What to Make of the National Security State

Some interesting reads for the new year from the past year.

The life of a student of policy or an academic is not so much about reading books as it is about reading so much about books that you don’t have to read the books themselves. The national security field is sufficiently broad that one cannot hope to read every important book in a year. Staying informed represents a form of triage, struggling to keep up with the avalanche of information.

But important books have a penumbra, an impact that’s obvious beyond their specific content. To be sure, the final result often proves disappointing—I remain bitter toward the people who convinced me to read Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA—but very often the buzz surrounding a book makes it imperative to, eventually, read and evaluate it. The following list is of the important books of 2013 that should be on your radar for 2014.

My specific interests are in the history and the nature of the organizations that make up our national security state. Broadly speaking, the books below are about our national security state, how it came to be, what it has become, and what it worries about. We talk a great deal about grand strategy, but the production of grand strategy and the delineation of the national interest depends, to large extent, on how we structure our national security institutions.

The following five books speak to how the national security institutions of the United States came to be, how they have evolved in the face of daunting problems, and how they engage with the current strategic environment.

Richard Overy, The Bombing War: Europe, 1939-1945: Aviation historian Richard Overy has produced what amounts to a magnum opus, an over-seven-hundred-page evaluation of the practice of strategic bombing in World War II. This is the best single-volume treatment of the strategic bombing in the European theater, involving not only a detailed assessment of the Blitz and the Combined Bomber Offensive, but also a good account of the less well-known strategic campaigns in Russia and the Mediterranean.

What relevance does this have for modern strategic practice? This history remains important for two reasons. First, as Overy points out, the most murderous forms of strategic bombing, in which hundreds of thousands of civilians were crushed, suffocated, or incinerated, were practiced by the two most democratic regimes of the Second World War: the United States and the United Kingdom. While Germany and Japan undertook what was understood at the time as “terror bombing,” they were not well prepared to do so, and their attacks generally had only tactical and operational objectives. The bombing of Rotterdam killed 900 civilians; the firestorm of Hamburg killed 42,000. Ethically, the United States and the United Kingdom have yet to fully engage with this reality. Empirically, we still need a better understanding of how and why it happened.

Second, the idea of quick, winnable wars through the practice of airpower remains close to the heart of American strategic thought. The Combined Bomber Offensive represented a massive investment of scientific and engineering resources on the part of the world’s most advanced economies. Along with the Manhattan Project, it prefigured the relationship that would develop in the Cold War between the scientific community, advanced industry, and various organs of the national security state.

Stephen Kinzer, The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War:For aficionados of the modern national security state, the ‘founders’ are not Washington, Jefferson, and Adams, but rather the men who reorganized the American defense bureaucracy in the wake of World War II. Indeed, Dean Acheson’s Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department is perhaps the most appropriately titled autobiography in the history of national security studies.

Following up on The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War, Nicholas Thompson’s very interesting dual biography of George Kennan and Paul Nitze, The Brothers examines the contribution of John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, and Allen Dulles, Director of Central Intelligence. In a very important sense, the debates today over the nature and expanse of the national security state are an answer to the questions posed by the Dulles brothers and their partners.

The Dulles brothers are particularly interesting in the context of their contribution to “dirty wars” in Central America and elsewhere. The shadowy, extralegal use of the national security organs of the United States prefigured the current debate over how precisely the United States ought to fight Al Qaeda and similar organizations, and of the moral and legal trade-offs associated with ‘gloves off’ combat against complex, multi-faceted international threats.