Gift ideas – Books to get or give

I like books that challenge my views, as in the saying attributed to Mark Twain

“What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”

So here are two recommendations of books that challenge our views, esp about the things we know for sure.

The Culture of Defeat – On National Trauma, Mourning, and Recovery, Wolfgang Schivelbusch (2001) — Esp Chapter One, about the successful counter-revolution by the post-bellum American South.  The regained dominance over their black neighbors, at a high cost — slow modernization, economic inferiority vs. the North and West.

The Culture of War, Martin van Creveld (2008) — About the truth that American cannot face:  we love war.

The following are useful books, timely lessons and insights for America.

Manning the Future Legions of the United States – Finding and developing tomorrow’s centurions, Donald Vandergriff (Major, US Army, retired), (2008) — Since we’re burning up the Army and Marines, it’s not too early to consider how we’ll rebuilt our ground forces.  We’ll need them again, probably too soon.  Vandergriff is one of our top experts on this subject, and this is IMO one of the overlooked gems about this topic.

The Utility of Force – The art of war in the modern world, Rupert Smith (General, UK Army, retired),  (2005) — You’ve read much of this, borrowed or stolen in a thousand articles and monographs.  I recommend spending some  time with the source.  IMO one of the finest book about modern warfare.

The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers – Economic change and military conflict from 1500 to 2000, Paul Kennedy (1987) — This is the big book about America, essential reading for anyone seeking to understand what’s happening today.

A Distant Mirror – the Calamitous 14th Century, Barbara W. Tuchman (1978) — William Lind recommended this, which is reason enough to read it.  The past is an alien world to us.  Books like this are esp vital to read today, as our impoverished imaginations often cannot see alternatives to our modern world.  History shows us that the past was radically different, reminding us that the future probably will also be so.

In the comments please suggest other useful books to read about geopolitics.

For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the following:



13 thoughts on “Gift ideas – Books to get or give”

  1. Barbara W. Tuchman was always one of my favorites. Distant Mirror is surely her best book. Followed closely by Guns of August. If you worry about “World War Oil” or “Corporate Feudalism” then either one of those books could give some hints of things to come.

  2. Burke G Sheppard

    I’ve read some of the books on this list (Kennedy, Tuchman, Van Creveld) and therefore must assume that the rest of the list is equally worthy. I shall work on the others. The Vandergriff and Schivelbusch books look especially interesting. Thanks for the recommendations.

  3. The Rise and Decline of the State was very good. I don’t have Culture of War yet. The love of war is not so hard to understand. It is a thrilling and sexy show that looks great on film and only happens to strangers far away. And in the long run we are all dead anyhow.

  4. Fair warning, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers is everything that FM says it is; he fails to mention that it is very long, very detail-oriented, and rather tedious. It was a Doctoral paper and it reads like one. I’ve been looking for the Cliff Notes version of the book but haven’t found it yet.

    A Distant Mirror is also very long but well worth the time if you can spend it, the second half of the book is one of the most impressive historical accounts I’ve ever read.

    Those looking for simpler fare (perhaps too simple) would be well advised to read The March of Folly by Tuchman. The section on the American Revolution is the best part of the book.

    I also like Vietnam: A History by Stanley Karnow. It concentrates on the political and social aspects of the conflict from the perspective of both the Americans and the Vietnamese, which I have come to regard as the more important dimensions of that war.

    Most of David McCullough’s books are worth reading, particularly 1776, Adams, and Truman.

  5. There is also what Taleb called “the graveyard of evidence.” Most who tell of it either 1) Didn’t get too close, 2) Survived with mind, body and spirit relatively intact, or 3) Would rather not talk about it.

    Most star trek fans, i think, imagine that they would be Kirk, or Spock, but not (anonymous red-shirted victim #33.)

  6. On the subject of Taleb, his book “The Black Swan” is extremely stimulating for anyone with a philosophical bend. Its critique of the mechanistic and physics-derived logical foundations of modern social science is deep and powerful.

  7. I recommend Voltaire’s Bastards by John Ralston Saul, a long, entertaining anatomy of what he calls The Dictatorship of Reason in the West. Robert McNamara makes an interesting appearance.

  8. Human Scale by Kirkpatrick Sale proves as relevant today as it was in 1980. A great many of our problems result from inappropriate gigantism in our institutions and infrastructure, as Sale points out.

  9. Guns, Germs, and Steel is an important, thought provoking work.

    On “loving war” — No. But yes to “loving winning”. Including “winning wars”.
    If America loved war, it would have stayed in Vietnam longer (and eventually won an anti-communistic S. Vietnam, like S. Korea).
    If America loved war, W. Bush would have been far more popular. He also would have been more popular if he had done won more convincingly, sooner.

    Americans also do love “justice”, tho there is disagreement on what it is. And force is known to be needed to enforce justice.
    FM reply: News just in for Tom… the US combat role in Vietnam ended 36 years ago. Stating US attitudes then does not provide evidence about today, 2 generations later. These things change from generation to generation.

    “And force is known to be needed to enforce justice.”

    A winner for 2nd dumbest comment of the thread. Force is needed to enforce anything.

    “But yes to ‘loving winning’.”

    A winner for “dumbest comment of the thread.” Who likes losing?

  10. Tuchman’s Distant Mirror is a fabulous book. I will know that my son has gotten serious about history and political science in college when he finally takes my advice and reads it. Or maybe I should shut up about it if I really want him to read it.

    I was intrigued (while agreeing) by FM’s remarks starting with “The past is an alien world to us.” To me what is striking about Tuchman’s book is that the human nature of it provides our link to the past, in that (among other things) many of the motivations, vanities, and greeds (and a virtue or two) are quite evident today. And the behavior of elites? Not so different. Though most of our current royalty do not go around stringing up peasants by their testicles to hear them squeal.
    FM reply: You are of course correct that our recognition of a shared humanity provides the common thread in history. Still, the people of the ancient world and Middle Ages were alien to us in many ways. That’s an important counter to today’s political indoctrination that people are all the same — and that our way of life (humanism, multi-culturalism, feminism, belief in democracy and capitalism) to be blessed by God logically superior for all people, everywhere.

  11. I’m sure that after the many full meals suggested earlier in the thread, this will seem like an after-dinner mint: “The No-Nonsense Guide to Terrorism“, Jonathan Barker, New Internationalist Publications (, 2003.

    Short & sweet, this book examines the terrorists that are beloved by the left, those beloved by the right, and those that nobody loves. Palestinian terrorism is analyzed in all its bloody, racist glory. The book also examines Latin American state terror, Al Qaeda, “Christian Identity” and the Oklahoma City bombers, “Direct Action”/the Earth Liberation Front, and even Spain’s ETA.

    I like the book because it gets into the inherent subjectivity and diffculty of terrorism, while demanding that we learn to assess it objectively. Part of the problem is that with all the different definitions of “terrorism”, we can’t even agree on what it is. Nevertheless, the book argues that its study is not only necessary but beneficial.

    The “New Internationalist Publications” are generally left-wing, but I think this book is pretty balanced.

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