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What We’re Reading: March 20, 2018

  • Last updated: March 20
  • Total word count: 1324 words

Below you will find a list of books that members of the Geopolitical Futures team are currently reading. It highlights insightful and relevant books from around the globe and the reasons we chose them.

Fall of Giants
By Ken Follett

I didn’t love Ken Follett’s “Fall of Giants” while I was reading it. Parts of it were gripping. The depictions of the battles – Tannenberg, the Marne, the Somme – are especially well executed, as is much of the Russian Revolution. And the discussions of strategy were absorbing once I got past the passages of clumsy dialogue. But other parts couldn’t end soon enough. There are multiple sex scenes – for the most part they were as uncomfortable as they were unnecessary. And there are some boring attempts at developing characters who are better thought of as avatars of whole institutions or social movements – the English earl who becomes an officer, the German nobleman who becomes a spy, the Welsh coal miner who takes up arms, the goofy American who becomes a diplomat, the poor Russian who joins the revolution, the other poor Russian who becomes an American gangster, the suffragist. By the end of the book, I was moderately interested in the fates of only maybe two of the dozen or so significant characters.

So I didn’t love the book. But I picked up the second installment of Follett’s Century Trilogy, “The Winter of the World,” the day after I finished the first. As you may have guessed, the second book covers Hitler’s rise in Germany, the Spanish civil war, the British efforts to repel fascism, the famous World War II battles, the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis and the Soviet soldiers, and the development of the atomic bomb. And I’ve found myself thinking about the first book almost daily.

I liked the strategic machinations and loved the war stories, but it’s the first-person perspectives that I haven’t been able to shake. Take, for example, the story of Walter von Ulrich, the son of an influential German official who arrogantly drove the country to war, and Walter’s childhood friend, a Brit named Earl Fitzherbert. Walter was a dove, Earl a hawk, but war is an indiscriminate machine that sucks in the meek and eager alike. They soon found themselves on the battlefield, mingling casually in no man’s land. These kinds of coincidences defy credulity, and I have to remind myself that they did, in fact, actually happen.

Over and over, the characters just happen to find themselves at the intersections of history. They’re in the key battles, the important meeting rooms. It’s improbable, but unimportant. The characters are just our excuse to be there as history unfolds. And a lot of history unfolds – Follett did a remarkable amount of research for the book, which comes in at around 1,000 pages.

Much of what the characters experience was nearly unthinkable. It’s a theme that came up again, even more horrifically, in the second book of the trilogy. I haven’t moved on to the third book yet, but I imagine it’s the outlier – the time when, miraculously, the worst didn’t happen. Still, as I read the headlines of today – about the dissolution of the European project, the brinkmanship in Northeast Asia, the rise of far-right groups and the polarization of America and much of the West – the unthinkability that thematically defines books one and two creeps into my mind and refuses to leave.

With hindsight, it’s easy to say those old wars and the surrounding upheaval in Follett’s books were inevitable. But to most of the men and women of the time, they were unimaginable. “Fall of Giants” allowed me to imagine it, and I almost wish it hadn’t.

Ryan Bridges, editor

The Rising Sun: The Rise and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945
By John Toland

When I asked a professor-friend of mine where I should begin if I wanted to get a better sense of Japan, he recommended this book without hesitation. He pitched it to me as a Japanese analogue of the famous “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” often cited as the definitive account of Nazi Germany.

The book is imperial in its scope – though it focuses on only nine years of history, it exceeds 1,000 pages – and even as I write this I’m only about half-way through. (U.S. and Japanese forces are currently attacking each other on Guadalcanal. For more on this, check out the excellent “Guadalcanal Diary” by Richard Tregaskis.) But I’ve read enough to know this is essential reading for any who want to understand Japan, World War II or geopolitics.

Toland’s virtues are many, but I will limit myself to naming just a few here. The most important is that Toland is unafraid to talk about the differences between Japanese and Western societies. Perhaps his fearlessness is due to the fact that he wrote the book in 1971, or perhaps its due to the timelessness of his integrity. Either way, Toland accepts that the Japanese psyche is different from the American psyche, and he goes to great pains to explain to the reader not just why Japan did what it did, but how Japanese leaders thought about the fateful decisions they were making. Indeed, one of the most important arguments Toland makes is that U.S.-Japanese relations in the lead-up to Pearl Harbor were bastardized by misunderstandings and mistranslations, and the outcome might have been different had Cordell Hull possessed a better translator.

Another of Toland’s virtues is the way he emphasizes the central role hubris and carelessness play in war. The U.S. had several indications that an attack on Pearl Harbor was forthcoming – but either the information was shelved, or the commanders trusted but did not verify that contingency plans were in place, or a certain attack vector was deemed an impossibility, and therefore no defenses were allocated as a result. The Japanese, later, were convinced that U.S. soldiers were weak, could not fight at night, and had been so thoroughly demoralized by Pearl Harbor that they wouldn’t put up much of a fight. (The U.S. harbored plenty of its own prejudices as well.) Japan would come to see that U.S. fighters possessed “seishin” (spirit) in abundance, and the U.S. would come to fear and respect Japanese fighting capabilities.

But perhaps Toland’s greatest virtue is that he is as methodical at historical analysis as he is at crafting a narrative that captures and then maintains one’s attention for more than 1,000 pages. Much of the time, Toland’s language is sparse, even sterile – the history he is covering is compelling enough without editorial embellishment. But Toland also has a knack for knowing when to drop the pretence, take a step back and realize what an awesome development a battle like Pearl Harbor or the Japanese occupation of the Philippines was, and his language will soar just for a moment to let readers know they have arrived at a momentous point – before getting back to the hard work of history.

The world Toland describes feels at once dated and contemporary. Reading this book almost feels like fiction until you remember that these were all perfectly real events that happened to people who are still alive. The book is history and contains much of it, but it also shows how a war like World War II could arise out of an unstoppable clash of divergent interests, and it’s a lesson we all should bear in mind as Japan emerges from its “Lost Decades” and faces threats and uncertainty all around. In the same way that Germany has defined Europe’s fate since unification in 1871, Japan has defined Asia’s fate since it modernized, and the world would be foolish to forget it.

Jacob L. Shapiro, director of analysis