Summer Reading #5

As teaching at the Joint Services Command and Staff College begins again at the outset of a new academic year, the final post of this series reveals what members of the Defence Studies Department have been reading over the summer. 

Dr. David Morgan-Owen

This summer I have been enjoying John Bew’s book Realpolitik: A History. The book is an ambitious attempt to chart the evolving meaning and usage of the term ‘realpolitik’ in foreign policy discourse in Europe and the United States from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day. Bew writes extremely well and has a fantastic eye for an apposite quotation, with which the book is replete. One particularly poignant example is a line he draws from the originator of the term ‘realpolitik’, the German journalist and activist August Ludwig von Rochau. Discussing the importance of ideas in politics, Rochau wrote that the ‘accuracy and rationality’ of an idea was a secondary concern when measuring its potential influence – ‘even if stupid prejudice or blindfold error weigh heavier than truth in the stable of public opinion.’

As is perhaps inevitable in a book of this scope, there are passages with which one can find fault. I was left questioning certain aspects of his depiction of British diplomacy in the decades prior to the First World War – which seem to display a greater deal of ‘realpolitik’ to me than to the author – but disagreements over specifics are difficult to avoid in a work this broad. Moreover, as the book is the history of an idea, a term and its use, (rather than an exhaustive account of international affairs), it would be grossly unfair to discriminate against on these grounds. I found Realpolitik to be a very enjoyable read which posed a number of fundamental questions about how nations approach international affairs. Bew displays considerable intellectual bravery in tackling a vast topic and articulating what he believes to be the implications his work has for the present – a task incumbent upon us all.


Anna Brinkman

Brian Cowan, The Social Life of Coffee: The Emergence of the British Coffeehouse 

With very thorough research and well crafted prose Cowan makes a convincing case for how and why the coffeehouse emerged in Restoration era Britain and survived to become a fully integrated cultural institution by the beginning of the Hanoverian period. He makes an explicit link between the virtuoso culture of restoration Britain and the acceptance of the coffeehouse as common venue for the exchange of news and ideas. Whilst Cowan’s work treats coffeehouses as a single cultural phenomenon he addresses the varied roles that coffeehouse fulfilled: from a space in which Tory or Whig politics were discussed to a place where trans-oceanic shipping and commerce was the main topic of conversation. Anyone interested in how news, information, and printed works were discussed and disseminated in Britain during the early modern period would do well to indulge in The Social Life of Coffee.


Dr. Geraint Hughes

I am currently reading The Silent Deep, Peter Hennessy and James Jinks’ excellent history of the Royal Navy’s submarine arm since 1945. Prof Hennessy has written authoritatively and extensively about British politics and defence in the post-war era, and I expect that Dr Jinks may well become one of our foremost nuclear historians. I am midway through this thoroughly-researched and enthralling book, and would recommend The Silent Deep to all readers interested in British defence policy and the Royal Navy’s institutional history. Given the uncertain international environment, and the re-emergence of the Russian threat to NATO, the history of ‘submarine Britain’ is a timely and thought-provoking text.


Dr. Bleddyn Bowen 

This summer I’ve been mostly reading Paul Kennedy’s masterwork, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500-2000. I can happily say that the time invested in reading this tome was well-spent. It is such a seminal work in the fields of grand strategy and international relations that it is odd that I have put off reading it until now. The arguments are large and sweeping, yet still sensitive to singular historical episodes. Kennedy makes the argument that, in 1987, the United States and the Soviet Union were facing challenges as old as the international system itself. Both powers were struggling to strike a balance between economic prosperity and development with meeting perceived security and defence needs. Accusing both countries of imperial overstretch, he warned that great powers rise and fall based on how well they ride the tides of the global economy and exploit their economic potential into hard power. Some predictions from the book are borne out – that of the Chinese economic miracle and continuing European political fragmentation. Others proved to be quite off the mark in the few years following its publication – namely the collapse of the Soviet Union and Japanese economic stagnation.

If there is one theme that I believe Kennedy overlooks in his arguments and history, it is the role of politics and society more broadly, and domestic politics in particular. Understanding the tempestuous economic and military history of the 19th century should not ignore the societal upheavals of the French Revolution and the emergence of the modern class system from industrialisation, for example. In many episodes I felt that the political and societal pressures within various powers were neglected. Certain sections certainly struck a chord as I read it in the Brexit climate of today – how Europe struggles to make its economic power felt because of its political divisions and Britain’s inability since the mid-20th century to compensate for its absolute decline in manufacturing abilities and its demotion to a middle power on the world stage. That said, Kennedy’s Rise and Fall should be a powerful reminder to contemporary readers about the persistent relevance of physical resources, agricultural efficiency, and manufacturing output in grand strategic thinking today to temper the enthusiastic emphasis placed by Western governments and think-tanks on service and knowledge-based economies as the great power currencies of the 21st century.


Image via flickr

DSD Summer Reading #4

This post forms part of a series where members of the Defence Studies Department share their thoughts on the books they are reading this summer. This post is by DR AMIR M KAMEL see more of his posts here, here and here.

The book: Democracy Prevention: The Politics of the US-Egyptian Alliance has provided for an interesting read this summer. Jason Brownlee’s analysis of US-Egypt ties from 1979 up until and including the 2011 Egyptian Revolution provides a well researched account of how Washington, DC implemented a policy in Cairo which ultimately led to the failure of democracy in the Middle Eastern state. Brownlee also attests that this policy continued in the post-Mubarak era.

Poignantly, Brownlee assesses how the White House continued to pursue its own interests of ensuring US presence and influence in the country, as well as prioritising broader regional security concerns over the self processed ‘promotion of democracy’ in Egypt. This is something which I have found to corroborate with some aspects of my research. Indeed, through the reading and analysis of primary sourced material and data, I have found that economic interests have also played a key part in Brownlee’s so called ‘democracy prevention’ thesis. Additionally, my findings have determined that it is not just ‘democracy’ which was affected by this relationship under Mubarak, but broader strategic and regional issues also.

That being said, Brownlee’s work provides a very apt and useful analysis of the contemporary US-Egyptian relationship, and a worthy read for scholars looking to understand the Egyptian environment in which the Washington, DC-Cairo relationship resided over the past three decades.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

DSD Summer Reading #3

In this series members of the Defence Studies Department share the books they are reading this summer. Click here for part I and part II

Dr Avinash Paliwal

Vinay Sitapati, Half Lion: How P V Narasimha Rao Transformed India (New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2016)

This political biography of India’s largely discredited, but immensely transformational prime minister, P V Narasimha Rao, proved to be an excellent summer reading. Remembered largely for being indecisive, excessively cautious, allegedly corrupt, and incredibly (politically) weak, Rao became India’s prime minister after the assassination of the powerful Congress leader Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. Despite running a minority government (that would face, and survive, three confidence motions) and his policy conservatism, Rao, along with a team of powerful bureaucrats and diplomats, prevented India from defaulting to the IMF, and decisively ushered in momentous economic and political reforms as India went to becoming a (partially) free market economy. Even in the foreign and security policy spheres, the book shows how Rao set in motion a series of events that made India a nuclear weapons state in 1998 (India tried testing in 1993, then in 1995, both times under Rao’s leadership, but was prevented from doing so by the US), and officially recognised Israel. Yet, despite these policy successes – that stand in contrast with his image of being an indecisive leader – India witnessed the destruction of the Babri Masjid by Hindu kar-sevaks under Rao’s leadership. The incident severely undermined India’s secularism, led to bloody Hindu-Muslim riots across the country, and earned Rao tremendous criticism for mishandling the situation. A fascinating figure wrought with multiple contradictions, Rao played a pivotal role in the making of contemporary India — for the good, the bad, and the ugly.


Dr Ben Kienzle

It’s always a good idea to try to understand a bit the people and the culture of the country where we spend our summer holidays. For those among us who have the pleasure to spend some time in Spain, I can recommend Chris Stewart’s Driving over Lemons, a funny story of a British expat buying a house in the mountains of Southern Spain. It’s full of wonderful (and often accurate) cultural misunderstandings between Brits and Spaniards. It’s like the modern version of Gerald Brenan’s South from Granada or Ramón Sender’s La tesis de Nancy.

In terms of non-fiction, the summer is usually a good time to reflect upon the “big questions”. Recently, Frank Sauer published Atomic Anxiety Deterrence, Taboo and the Non-Use of U.S. Nuclear Weapons, a new book that examines why nuclear weapons have not been used in war since Hiroshima and Nagasaki – according to Ned Lebow, “the most important non-event of the twentieth century”. His focus on the role of fear and anxiety promises to offer new insights into this crucial topic of international relations.


Dr Ken Payne

I’ve been rereading Robert MacFarlane’s first book Mountains of the Mind, which is an engaging mix of personal narrative and cultural history of mountains and climbing. This summer has been spent mostly in the Radcliffe Camera, finishing a book manuscript, and MacFarlane’s first book has been keeping me sane, because 1. It has absolutely nothing to do with what I’m writing about (evolution and strategy); 2. It has quite a lot to do with my next project, which will be on explorers and identity; and 3. It’s about the great outdoors, which feels a very long way from the Bod.


Image: the Maughan Library, King’s College London, via wikimedia commons.

DSD Summer Reading #2

In this series members of the Defence Studies Department share the books they are reading this summer. This instalment is from a recent addition to the Department, Dr Aimée Fox-Godden. You can read more posts from Aimée here and here

While the redrafting and reading of my own forthcoming monograph has dominated my summer vacation, I have managed to carve out much needed time to revisit old favourites, catch up with recent purchases, and begin essential reading for my next project. So, without further ado, here are my three summer reads:

  1. Jean Bou (ed.), The AIF in Battle: How the Australian Imperial Force Fought 1914-1918 (Carlton VIC: Melbourne University Press, 2016)

Australia’s commemoration of the First World War centenary has proved somewhat contentious. Costing over $500m, the majority of this taxpayer’s money, it has resulted in a number of raised eyebrows. 2015 saw the hundredth anniversary of the failed Gallipoli campaign, while 2016 marked one hundred years since Fromelles. These two engagements, particularly the former, have shaped popular perceptions of Australia’s role in the conflict where ‘diggers’ were willingly slaughtered by their incompetent imperial overlords. The AIF in Battle offers a necessary corrective. Edited by Jean Bou, an authority on the Australian contribution in the Palestine theatre, this excellent edited collection examines the AIF’s stature as a fighting force. It includes chapters from the next generation of Australian military historians largely clustered in and around Canberra, which really is marking itself out as a hub for outstanding military history. While still working my way through this volume, stand out chapters thus far include Michael Molkentin’s examination of air power and the AIF, Aaron Pegram’s discussion of trench raiding, and Meleah Hampton’s incisive discussion of the AIF’s initial engagements on the Western Front in 1916-17.

  1. Amy Milne-Smith, London Clubland: A Cultural History of Gender and Class in Late Victorian Britain (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011)

I first encountered Amy Milne-Smith’s work during my doctoral research. Her excellent article dealing with male gossip, social control and masculinity had me hooked. I finally got hold of her book, London Clubland, earlier this year, and I finished it in a single sitting. Milne-Smith uses clubland to explore the shifting boundaries of class, contested urban spaces, and interrogates our understanding of the ‘gentleman’ in Victorian England. Drawing on an extensive range of source material, notably the archives and records of numerous London clubs, the product is a beautifully written analysis, packed to the rafters with amusing anecdotes that will make you smirk and cringe in equal measure. A must read.

  1. Claire Langhamer, The English in Love: The Intimate Story of an Emotional Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)

As an intrigued newcomer, furtively dipping her toes into the burgeoning history of emotions, I must confess to feeling rather comforted by the front cover of Langhamer’s The English in Love: a photograph of a serviceman presumably saying farewell to his wife or lover. Considering the period between 1920 and 1970, Langhamer focuses on how the English made sense of love and marriage, using the voices of ordinary people to analyse shifting understandings of love, sexual desire, and commitment. While only a quarter of the way through this book (which I am enjoying immensely), it has challenged me as a historian, opening my eyes to new possibilities in terms of methodologies and source material.

Image via flickr.

DSD Summer Reading #1

In this series members of the Defence Studies Department share the books they are reading this summer. First off is Dr Chris Tripodi. You can read more posts from Chris here, here and here.

I intended to get some reading done over the summer break and set an objective of five particular books – John Buckley’s ‘Monty’s Men: the British Army and the liberation of Europe, Emma Sky’s The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq, David French’s Military Identities: The Regimental System, the British Army and the British People 1878-2000 , Orlando FigesA People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924 and Azar Gat’s War in Human Civilization. A progress report as of mid-August only gives me a solid B however, having scorched through the fist three titles but then abandoning Figes’ effort partway through in favour of John Bew’s ‘Relpolitik’, which itself is suffering my stuttering attention. The reason is that, having simultaneously got my teeth into Gat’s monumental work I’m unwilling to let go of that particular masterpiece just yet.

Monty’s Men is straightforward military history, and seeks to redress a prevailing narrative that has infected our appreciation of the British Army’s tactical performance during the NW Europe campaign 1944-5, namely the hoary old trope of a tired, unimaginative and inflexible fighting organisation whose reputation stands in unflattering contrast both to its German opponents and its US Army ally. The reason for reading it was to see if there was anything within that might add to my understanding of the NW Europe campaign from the British perspective, so as to better aid me in the delivery of the numerous staff rides that I conduct there for the College and other units. The results were mixed. There were certainly some tactical level doctrinal matters raised by Buckley which, when delved into, made more sense of the British Army’s behaviour and overall he made a thoroughly convincing case for the appropriateness of its tactical and indeed operational methods during the campaign. The problem in my eyes however was that those points could have been condensed into a sizeable article. Instead we have a lengthy and largely orthodox narrative description of the NW Europe campaign which focuses so heavily upon events in Normandy that it sacrifices better understanding of the immensely tough operations that took place over the winter of 1944-5 in the Netherlands and the Rhineland. A bit of a missed opportunity in that respect, I felt.

Emma Sky’s The Unravelling is her account of her service as a POLAD (Political Advisor) to US forces in Iraq 2003-2010, firstly with the 173rd Airborne Brigade around Kirkuk, and then subsequently as an integral part of General Ray Odierno’s team in Baghdad as they sought to shape a functioning politico-military entity out of the rubble of post-Saddam Iraq. I first read parts of the book a few months ago in order to lend weight to some of the arguments I made in a recently published research article, but always wanted to go back and complete my reading of her account. Perhaps the most revealing sentence in the book comes in the opening paragraph where she states that ‘nothing which happened in Iraq after 2003 was inevitable’ – a blindingly simple yet utterly necessary corrective to those who believe that there is some sort of thoroughly unambiguous line linking the events of April 2003 with, for example, the establishment of the ‘Islamic State’. In contrast, Sky leads the reader through the multiple decision points that occurred over the course of her decade in-country, identifying how Iraq’s various alternative futures may have been secured but for the intransigence of certain key figures at certain key points. And for those who blame G .W. Bush (somewhat understandably) for the farrago that has subsequently unfolded, they might wish to take a much closer look at the Obama administration’s handling of the Maliki question – in fact of the entire Iraq question – from 2010. If anyone can be held responsible for the rise of ISIS, it’s a dead heat between Maliki and his sponsors in the Democratic administration in Washington DC who exhibited an absolutely unforgivable keenness to wash their hands of Iraq at an absolutely critical juncture. So I recommend Sky’s book as a reminder that historical trajectories which we perceive as ‘fixed’ were never so.

Where to begin with David French’s Military Identities? He’s the sort of military historian who defines the subject, treating war as a social and cultural as well as political, diplomatic, economic and strategic phenomenon. He covers every inch of every base to such an extent that once he’s tackled a subject then it’s game over for the rest of us poor saps who may have entertained ambitions to write on it ourselves. So be it where Military Identities is concerned. If anyone ever wanted to understand why the British army looks, thinks, fights and behaves in the way that it does need look no further. This book paints such a vivid portrait of the late Victorian, Edwardian, wartime and, ultimately, modern British Army’s social, cultural, doctrinal and war-fighting DNA that it’s difficult to comprehend why this isn’t compulsory reading for every British Army officer, and the rest of us who might be curious as to why it’s such a peculiar organisation.

Lastly, I’m about halfway through Azar Gat’s epic War in Human Civilization. Doing exactly what it says on the tin, this book leads us though the emergence and entrenchment of warfare as a phenomenon in human society. An unbelievably ambitious project, it commences with broader philosophical enquiries as to the nature of the human condition in terms of our supposedly warlike nature, debates the evolutionary and genetic explanations for the utility of conflict, and tracks its shifting forms through early hunter gatherer and farming communities, the emergence of Empires and of the state, machine age warfare and the eventual dominance (as of 2006, when it was published) of liberal democracies and their ‘ultimate’ weapons. So far I’m beginning to consider it to be one of those works that any individual interested in or professionally concerned with the business of war should read at some point, sooner rather than later (Later in my case, unfortunately). Prone to veering off at apparent although always hugely interesting tangents, this is nonetheless a genuinely fascinating piece of work that showcases a polymathic grasp of the subject across a multitude of its fascinating aspects. Highly recommended.

Image via wikimedia commons.