” (the five year plan), the terrible violence and suffering of collectivization, the victory of communism under Stalin, the insane purge and auto-annihilation that followed that victory, the second world war, the desiccation and death of revolutionary ideology, and, perhaps most strikingly, the coming of age of the next generation without any sincere transfer of the purported official ideology, leading to the final, inevitable collapse of the entire experiment...

...The Bolshevik revolution (aka “The October Revolution”) was, strictly speaking, the second Russian revolution; the first was the popular upheaval that overthrew the Czar in February 1917 and that led to a few months of genuine freedom (and chaos). The second was the Bolshevik coup that overthrew the provisional government and established the dictatorship of the (relatively small, certainly not a majority in terms of popular support) Bolshevik party. The party may not have had vast popular support (the Socialist Revolutionaries, SRs, certainly had greater popular support, as indicated by their showing in the only elections ever held in Russia that year) but they had the clearest conception of what they wanted, and the most willingness to use violence to achieve it. This group established control, won the civil war, and created the Soviet Union. Which brings us to the first thing this book is not; it is not a history of the Soviet Union. The reader is expected to know that history in some detail already. There is a lot of detail about what happened, but not a lot of summary history. It will help if you read some general books about the revolution before or alongside this great work.

...The other (and more significant) organizing principle of the book is religious. Slezkine describes the Bolshevik party as

“..millenarian sectarians preparing for the apocalypse. .consecutive episodes in the Bolshevik family saga are related to stages in the history of a failed prophecy, from an apparent fulfillment to the great disappointment to a series of postponements to the desperate offer of a last sacrifice. Compared to other sects with similar commitments, the Bolsheviks were remarkable for both their success and their failure. They managed to take over Rome long before their faith could become an inherited habit, but they never figured out how to transform their certainty into a habit that their children or subordinates could inherit.”

This, in brief, is the whole argument of the book, the rest is details

...Why did the Soviet religion fail to survive where other millenial sects (even those that made very specific promises of apocalypse that obviously failed to arrive) continue to thrive for 100s and even thousands of years? Slezkine’s answer is not about economic or state failure, but about something more fundamental: unlike other millenarian sects, Bolshevism failed to bring the family under its control. ‘One of the central features of Bolshevism as a life-structuring web of institutions was that Soviets were made in school and at work, not at home”.

...; Christianity attached itself to the law of Moses and kept devising new
ways of monitoring the family. Muhammad codified and reformed Arabian
common law. Marx- Engels- Lenin- Stalin had nothing to say about everyday human morality and left their disciples no guidance on how to be good Communists at home.

Communism failed because it did not destroy or successfully coopt the family. Whether you agree with Slezkine or not, you should read this book. It is much much more than its primary thesis. The devil is in the details, and the details are all here. Lives, books, movies, art, everything.
Well, everything but the economics. Ironically for a book about an economist philosophy, Slezkine has little or nothing to say about economics. The striking thing is, it does not seem to matter.

Backwards Observer
02-26-2018, 07:11 AM
The U.S. vs China by Jude Woodward

The Doomsday Machine by Daniel Ellsberg


02-28-2018, 06:08 AM
My review of Stephen Kotkin's "Stalin, Waiting for Hitler" is up on brownpundits. (http://www.brownpundits.com/2018/02/28/review-stalin-waiting-for-hitler/)


Stephen Kotkin is a historian who has written several outstanding books on Russian history and is now in the process of distilling his lifetime work into a monumental three part biography of Stalin. Volume 1 dealt with Stalin’s early life and his progress from relatively peripheral disciple of Lenin in 1917 to Lenin’s handpicked general secretary of communist party in 1922, to undisputed (though not yet completely all-powerful) boss and ruler of the Soviet Union by 1928. By the end of that volume, Stalin was firmly ensconced in this position, having successfully seen off the challenge from Trotsky, who lost out partly because almost nobody around him liked him, but mostly because he was neither as hardworking, nor as competent, iron-willed or crafty as Stalin. It is true that Trotsky imagined himself as the real “Marxist intellectual” in this fight, but the autodidact Stalin was no intellectual slouch, and Trotsky’s low opinion of him in this arena is also a (small) part of why he lost this fight; he underestimated his opponent. Of course, both of them believed fully in the Marxist-Leninist picture of history and society, complete with the necessity of class war, the central role of the proletariat and the idiocy of the peasants, so it is easy to dismiss the intellectual output of both parties as equally delusional, but that is not how it looked in the 1920s, so we should leave such retrospective wisdom out of the discussion. In any case, by 1928, Stalin had kicked Trotsky out of the Soviet Union, and had defanged or sidelined all his other rivals within the Bolshevik leadership.

The next phase was building socialism; As Kotkin makes abundantly clear, Stalin was power hungry and ultimately became one of history’s greatest (or vilest) despots, but he was not just power hungry. He was also an idealist who believed in the revolution and its ideals and many (if not all) of his most vicious campaigns make no sense without this crucial aspect of his personality. If all he had wanted was personal power, there was no need to collectivize the peasantry and force the industrialization of Russia at such tremendous human cost. Even the purges of 1937-39 were about more than personal power, though by the that time the personal and political were inseparable, as Stalin (and many other dedicated communists in the Soviet Union) clearly felt that his person was essential to defending and completing the work of the great Bolshevik revolution. Any way, whether all good communists felt the need for a purge or not (and surprisingly, several, including many who fell victim to it, did express approval of the idea of a purge), they all agreed that private agriculture had to go. The only question was, how quickly could this be done? and what level of coercion was justified? Many of them shrank from the massive human cost, but almost none believed that socialism could be built without it.

By 1934, the worse was over and the party celebrated at its congress of victors. But the celebration did not last. Hardly had the Soviet Union started to emerge from the terror of collectivization when it was pushed into the terror of the great purges of 1937-38. Kotkin argues that the ability to carry out such purges and the tendency to conduct them was built into the Leninist system (a fact that is also borne out by the experience of other Leninist revolutions), but the scale and cruelty of this particular purge did owe much to the personality and personal demons of Stalin. Starting with the Kirov assassination, Stalin turned on the party, the military and the state apparatus itself, using the NKVD to unleash a widening reign of terror that eventually led to 1.6 million arrests (out of a total adult population of 100 million) and over 800,000 executions. The terror (unlike, for example, Mao’s decentralized, bottom-up purge of the Chinese communist party in the cultural revolution) was highly bureacratized and tightly controlled from above by Stalin and his NKVD chief Yezhov. People were not killed by crazed mobs or local “people’s courts”, they were arrested and tortured by a vast and well organized system of oppression and terror. Quotas were set from above, arrests were duly recorded, as were confessions. Show trials were conducted in some cases, but most people were “sentenced” by special tribunals that decided the fate of hundreds of thousands, but even during this industrial scale slaughter, lists were made, and they were duly presented to higher ups and signed by them. At least 383 execution lists signed personally by Stalin have survived, containing the names of more than 43,000 “enemies of the people” and frequently marked with comments and underlined in various colors.

The book is incredibly detailed (and well sourced and documented) but even this book is enough to fully grasp all aspects of the terror. The interested reader will have to read several other books to get a truly well rounded picture of this horror. Suffice it to say that the scale of the purge defies explanation; Stalin executed almost his entire military high command, half of his central committee, tens of thousands of loyal party functionaries and scores of thousands of lower level officials, engineers and managers. He decimated his own army and intelligence service, decapitated the foreign service and undermined intelligence gathering operations all over the world; the sheer scale and indiscriminate nature of it is examined from operational, ideological or even personal psychological angles, but by all of these criteria, it still fails to make sense.

Through all this, Kotkin also provides us with a very balanced and nuanced analysis of world affairs and the strategic challenges faced (and frequently, met) by Stalin and the nascent Soviet state. In the first part of the book the main threat is from an increasingly aggressive and expansionist Japan, and Stalin worked hard to try and stiffen Chinese resistance (including pressurizing the Chinese communists to cooperate with the Nationalist regime in the struggle against Japan). In the second half of the book, the threat is from Germany and the last part reads almost like a thriller, as Germany, the Soviet Union and the Western powers all play games with each other as the international order falls apart; Hitler moves relentlessly towards his goal of reversing Versailles (achieved without war and more easily than he might have imagined possible) and then towards European domination. All major powers miscalculate, misstep, miscegnate and betray smaller states at various points in the story, with Hitler and Stalin appearing first as early winners (Hitler in his lightning wars, Stalin in his non-aggression pact and subsequent re-expansion of the Soviet Union to the widest Czarist frontiers and beyond, in Poland, the Baltics, Finland and Bessarabia), and then as inevitable opponents headed for the greatest military clash in human history.
The last few chapters are a relentless drumbeat of Nazi preparations for an invasion of the Soviet Union, all delivered to Stalin but so mixed up with disinformation and confusing signals that Kotkin makes Stalin’s unwillingness to believe this flood of evidence a little more understandable than it is in more propagandistic or superficial descriptions of this crucial period. Stalin’s stubborn miscalculation will of course greatly magnify the scale of early Soviet defeats and will cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of ill prepared and ill-positioned Soviet troops, but Kotkin also makes clear that the logic of total war and zero-sum international competition that had gripped Europe (overwhelmingly, but not entirely thanks to Hitler) made the overall clash inevitable, and all these setbacks and miscalculations will eventually become mere details in a much bigger drama. In the end, it was Hitler who miscalculated most fatally, not Stalin, but that is subject of the next volume, and we must wait for it.

Backwards Observer
03-14-2018, 01:16 AM
Skin In The Game by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Waiting For The Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee


Backwards Observer
03-31-2018, 09:49 PM
American Nuremberg by Rebecca Gordon

Race and America's Long War by Nikhil Pal Singh


Backwards Observer
04-15-2018, 02:59 AM
The Kingdom of the Wicked by Anthony Burgess

Structured Analytic Techniques For Intelligence Analysis by Richards J Heuer Jr, Randolph H Pherson (2d attempt)


Bill Moore
04-15-2018, 08:54 PM
https://www.amazon.com/Churchills-Ministry-Ungentlemanly-Warfare-Mavericks/dp/1250119030/ref=sr_1_1_sspa?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1523823482&sr=1-1-spons&keywords=churchill%27s+ministry+of+ungentlemanly+w arfare&psc=1

Churchill's Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare by Giles Milton

A superb book on the history of SOE's sabotage campaign against the Nazis during WWII.

"She had been hired to work for a top-secret Whitehall department known as Section D. The "D" stood for destruction and Grand and his staff had been tasked with conceiving a wholly new form of warfare. In the event of conflict with Hitler's Nazis, a small band of specially trained agents was to be dropped behind enemy lines in order to engage in murder, sabotage and subversion."

The goal was to destroy the infrastructure that supported Hitler's war machine, and they did a superb job of it. A great narrative that integrates the value of detailed intelligence on targets that only human intelligence can provide; the story of technology development that enabled the sabotage at a strategic level; and the unparalleled value of highly fit, intelligent, and dedicated operators committed to the defeat of Hitler who knowingly volunteered for missions that were likely suicide missions.

Those in U.S. Special Forces, at least the older breed, will recognize that the SOE is clearly the father of many our tactics, techniques, and procedures when it comes to guerrilla warfare, subversion, and sabotage. They invented the Limpet mine (also used with great effect against factories, trains, etc.) and the shape charge, among others weapons still in use today.

Operations covered in detail include sabotaging Hitler's effort to obtain heavy water from Norway to develop the atomic bomb, the destruction of the Peugeot factory (and many other factories), destroying the rail and communications systems in France delaying the movement of a potentially decisive SS armor division to the beaches of Normandy for days, destroying the world's largest dry dock at St. Nazaire (which also neutralized Germany's largest battleship), and many more. The story of how the various weapons were developed is fascinating also, and how many of the weapons designed by Section D were also employed by British and U.S. conventional forces, and one firing device was used to solve the problem for detonating the second atom bomb dropped on Japan, while another weapons was employed by the U.S. navy to destroy several Japanese submarines.

In comparison to the British Bomber Command, the SOE effort proved to be much more efficacious. Gubbin was the key leader of the effort, and his saboteurs "crippled niney Nazi-run factories - factories essential to Hitler's war machine - and put them completely out of action 'with a total load of explosives that was less than that carried by one light bomber'."

04-16-2018, 08:12 AM

I have not read this book, but know Giles Milton is an excellent writer and I vividly recall Nathaniel's Nutmeg.

Puzzled the book claims the 1942 raid on St. Nazaire, as this was a commando raid using an old destroyer packed with explosives to demolish the dry dock gate. Wiki says:
The SOE were approached to see if its agents could destroy the dock gates. They decided that the mission was beyond their capabilities because the weight of explosives required would have needed too many agents to carry them.

SOE rightly can be praised for the innovations it conjured up, but it was not all glorious and their Dutch operation was activity "turned" by the Germans. See:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Englandspiel


Bill Moore
04-17-2018, 07:26 AM

High risk missions are just that, they're high risk, meaning there is a good possibility things will go wrong. UK SOF seems to adapt that reality more than risk adverse U.S. military leaders. As the SAS motto states, "who dares wins," but it doesn't mean you always win.

Regarding the St. Nazaire attack was conceived and planned by the SOE. They trained the commandos involved in the mission, designed the bomb and firing devise for the ship, and developed the deception plan to get the ship into the slot. Amazingly there was only one night of the year they could do this based on tides, full moon, etc. Unfortunately the deception plan backfired, the odd flying pattern of the UK bombers intended to make the Germans look left instead of right, actually heightened their alertness. This resulted the British destroy being detected and engaged before it reached it target. Several commandos were killed in the final assault to get the ship next to the target 4 minutes later than planned. They crashed into caisson, and then flooded the stern of ship so the Germans couldn't tow her away.

The saboteurs then attacked the pump house, which was essential for filling and emptying the dock of water. Without the pumps the dock was useless. That part of the mission was a success, but most of the commandos were now killed, wounded, or soon to be captured. There was great concern that the firing mechanism that was set to trigger the large bomb in the ship failed, but a couple hours after it was scheduled to blow it did so with enough force to create a tidal wave that generated additional damage. The dock remained inoperable for over a decade. Obviously the mission came at great cost to the commandos, but they achieved a strategic impact.

Of course, some will claim using a conventional ship packed with explosives to destroy a target isn't a true special operation, but I beg to differ. This mission depended upon unorthodox tactics, specially trained and equipped men willing to accept the risk, precise target intelligence, and so forth.

04-23-2018, 08:23 PM
This is a 2012 book (340 pgs) borrowed from a specialist library two months ago and finally finished. 'Terrorism and Counter-Intelligence' by Brian W. Mobley, ex-CIA analyst and RAND political scientist, is certainly interesting and possibly a rare published work on the subject. The four groups looked at in detail are: the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), Fatah and Black September, Al-Qaida (AQ) and the Egyptian Islamic Group (EIG).

Alas it is marred by some serious factual mistakes and the lack of editing, so some sentences reappear a few pages apart. Northern Ireland and PIRA is something I know a little; the author refers to Captain Robert Nairac kidnapped by PIRA and his body being recovered, when it has not been (pg.56).
Link to Amazon USA, with eight reviews:https://www.amazon.com/Terrorism-Counterintelligence-Terrorist-Detection-Irregular/product-reviews/0231158769/ref=cm_cr_dp_d_show_all_btm?ie=UTF8&reviewerType=all_reviews

It would have been valuable to look at groups who were successful for a long time; ETA in Spain and November 17 in Greece come to mind.

Oddly his PhD, on which the book is based, is freely available (403 pgs):https://repository.library.georgetown.edu/bitstream/handle/10822/553096/mobleyBlake.pdf?sequence=1

Backwards Observer
09-03-2018, 12:58 AM
Hold Everything Dear by John Berger

21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari

Tasmanian Devil
10-04-2018, 12:38 PM
Salafi-Jihadism: The History Of An Idea by Shiraz Maher. Penguin Books 2017.

Maher’s book is a good introduction into the historical development of "Salafi-Jihadism", and offers a valuable overview of the current ideas focused around this subject.

The book is a careful and scholarly discussion of Salafi-Jihadism, well written and informative. Addressing the topic from a historical, theological, and legal viewpoint it is not meant for a casual read, although written with the general reader in mind, and, because of this, some might find it heavy going. For those of us, who are not specialist Arabic linguists, considerable application is required in understanding the many Arabic words which, though similarly spelt, have different meanings.

All in all I found it an extremely enlightening book, and a very worthwhile read (I am on my third reading and am still finding something new). With his excellent understanding of Salafi-Jihadism Maher’s indepth discussion, explanation, and erudite analysis, provide an admirable insight into a complex belief. Unlike many others, Maher tells us what Jihadists actually think. I particularly liked his arguments against the perceptions, held by many in the West, politicians, military, and the general public alike, that Salafi-Jihadists are irrational. He is emphatic that this is not so, and that Salafi actions are quite clearly based on a specific interpretation of the Qur’an.