Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version
You’ll be bombarded with reading lists this year. Most from far more reputable organisations than this one. But hopefully you’ll enjoy our offerings a little more. The team of volunteers that make the Wavell Room work are absolutely passionate about improving defence through PME. We asked them to put forward their top books, podcasts, and tv programs for you to consider. Most of the picks are defence or security related (some links are clearer than others…). We have a diverse range of interests so some may also surprise you.
Frosty: Editor in Chief
I’m a bluffing paratrooper but I managed to stop eating my crayons long enough this year to read a few things.
Book: Urban warfare in the 21st century. I couldn’t put this down. The next conflict may be multi dimensional and cross domain and (insert buzzwords here). But one thing you can’t avoid is that parts of it will happen where people live. And increasingly, they live in cities. This book is a fantastic analysis of urban warfare and where it’s going.
TV: Cobra Kai. What’s this doing here? Karate Kid has a place in my heart. I started watching this series as a bit of a guilty pleasure. But as I watched, I realised we had a genuine metaphor for modern warfare building in this series. Conventional warfare, represented in the physical confrontation between Miyagi-do and Cobra Kai. Irregular warfare, with sabotage and subterfuge. Information ops, economic sanctions, it’s all there. Watch it. Come for the Karate, stay for the metaphor.
Der Verlorne Haufen. I had to plug a Wavell Room series. But this is genuinely excellent. It’s a 23 chapter story covering a near future conflict. With remotely piloted vehicles of all descriptions. Crewed and uncrewed combat. Genuine innovation, cunning deception. This series is a must read for anyone who is serious about understanding how future wars will be fought.
Charlotte: Engagement and Events Lead (part of ‘the good ideas’ club)
Marcus: Book Review Editor
There are many newly released PME books to choose from this year. If you’re looking for inspiration, the Wavell Room’s book review section is a good place to start. Failing that, I thoroughly recommend “Bullshit Jobs” by David Graeber or “Work: A history of how we spend our time” by James Suzman. Both titles examine the concept of ‘work’ our societies have constructed, and the effect it has had on all of us. With increased automation and modern technology, we should all be working less. And yet even with lockdowns reducing the commute to work, we’re all still as busy as ever. Read Bullshit Jobs to work out where your posting sits in the new system of “managerial feudalism”; whether you are serving as a “flunky, goon, duct taper, box ticker or taskmaster”!
Steve: Land Editor
I don’t think I’m cool enough to get away with recommending Cobra Kai (you’re not – Editor)…but I’m also not 16. My first recommendation is Future War. This is both a horrifying vision of how far the ‘West’ needs to travel but also an optimistic and realistic scenario about how it could all work. The book doesn’t hold much back in its critique of both Europe and America and offers a blunt and honest appraisal of the current security structures and how they may develop towards 2030.
One of the key books for the Army this year has been Simon Akams’s Changing of the Guard. It caused a bit of a stir when it was released. Obviously we reviewed it. The book is either an academic master piece or a collection of anecdotal mess dits sown together depending on your perspective. However, it’s worth your time.
Christina Lamb’s Our Bodies, Their Battlefields. I’m well versed in arguments around the Women, Peace, and Security agenda, but this book shook me to the core. Lamb’s writing drives home the need to study rape, and how to be better at creating peace. I haven’t stopped thinking about the stories of brutality she uses and asking what we might do better. This book will stay with me for the foreseeable future.
I’d also offer up Jim Storr’s latest offering, Battlegroup!. My review of it is still pending. But in classic Storr fashion he rips apart your view of warfare line by line with a relentless focus on evidence. I can’t help but think all of us should study warfare in the way that Storr does. It seems increasingly relevant to a British Army this is moving (back) to combat teams. Like his other writing, it’s just excellent.
I also want to point back to some of our own stuff here. The Wavell Room’s Tea, Toast, and Tactics series of podcasts are just excellent. (Worth pointing out that I had nothing to do with them!). I’d recommend this one about fighting – Russian – tanks. Company command is close second!
Finally, it also gets pretty boring being accused of being boring and only offering linear reading (and other stuff). However, this year I will stay to form and my last recommendation is John Lucy’s There’s Devil in the Drum. A very personal account of an Irish soldier in the First World War. For my money, it’s better than most of the compulsory texts used to train military leaders.
Film: Get the Sharpe box set out. No question. Oh, and Die Hard is a Christmas movie.
Phil: Senior Air Editor
Book: I’m supposed to focus on air and space… but I’m not going to. (Although Rowland White’s Harrier 809 and Brian Laslie’s Airpower’s Lost Caus are both great reads). It was Ken Payne’s I Warbot that was my stand out read this year. Firstly, we have the subject matter itself. It covers how artificial intelligence is already shaping the world and its potential to impact military operations. The author’s ability to discuss and analyse cutting edge concepts in such a natural and easy to digest style makes the book a real joy. AI is here to stay and it’s only going to get more important and I Warbot is a must read.
TV: Even if Line of Duty had actually finished with a decent ending, It’s a Sin would still be my choice of best TV programme of the year. Brilliant writing and acting, it’s a drama that is both funny and sad in equal measure. The series was also an insight into recent history. It covers a subject that first came to the public’s attention less than 35 years ago with the ‘AIDS Monolith’ advert.
Film: Having lost my parents to altzheimers and dementia, The Father was a difficult watch at times but it did show me just how confusing life must have been for them both towards the end. Anthony Hopkins may not have been favourite to win the Oscar, but I can see why he did. For those that were wowed by Bond, go and see The Courier for a Cold War tale of espionage based on a true story.
Nick: Senior Maritime Editor
I’ve been deployed for most of the 2021 so I’ve read my fair share of the available books. I’m starting with some podcasts. The first is the Preble Hall podcast, run by the United States Naval Academy Museum. Covering maritime history topics from all seagoing nations and delivered by top academics, it is a delight.
The second is John Rennie’s Deep Leadership podcast. This is a fascinating mix of both military leaders discussing their methods (Rennie himself was a Cold War submariner and former Commanding Officer of 22 years standing) and guests from industry, sport, the arts. Each has a unique take on what motivates people and how to lead them.
I have one other recommendation… and in an attempt to be less predictable than everyone here…. book one of the Gentleman Bastards series (The Lies of Locke Lamora). I received this as part of a mystery monthly book subscription and it kept me occupied when I was in Baghdad. It follows the wrangling of a gifted young con artist as he struggles to pull off his biggest score in the Kingdom of Comorr. After a steady start, the book really picks up the pace and the characters are flawed, believable, and well written.
Billie: Podcast Editor
Did you get to attend the Centre of Army Leadership’s recent virtual conference on Culture and Leadership? The line up was unreal. Simon Sinek was a speaker!!! I know right?? But actually, for me, the highlight was Arwa Mahdawi’s talk (at about 59 mins on the link above). It was funny, thought provoking and calls out the tokenism of organisations seeking to hit diversity targets. As a result, I want to read her book Strong Female Lead too. Also excellent was Olympic GB Hockey Captain Kate Richardson-Walsh’s, moving and honest talk in the afternoon session.
TV wise, I’ve just finished watching Landscapers starring Olivia Colman who is amazing! The four-part series follows the lives of convicted murderers Susan and Christopher Edwards. Also, you must watch the documentary 14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible. Former special forces soldier, Nimsdai Purja embarks on a seemingly impossible expedition to summit all 14 of the world’s 8,000-metre peaks in seven months. He is an inspirational leader who elevates the contribution of the Nepali mountaineering community to the world.
Lastly, my obsession with professor, lecturer, author, and podcaster, Brené Brown, continues. I love her Dare to Lead podcast and her latest book ‘Atlas of the Heart’ is on my Christmas wish list.
Manish: The team ‘challenger’
We started 2021 with Malte Riemann and Norma Rossi’s Decolonising Professional Military Education. To add further context, why not try Sathnam Sanghera’s Empire Land and Kehinde Andrews’ New Age of Empire, both of which offer searing insights into how legacies of colonialism and slavery continue to shape modern Britain. Prof Binna Kandola and the team further explore historical, and wider, racial trauma in their superb Race at Work webinar series. While racism and mental health intersect in David Harewood’s Maybe I Don’t Belong Here. This is a heartbreakingly honest exploration of the challenges and traumas of being not only both Black and British, but also mentally unwell. To add a military flavour to my selection, I’d recommend Radhika Singha’s The Coolie’s Great War, a fascinating telling of the rarely heard stories of over half a million Indian non-combatant “followers”, who sustained much of the military infrastructure of the British Empire and her Allies through the First World War.
Lola Akinmade Åkerström’s deeply moving and insightful In Every Mirror She’s Black depicts inescapable realities of being a Black woman in this world. In her eye-opening compilation Finding a Voice: Asian Women in Britain, Amrit Wilson chronicles the lives and experiences of British Asian women through hostile immigration cultures and colonialist hangovers in mental health services. Speaking of which, I’ve always been excited by intelligent, thought-provoking, challenging poetry, and Afshan D’Souza-Lodhi’s incredibly evocative debut collection, re:desire, hijacks themes and styles of traditional South Asian poetry as vehicles to explore the lives and experiences of British ‘desi’ women.
Continuing my love of poetry, and also circling back to both racial traumas and lasting legacies of Empire, if you only pick one thing from my selection, choose this: Bhanu Kapil’s astonishing collection, How to Wash a Heart. It offers a heart-aching, breath-taking, jaw-dropping, utterly stunning fusion of fury, humour, intelligence, vulnerability, ferocity, and uncertainty, as her immigrant guest unfolds epiphanies of barely hidden tensions and deeply uncomfortable truths to her white, middle-class hosts, because “It’s exhausting to be a guest / In somebody else’s house / Forever”. There are wider lessons there, as feelings of not fitting in, being an outsider, perhaps feeling isolated and alone can affect any of us, never more so than at Christmas, and SSgt Julius Davidson’s #WavellReviews of Noreena Hertz’ excellent The Lonely Century is a timely reminder of the challenges of maintaining team cohesion and welfare oversight, and promoting wellbeing in our people, in these fractured, segregating times.
Finally, I couldn’t end without drawing all of these, and many more, themes together with a massive shout-out to Kenya Barris’ hilarious, yet incredibly poignant show, Black-ish, and of course its worthy spin-offs, Grown-ish and Mixed-ish. So entertaining, you’ll be stunned to realise just how much hard truth and education they dropped on you.
Matthew: general all round editor!
My first recommendation is Aisha Ahmad’s Jihad and Co, which draws on original fieldwork and research to explain the rise of Al-Shabaab in Somalia and the Taliban in 1990s Afghanistan. In conditions of state failure, businesses struggle to turn a profit due to needing to pay off many different actors. Moreover, without a government to guarantee contracts, adherence to religion is often used to signal trustworthiness. MIlitant Islamist groups are able to leverage the high degree of social trust granted by their religiosity, and the promise of a unitary authority which would eliminate unsustainable bribes and fees, to gain support from the business community. It is a rigorous and academic piece of literature, well worth your time.
Empire Games by Charles Stross is a near-future science fiction which holds up a mirror to the modern surveillance state. In 2003, terrorists able to walk between alternate timelines destroyed Washington DC with a briefcase nuke. America retaliated, levelling their home timeline – but some survived, and fled. 17 years later, the US is a paranoid garrison nation determined to avoid another attack. When they find evidence that their old enemy is still out there, the wheels start turning towards a ruinous war fuelled by misperception and fear. While the premise is fantastical, Stross writes with a deft and critical hand which raises uncomfortable questions about the length we might go to assure our own security – and how bureaucratic politics are often just as lethal armies and fleets.
My last recommendation is Star Wars: The Clone Wars. You may – quite reasonably – ask why an animated children’s television show has managed to sneak onto a reading list dominated by professional military education. Well, first off, it’s just a lot of fun and we need some of that this year more than ever. More directly relevant, perhaps, is that it does engage with real military dilemmas. Two particular standouts are the Umbara arc (Season 4, Episodes 7 – 11) which deals with morale and loyalty in a war of attrition; and the Onderon arc (Season 5, Episodes 1 – 4), where our heroes train, advise, and accompany irregular forces conducting a guerrilla war. The show is an anthology, and it’s easy to skip over episodes which don’t catch your interest. It may not be staff college approved, but if you like science fiction in any form, it’s well worth a watch.
I’m not sure my recommendations will be received well by any of our dedicated PME purists, but here’s some stuff that I’ve enjoyed this year and consider worthy in the pursuit of changing one’s perspectives in the context of our future challenges.
First up is my most enjoyable read this year; ‘Project Hail Mary’ a sci-fi novel by the well known Andy Weir (of ‘The Martian’ fame). If you like science experiments, engineering ingenuity, human (and alien) adversity and survival and are curious about ‘astrophage’, then this is a book for you – the audio version of this is fantastic.
The most perspective shaping read this year for me was ‘Superpower Interrupted’ by Michael Schuman, who takes the reader on a fascinating historical tour of the rise, fall and re-emergence of China as a global superpower; though critically written to explore the Chinese rather than a western perspective of their cultural history. Hugely impactful, take some time to understand this increasingly relevant history from a perspective which matters.
Lastly, my most prescient read in 2021 was ‘The Ministry for the Future’ by Kim Stanley Robinson. This fiction novel is a very-near future exploration of how the human race may need to directly deal with the impacts of and manage climate change through the full spectrum of political, economic and social perspectives. It is a stimulating if not terrifying read, but one which I believe is also necessary to ‘jolt’ our collective societal consciousness to the tough decisions ahead as all our lives become increasingly affected by Climate change.
Most importantly, these three are all available as audiobooks and so very accessible for those with limited free time to pick up a book.
So those are some of the team’s picks. What do you think? If you want to review a book with us get in touch and we can probably get you a free copy.