Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Best Reads of 2013

I am constantly besieged at the end of the year with the "Best Books of 2013" on most of my favorite websites and blogs. That is all fine and good but why not recap books read in 2013 but not necessarily released that year. If someone reads Plato's "The Republic" for the first time it doesn't matter that it was published in 380BC, its new to that reader. And I am sure it is new and useful to a lot of other people as well.

Also, I am attempting to keep alive De Todo which was sorely neglected this year. Not sure why it was forgotten. Life is busy for certain but I cannot say it was any more jammed than 2011 or 2012. That's ok. I'm sure with baby #3 coming and my wonderful wife still in residency I will have plenty of time and motivation in 2014. :)


The Best Reads in 2013 (in no particular order):

Hunting in the Shadows: The Pursuit of al Qa'ida since 9/11-Seth Jones
This book was excellent. Even though I've spent almost my entire professional career in SOF I don't follow the day-to-day blows in the fight against Al Qaeda and violent extremist organizations. I am more interested in the overarching struggle and trends than in the bloody (literally) details. Seth's book was exactly that. In narrative fashion he walks the reader through the West's war against Al Qaeda highlighting some major themes of the last 15+ years. He cobbles together this story describing it in terms of waves (ebb and flow) and how Al Qaeda adapts and deals with internal struggle. It was so good I sent it to one of my closest friends who is an intel officer and heavily involved in this war. 


Cocaine: White Gold Rush in Peru-Edmundo Morales
Andean Cocaine: The Making of a Global Drug-Paul Gootenberg
The Politics of Cocaine: How U.S. Foreign Policy Has Created a Thriving Drug Industry in Central and South America-William Marcy


Coming to US Southern Command in Miami this year I wanted to get smarter about the War on Drugs. Many thinkers whom I respect are coming out against our effort to stamp out the illegal market for narcotics. Morales is no Cervantes or Shakespeare but you won't find a better account of the cocaine trade and why this has been an Achilles heel for the US. He's Peruvian, indigenous, and did his graduate work in the US. He can straddle both worlds and translate for Westerners.

The other two books were good as well but if I had to pick only one it would be Morales' book.

The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Western Thought-Jerry Muller
The best book I read all year. There is nothing new under the sun. All these fights about Obamacare, budget deficits, regulations, etc. are simply a repeat of the arguments regarding markets since there were markets. Muller spends each chapter discussing a different thinker/writer/economist's worldview and the conflict between liberalism, freedom, change, security, government control, etc. faced at that time. There are chapters on Voltaire, Smith, Marx, Hegel, Burke and more. Completely non-partisan. Safe for work and parties.
Excellent read. Very pragmatic advice on what women need to do (and not do) in the workplace. Sheryl is up front when she admits that of course women face structural labor challenges but there are behaviors/attitudes/perceptions they need to adopt in the meantime. Also highly recommend for husbands of working women and fathers of girls. 

Bleeding Talent: How the US Military Mismanages Great Leaders and Why It's Time for a Revolution-Tim Kane
Absolute must read for all officers. Tim Kane wrote the book I wish I could write. He absorbs all the ideas in "Air Force Policy for Advanced Education: Production of Human Capital or Cheap Signals?" but goes much further to take on everything from pay, to assignments, and retirement benefits. It's a build on his Atlantic article "Why Our Best Officer's Are Leaving" but more holistic. Easy read and great defense of a more market based mechanism for employing our human capital. 

YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary):

The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One-David Kilcullen
This was a good read but I'm not sure where to put it in all the great works on counter-insurgency that have come out in the last decade. His thesis is that many guerrilla wars are really about local politics and less about trans-national ideological-religious struggles. Well written.

I loved it and am growing to appreciate King more and more. Great story which blends together Western and fantasy settings very well. Short read but not for everyone.
Short, but not an easy read. Apparently important to Andrew Bacevich and Barack Obama and many others. Written in 1952 as a warning to America that its power and virtue are not limitless and should not be squandered. It is clear that Niebuhr's warning went unheeded. 

 Unimpressed:

The Life of the Mind: On the Joys and Travails of Thinking-James Schall
Being a Chicago-Common Core product I thought I would like this more than I did. Schall receives quite a bit of praise as a scholar and educator but I found this book to be underwhelming and hence did not finish it.

The Tragedy of Great Power Politics-John Mearsheimer
On the plus side Mearsheimer wrote a very accessible book explaining the realist theory of international relations. Having taken two of his classes I hoped that I would enjoy Tragedy of Great Power Politics but I did not. I found his journal publications on this topic to be more educational and interesting.

The Bonfire of the Vanities-Tom Wolfe
Well written, great prose and deserves its status as a great American novel. However, I wasn't in the mood to live through 1980s NYC. Having seen Wall Street and read Liar's Poker each several times I didn't find much new ground to cover and abandoned Bonfire.  


To Read in 2014:

Here is what I have tee'd up to read next year. Now that Air War College is out of the way I think the probability of finishing most of this pile is going way up.

Knowledge and Decisions-Thomas Sowell
Thinking in Systems: A Primer-Donella H. Meadows