‘War Books’ Must Reads

Throughout my reading life, I’ve picked books for lots of reasons. I can remember going to Tower Books in Seattle when I was in elementary school and perusing the sci-fi section, discovering David Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers on the strength of its cover art alone. I did that a lot. Other times, I’ve had books recommended to me with heartfelt conviction, like when a former Navy SEAL first told me about Gates of Fire and the work of Steven Pressfield. More recently, the suggestion to read the novel Room came during a conversation on how I could get better at character development while speaking with Ken Liu, a writer whose prose and translation—and work ethic—are indomitable.

Today there is growing acceptance that fiction belongs on military reading lists, and it is leading to some outstanding suggestions. A great novel or short story (particularly sci-fi) pushes us to confront our assumptions, helps us understand other perspectives, and stokes our imagination in ways that nonfiction cannot. In particular, dystopian sci-fi stories have their place on these lists for their cautionary value in an era when technology’s downsides can sometimes only be revealed after calamity. Terrible times often produce the most memorable heroes.

These are among my favorite fiction titles that I’ve read (or re-read as in the case of The Profession) recently. As a package, these books complement each other for their exploration of everything from human migration and trafficking to political collapse to narco superpowers to private armies. Plus, they all have great covers.

Read more at West Point’s Modern War Institute War Books column.

Between Fact And Fiction

Peruse the shelves at any bookstore and one section sure to be well stocked is for books on writing. There are notable titles, from rule books such as Elements of Style to the inspirational and craft-oriented Naming the World, that are well suited to equipping writers with the tools to put their words on a page as effectively as possible.

There are other types of writing books, though, that pull back the curtain of what it is like to write professionally. Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is one that stands out, and so is Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing endure as being entertaining and useful.

Add to the list two more worthy reads. These recent autobiographical books hew to the “show, don’t tell” adage and reveal the stories behind their authors’ lives: Steven Pressfield’s The Knowledge and John le Carré’s The Pigeon Tunnel. While these books are rooted in the past, their value to future-minded writers is in understanding the importance of personal stories in creating inspiring characters and credible settings perched on the knife edge between fact and fiction. This is perhaps even more important in tales that can be easily overrun with technology and fantasy.

Read more at the Art of the Future Project website.

A New Tool To Question Assumptions

This week the paperback edition of Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War goes on sale. This is a big milestone for the book, and for me. Paperback thrillers and science fiction novels were a staple of my reading when I was young. This is the version of Ghost Fleet that a younger me would have nodded off with and cracked open at first light.

The impact a novel, particularly a sci-fi story, can have in the national security community is growing. Ghost Fleet is part of that shift. Adm. Harry Harris, who heads up US Pacific Command, said in a recent Foreign Policy article that “warfare novels like Ghost Fleet help us to question assumptions and prevent complacent thinking that inhibits innovation.” It is an entertaining story, but it is a story written with this purpose in mind.

As the paperback edition debuts, help spread the word. This can be in person or online. If you enjoyed the book as entertainment or education (as in 4- or 5-star rating enjoyed it), head on over to the Goodreads page or the Amazon.com page and share that positive feedback by rating it. Even a quick star rating will help.

Useful fiction like Ghost Fleet can start conversations that are otherwise difficult to have about what makes us strong, and what weakens us, as a nation. A year from now, when you see a dog-eared, marked-up and torn paperback edition sticking out of a backpack or wedged under a cot you’ll know those kinds of talks are well underway.

The Reality of Killer Robots

Over the last 15 years, the idea of “killer robots” has morphed from science fiction to reality, with unmanned systems now a common feature in post–9/11 conflict zones. Just about everyone fighting the multi-sided war in Iraq and Syria, for instance, has used drones, from the US and Russia to the Syrian government and Hezbollah to the Islamic State.

As robots have become more commonplace on the battlefield, fear has grown that they may be on their way to becoming too independent, too intelligent, and too autonomous, able to do more and more on their own without being steered from afar by human control or restriction.

Read more of my essay with P.W. Singer at VICE News.

Don’t Get Stuck in Silicon Valley

If Secretary of Defense Ash Carter did a Google search for who would make the biggest splash as the head of the Pentagon’s new innovation panel from Silicon Valley, he couldn’t have gotten a better answer than the executive chairman of the eponymous search engine’s parent company, Eric Schmidt. The move announced at the RSA cyber security confab in San Francisco makes clear to the Beltway the military is serious about closing its innovation gap with the commercial sector by reestablishing ties to the Bay Area’s tech heartland.

Yet if the Defense Department’s innovation scouts get too focused on the corridor between San Francisco and San Jose, they risk missing out on existing or nascent technologies from America’s other innovation hubs.

Read more at National Defense magazine.

Picking Allies

Gaming website Gamasutra shed some light on Tom Clancy’s The Division development and how Ubisoft used a strategy-game oriented studio it acquired, Massive, along with its existing studio capabilities to strike the right balance in developing the game’s look and feel.

One of the most telling, and important, quotes from the article is from a Massive executive describing how the Ubisoft team built and organized the development process. It has applications for any creative project where disparate skillsets need to be aligned toward a common objective: “What are you really passionate about? And, be blunt, where do you think you’re better than us? Because that’s what we want you to do on this project. What would you like to own?”

Read more at the Art of Future Warfare website.

Business Not as Usual

With one eye on the sentry (literally, one eye), Snake looks for an opening to sneak past the Russian spetsnaz commando. Rather than fight his way into the military outpost in a valley in 1980s Afghanistan, the hero of the video game Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain needs to be guided carefully and thoughtfully into and out of trouble. That’s in part because the game requires thinking about keeping the eye patch-wearing character alive throughout each mission while not losing tabs on the burgeoning private military company they run based off of an oil rig complex in the Seychelles.

Read more at the Art of Future Warfare website.

Art of Darkness

The faces looking through the chain link fence don’t despair any more. They gave up days ago. That’s why they are in the Hudson Refugee Camp, packed in by the thousands just to be close to what was supposed to be salvation: soldiers, medicine or vaccines, communication links to the rest of America. The truly desperate remain outside, fighting over canned food and fresh ammunition. Even if you want to help the refugees, you can’t. You’re needed elsewhere: on the streets of the catastrophe that is New York to help restore order.

This is Manhattan as seen in the early-play version of Tom Clancy’s The Division, a new video game in the Tom Clancy series that follows a small team of covert operators who have been standing by in the event of a catastrophe so great that the United States teeters toward becoming a failed state. In this case, it is a bio-terrorism attack on Black Friday that ruptures the fragile membrane between order and anarchy.

Read more at War On The Rocks.

ANTFARM

“The authors in this anthology invite us to shed the shackles that bind us to our current constructs and instead imagine things as they might be, for better or for worse.”
– Martin Dempsey, foreword to War Stories from the Future

So writes Martin Dempsey, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, about the first science-fiction anthology published by the Atlantic Council’s Art of Future Warfare project. The endorsement of the stories by the recently retired top military officer in the nation underscores the importance of fiction in understanding a very complex and frequently heartbreaking world.

Along with contest-winning art and fiction from the project’s first year of contests, the free collection features new stories from Ken Liu, Madeline Ashby, Jamie Metzl, Mat Burrows and me.

That’s where ANTFARM comes in. It’s my first new fiction since Ghost Fleet. The short story grew out of my curiosity about what would happen when swarming weapons combine with crowd-sourced intelligence analysis and man-machine symbiosis.

Check out ANTFARM and the rest of the collection here.