Best of My Lawfare-ish Summer Reading

By Matthew Waxman
Friday, September 4, 2015, 3:11 PM

As usual, I didn’t make much of a dent in my intended summer reading. From among those I made it through, though, the following three books stand out. I recommend all of them to Lawfare readers.

This summer marked the centennial of the sinking of the Lusitania, and Erik Larson’s Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania (2015) is an excellent narrative that weaves together relevant geopolitical, tactical, technological, and biographical threads. Especially good are the vivid description of life aboard U-20, the German U-boat that sank the huge passenger liner, and the accounts of hunter and hunted captains Walther Schwieger and William Turner. By contrast, the detailed chapters about the passengers aboard the Lusitania and all the stuff they brought aboard with them get tedious at times.

To someone who studies how international law adapts (or doesn’t) to new military technologies, particularly noteworthy are the chapters on Germany’s decision to engage in unrestricted submarine warfare against shipping to and from Britain. Submarine warfare to strangle supply of Britain could only be effective if employed in ways that violated the inherited international rules – based on prior naval technologies and practices – which protected certain vessels as well as crews and passengers. Pre-war British admiralty assumptions about the strength of those norms caused it to discount the efficacy of submarines and contributed to poor naval investment and planning. Thus was created a race: would unrestricted submarine warfare force British capitulation before maritime atrocities brought the neutral United States into the war?

This is a case in which legal prohibitions on certain uses of emergent military technologies could not withstand perceived strategic advantages of ignoring them, and Germany exploited asymmetries in the way the Allies and the Central Powers respected legal constraints. True, the resulting backlash in the United States may ultimately have proven these German perceptions to be a strategic mistake. Yet notwithstanding the Lusitania’s sinking and similar events, even in late 1916 President Wilson was still winning reelection on a campaign to keep us out of the war.

An Officer and a Spy (2013) by Robert Harris “aims to use the techniques of a novel to retell the true story of the Dreyfus affair, perhaps the greatest political scandal and miscarriage of justice in history.” It is told through the eyes of one of that episode’s unlikely heroes, French Army Colonel Georges Picquart, who for most of the story serves as chief of the secret military intelligence section. This is a great literary device for exploring the worlds of 19th century spy-craft and French Army culture and civil-military relations.

The whole book is a stirring (if sometimes over-written) warning about reliance on secret evidence in legal proceedings. Much of the book focuses on the contents of the meager but manipulated secret intelligence file that was improperly shared ex parte with the judges in Dreyfus’s original military trial. Harris narrates the many ensuing legal proceedings in electrifying ways that spotlight the tactical moves and countermoves by the competing sides as Dreyfus’s conviction is at risk of unraveling.

There is no shortage of books about the Dreyfus Affair, including other recent work that uses it as lesson or parable about present-day counterterrorism policies. But this one is a thrilling page-turner, even knowing the ending.

In The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789 (2015), Joseph J. Ellis argues that the drafting and ratification of the Constitution is best understood as a second founding, in which the newly independent colonies that had thrown off distant and centralized government would now subordinate themselves to a form of it. He credits four figures as the key drivers of this subsequent revolution: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison. Washington’s integrity and credibility, Hamilton’s dogged energy, Jay’s foreign diplomatic expertise, and Madison’s intellectual and political-tactical genius were all critical to overcoming resistance in the Constitution’s pre-convention, drafting, and ratification processes.

Many readers will quibble with the choice of these four Founding Fathers, and maybe I enjoyed the book so much because it happens to line up with my personal favorites. Jay may stand out as an especially surprising inclusion in such a short list, and he actually seemed to feature a bit less than the others in the book, but if you buy one of Ellis’s main points – that foreign policy imperatives were the core motivators of a unified national government – then this foursome makes a good deal of sense. Especially with respect to foreign relations powers, I also agree with Ellis’s editorializing near the end that this history proves an original intention (at least among the players Ellis features) to interpret constitutional allocations flexibly enough to take account of evolution in American power, strategy, and foreign policy needs.

Although the book doesn’t break new ground, and much of the material is covered in Ellis’s other books, it’s a great and breezy read.