The danger of conformity.
The Brilliant Disaster: JFK, Castro, and America’s Doomed Invasion of Cuba’s Bay of Pigs
By Jim Rasenberger
The 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion — America’s clandestine initiative to overthrow Fidel Castro — was the classic example that led psychologist Irving Janis to originate his theory of groupthink: a phenomenon of otherwise competent people making bad decisions in the name of group harmony — and in this case, saving face. Using recently declassified CIA documents, Jim Rasenberger reveals that President Kennedy, long viewed as the naïve party in the bungled operation, had huge misgivings regarding its success, yet the mission went forward nonetheless. Relying on the CIA’s assurances about the weakness of the Cuban military, Kennedy dispatched over 1,000 troops to Cuba’s southern coast — where they were swiftly defeated, as the Bay of Pigs invasion earned its reputation as one of the most embarrassing foreign policy fiascos in history.
Life Goes On: A Novel
By Hans Keilson
Banned in Nazi Germany in 1934, this autobiographical novel tells the story of a Jewish textile shop owner, Herr Seldersen, and his son, Albrecht, as they struggle with hyperinflation and anti-Semitism during the devastated interwar period in Europe. Delivering a staggering insight into the fragile political infrastructure of a foundering Germany, Keilson helps us understand why Nazism flourished when and where it did, in perhaps the most infamous example of otherwise rational people allowing a madman to rule. See the full review by Anna Mundow here.
Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Former Washington Post editor Rajiv Chandrasekaran dove headfirst into the sub-rosa operations of the war in Afghanistan, and what he surfaced with forms the fascinating, cynical basis for Little America. From a suffocating bureaucracy in Washington that stalled Afghan political initiatives for years to the struggle between the Obama administration and a rogue Marine force still loyal to Bush directives, Chandrasekaran skillfully explores the institutional prejudices and missteps that dogged every initiative. Chandrasekaran concludes: “For years, we dwelled on the limitations of the Afghans. We should have focused on ours.” See the full review by Barbara Spindel here.
The Crimean War: A History
By Orlando Figes
The Crimean War, originally a territorial dispute between Russia and the Ottoman Empire that escalated in the 1850s to include Great Britain and France, has become a symbol of pointlessly destructive conflict. Months of poor planning, inadequate supply lines, and underestimating enemy prowess culminated with a flimsy treaty between exhausted rivals — with over a million soldiers and countless civilians killed along the way. Orlando Figes offers a cautionary tale against letting prejudice — in this case, anti-Russian sentiments — overtake diplomatic rationale. Despite its apparent futility, Figes contends that the Crimean War had a tremendous impact, its East-versus-West rivalry setting the stage for the slaughter of 1914. See the full review by Andrew Holgate here.
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
By Jared Diamond
Drawing on the issues of climate change, overpopulation, and political instability across the globe, Jared Diamond’s Collapse explores the history of environmental disasters coupled with human error that have crippled societies over the centuries. Studying the patterns of group decisions that led to the complete downfall of civilizations, from the fabled destruction of Easter Island to the demise of a Viking colony on Greenland that stemmed from an irrational refusal to eat fish, Diamond argues that despite outside environmental factors, we can avoid catastrophe by halting such misguided initiatives as overfishing and overhunting — and most important, overcoming an unwillingness to adapt to a changing world.