My core interest is in nuclear weapons--understanding the human qualities and dramas of those who develop and oppose them, and the history of the nuclear age. Over time, I've also become deeply interested in the ways nuclear weapons have leached into popular culture, and in recurrent patterns of distortion, enabled by our political leaders, in the way U.S. media explain military programs and war to the U.S. public. E. L. Doctorow described the American people, in an almost biblical turn of phrase, as "people of the bomb," and I've been trying to understand exactly what that means.
The current nuclear predicament cannot be understood without reading its history. American Prometheus, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Oppenheimer, is a fine place to begin. The authors tell Oppenheimer's tragic story with vivid insight and scholarly thoroughness, foregrounding the ethical dilemmas Oppenheimer and his colleagues wrestled with. Read it together with Priscilla McMillan's The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Viking, 2005)--another fine book on Oppenheimer, focusing more on his ruin than his earlier triumph. Ideally, after reading these books, watch Jon Else's extraordinary documentary, The Day After Trinity (PBS, 1981). I always show this film to my ethics and science class, and it never fails to incite intense discussion. It asks how the Manhattan Project scientists marched to Hiroshima largely on a sort of ethical autopilot. Next, the film tells the tragic story of Oppenheimer's second thoughts about what he had done, followed by his national humiliation during the McCarthy era.
A Boston Globe columnist, Carroll is an inventive voice on militarism. His writing always mixes moral conviction, original insight, and a humane respect for those with whom he disagrees. His earlier book, An American Requiem, explored how, as a young Catholic priest, he turned against the war and, in the process, against his father, who was a top air force general. House of War is his history of the Pentagon--a history that's personal, comprehensive, and powerful. It's work of immense scope and ambition.
Hirsch is an anthropologist whose husband was killed by Al Qaeda when the terrorist organization blew up the U.S. embassy in Tanzania. The book is a humane quest to understand the lives of the men who killed her husband, a riveting account of their trial (most of which she sat through), and a principled argument against the death penalty.
Nemesis is the last of Johnson's trilogy on the permanent war economy and the rise of a U.S. empire that Johnson sees as a betrayal of the American republic’s founding ideals; it's a powerful statement by a former conservative who has grown disillusioned with his country. It's nicely read together with Andrew Bacevich's The New American Militarism (Oxford University Press, 2005).
The nature of war is changing. For Americans in their living rooms, it has become remote and entertaining, like a video game. Meanwhile, in many parts of the developing world, it's become increasingly brutal, chaotic, and riven by ethnic hatred. New and Old Wars seeks to explain the emergence of a form of war that routinely violates the moral norms of war. Michael Ignatieff's Virtual War (Picador, 2001) uses the U.S. intervention in Kosovo to probe Americans' increasing distance from the damage done in their name.
Stalin and the Bomb tells the story of Russia's first nuclear weapons scientists and their relationship to Stalin's government. Holloway, who speaks fluent Russian, is a meticulous researcher and gifted narrator, and he got extraordinary access to Soviet documents. His book humanizes Russian scientists who were largely a mystery to the West until the end of the Cold War, but locates their story within global structures they couldn't control.
Media coverage of war is vital in mobilizing support or opposition to a war. It's too early for a good book on media coverage of the Iraq War, but The Uncensored War does a fine job of documenting how the U.S. media turned against the Vietnam War. War Stories (Routledge, 1995) by Mark Pedelty, an anthropologist who went to El Salvador to study foreign correspondents in the 1980s, really gets inside the journalists' lives and shows how their stories were manipulated by the Salvadoran government and the U.S. embassy.
Danger and Survival is an unorthodox history of the Cold War arms race by the Vietnam War architect and national security advisor to President John F. Kennedy. The book is a handy reference source for every weapons debate and arms control negotiation during the Cold War, and many of the assessments by this national security pro are fascinatingly at odds with conventional wisdom. For example, he argues that Hiroshima could have been avoided, likewise for the development of the hydrogen bomb. It's rumored that, as provost, Condoleeza Rice prevented Stanford University Press from reissuing it. That alone is reason enough to read it.
Wild Blue Yonder is my favorite source on the dysfunctional world of military contracting, now sadly out of print. It's a history of how pork-barrel politics saved the B-1 bomber from all attempts to cancel it, leaving us with an expensive white elephant that didn't fit the Pentagon's strategic needs.