The best naval books to help you make decisions under extreme pressure

James G. Stavridis Author Of To Risk It All: Nine Conflicts and the Crucible of Decision
By James G. Stavridis

Who am I?

I am a retired 4-star Admiral who spent over forty years at sea, rising from Midshipman at the Naval Academy to Supreme Allied Commander at NATO. Along the way, I served in and commanded destroyers, cruisers, and aircraft carriers in combat, and I have faced many very difficult decisions under extreme pressure. In addition, I’ve been in the Pentagon for many assignments, including as Senior Military Assistant to the Secretary of Defense – which also created countless high-pressure decisions. What I learned in the Navy has helped me again and again in calculating risk and making the right decisions. 

I wrote...

To Risk It All: Nine Conflicts and the Crucible of Decision

By James G. Stavridis,

Book cover of To Risk It All: Nine Conflicts and the Crucible of Decision

What is my book about?

The hardest decisions we make are those that occur under extreme pressure. At the heart of my training as a naval officer was the preparation to lead sailors in combat, to face the decisive moment in battle whenever it might arise. In To Risk it All, you will meet nine men and women who face conflict, crisis, and risk. The lessons you learn will help you make the hardest of decisions. Let’s get underway!

The books I picked & why

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One Hundred Days: The Memoirs of the Falklands Battle Group Commander

By Sandy Woodward,

Book cover of One Hundred Days: The Memoirs of the Falklands Battle Group Commander

Why this book?

A brilliant and harrowing depiction of the kind of full-on, high-stress decisions made in the furious hours of combat in the deep south Atlantic Ocean as Great Britain sought to recapture the Falkland Islands from Argentina, which had seized them. There is no finer example of decision-making by a senior commander at sea in modern combat. As a strike group commander myself decades later in the Afghan and Iraqi wars, this book was invaluable to me in learning how to make hard decisions.

The Bedford Incident

By Mark Rascovich,

Book cover of The Bedford Incident

Why this book?

Set in the days of the full US-Soviet Cold War, this novel shows us a cat-and-mouse game played in the icy waters of the North Atlantic between an American destroyer and a Russian nuclear submarine. Nuclear weapons, the possibility of global war, and the extreme stress of decision-making under pressure are featured in a highly readable story. When I was an anti-submarine officer on a destroyer in the Cold War, I would literally wake up at night in a cold sweat about the possibilities of this kind of nightmare scenario unfolding due to a junior officer making a tragic mistake.

The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial

By Herman Wouk,

Book cover of The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial

Why this book?

A novel about a rusty old destroyer minesweeper, a supremely difficult captain, a mixed bag officers in a dysfunctional wardroom, a horrific typhoon, and a nail-biting court-martial. The seagoing and combat portions of the novel are very realistic, reflecting Wouk’s time in uniform on a similar class of ship in the Pacific during WWII. In my hand as I write this is a battered 1951 first edition of the novel, with a slightly tattered cover, which I treasure above almost any book in the five thousand volumes in my personal library. Over the years of my career, I’ve returned again and again to The Caine Mutiny, and the fundamental lesson of this sea novel is what both leaders and followers owe each other, especially in the demanding crucible of the sea.

Sea of Thunder: Four Commanders and the Last Great Naval Campaign 1941-1945

By Evan Thomas,

Book cover of Sea of Thunder: Four Commanders and the Last Great Naval Campaign 1941-1945

Why this book?

The US Navy at war in the Pacific is the backdrop to a series of high-pressure decisions made by various officers in command. The most striking is the heroic attack of a group of lightly armed US destroyers against the main forces of the Japanese Imperial Navy in the battle of Leyte Gulf. The so-called “Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors” and the heroism in particular of Commander Ernest Evans, a Native American who receives the Medal of Honor for his decisions in the battle. I’ve always been awestruck by Evans, who was a quiet, thoughtful man who had to make the hardest choice literally “to risk it all” to achieve his mission.

The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition

By Caroline Alexander,

Book cover of The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition

Why this book?

In an amazing feat of leadership and critical decision-making under the most stressful circumstances imaginable, Ernest Shackleton managed to save his entire crew – despite their ship being crushed in the ice pack of Antarctica. His decisions from start to finish risked everything – hiking to the edge of the sea, sailing one of the ship’s small boats on a voyage to a distant outpost, bringing help back, and saving the crew. His decisions inspired me in the many expeditions I led as a naval officer, none of which were as challenging as what he faced.

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