Great books from the past year as selected by the FP staff.
- By FP Staff
With 2013 fast receding into the rearview mirror, Foreign Policy looks back at the best books that crossed the desks of our staff and contributors this year. It is an eclectic reading list, one that spans foreign policy, intelligence, and military history. As we turn the leaf on a new year, put these on your shopping list and give yourself something to chew on for 2014.
Emile Simpson, FP Columnist
Carter Malkasian, War Comes to Garmser: Thirty Years of Conflict on the Afghan Frontier
Carter Malkasian served for two years as the Pashto-speaking U.S. State Department political officer in the Garmser District of southern Afghanistan. He takes his inspiration from Jeffery Race, a U.S. political officer in Vietnam, who in 1972 wrote War Comes to Long An. Malkasian’s account is not just one more book about Afghanistan, but a moving human story that stands alone as a classic of its genre as much as it explains in microcosm the political and cultural story of the conflict since 1978.
What is striking about the book is Malkasian’s role as its narrator. On the one hand, he places the reader in and amongst the lively cast of Afghans whom he gets to know so well. We see the conflict through them: their rational and sometimes cynical calculations, their cultural and emotional obligations, the time a tribal leader is kidnapped and gets away after a fight in a car that is sinking into a canal. We understand in their words how the community is divided, united, and reformed by the pressures of war. On the other hand, Malkasian is dispassionate and almost invisible in describing his own role. He lets the reader judge the broader purpose and value of the mission. If there is a polemical subtext, it is the need for strategy to be historically attuned, and place its goals in dialogue with the hopes and fears of the actual people on the ground whom it seeks to persuade.
Kalev Leetaru, FP Columnist
Anthoy Olcott, Open Source Intelligence in a Networked World
In a year dominated by headlines shining a spotlight on the dark world of secret intelligence — one in which personal privacy seems on the verge of extinction — I found solace in my colleague Anthony Olcott’s book tracing the history and application of open sources (publicly accessible information like the news media or public social media) in intelligence. Former Deputy Director of Central Intelligence William Studeman noted in 1992 that 80 percent of useful intelligence on the collapse of the Soviet Union came from such open sources, while Former Defense Intelligence Agency Director Samuel Wilson noted in 1998 that 90 percent of intelligence in general came from open sources. The James Bond world of globe-trotting secret agents, tapped phone lines, and elite hackers might capture imaginations and grab headlines, but Open Source Intelligence in a Networked World reveals how reading those headlines a little more carefully can give us a richly detailed and actionable picture of global society without invading privacy. A former open source officer himself, Olcott’s extensive involvement and background in the field leaps off the page in the rich treasure trove of examples, statistics, stories, and mindsets he chronicles and the masterful way he blends these with the broader history of the open source enterprise.
Olcott manages to transform what is often viewed as the mundane stepchild of intelligence into an exciting and gripping global thriller, where, to paraphrase Samuel Wilson, Sherlock Holmes outwits James Bond by spending a little more time thinking instead of doing. He takes the reader on a thoroughly enlightening journey that at the end leaves one not only imparted with tremendous wisdom, but all the happier and entertained for taking the ride. While he himself does not suggest this, Olcott’s book in many ways presents a compelling argument that with more sophisticated and intelligent analysis of open sources, we could achieve a great many more of our intelligence needs. All it would take is for those spies in the dark to spend a little more time reading the news and a little less time making it.
Michael Weiss, FP Columnist
Andrea Pitzer, The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov
Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956 is surely the best accounting of postwar Soviet history I’ve read this year, but my all my rubles still go to Andrea Pitzer’s extraordinary The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov, which is in fact largely about the same subject. Nabokov’s own story and how it was interwoven with his enigmatic fiction has been investigated before, but never with such keen attention to 20th century atrocities as shaping influences. Pitzer, a foreign policy hand by training, goes novel by novel to show how concentration camps, anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, the Gulag, and the bomb were invisible canvases for most of Nabokov’s art — admittedly no light task given that her subject thought the pedantic Poirot approach to literature and literary biography absurd. Yet Pitzer pulls it off with such aplomb that your first instinct after reading her is to re-read all of Nabokov. She further complicates an already complicated book by arguing that Humbert Humbert is a reconstitution of the Wandering Jew, wandering around casually anti-Semitic 1950s America. The rosetta stone of The Secret History, however, is Pitzer’s chapter on Pale Fire, Nabokov’s other masterpiece. (I examined this section, itself a standalone book, in The Daily Beast earlier in the year.) That novel’s narrator, Charles Kinbote, has been puzzled over for decades as the self-declared exiled king of a fantasy land called Zembla, one torn apart by a Bolshevik-style revolution. But might he in fact be a lunatic escapee from an arctic Soviet labor camp? Pitzer’s case is persuasive.
Gordon Adams, FP Columnist
J.B. Priestly, The Edwardians
The most interesting book I have read this year is J.B. Priestly’s The Edwardians. I read it because I am rehearsing a play he wrote set in the Edwardian era. As I read it, the similarities between the Edwardian era and our own emerged. We are living in an "old" order, one that is dying and in which the big power — the United States — wrote the rules and enforced them. Just as Britain’s upper class did before World War I, the United States sees its role as the "stabilizer" for the world as the natural order of things.
But the power structure is shifting in ways we cannot fully predict. New powers are rising, rejecting the role we assume we play. Some are behaving unpredictably — China, for instance. These powers are altering the "natural" order, and we are powerless to prevent that alteration.
The other big similarity illustrated by Priestly’s book is the rising importance of "class." The gap between rich and poor has grown over the past three decades — not only in the United States, but also around the world — and the resentment and conflict that arise from that growing gap will be a force for instability at home and abroad. We have no clear national or international mechanisms for doing anything about it. In fact, rather like the upper class Edwardians, we assume poverty is also part of the "natural order" and behave in ways that exacerbate inequality. As my character says in Priestly’s play: "we are responsible for each other … and if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire, and blood, and anguish."
Mike Green, Contributor, Shadow Government
Max Hastings, Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War
Max Hastings’ Catastrophe 1914 is a gripping account of the first six months of World War I. An accomplished military historian and war correspondent, Hastings takes the reader from the courts of St. James, Berlin, and Vienna to the mud and death of Flanders, Galicia, and the Polish plains as if he were there with flack jacket donned and notebook in hand. He chronicles the loss of innocence and newfound arrogance as cavalry regiments discover machine guns and infantrymen turn to entrenching tools in preparation for the long, bloody stalemate the reader knows will destroy Europe for the next four years. Catastrophe 1914 is a much more useful book than Christopher Clarke’s more often cited description of the same period, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. Where Clarke projects moral (or immoral) equivalence on all the powers of Europe, Hastings is unapologetic in blaming the war on German designs rather than German fears. Britain, he argues convincingly, simply could not have acquiesced to Prussian hegemony over the continent. In debates with colleagues about contemporary Chinese expansion in the East and South China Seas, I am often warned against letting allies drag us into a major war with China. Read The Sleepwalkers, they say. No, I reply, if you want to avoid conflict in modern East Asia, read Catastrophe 1914.
Aaron David Miller, FP Columnist
Ben Bradlee Jr., The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted WilliamsThis book is too long — and we’ve been hammered with too many analogies and metaphors comparing baseball to life and foreign policy. But The Kid is instructive nonetheless. Here was Ted Williams, a guy whom Joe DiMaggio — himself the holder of perhaps baseball’s most extraordinary record (hitting safely in 56 consecutive games) — called by far the greatest natural hitter he’d ever seen. His career would seem to be an unqualified success. And yet, baseball, like diplomacy, is a game rooted in failure. George Will made this point in his classic Men at Work. Boston never won a World Series in Williams’ entire career with the team. And even his greatest feat — being the last player to hit .400 (.406 to be exact) — means he failed six times out of ten. A cautionary tale for those looking for comprehensive deals with Iran and between the Palestinians and Israelis too. Keep trying. But the odds and baseball gods are probably not in your favor.
Seyward Darby, Senior Story Editor
Aleksandar Hemon, The Book of My Lives
This book was the first one I read upon finishing graduate school in May, when I was eager for something other than academic texts; I consumed it in a single day on two train rides. There was no other way to do it. Aleksandar Hemon is best known for his fiction, which is indeed fantastic. But with The Book of My Lives, his first book of non-fiction, Hemon also proved himself a master of the essay. It is a book about many things: youth, joy, love, family, friendship, politics, war, evil, borders, refuge, alienation, loss, death, grief. From the streets of Sarajevo, where he grew up, to those of Chicago, where he has lived since the early 1990s (he was on a trip to the Windy City when the Bosnian War broke out), Hemon tells deeply personal stories while also beautifully observing the world and people around him. Among many memorable, real-life characters are Nikola Koljevic, a former professor of Hemon’s who became a close associate of Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb political leader now on trial in The Hague for crimes against humanity. Then there are the fellow immigrants, from Africa, South Asia, seemingly everywhere, whom Hemon plays soccer with regularly on a field in Chicago. And there is his daughter Isabel; the last essay in the book, originally published in the New Yorker, describes her death, at just one year old, from a brain tumor. To say that the book is moving is both a cliché and an understatement. Read it. You won’t regret it.
Dana Stuster, Assistant Editor
George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia
It’s not new, but I was overdue in getting around to reading Orwell’s account of his time fighting in the Spanish Civil War. The timing is right: The stagnation of Syria’s civil war has renewed the relevance of this 1938 classic. Homage to Catalonia is remembered mostly for Orwell’s taut narration of the frontlines — and there’s certainly that, as well as the frustrations and deprivations of belonging to a ragtag militia of a previous generation. But what’s most worth revisiting in Orwell’s account today is what happens behind those lines, in Republican-held Barcelona. There "politically conscious people were far more aware of the internecine struggle between Anarchist and Communist than of the fight against Franco." "‘The Front’ had come to be thought of as a mythical far-off place." Ultimately, the Republican faction’s tensions erupt in street battles and result in a purge of the Worker’s Party that Orwell fought alongside. All the standard caveats about reading too much into historical analogies apply, but Homage to Catalonia is worth reading (or rereading) for its portrait of how one revolution factionalized and collapsed on itself.