Book review: War With Russia

General Sir Richard Shirreff’s book is important and educational, but it is mostly for those with an interest in military affairs.

War With RussiaI don’t read much fiction, and when a colleague recommended Sir Richard Shirreff’s book to me, I hesitated. A former Deputy SACEUR for NATO, a British four-star general, writing about military strategy in the guise of a novel sounded like a coping strategy for the transitional life crisis of retirement rather than a relevant contribution to a military strategic debate. But then I read Corporal Frisk’s review of the book and watched the enclosed YouTube video, and I thought I’d give the book a second chance.

The way to understand Shirreff’s book is that it is written by a man with a message, not by someone with a desire to be the next great thriller author. This sets the priorities in the book. In the preface, Shirreff clearly states his intention to “explain the very real danger we face to the general reader with no particular interest in defence and to make it accessible”. The idea is to reach another audience than those who would read a think tank paper or an article in a magazine about international security.

It would be fair to judge War With Russia against Shirreff’s stated aim with the book, which essentially is to lure people with no particular interest in defense into learning something about it. Unfortunately War With Russia is not a very good thriller. The storyline is predictable, the character gallery is full of stereotypes, and at times the dialogue is awkwardly artificial. The author’s desire to educate about military affairs shines through in a way that would disengage a reader who only reads the book for the suspense.

But judging War With Russia merely on its entertainment value misses the strengths, and I think Shirreff does his own book a disservice by stating so clearly that his intended audience is someone without particular interest in defense affairs. As a person who runs a defense blog, I am obviously not the defense agnostic reader that Shirreff had in mind when he wrote the book, yet I found that I was exactly the kind of reader who would benefit from it. In fact, I found it truly enjoyable and educational.

With insightful accuracy, Shirreff points at the most sore shortcomings of NATO: Wavering alliance cohesion, inability to make necessary decisions, unequal burden sharing, lack of crisis awareness among European governments, inadequate presence in the Baltic States, vulnerability to cyber attacks and hybrid warfare, inability to mobilize forces that only exist on paper, bureaucratic obstacles to force movements, and a military deterrence that is too dependent on nuclear weapons. Shirreff also successfully explains the technical quality of modern Russian weapons and the effectiveness of Russian military doctrine.

I think the book falls short when it comes to the description of Russian nationalism and the basic motivation that could lead Russia to initiate a war in the first place. A strength of the fictional genre is that it makes it possible to give the reader a personal relationship with a representative of the other side, but the Russians in the story are without exception unpleasant human beings, and their dreams and aspirations remain too simple to be plausible. War With Russia fails to give the reader the unsettling revelation that rational actions by scrupulous people on both sides could lead to war.

To some extent the book resembles an extended description of an exercise scenario, but that is actually a good thing. For a reader with some knowledge of defense affairs it adds a context that can deepen the understanding of connections between related issues. It does so with a fictional story that is good enough for the defense interested audience to remain entertained.

The book is pretty cheap at €6.50 in the electronic version. You can also hear the author explain many of his points in this YouTube video where especially the first half hour is interesting.

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