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The Non-Traditional On Violence Reading List

A few weeks ago, at the request of a friend, I made a military reading list. When I finished, it was really long and frankly unusual. (This is On Violence after all.)

So I decided to break my list into three parts. Last Wednesday, I posted a traditional reading list, with books you could expect to find on the Chief of Staff of the Army’s list. Coming soon, as a guest post on another blog (hopefully later this week), I will have a list on the best books for “Officers as Managers”.

The final list is what I am calling my “non-traditional” list, including science fiction, philosophy and non-fiction works that are critical of the military; basically, books that wouldn't make sense on a traditional reading military reading list. Without further ado, the list:

1. World War Z by Max Brooks. This history of mankind’s war with the undead isn’t about zombies; it’s about international relations. Oh, and adapting (successfully) to fighting a new war. (Like Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, but with zombies.)

2. Top Secret America by Dana Priest and William Arkin. By joining the Army (or any branch) as an officer, you likely join Top Secret America. Along with 750,000 other people, you have access to information that a majority of Congress and their staffs can’t get, plus the constant threat of going to prison if you leak anything to a reporter (no matter how illegal or unconstitutional). This book tells as much of the story as you can find anywhere in the world. (Even Top Secret America doesn’t know much about itself.) Watch the Frontline documentary too.

3. One Nation Under Contract by Allison Stanger. I wrote an entire recommendation for this book for the New York Times “At War” blog, so check it out. Stanger describes how, over the last twenty years, the U.S. government outsourced possibly a majority of its work to the private sector, with the Pentagon doing the most. 

4. I have been engrossed in the last year by a trio of books--The End of War by John Horgan, Winning the War on War by Joshua S. Goldstein and Angels of Our Better Nature by Stephen Pinker--arguing that the world is not more violent, wars aren’t more frequent and we can end war as we know it. Over the summer, I hope to publish more extensive thoughts on those books.

5. The Ugly American by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick. Another book with sly counter-insurgency recommendations, The Ugly American is ostensibly a condemnation of the State Department in the 1960s. Since our military does as much diplomacy as it does warfare, this book is a must read. (We did two posts on this book two years ago and then used it as the basis for a post on Greg Mortenson.)

6. A People Numerous and Armed by John Shy. I have referenced this series of essays in countless On V posts since we launched (here, here, here, and here for starters). A classic in military history, John Shy analyzes how politics intersected with war in a very irregular conflict. He also created a more expansive view of military history that touched on the cultural and social ramifications as opposed to simply describing how generals moved troops on the battlefield.

three comments

The Massacre at El Mozote: a Parable of the Cold War by Mark Danner is one of my favorite books about anything. It’s informative, well-written, literary, and incredibly fair to all involved. After having read it a couple of years ago I realized that my reflexive sneer at anything associated with the U.S. State Department developed over the course of the year I spent living in Guatemala in the early ‘90s.


Between The Ugly American _and a book on El Salvador, I’m reminded of an old (in tech time-frames) computer game called _Hidden Agenda _(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hidden_Agenda(video_game)). It’s a simple little game set in a fictional Central American country, but it does a great job of portraying the conflicting internal social and security demands of governing a post-conflict nation torn by differing economic philosophies, inequality of wealth, poor services, and factions within the security forces (not to mention foreign meddling). It’s set in the Cold War and has a clear political bias, but the lessons can easily be extrapolated to today.

It’s a text-driven game, though, so if you’re into first person shooters it might not do much for you.


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