Political science books that military historians might benefit from reading

Political science books that military historians might benefit from reading


By Steve Saideman
Best Defense guest respondent

Tom Ricks asked me for a list of the best political science books for those interested in military history. This is part of a long-running conversation we have had about the contributions made by political science. To be clear, I don’t see my assignment to be to find the best military history written by political scientists. That is not what we really do. The best military history is written by military historians — that is the joy of specialization/training/etc. Military historians are likely to see the way political scientists use military history to be, um, icky. Regardless of the methods political scientists use, the focus is almost always on generalizing rather than getting the specifics perfect. That probably drives historians crazy.

Anyhow,  I see as my mission to be: Find some of the best political science that puts into context and develops arguments about recurrent patterns that might interest those who study/care about/read military history.

How and why insurgents organize as they do and how their organizational development shape how they use violence–Jeremy Weinstein, Inside Rebellion. For different but equally sharp approaches, see Paul Staniland, Rebellion and Fotini Christia’s Alliance Formation in Civil Wars.

Speaking of likely foes, there is a lot of work on terrorism, and I am hardly an expert, but I find the work on organizations, rather than individuals, to be far more compelling. Jacob Shapiro’s Terrorist Dilemma considers how terrorist organizations must deal with difficult tradeoffs between secrecy and controlling their members.  For a sharp book on individuals and what causes them to join such organizations, see Mia Bloom’s Dying to Kill.

How and why do weaker countries challenge stronger ones in non-military ways that still threaten much conflict, such as forced migration — Kelly Greenhill, Weapons of Mass Migration. I love this book because it reminds us that weaker foes have imaginations that allow them to turn the strengths of more powerful countries (democratic norms) into leverage. Or at least, the weaker states think they have leverage. 

While folks may not buy the Democratic Peace (that democracies don’t fight each other), the post-Cold War era has seen democracies fight mostly authoritarian regimes, so understanding why some of these countries can fight more effectively than others is probably important. I have just started reading Caitlin Talmadge’s Dictator’s Army, and it is mighty good. A related question is when do militaries fall apart or remain coherent enough to keep up the fight. Jasen Castillo’s Endurance and War addresses this. 

Coups are back in fashion, and while one can just go back and read Luttwak, a more social scientific approach that analyzes why coups happen rather than provide instructions, see Naunihal Singh’s Seizing Power.

Given all of this stuff going on the world, what shapes the intervention strategies that the U.S. chooses?  Elizabeth Saunders is an unusual political scientist as she focuses on Leaders at War.

If you care about the armed forces, then you should care about civilian control of the military.  While Peter Feaver has written a lot on this, I think the key work is Armed Servants. While it can be a bit intimidating with some formal modeling, one can get the gist from the rest of the book, which clarifies the basic questions about oversight.

Technology plays such an important role in military history, so people interested in such stuff should be interested in The Diffusion of Military Power by Michael Horowitz.

One of the basic realities of war is that countries rarely fight alone–they have allies of some kind. I know this area a bit better because I have actually researched and written on it, and the two best books of late (ahem, besides the one I co-authored) are by Sarah Kreps, Coalitions of Convenience, and Patricia Weitsman’s Waging War. They both deal with the tradeoffs of relying on alliances, coalitions of the willing or on no one else. 

This is an idiosyncratic list of books that I happen to like on topics that interest me. There are many books and infinite articles on these and other topics. These all contribute to our understanding of important dynamics involving violence within and mostly across international boundaries, using a variety of methods. If you have suggestions of other books or topics that I ignored (hey, no ethnic conflict, Steve?), comment below and maybe I will do some reading while I sabbatical this year.

This is reprinted from Saideman’s Semi-Spew, with the permission of the author.

Photo credit: WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images