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Lockdown Reads – 2020 Military-Themed Books

Some suggested reads if you're indoors with downtime during the pandemic

military-themed books

Stretching out on the beach with a good (military) book might have been what you did last year after seeing our article about books recommended on Sitrep by the London Evening Standard’s Robert Fox.

Admittedly, thanks to social distancing, you might well have been on a sunbed in your back garden rather than lying on a beach this year. 

Either way, there are still plenty of military-themed books to have chosen from and, here, we suggest 12 titles from our combined reading list that might catch the eye of readers with a keen interest in all things military.

With a recent tightening of coronavirus rules and the possibility of regional restrictions coming into effect, reading a good military book might be just the way to keep yourself occupied in your down time.

So here is a roundup of some of the titles we have read this year, along with a brief description of each to whet your appetite.

1.    Most people probably know Andy McNab from ‘Bravo Two Zero’, though if you have already read that, consider ‘The Good Psychopath’s Guide to Success’. Co-written with Oxford psychology professor Kevin Dutton, the book gives the traits of a 'good' psychopath like McNab and explores what the rest us can learn from them. 

Key psychopathic characteristics Dutton lists are: ruthlessness, fearlessness, impulsivity, self-confidence, focus, coolness under pressure, mental toughness, charm and charisma, reduced empathy and a lack of conscience. 

Obviously nobody wants to become Hannibal Lecter, though the book explains that one major difference between good and bad psychopaths is the ability of good psychopaths to control their psychopathic traits - like they are dials on a mixing board. In that sense, their psychopathy is adjustable. It is not that empathy or a conscience is not there, for example, but that both can be reduced when the situation requires it. On the other side of things, traits like focus and self-confidence might be increased when needed. 

The main thrust of the book is how aspects of 'good' psychopathy can be utilised to help us all tackle challenges like procrastination, risk taking and dealing with rejection.

2.    Fascism is different to the other big political ‘isms’ - communism, socialism, liberalism and conservatism - because it is more of a social phenomenon than a coherent political philosophy. 

That is Robert Paxton’s main argument in ‘The Anatomy of Fascism’, in which he defines and examines its emergence in pre-World War 2 Germany and Italy. Unlike normal dictatorships, which originate at the top, fascism is, essentially, a kind of extreme right-wing populism based around belief in: 1). A charismatic leader; 2). The supremacy of a given nation and/or race, and 3). The rightness of a sense of grievance against internal and external ‘enemies’ defined by the leader. 

This of course helps explain why war is a natural consequence of fascist regimes taking power, and a large part of why World War 2 happened. However, in the process of first emerging, then coming to and finally exercising power, fascism can morph and alter itself, which lends to the confusion about just what it is and how exactly to define it. Paxton brings clarity to this issue by exploring the process of how fascist movements come to, acquire and exercise power, while at the same time reminding the reader throughout of fascism’s essential elements.

Andy McNab, Kevin Dutton, Robert Paxton

3.    Your best guide to an iconic British aircraft like the Lancaster bomber is very likely former Tornado Navigator and ‘Spitfire’ author John Nichol. In ‘Lancaster: The Forging of a Very British Legend’, Nichol examines the role played by the Lancaster in Britain’s air war against Germany during World War 2, and the veterans involved in this huge campaign. 

Although today we tend to have a fond collective memory of huge successes like the Dambusters Raid, Nichol reminds us of the other side of all this. While the success and heroism of operations like the Dambusters is certainly something to celebrate and revere, so too was the collective effort made by those in the Lancaster crews and Bomber Command more generally. With an accounting of the huge casualty rates borne by these airmen along with a thorough look at the aircraft they flew, Nichol’s book is an important and insightful contribution to one’s understanding of the RAF in World War 2.

4.    Lockdown might make travel difficult, but if you at least fancy researching a bit of battlefield tourism then ‘Mons Graupius AD 73: Rome’s Battle at the Edge of the World’ might be for you. 

Released by Osprey Publishing, Duncan B Campbell’s account of the battle at Roman Britain’s likely most northerly point is packed with illustrations and maps. It likewise explains the wider history of the absorption of Britain into the Roman sphere, and why, despite a Roman victory, the boundary of the empire ended up considerably further south at Hadrian’s Wall. 

Campbell also explores the debate surrounding the exact site of this ancient battle as well as deducing from the evidence and other accounts its most likely location, in Scotland’s Grampian mountains.

John Nichol and Duncan B Campbell

5.    Why did the Germans lose the Second World War? Andrew Roberts explores and explains the reason (or reasons) for this in ‘The Storm of War’. He also shows how it very easily might not have been the case. The Germans had a high-quality military machine, the advantage of, first, surprise, and then of fighting a defensive war, as well as the opportunity to tip the scales of large-scale events in their favour. 

So why didn’t they? Why, for instance, did they foolishly declare war on the USA at the end of 1941? Why did they break their alliance with the Soviet Union and risk everything on a protracted rush across the vastness of that territory instead of using their resources first against the western Allies in the Middle East? Victory there would have given them the oil and territory to eventually make a more effective leap into Russia. 

Time and again, Roberts shows that sound military strategy was subordinated to Nazi ideology and Hitlerian personal idiosyncrasies. In these and other examples he shows how this all cost the Germans the war, and the life of Hitler and his Nazi regime.

6.    Known for ‘The Real Bravo Two Zero’, a work that gives a different account of the mission than those given by Andy McNab and Chris Ryan, Michael Asher tells the story of his own military career in ‘Shoot to Kill: From 2 Para to the SAS’. 

Serving with the Parachute Regiment in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, Asher later joined 23 SAS and after that the RUC’s (Royal Ulster Constabulary’s) Special Patrol Group, where he witnessed first hand the bitter partisan tribalism of the period, forcing him not only to battle terrorism but his own mounting disillusionment. 

Michael Asher and Andrew Roberts

7.    Counter-terrorism work is centre stage in Tom Marcus’ ‘Soldier Spy’. In it, Marcus tells his own story of life inside MI-5 after the 7/7 attacks and deals with his own and the organisation’s efforts to prevent more terrorism. 

Like Asher, Marcus was also tested physically and emotionally by the extreme demands and high stakes of the job, having had to deal with the stress of penetrating terrorist and foreign espionage groups. 

8.    Mental and physical strain is meanwhile played out on a grand scale in Anthony Beevor’s ‘Stalingrad’, generally considered one of the biggest, if not the biggest, battle in history. Informed by research Beevor conducted at the archives in Russia, this aims to be a comprehensive account of how the battle was experienced by all kinds of participants. The book is replete with stories from German and Soviet soldiers, as well as those concerning Russian civilians trapped inside the city. Through it all, the relentless violence, claustrophobic battle conditions, merciless authoritarianism on both sides, disease and, of course, harsh Russian winter all emerge as characters in and of themselves. 

Furthermore, as the preface to the new edition (available on the audio book) explains, much Russian archival material Beevor gained access to was only available during the narrow window between the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the re-emergence of authoritarianism under Putin. This surely makes Beevor’s account of Stalingrad not only comprehensive but uniquely detailed and accurate.

Tom Marcus and Anthony Beevor

9.    The Second World War more generally, as well as its place within the ‘short 20th century’, is the subject of Eric Hobsbawm’s ‘The Age of Extremes’. In it, Hobsbawm chronicles the shattering of dominance of the international capitalist system and European empires in the First World War and the years that followed. Taking 1914 to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 at the end of the Cold War as one epoch, Hobsbawm weaves the great events and ideological battles of the period into one grand narrative. 

He examines the emergence of communism and the Soviet Union from World War 1 as a competitor to western liberal capitalism and democracy in the wake of Great Depression; he also looks at how both systems ended up as unlikely allies against the threat posed by fascism during World War 2, and then how communism provided its western antagonists with the incentive to reform and improve their economies through some degree of central planning. A valuable read for understanding the grand military events and politics of the 20th Century.

10.    Just as the near century of peace that had existed on the European continent was figuratively and literally blown apart after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, so too was a long era of European peace broken in the 1990s. In ‘Shadowplay’, events in the same region where Franz Ferdinand was killed are chronicled by diplomatic editor Tim Marshall. 

In the book, Marshall uses his own experience of the conflict that broke out in the region in 1990s along with other eye-witness testimonies and interviews to chronicle and explain the period. He also makes clear that although violence was brought under control, conditions are still such that it might one day break out again.

Tim Marshall and Eric Hobsbawm

11.    With the 75th anniversary of VJ Day having just passed, Ronald H Spector’s ‘Eagle Against the Sun’ makes for an appropriate read. Like Beevor’s approach to Stalingrad, Spector combines detailed and comprehensive archival research with a broad narrative and assessment of the entire Pacific War campaign. Amongst other things, he reveals that competition between and within the Allied nations shaped the conflict as much as competition between the antagonists. He also shows that there were secret US plans for submarine warfare against Japan even before the Pearl Harbor attack. It is therefore an important book for understanding the War in the Pacific during World War 2.

12.    Finally, Forces.net’s coverage of VJ Day this year has also included a look at the Gurkhas’ role in that campaign. John Parker’s book ‘The Gurkhas: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Feared Soldiers’ has a great deal to say about their role in the Second World War, and much more besides. 

Parker starts out his narrative with a trip to modern-day Nepal where he has a chance to observe Gurkha recruitment with his guide, Major Gordon Corrigan. From here, the book then details the rich and extensive military history of the Gurkhas, starting out with the Anglo-Nepalese War that first enabled the two sides to do battle and come to admire each other in the first place. 

Parker also details their assistance of the British within the immediate region in the century that followed, before the Gurkhas were then used more widely during the First and Second World Wars. They have also been used extensively in a number of roles since the end of World War 2, such as working with the SAS and SBS against communist forces in the Malaya Emergency and in Borneo, patrolling the Hong Kong border before the handover to China, in the Falklands, the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq

One clear theme is the immense versatility and adaptability of the Gurkhas, as evidenced by their going beyond their initial role as infantry to high-tech roles, working as engineers and as paratroopers bolstering, at one point, 2 PARA. Parker even notes one highly unusual role as trainers for those seeking to conduct surveillance of rare bird egg poachers in Kent.

A second theme of the book is the cuts to their numbers that have been an ongoing issue since the close of World War 2. This brings the narrative full circle as Parker comes back to Gordon Corrigan and his role in trying to make the best of the situation as funding cuts to the Gurkhas were made. In all, Parker provides a comprehensive look at the Gurkhas and their history right up to the present day.

Wherever you are for the rest of 2020, hopefully one or more of these military-themed books will help keep you informed and entertained. 

Once again, if broader historical narratives are your cup of tea, look at Andrew Roberts’ ‘The Storm of War’, Eric Hobsbawm’s ‘The Age of Extremes’, Ronald H Spector’s ‘Eagle Against the Sun’ and ‘The Anatomy of Fascism’ by Robert Paxton. 

Tim Marshall’s ‘Shadowplay’, as well as ‘Mons Graupius AD 83’ by Duncan B Campbell and ‘Stalingrad’ by Anthony Beevor provide more focused accounts of specific battles or regional conflicts. John Nichol’s ‘Lancaster’, meanwhile, takes a detailed look at the Lancaster bomber within the broader context of its use by Britain’s Bomber Command during the Second World War.

Read John Parker’s ‘The Gurkhas’, Tom Marcus’ ‘Soldier Spy’, Michael Asher’s ‘Shoot to Kill’ and ‘The Good Psychopath’s Guide to Success’ by Kevin Dutton and Andy McNab for more personal military stories about specific units or people. 

John Parker and Ronald H Spector