My favourite books 2022
I haven’t been good at keeping this blog alive and maybe I’ll come around to explaining what I’ve been up to.
But at least I’d like to share my obligatory list of books. Again, these are the books I read that year, not those written in that year.
Influenced by the start of the Ukraine war, my reading this year took a dark turn: I read a lot on military history, strategy and war memoirs.
“The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict”, by Elbridge Colby.
This book lays out a suitable US strategy of denial (= containment) of China. Colby tries to derive from first principles the current US strategy of restricting China’s sphere of influence and, most importantly, stopping China from subduing Taiwan.
Not the best-written book, I think Colby tries a bit too hard to sound scientific and theoretical. But I think worth a read given the US-China rivalry will likely dominate politics of the coming decades.
“2034: A Novel of the Next World War”, by Elliot Ackerman und Admiral James Stavridis.
This is a timely work of fiction: The book plays out how a Chinese-US war might go. The narrative is a bit flat, but it does feed the imagination.
I have absolutely no clue of how wars are being fought or the technical background involved. But I found the scenario here a tad unlikely: China somehow finds a red button that blocks all US communications at the start of the war.
The book made a splash, also given that the two authors are former high-ranking US soldiers.
“The Case Against the Sexual Revolution: A New Guide to Sex in the 21st Century”, by Louise Perry.
A thought-provoking book. Some of what stayed with me were the comparisons of physical strength of men and women: Apparently the average man has twice the upper body strength as the average women. Also:
In hand grip strength, 90 per cent of females produce less force than 95 per cent of males. In other words, almost all women are weaker than almost all men, and any feminist analysis of the power dynamic between men and women has to begin with the recognition of this fact.
She also did a good job of describing situations in which women have to be fearful of men and how a woman feels like when in them.
“Urban Warfare in the Twenty-First Century”, by Anthony King.
This was the first book I read after the Ukraine war started, when everyone expected Russia to quickly occupy most of the country and for the fight to drag on in the cities.
It didn’t turn out that way, but I took a lot away from this book: The most important thing being the radical and definite change in warfighting with the rise of nuclear weapons. Armies used to be gigantic accumulations of millions of men. With nuclear weapons, such armies are just not necessary anymore. You can spare the cost and still be able to defend yourself credibly.
Because armies are so much smaller now, there is much more fighting for smaller strategic points within cities. The huge armies of the past mostly met outside of cities.
The big “downside” (from an imperialistic dictators point of view) is that it’s not possible to fight wars in the old ways anymore with the current size of armies. The battle for Berlin lasted only two weeks, with an army of 2 million Soviets surrounding Berlin and then fighting their way in. The battle for Stalingrad, which King refers to as “the greatest urban battle in history” lasted for only three months (the main part of it at least).
Compare this with Russia’s invasion force in Ukraine of about 200,000 soldiers and you see how different things are.
Other factors in how wars have changed are: A lower tolerance for casualties driven partly by an increase in our humanistic ideals (one would hope) and by the greater value of the individual soldier due to smaller armies (one has to fear). Also there has been (economically speaking) an increase in capital involved (i.e. more fancy gear to be used per soldier).
“Out of the Gobi: My story of China and America”, by Weijan Shan.
Shan is a successful businessman nowadays, working out of Hong Kong. He grew up in Beijing and got entangled in the madness of the Cultural Revolution. He “served” (?) a stint of several years living in the harshness of the Gobi desert. He managed to immigrate to the US and do a PhD there.
It’s an impressive book, but understandably silent on the machinations of the Chinese state after 1990, such as lack of democratic progress, treatment of minorities and its stance towards Taiwan.
“Convictions: A Prosecutor’s Battles Against Mafia Killers, Drug Kingpins, and Enron Thieves”, by John Kroger.
I came across this on Chris Blattman’s blog.
Kroger had been a marine, then chased the Mafia in New York City as a prosecutor and later worked on the Enron case. I greatly enjoyed this book.
I liked this line:
Mafia families have one profound organizational weakness: no clear rules for succession.
In law enforcement, a small but appreciable number of men run the risk of “moral capture.” They spend so much time living in the underworld, with crooks and crooked informants, they come to adopt its perspective. Almost imperceptibly at first, they begin to envy […].”
Criminal groups, in my experience, rise and fall in the same way. To survive, a criminal organization must be more than “good at crime” in some abstract sense. It must also exist in an economic and social environment that favors the particular organizational structure, type, and style of crime it practices. A criminal group that comes to power in one era, when conditions favor its existence, may die out when conditions change.
The mafia stopped being successful when the conditions changed: More credit options for poor people (apart from loan-sharking) and no more discrimination against Italian immigrants (leading to recruiting problems for the Mafia).
Kroger gets the mix right of being a successful hero, but being self-deprecating enough for it to read as an excellent memoir.
I was convinced that whenever I took a break from work—every baseball game, every dinner out, every lazy morning in bed—I was increasing the odds that a guilty defendant would escape arrest or conviction. […]
For two solid years I worked eighty hours a week. I busted a lot of drug dealers, and in return I was accorded a fair amount of professional independence. Jodi, my boss, let me do what I liked. I wore jeans and black Converse high-tops to the office instead of suits, spent tens of thousands of dollars on investigative trips, and dumped cases I did not like on junior, or less favored, colleagues. But I paid in other ways. On weekends you would typically find me at the office, poring over reports or examining evidence. Some afternoons I was so worn out I fell sound asleep in my chair, feet propped up on my desk. Typically, I got through the workday only because I was buzzed out on caffeine—kind of ironic, given my narcotics assignment. I was a good prosecutor but a limited human being.
This is a book I might re-read at some point.
“A Certain Idea of France: The Life of Charles de Gaulle”, by Julian Jackson.
This book cover a part of history I knew to little about and reading it was a pleasurable way to fill it. I liked the fact that at more than 900 pages, so it didn’t have to leave anything out.
Overall, de Gaulle comes out as an impressive, but flawed character. Democracy wasn’t the most important thing for him, but France’s “grandeur” - it’s standing in the world.
And in this he did succeed: I’ve always been puzzled why France is counted as one of WW2 “winning powers” and why it occupied a slice of Germany, got a permanent seat at the UN security council and so on.
“With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa”, by Eugene Sledge.
Sledge served as a US marine during WW2, fighting on Guadalcanal, Peleliu and Okinawa. He describes his experience during the war. He started writing the book right after the war, but it was only published in 1981.
It lacks any romanticism for war and describes the immense horrors he experienced. Highly recommended.
It’s the best book on what it feels like to be a soldier in a high-intensity fight, right after “Im Westen nichts Neues”.
The mini series “The Pacific” was based on it.
A factoid that stuck with me was that he didn’t sleep a single night in a real house during the whole stay in the Pacific. Only ships, tents and open nature.
“Tagebuch der Anne Frank”, by Anne Frank.
I’ve only come to read it now and it touched me deeply.