I spent the last two weeks working with a new group of homeland security master’s degree students. Being with people who are intensely passionate about this enterprise called homeland security does wonders for mental churning.
I thought particularly about what homeland security books I’ve most enjoyed reading over the past decade. Enjoyment for me means both informative and riveting. There is nothing that says a book about homeland security can’t be a page turner, a book you just cannot put down.
Here’s my list of 10 (possibly 11). I have not captured all the great written works in homeland security. And doubtlessly, your idea of riveting might not agree with mine. So I welcome your contributions.
1. The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, by Lawrence Wright.
For me, most of the homeland security literature begins with the events surrounding September 11, 2001. I agree with the New York Times reviewer who wrote “The Looming Tower is not just a detailed, heart-stopping account of the events leading up to 9/11, written with style and verve, and carried along by villains and heroes that only a crime novelist could dream up. It’s an education, too — though you’d never know it — a thoughtful examination of the world that produced the men who brought us 9/11, and of their progeny who bedevil us today.” (Dexter Filkins, in a review you can find here.)
2. The 9/11 Commission Report. The Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. And, while I’m at it, The Commission by Philip Shenon
The 9/11 Commission Report remains — in my view — the most elegantly written government report in the past 50 years. It is worth reading at least once a year — even if one only reads the table of contents or the still controversial graphic adaption of the 9/11 report by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón. I used to believe the 9/11 Report chronicled artfully the precarious balance between the search for justice and the pragmatics of reform. Reading The Commission after completing the 9/11 Commission Report radically disrupts that belief. But in a good way.
3. Firefight: Inside the Battle to Save the Pentagon on 9/11, by Patrick Creed and Rick Newman
The official 9/11 Report allocates two of its 428 pages to the successful response at the Pentagon. Firefight wants to remedy that glaring historical deficiency
“The Pentagon attack … has received less attention than the destruction of the World Trade Center towers in Manhattan and United Airlines Flight 93 in a grassy field in Pennsylvania…. The direst scenarios [about what might have happened at the Pentagon that day] did not come to pass, however, thanks to hundreds of firefighters, medics, FBI agents and military and civilian personnel. Heroes came in all shapes and sizes, from a vintage fire truck small enough to squeeze into the Pentagon’s central courtyard to generals willing to forget their stars. Most people run from fire. At the Pentagon, military and civilian personnel rushed into the building to save others and protect vital information. A four-star Army general with 20 soldiers at his back got into a wrestling match with a firefighter who had been ordered to keep people out of the building. The firefighter won, and the general apologized. Capt. Jennifer Glidewell, an Army nurse at a Pentagon clinic, went to the central courtyard as it began to fill with wounded and found herself, momentarily, the ranking medical officer. She took charge, but after a few minutes a three-star Air Force general approached. He was a doctor, he told the captain, and asked where she needed him…. It took five years for authors Patrick Creed, a volunteer firefighter and Army officer, and Rick Newman, a writer for U.S. News and World Report, to pull together this story. Combing public records and conducting 150 interviews, Creed and Newman have done a monumental reporting job. Firefight tells the tale moment by moment through the accounts of dozens of participants and eye-witnesses.” (John N. Maclean in a review located here.)
4. No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, by Reza Aslan.
Why do they hate us? Why did the attackers use Islam to justify their attacks? What is Islam all about? Where does one go to learn about Islam if one is not a Muslim or one does not speak Arabic? No god but God might not be the optimal solution — at least with respect to a reader, but it did open my eyes wide enough to advance my understanding, even if slightly. The book “manages to be both an incisive, scholarly primer in Muslim history and an engaging personal exploration.” It is not about us, argues Aslan. “What is unfolding … is nothing less than a struggle over who will ultimately define the sweeping ‘Islamic Reformation’ that [Aslan] believes is already well under way across much of the Muslim world.” We are ”merely a bystander — an unwary yet complicit casualty of a rivalry that is raging in Islam over who will write the next chapter in its story…. [The] historical process we are witnessing is less a clash of civilizations than a working out of suppressed internal conflicts…. Over the 14 centuries that followed Muhammad’s 22 years of revelation, Muslim kings and scholars distorted its tenets to serve their own narrow interests, and then cast these accretions in stone. Not only were the words of the Koran reinterpreted, but so were the hundreds of thousands of traditions and sayings collected by the prophet’s contemporaries…. If the Osama bin Ladens of the world have achieved one thing, it is to force Muslims to confront some of their demons.” (Max Rodenbeck in a review you can read at this link.)
5. The Edge of Disaster, by Stephen Flynn.
In this book, the author discovers that America is vulnerable to more than just a terrorist attack or a natural disaster. Flynn describes the country’s vulnerabilities in the maritime domain, where we build our homes, power grids, healthcare systems, transportation systems, and in other infrastructure sectors. One notes that Flynn’s 2007 call for a resilient nation has now morphed into mainstream public policy.
6. 12 Diseases that Changed our World, by Erwin W. Sherman.
This book frightened me to the significant biological threats the world has already experienced. These include the potato blight, cholera, smallpox, bubonic plague, syphilis, tuberculosis, malaria, yellow fever, the great influenza, and AIDS. In clinically neutral prose, the author describes how these diseases literally changed history. The author said he wrote the book to show that despite the challenges diseases like the ones he describes present, “the future is not without hope or remedy.” That said, this book should be read in a well lit room, preferably while one is wearing latex gloves.
7. The Dark Side, by Jane Mayer
The subtitle of this book is “the inside story of how the war on terror turned into a war on American ideals.” The book is about the moral costs of the war on terror. When I use this 2008 book in class I tend to get one of three reactions. Many students argue the book is a heavy handed and biased attack against the Bush administration. A number of other students said they knew all along this was going on. For a few students — maybe too few — the events described in the book trigger disgust. One continues to search unsuccessfully for evidence that Mayer got the essentials of the story wrong.
8. The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us and What We Can Do About It, by Joshua Cooper Ramo.
This, as one student described it, “is a game changer.” The Age of the Unthinkable is — if not the first — the most readable popularization of how to apply complex adaptive systems theory to homeland security. We discussed the book last week in class. As uncomfortably real time case studies of the validity of the ideas Ramo writes about, we had: the oil spill in the Gulf, the Times Square improvised explosive device, the flooding in Tennessee, and the stock market plunge. “We don’t have all the answers and, in fact can’t even anticipate many of the questions,” Ramo says. “Growing complexity and ceaseless newness” are not anomalies to be explained. They are the new givens. “Unfortunately… some of the best minds of our era are still in thrall to an older way of seeing and thinking….[Too] many of our leaders are incapable of confronting this disconnect. They lack the language, creativity, and revolutionary spirit our moment demands…. We’ve left our future… largely in the hands of people whose single greatest characteristic is that they are bewildered by the present.”In the 1960s, the slogan was “Never trust anyone over thirty.” In the 2010s, it’s “Don’t trust anyone who doesn’t get complexity.”
9. Terror and Consent: The Wars for the 21st Century, by Philip Bobbitt.
In this intellectually humbling and difficult book (at least to me), Bobbitt aims to build the meta-level national security and homeland security conceptual framework for the next 30 to 50 years. He argues that much of what we conventionally believe about terror and terrorism is wrong. He claims we can have a war against terror. He believes we are at the historical dawn of a struggle between governance premised on terror and fear, and governance based on the educated consent of the governed. He argues this battle will be waged against terrorist acts, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and catastrophes. A central claim in his argument is the need to reinvent law, including our Constitution.
It’s not dead yet. Mike German in his book “Thinking Like a Terrorist,” writes “the United States has the most practical counterterrorism strategy ever written, and its record of effectiveness has lasted over 200 years. All we have to do now is take it off the shelf where it has been languishing since 9/11 and implement it. The counterterrorism strategy I’m referring to is called the Constitution of the United States of America…. The Constitution is a workable counterterrorism strategy because its authors were themselves terrorists — or freedom fighters, if you prefer — fresh from a successful asymmetrical war of attrition waged against the superpower of their day…. When they sat down to create a new government, they wanted to inoculate it against the abuses of power that drove their just rebellion.”
One might disagree with German’s argument. But it is difficult to come away from a reading of the Constitution — one can pick just about any page — without remembering why we care about homeland security in the first place.