Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Books of the Year

It struck me a few days ago that it would be a good idea for us to come up with our personal picks regarding the best books to emerge over the past 12 months (Mark and Michael may add to this at some point, I don't know).

Now I think about it, it may not have been such a good idea, at least from my perspective. Around half my book collection (including most of my books on military history, contemporary security and strategy) is still sitting in my flat in London and there are a number of titles that I've considered that I can't verify a publication date on. On top of this, of those books that I've read this year and found most inspirational an annoying number seem to have been published in 2003. Go figure.

Anyway, for what it's worth, here is my take on what deserves to be seen as the cream of the crop of 2004:

Jeremy Black - Rethinking Military History - Black has been at the forefront (along with people like Mark Grimsley and John A. Lynn) of an intrepid group of military historians who have been taking a long, hard, self-critical look at the discipline - as well as being an RMA-sceptic and against technocentrism, which just gets him even more kudos in my book. Rethinking Military History is a one stop shop to get the distilled essence of that ongoing debate. Black deals with the state of military history today, Eurocentrism, Technocentrism and examines military historiography by historical period. My feeling is that it should be a foundation text for any introductory military history or strategic/war studies course. All students should get hold of a copy. So should everyone else. Oh, and it's an extremely easy read.

Colin S. Gray - The Sheriff - I love Colin Gray's books (his work has played a lead role in my intellectual development on a number of levels - most alarmingly manifested in my penchant for long, conversational and bitchy essay footnotes) so this was a no-brainer for me. The post-September 11th period has seen the emergence of numerous books with big theories about the nature of the world we live in, or trans-Atlantic relations or the goodness of wickedness of American power. The quality of these books ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous but one thing too many of them have in common is a degree of immediacy which means that in a couple of years, if not months, they will be overtaken by events and amount to little more than historical curios. One of the beauties of Gray's contribution to the debate is that it involves the application of time-tested and unchanging strategic principles to a contemporary problem. On this basis I believe that it will retain a freshness and utility long after much of the other post-9/11 zeitgeist output has been consigned to the bin. It's a real keeper and, with the possible exception of Fareed Zakaria's The Future of Freedom (published in 2003 and therefore ineligible for nomination), it is my favourite of all the "Big Idea" books to emerge in the recent period.

Loch K. Johnson and James J. Wirtz (eds) - Strategic Intelligence: Windows into a Secret World - This is a first class collection of work on various aspects of intelligence as it relates to the U.S. policy process.The books is divided into sections dealing with issues such as collection, analysis and the relationship between the intelligence professional and the policymaker. The editors (both of whom have great track records) provide excellent introductions providing contect to the various chapters and the contributors are of an extremely high calibre, including the likes of Michael Herman, Mark Lowenthal, H. Bradford Westerfield, Richard Betts, Shlomo Gazit and Robert D. Steele. Another book that deserves to be a foundation text for students, but which should also be in the Christmas stocking of policy makers, budding intelligence professionals and journalists alike. Really high quality stuff - and, in common with Colin Gray's The Sheriff, criminally under-promoted.

Robert Lyman - Slim, Master of War - In some respects I found this book disappointing, as it purported to be something of a crossover between military history and strategic studies. On that level I don't think it worked - I'm unconvinced that the author's arguments regarding the role of 14th Army in the development of modern warfare hold up and I reckon he takes some of his arguments a little too far. However, as a campaign history with a focus on the work of Slim himself it's a very solid piece of work and taken on those terms it's one of the better books to emerge over the past 12 months. The author's other case, that Slim was the best British general of the Second World War (and a possible leftfield candidate for best Allied commander overall) is in my view well made and entirely plausible (though I was convinced of the case before reading the book).

Marc Sageman - Understanding Terror Networks - Sageman's book consists of an analysis of what makes al-Qaeda terrorists tick - why they do what they do. Sageman has undertaken extensive empirical research on this subject, using a large sample of AQ members as a case study. In doing so he has provided a valuable service and tackles some of the myths that have sprung up regarding terrorist motivation and recruitment. In many ways the book is mis-titled, as really it helps us understand only one terror network - al Qaeda. If Sageman's methods were applied to other terror groups - Palestinians for example - it seems unlikely that the results would be the same. However, this is a relatively minor quibble, as Sageman has provided a useful analytical template that could be gainfully employed by others in the future to study different terrorist gropuings - especially as Sageman relies largely on readily available open sources. This should be required reading for anybody with a serious interest in the current "Global War On Terrorism".

James Gow - Defending the West - Another provocative Big Idea book. Professor Gow argues that things really have changed since September 11th and from that start line goes on to provide a critique of both those on the American Right who believe that international norms and standards are a sham and that America can go it alone and those on the Left and Right (largely, though not exclusively in Europe) who argue that international laws and norms are perfection attained, set in stone and as applicable today as they were fifty or more years ago. In arguing that an increasingly interventionist, expeditionary stance must be adopted to defend the West (which both exists and needs defending) Gow argues that this must be done via a recognised and consistant framework. In doing so he advocates an approach of "Constructivist Realism". In many ways it's a strangely British approach and one with which I feel a significant amount of sympathy. Required - though quite tough - reading and, again, a book that has been annoyingly underpromoted.


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