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BOOK REVIEW – A Handful Of Bullets: How The Murder Of Archduke Franz Ferdinand Still Menaces The Peace

Ullman_A handful of bulletsBy Harlan K. Ullman, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, (2014)

Reviewed by Nathan Albright

Readers with an interest in grand strategy and a forceful and candid presentation of a wide variety of threats to the peace and well-being of the world will find a great deal of interest in this particular book. Although this is a book that deals with the lengthy origins of our contemporary troubles and repercussions of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and World War I, the book demands no particular understanding of jargon, as the author uses clear and easy-to-understand language. Even where one disagrees with his particular analysis or recommendation, one clearly understands where he is coming and recognizes the reasons why he makes the case that he does. This 214-page book (followed by an index) contains twelve chapters divided into three sections, followed by two appendices.

The first part contains three chapters that introduce the unraveling in state power that took place as a result of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. Ullman examines how globalization has so far diffused power to non-state actors and individuals and reduced the comparative ability for states (and militaries) to respond effectively and how failed government, economic scarcity, ideological extremism, and environmental disaster menace the peace and safety of the world. He further argues such crises have had dangerous consequences for United States because of inexperienced and unqualified presidents, the failures due to gridlock and incompetence of our national political system, and the change of the strategic situation to one where disruption rather than destruction is the aim of our enemies.

The second portion of the book looks at the looming threats around the world relating to regional warfare, economic problems, the threat of cyber warfare, as well as other wildcard scenarios that cause foreign affairs analysts to lose sleep at night.

The third section of the book contains five chapters that examine failed government, economic scarcity, ideological extremism, and environmental disaster in detail. He comments on the failure of strategic thinking in the current United States military, which has led to massively expensive and harmful interventions that have cost lives, damaged our reputation, and expended precious resources and goodwill as a result of failing to consider the consequences of removing dictators and the difficulties of nation-building. The conclusion makes a forceful recommendation for a brains-based approach to strategy instead of focusing on attritional warfare. The two appendices recapitulate arguments from the book with an open letter to the Secretary of Defense. He also makes a case for a future maritime force that takes advantage of low-cost and flexible ships developed by other nations (like Sweden) for littoral operations, less expensive options to an all-nuclear submarine force, and the creation of a reserve force that avoids scuttling valuable carriers in the face of looming budget difficulties.

Although this is a book written primarily to shape policy and grand strategy within the United States, this book will be of potential interest to a much wider audience of people.

That being said, there are some tensions in this book that will make it provocative and offensive to many readers, which will lead few people to agree wholeheartedly with the author. For example, the author claims to be nonpartisan, but his particularly hostile criticism of advocates of small-government and his contention that our constitutional checks and balances are obsolete will strike some potential readers as progressive in nature and therefore highly partisan. The author’s defense of American freedoms and the problems of spying on American reputation are counterbalanced by the author’s vituperative rhetoric towards bloggers, which is hard not to take personally. Additionally, the author seeks both to defend the importance of morality in American behavior (especially with regards to other nations) but is immensely critical of that group of people who care most deeply and openly about questions of morality through his hostility towards evangelical Christianity and his novel reinterpretation of biblical prophecy. This sort of ambivalence between the points the author is trying to make and the offenses he causes towards potential readers limits the effectiveness of the author in making a case for specific and detailed recommendations that require drastic changes of approach and behavior within the military and political establishment of the United States. At the most fundamental level, the author’s brain-based approach to analysis and policy would be better served with an approach that was less overheated and overemotional in its rhetoric.

Nevertheless, this is a book that contains immensely thoughtful and cogent analysis about the multifarious causes of difficulty in the present world, many of which range from the fateful consequences of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in 1914. The author’s pointed critique about the universal failure of governments to perform as desired and expected and about the catastrophic effects of partisan gridlock within the United States in particular is a much-needed counter to conspiratorial fears, and a warning that reforms to our political system are necessary to deal with the looming threats to legitimacy that governments face around the world, and here at home. Readers of an analytical bent will be pleased with the author’s desire to increase study to demonstrate facts on an objective level, rather than to allow different sides in a dispute to claim their own facts to muddy the waters and spread confusion and chaos. The author undertakes a difficult task in suggesting drastic and serious recommendations of a political and military nature, some of which will drastically change decades of behavior and others which will require constitutional amendment. Despite its flaws, this book represents a serious and mostly successful attempt to diagnose the causes of contemporary crises, give a clear eyed view of what potential futures exist, and give some thoughtful and thought-provoking recommendations as to how to best achieve those futures that are the most favorable to the United States and its people, and to the people of the world at large.

Nathan Albright is a blogger who lives in Portland, Oregon.

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