Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Category: Book Reviews

Welcome to my site

I am a Senior Lecturer at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University.

My latest books are: 

Carr, A & Ball, D. eds. A National Asset: 50 years of the Strategic & Defence Studies Centre, Canberra: ANU Press, 2016.

Carr, A & Wallis, J. eds. Asia-Pacific Security: An Introduction, Washington D.C: Georgetown University Press, 2016.

Carr, A. Winning the Peace: Australia’s campaign to change the Asia-Pacific, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2015.

Selected recent journal articles are:

Carr, A. ‘Issues in Australian Foreign Policy: January to June 2016’, Australian Journal of Politics and History, 62(4), 592-607, 2016.

Carr, A. ‘The politics of the 2016 Defence White Paper’, Security Challenges, 12 (1), 1-17, 2016.

Carr, A. ‘The Engagement pendulum: Australia’s alternating approach to irregular migration’, Journal of Australian Studies, 40(3), 319-336, 2016.

Carr, A & Baldino, D. ‘Defence Diplomacy and the ADF: Smokescreen or strategy’, Australian Journal of International Affairs 70 (2), 139-158, 2016.

My full academic C.V and links to other papers can be found on the publications page.

 

My teaching includes:

Australian Strategic Policy –  Masters Unit, Australian National University.

Australia’s Strategic & Defence Policy – Masters Unit, Australian Command and Staff College.

Research Supervision – PhD, Masters Sub-Thesis, Honours levels. Topics for supervision include: Middle Powers, Australian security and defence policy, Asia-Pacific Security.

Napoleon the Great

Napoleon the Great by Andrew RobertsRoberts_Napoleon

Napoleon. The ‘god of war’ according to Carl von Clausewitz. A military leader in the pantheon of those known just by one name. Bonaparte modelled himself on these men (Alexander, Themistocles, Caesar), and through his achievements became one of them.

While I knew of the reputation, I knew very little of the man himself. Hence reaching for a more popular and engaging tome to begin setting the record straight. At 820 pages —a length I typically shun— I kept waiting for the story to lag, and the author to bore. But it never occurred. Some sections take a little more effort to chew through, but there is plenty of story to sustain a full tome of a biography.

The subject was a migrant who rose to ultimate power and identification with one of the great states of Europe. A believer in the French Revolution who compelled Europe to modernise their governments, while sliding into his own hereditary monarchy. A man of science and literature who was responsible for some of the worst bloodshed and needless waste in Europe’s long history. He led campaigns across Europe and Egypt, fought 60 battles —winning most of them— was Emperor at 34 and exiled twice.
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Rise of the Machines

Rise of the Machines: the lost history of cybernetics by Thomas RidRid_machines

If you want a new idea, read an old book. Thomas Rid has done precisely that to reveal the lost history of ‘cybernetics’. In turn he provides new insight to many of our most pressing contemporary philosophical, technological and social questions.

It’s rare to read a current affairs book that doesn’t deal in some way with the vast new power of machines. Typically, this challenge is presented as both new and future-oriented. AI is just around the corner. Mass unemployment from robotics will soon disrupt society. Robots fighting robots will be tomorrow’s battlespace.

Only, none of this is actually new. Rid traces three recurring themes which have shaped the history of ‘cybernetics’. Originally a scientific discipline it came to serve as a launch pad and language for a wide variety of communities who used the emergence of complex ‘thinking’ machines to rethink and challenge existing forms of life and social organisation.
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Light and Shadow

Light and Shadow: Memoirs of a Spy’s Son by Mark ColvinColvin_light

An ideal beach read. Mark Colvin tells an engaging story with wit and passion. Through the exploits of father and son this book ranges from violence and intrigue in Revolutionary Iran to the jungles of Vietnam and wide open steppes of remote Mongolia. Along the way we get stories of English boarding school life, the birth of Double J radio station (now Triple J) and forays into British and Australian politics.

It’s hard to say what exactly the focus of this book is and in one revealing aside late in the book Colvin acknowledges as much. The book is nominally about his father’s role as a spy, yet Colvin knew about this identity while his father was alive and seems largely reconciled to it and their relationship.

The book is also about his time as a journalist and foreign correspondent, yet most of the recent decades are skipped over in just a few pages. Ultimately, ‘Light and Shadow’ is an enjoyable, insightful memoir of a widely admired figure. And as the book sales show, that’s clearly enough.
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The Black War

The Black War: Fear, Sex and Resistance in Tasmania by Nicholas Clementsclements-the-black-war

The Black War is the name given to the conflict between the indigenous population of Tasmania and their conflict with the European settlers. It ran from around 1824 to 1831 and represents both the largest military operation on Australian soil and a brutal guerrilla conflict. It also featured fear, lust, paranoia and despair on both sides.

The most striking feature of this book is that every chapter is equally divided between telling the story of Whites and Blacks. This clever device allows Clements’ to explore, explain and ultimately sympathise with both sides.

Lest anyone be confused, or willing to believe indulgent lies, the moral scales are heavily weighted in one direction. The Tasmanian aborigines lived for 33’000 years on this remote island, yet survived barely 30 more after white colonialists arrived. They faced not only the destruction of their lives, but also their cultures, their way of life. The final years must have been as miserable as any people have lived, in the face of a relentless and ever strengthening opponent.

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A Savage War

williamson_savage_warA Savage War: A Military History of the Civil War by Williamson Murray, Wayne Wei-siang Hsieh

In summer 2012 I took a horse and buggy ride through Lexington, Virginia. As we moved around the town, the lady leading the tour pointed to the houses and buildings which Union soldiers had burned in 1864. And she was still pissed about it.

I’ve never quite understood her attitude, but now at least thanks to Murray and Hsieh I know why the damage occurred. It was a distraction operation under General David Hunter, to draw Confederate eyes away from Grant’s main thrust, while also helping to bring the war to the people of the rebellion.

While I’ve read several accounts of Lincoln and the war, my military knowledge of it is admittedly weak. Despite my profession, I tend not to read military history. Too often I find the genre focused on the actions of incredible, but insignificant individual soldiers. Which is fun in the same way an action movie is, but the real meat for me has always been the politics of conflict. Namely the interplay of strategy, leadership and logistics upon which wars —not just battles— are won or lost.
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The Wealth of Humans

avent_wohThe Wealth of Humans: Work, Power, and Status in the Twenty-first Century by Ryan Avent

The ‘current affairs’ shelf in bookstores is one of my favourite sections to browse. Though the topics are broad, the formula for the books is narrow: find a topic (big & well known, obscure but undervalued), synthesise 3 key themes, and add a subtitle such as “How XX can change the world”.

The Wealth of Humans by Ryan Advent will likely end up on the current affairs shelves in most book shops. But it’s an intriguing contribution that tries to break out of this simplifying formula.

This is a book of parts. I underlined hundreds of sentences, even whole paragraphs while reading through. Yet I’m still not sure what I’ll end up retaining from it. In its broad scope and focus, this book reminded me most of Tyler Cowen’s Average is Over. Though without the pity summaries and lasting analogies (freestyle chess) which help to leave an imprint in your memory long after the specific sentences have drifted out.
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Most Blessed of the Patriarchs

“Most Blessed of the Patriarchs”: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination by Annette Gordon-Reed, Peter S. Onufgordon-reed_patriarch

Let us count the ways in which thou art blessed. For Thomas Jefferson, this injunction could take all night. For the book Most Blessed of the Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination it is unfortunately a much shorter task.

Thomas Jefferson is a charming and contradictory figure. An ‘American Sphinx’ as one biographer described. I’ve probably read a half dozen books on Jefferson over the years in a bid to understand him; such that this task is ever possible. So I was excited to get a copy of this book, given the reputation of the authors and the advanced praise for this book.

What I find most interesting about Jefferson is clearly not what the authors do. To me, he is a man of philosophy, prose and politics. All three are occasionally illuminated through this book’s lenses of his role as a patriarch. This book brings together the latest research on Jefferson, showing just how much new we have learned in recent years. But less engagingly, most of this has to do with the more mundane aspects of Jefferson’s life.
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Engaging the neighbours

Engaging the neighbours: Australia and ASEAN since 1974 by Frank Frost 

Eengaging-the-neighboursngaging the Neighbours: is the definitive history of Australia’s attempts to work with and through ASEAN. An institution often mocked for its style, but which has been critical for the security and prosperity of the region.

Australians often describe their nation as facing a choice between its security and economic partners. Yet as Frank Frost details, for everything but the risk of a major power attack on Australia, ASEAN is Australia’s main security partner. Whether the issue is regional conflicts, keeping the major powers from competing in Southeast Asia, irregular migration, drug smuggling or terrorism, ASEAN has been the vehicle for Australia to find security in Asia and with Asia.

At times, Australia has been the ‘odd man in’, pushing for change in a way the rest of the region was not comfortable with. Sometimes our patience has been rewarded, such as with Australian contributions on the Cambodian peace accords or the creation of APEC. At other times, such as Kevin Rudd’s ill-fated Asia-Pacific Community proposal, the divergence has been a source of embarrassment for Canberra.
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Why the future is workless

Why the future is workless by Tim Dunlopdunlop_workless

It’s 9:29pm on a Friday night. I’ve had dinner, watched a movie, and finished a glass of wine. And yet two minutes ago, I sat down at my computer and checked my work email.

Everywhere we look, computers are changing the face of work. We are plugging them into existing machines so they can drive themselves. We are custom building machines to enable them to manufacture everything from iPods to houses. And mere software itself is replacing human workers, spitting out stock reports or providing medical advice.

According to Tim Dunlop, there are three ways we as a society are responding to this change. The ‘Business as usual’ school of thought recognises the change, sees there’s a profit to be made from it, and hopes that our historical experience —where machines create as many jobs as they consume— will hold. The ‘Back to the future’ school by contrast pines for the industrial era, rails against ‘neoliberalism’, and want protectionism and a large welfare state to manage the disruption.

Neither is that attractive or coherent as a world view. Instead, argues Dunlop the future needs to be ‘Workless’. In this engaging and accessible book, Dunlop argues that we need to fundamentally re-think how society is organised if we are to manage and indeed benefit from the radical changes occurring in who does the labour of our society.
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Culture of Complaint

Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America by Robert HughesHughes_Complaint

The 1990s are back. In music, fashion, and it would seem intellectually as well. Our politics once again involves anti-globalisation anger and demands for recognition and respect for culture. The daily contest is once more dominated by the ‘sterile confrontation between the two PCs – the politically and the patriotically correct’.

While Robert Hughes’ Culture of Complaint was published in 1994, much of it feels very current and relevant. Some of the names (Jesse Helms) and controversies (Piss Christ) may have drifted from the collective memory, but the central absurdities of both the left and right remain. Twenty-four years on, Hughes efforts to skewer them is still compelling.

The book is effectively three long (55ish page) essays. Originally given as lectures, and then magazine articles, they were later fleshed out for formal publication. At times this enlargement process has left more fat than muscle, with meandering personal anecdotes and tangents laid out before the business of the day is directly addressed. This is a common flaw of the modern essay form, and while Hughes is among the finest writers Australia has ever produced, even he can not escape its indulgent structure.
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Destiny of the Republic

Millard_destiny

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard

James A. Garfield is the type of US President known only to people who want to win Trivial Pursuit. But Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic makes a very good case for why the man and his times are not something we should ignore so easily.

As good as many US presidents have been, the era around the Civil War – with one standout exception – produced a lot of dullards and duffers as presidents. Either too willing to indulge the slave holders in the South, or too captured by the corruptions of the North, the second half of the 19th century is a somewhat sorry period in US governance.

While an assassins bullet denied Garfield the time to make a mark on history (he served just 4 months in health, and lived only 3 more as an invalid), he had all the qualities to launch an industry of biographers. Born in deep poverty in rural America, he ran a school, worked on the canal boats, fought in the Civil War, served in the House of Representatives for nine terms, and won the Presidency without actually seeking to be the candidate or campaigning.
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The Elements of Eloquence

Forsyth_elements
The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase by Mark Forsyth
Generally, it’s not the done thing to be laughing while on a plane trip. And doing so with a book on the English language in your hand is especially frowned upon. But such were the circumstances I found myself in last week when devouring this brilliant little tome.

Each of the 40 or so chapters is only a few pages, but that is all that is needed for the author to outline dozens of rhetorical techniques and show how they are integral to many of your favourite lines, from Shakespeare to Katy Perry.

Forsyth explains why ‘Bond, James Bond’ works (it’s a diacope), why the repetition of words at the start of each sentence captures attention (the power of epistrophe), and why epizeuxis is the real estate agents’ best friend (location. location. location).

As a particular emphasis, Forsyth shows how Shakespeare practices and improved on these techniques across his plays, and what makes some of his best lines tick (‘to be or not to be’ gets its power from the symmetry and repetition of ‘to be’ rather than simply as a rhetorical question). He also adds in little asides, such as noting that for absolutely no good reason at all, all adjectives in English have to be in the order of ‘Opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun’. Hence why you’ve never read about a ‘great green dragon’ (as seven year old Tolkien once tried to describe).

While this is a bleary and badly written review, I found myself adopting a handful of techniques from Forsyth’s book in a speech I gave a few days after reading the book. Not in a forced “can I be clever” way (though I’m always open to such illusions), but in a “oh if I move this to here, or repeat that there, the paragraph will work much better). Small edits that aid eloquence.

Strongly recommended. If only to dispel the idea that learning how language works should be boring.

 

Game Plan: The Case for a New Australian Grand Strategy

Game Plan: The Case for a New Australian Grand Strategy by Ross BabbageBabbage_game_plan

You may not know the author of Game Plan, Ross Babbage, but you know his work. The ‘Defence of Australia’ policy was built by many hands, but in the words of Des Ball, Babbage was the ‘conceptual leader’. In ‘Game Plan: The case for a new Australian grand strategy’, Dr Babbage signals his view that defending Australia now requires a new set of overseas hands, primarily from the United States.

Babbage’s strategic evolution has been a long time coming. His PhD thesis, dozens of papers, chapters and books such as the widely acclaimed ‘Rethinking Australia’s Defence’ and ‘A Coast Too Long: Defending Australia Beyond the 1990s’ were key contributions to the development of Australian defence policy from the 1970s to the early 2000s.

To be sure, the US alliance was always a vital part of this policy. It was ‘self-reliance’ not ‘independence’. But the weight was on Australia to show that it was up to the task of its protecting its front yard. While Paul Dibb, Richard Brabin-Smith and others fleshed out the force structure details, Babbage, Ball and others drove the conceptual debates, along with bouncing around the Northern Territory identifying how the terrain could be protected and the best technology for doing so.
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Dereliction of Duty

Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam by H.R. McMasterMcMaster_duty

In Dereliction of Duty H.R. McMaster provides a devastating portrait of an administration which stumbled evermore into a war it had no interest in and no understanding of.

McMaster’s central concern is to show the decision making processes that pre-determined a US loss in Vietnam. He begins with John F. Kennedy’s administration showing how its personnel (such as Secretary for Defence Robert McNamara), its structures (ad hoc, personal and without formal committees) and its key ideas (via the experience of the Cuban Missile Crisis) were dysfunctional and yet adopted by Lyndon B. Johnson.

On top of this, McMaster adds one more biting critique: That LBJ never wanted to go ‘all the way’, but rather saw Vietnam as a distraction and impediment to his re-election and domestic policy agenda. In McMaster’s view, Johnson was weak and insecure and only concerned with his popularity. This led him to sideline the key office supposed to advise him on military affairs: The Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS).
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