The best books on knowing your enemy

Why am I passionate about this?

I am a historian of international conflict who focuses on understanding the enemy. For most of my career, I have studied why we so often misread others, and how those misperceptions lead to war. The current crisis in Ukraine is just one more example of how the parties involved misunderstood each other. I believe that if we could improve this one ability, we would substantially lessen the likelihood, frequency, and severity of war.

I wrote...

A Sense of the Enemy: The High Stakes History of Reading Your Rival's Mind

By Zachary Shore,

Book cover of A Sense of the Enemy: The High Stakes History of Reading Your Rival's Mind

What is my book about?

More than 2000 years ago the Chinese strategist Sun Tzu advised us to know our enemies. The question has always been how. In A Sense of the Enemy, the historian Zachary Shore demonstrates that leaders can best understand an opponent not simply from his pattern of past behavior, but from his behavior at pattern breaks. Meaningful pattern breaks occur during dramatic deviations from the routine when the enemy imposes costs upon himself. It's at these unexpected moments, Shore explains, that successful leaders can learn what makes their rivals truly tick.

With vivid, suspenseful prose, he takes us into the minds of statesmen to see how they in turn tried to enter the minds of others. He shows how this type of mind-reading, which he calls "strategic empathy," shaped matters of war and peace. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Mindwise: Why We Misunderstand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want

Zachary Shore Why did I love this book?

Epley, a behavioral scientist, provides an often-humorous take on our daily efforts to read the minds of others. He offers trenchant, real-life examples (in addition to scientific studies) of how we go horribly wrong – and why we sometimes get it right. In one clever experiment, people tapped out the tune of a song on a wooden desk while they hummed it in their heads. The tappers were wildly overconfident that others could identify the song – because it sounded so clear to themselves. Mindwise is a wonderful reminder to get out of our own heads and figure out the limits of what others can perceive.

By Nicholas Epley,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Mindwise as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From leading psychologist Nicholas Epley, Mindwise reveals our real sixth sense - our ability to understand our own minds and the minds of others

Arguably our brain's greatest sense is the ability to understand the minds of others - our sixth sense. In Mindwise, renowned psychologist Nicholas Epley shows that this incredible capacity for inferring what others are thinking and feeling is, however sophisticated, still prone to critical errors. We often misread social situations, misjudge others' characters, or guess the wrong motives for their actions. Drawing on the latest in psychological research, Epley suggests that only by learning more about…

Book cover of One Man's Justice

Zachary Shore Why did I love this book?

Set in the years immediately following Japan’s surrender in WWII, this less well-known novel offers insight into how some Japanese soldiers saw their behavior: not as war criminals, but as acting in retaliation for American bombing raids. The story should not be read as an exoneration of Japanese atrocities, but rather as a window into the much larger problem of understanding an enemy’s perspective. Warning: this perspective shift is sure to make you uncomfortable, forcing you to revisit some assumptions about the “Good War.” 

By Akira Yoshimura,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked One Man's Justice as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been destroyed. Japan is in ruins and occupied by the Americans.

Takuya, an ex-officer in the Imperial Army, has returned to his native village only to learn that the Occupation authorities are intensifying their efforts to apprehend suspected war criminals. And those who are found guilty are being sentenced to death.

Fearing that his role in the execution of a number of American pilots, Takuya takes to the road and becomes a fugitive in his own country.

One Man's Justice is both a reflection on the murky reality of war and a page-turning novel of pursuit…

Book cover of The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam

Zachary Shore Why did I love this book?

Much of America’s voluminous literature, scholarship, and films on the Vietnam War focus on the suffering of American G.I.s. This novel takes us into the heart of a North Vietnamese soldier struggling with PTSD. It is a gripping, wrenching tale of lives uprooted, futures destroyed, and dreams torn apart. It is a story that humanizes those seen as enemies: average people caught in the madness of war.

By Bảo Ninh,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked The Sorrow of War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This is the semi-autobiographical account of a soldier's experiences. The hero of the story, Kien, is a captain. After 10 years of war and months as a MIA body-collector, Kien suffers a nervous breakdown in Hanoi as he tries to re-establish a relationship with his former sweetheart.

Book cover of The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters

Zachary Shore Why did I love this book?

Myers, a professor and North Korea watcher, draws on a careful reading of the “Hermit Kingdom’s” cultural products (its political speeches, novels, pamphlets, and more) to tease out a worldview that is too often opaque to outsiders. While escapee literature focuses on how average Koreans suffer under that brutal regime, this book affords us insight into how the regime sees itself – in ways that will surprise you.

By B.R. Myers,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Cleanest Race as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Understanding North Korea through its propagandaA newly revised and updated edition that includes a consideration of Kim Jung Il's successor, Kim Jong-On What do the North Koreans really believe? How do they see themselves and the world around them? Here B.R. Myers, a North Korea analyst and a contributing editor of The Atlantic, presents the first full-length study of the North Korean worldview. Drawing on extensive research into the regime’s domestic propaganda, including films, romance novels and other artifacts of the personality cult, Myers analyzes each of the country’s official myths in turn€”from the notion of Koreans’ unique moral purity,…

Book cover of Secret Reports on Nazi Germany: The Frankfurt School Contribution to the War Effort

Zachary Shore Why did I love this book?

This is certainly the nerdiest of my selections. It is simply a collection of analytical assessments from the sharpest minds to study Nazi Germany during WWII. The authors of these reports, most of them Jewish intellectual academics who fled the Third Reich, joined America’s embryonic intelligence community before the CIA existed. The documents show how their deep knowledge of German social forces enabled them to counter the more superficial analysis of military and political officials about Germany’s likely course. As I wrote in my own book, if America had only had comparable experts on Afghanistan, the war there might not have ended as it did.

By Franz Neumann, Herbert Marcuse, Otto Kirchheimer

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Secret Reports on Nazi Germany as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

During the Second World War, three prominent members of the Frankfurt School--Franz Neumann, Herbert Marcuse, and Otto Kirchheimer--worked as intelligence analysts for the Office of Strategic Services, the wartime forerunner of the CIA. This book brings together their most important intelligence reports on Nazi Germany, most of them published here for the first time. These reports provide a fresh perspective on Hitler's regime and the Second World War, and a fascinating window on Frankfurt School critical theory. They develop a detailed analysis of Nazism as a social and economic system and the role of anti-Semitism in Nazism, as well as…

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Book cover of The Spanish Diplomat's Secret

Nev March Author Of The Spanish Diplomat's Secret

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author History lover Scriptwriter Reader Nature lover

Nev's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

An entertaining mystery on a 1894 trans-Atlantic steamship with an varied array of suspects, and a detective who must solve his case in six days to prevent international conflict.

Retired from the British Indian army, Captain Jim is taking his wife Diana to Liverpool from New York, when their pleasant cruise turns deadly. Just hours after meeting him, a foreign diplomat is brutally murdered onboard their ship. Captain Jim must find the killer before they dock in six days, or there could be war! Aboard the beleaguered luxury liner are a thousand suspects, but no witnesses to the locked-cabin crime.

Fortunately, his wife Diana knows her way around first-class accommodations and Gilded Age society. But something has been troubling her, too, something she won’t tell him. Together, using tricks gleaned from their favorite fictional sleuth, Sherlock Holmes, Captain Jim, and Diana must learn why one man’s life came to a murderous end.

By Nev March,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Spanish Diplomat's Secret as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In The Spanish Diplomat's Secret, award-winning author Nev March explores the vivid nineteenth-century world of the transatlantic voyage, one passenger’s secret at a time.

Captain Jim Agnihotri and his wife Lady Diana Framji are embarking to England in the summer of 1894. Jim is hopeful the cruise will help Diana open up to him. Something is troubling her, and Jim is concerned.

On their first evening, Jim meets an intriguing Spaniard, a fellow soldier with whom he finds an instant kinship. But within twenty-four hours, Don Juan Nepomuceno is murdered, his body discovered shortly after he asks rather urgently to…

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Interested in war criminals, empathy, and war?

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