Looking for interesting IR and security books and movies to pass the time? I review some of my favorite books and films (both old and new, fiction and nonfiction) for your entertainment. I love media from around the world and am always open to comments and suggestions; let me know if you’d like to see your favorites on here too!
(All views are my own, and I receive no compensation from any of the parties mentioned in these forms of media; I simply review books and media I find interesting and informative.)
Book Review: The Emperor’s New Road: China and the Project of the Century (2020)
It has been almost a year since I last reviewed a book on this blog, and I can’t think of a better book to revitalize this page than CSIS analyst Jonathan Hillman’s The Emperor’s New Road. Hillman’s research has informed much of my own, inspiring much of last May’s article on CPEC, so naturally I jumped at the chance to preorder his book on China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The Center for Strategic and International Studies (specifically, CSIS’s Reconnecting Asia database), along with NBR, the Mercator Institute, and The Diplomat, is one of the best and most up-to-date sources tracking the development of the BRI.
Hillman takes a deep dive into specific BRI case studies across Eurasia, ranging from Sri Lanka’s infamous Hambantota Port to the landlocked transport hub of Khorgos, Kazakhstan to the “next Dubai” of Gwadar, Pakistan. His extensive travels throughout the region lend not only a great deal of credibility, but also a personal touch, to the volume. Hillman intersperses scholarly descriptions of BRI’s development with anecdotes about his regional travels, immersing the reader in the history and culture of the countries he describes while still providing informative analysis. In this way, Hillman’s work somewhat resembles Robert Kaplan’s Monsoon, which similarly balances heavy-duty geopolitical analyses with historical and cultural anecdotes. I would recommend this book to anyone looking to learn more about the Belt and Road Initiative, as well as Asian geopolitics and strategy more broadly.
Book Review: The Targeter: My Life in the CIA, Hunting Terrorists and Challenging the White House (2019)
Looking for a fast-paced, yet informative, book to get you through the lockdown? Nada Bakos’s memoir The Targeter, released in June 2019 (and available on Amazon), provides a look at one of the most interesting security careers out there: CIA analyst and targeter. Bakos has held a number of roles at the CIA, and this book focuses primarily on her hunt for infamous Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Bakos and a CIA team, along with Special Operations Forces, contributed to the analysis and targeting that led to Zarqawi’s eventual killing in 2006. The Targeter follows Bakos’s travels between Langley and Iraq as she tracks the man who orchestrated the notorious Canal Hotel bombings of the UN headquarters in Iraq, in addition to a range of other bombings and crimes including the incitement of a civil war between Iraq’s Sunni and Shia populations.
I’ve had my eye on this book for a couple months now—admittedly because I’m obsessed with the movie Zero Dark Thirty and the narrative surrounding the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and Bakos’s memoir seemed like something I would enjoy. Bakos’s narrative takes a deeper look at the workings of the counterterrorism world than Zero Dark Thirty, delving into the life histories of individual terrorists and even discussing the role that the hunt for Zarqawi played in the search for bin Laden. I finished The Targeter within a matter of days—even in the midst of final exams!—because I simply couldn’t put it down once I had picked it up.
The best part about The Targeter was that I found myself learning a great deal of interesting new information about the United States’ involvement in Iraq, as well as the literal intelligence-gathering processes and day-to-day CIA operations. Bakos discusses both the intelligence and military sides of the hunt for Zarqawi, and the broader conflict in Iraq, with empathy, humor, and cutting insights. She approaches the conflict in Iraq from an economic and social angle as well as a political one, contributing to the reader’s holistic understanding of the unstable situation in that country. The narrative is struck through with anecdotes ranging from amusing to heartwarming to tragic, immersing the reader in Bakos’s life both within and outside the CIA. I’d recommend this memoir to anyone interested not only in US security policy and intelligence work, but in Middle Eastern policy and international relations more broadly. The book puts a human face on the often-abstract notion of the relationship between intelligence and policy, confronting challenging topics with poise and clarity.
Film Review: War Don Don (2010)
In War Don Don, the Special Court of Sierra Leone (SCSL) investigates the alleged war crimes of Issa Hassan Sesay, a fighter for the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). The RUF fought in a ten-year civil war within Sierra Leone, during which it enforced a reign of terror spread through rape, mutilation, and murder. (“War don don” refers to the Sierra Leonean saying, “the war is over.”) The Special Court, a “mixed” court made up of lawyers and judges from other nations as well as Sierra Leone, aims to bring RUF leaders to justice in order to restore peace.
Interestingly, the film focuses not only on court proceedings, but also on the thoughts and opinions of the citizens of Freetown, Sierra Leone. Some citizens are grateful to the Special Court for attempting to bring about justice; others would rather never hear about or discuss the war again, even within the courtroom. The film portrays a story about the Sierra Leonean people themselves in addition to the story of the trial itself: the ways in which they recover from the war, rebuild their city, and go about their lives.
Despite the violent and disturbing nature of the subject matter, I found War Don Don to be a beautifully produced film. The music is hauntingly poignant, the camera angles are well-chosen and the shots are well-executed. I like the way the director chose to include shots of Freetown and interviews of the civilians in addition to portraying the goings-on within the Special Court. It makes the story feel more relevant to everyday people and reminds the viewer of the true purpose of international law: to protect the rights of those who have been harmed or who are at risk of being harmed in the future.
I also noticed the way the film contrasted the modern, sterile and technological with the traditional and undeveloped. The directors chose several shots of cameras focusing and sound boards adjusting within the courtroom, playing these images alongside shots of people living and working in extreme poverty. Even the design of the courtroom itself – clean, modern, and beautiful – contrasts starkly with the dirty and jumbled streets of Freetown. While the trial proceedings take place within the courtroom, the citizens of Freetown gather around decrepit televisions to watch the proceedings from the slums. I would imagine that the director chose to emphasize these contrasts to highlight the difference between outside observers’ perceptions of life in Sierra Leone, and the reality that Sierra Leoneans must face on the ground. Even the music contrasts the traditional and modern, mixing electric guitar with traditional percussion instruments.
To expand upon the theme of contrast, I found it interesting that the film acknowledges the “outsider-insider” dilemma and points out the racial tensions often implicit in the practice of international law. When outside tribunals come from other countries and attempt to bring accused war criminals to justice, what do people within that country think? According to some individuals in the documentary, Westerners often enter undeveloped nations unprepared for the harsh reality of life there; they do not understand the conditions that led people to behave the way that they have, so they are often too quick to judge actors about whom they know little. In the words of Eldred Collins, ““How do you know my truth when you don’t even know my background?” This is an important lesson to keep in mind for all those who hope to work for peace, development and justice around the world: just because one comes from a more developed country does not mean he or she knows more than the average person from a less-developed or war-stricken nation.
I Googled War Don Don and found an entire website dedicated to the film. According to the site, the film has won recognition from groups such as Human Rights Watch and the Hague; the film was even nominated for two Emmy awards for long-form journalism and editing. I can clearly see why this film was nominated for so many accolades – it presents an incredibly moving and legally fascinating story with implications for the lives of attorneys, judges, court reporters, victims of war crimes, and of course accused war criminals themselves. I’d recommend this film not only for those interested in human rights and international law, but also for anyone who enjoys long-form journalism and compelling human interest stories.
A view of Freetown, Sierra Leone
Film Review: Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today (1948)
An old film, but certainly an informative one. If you like international law and history, this one is for you. The film employs a “frame story” device to recount two narratives simultaneously: the story of the Nuremberg trials, and the story of the Nazi Party’s rise to power and subsequent warmongering and crimes against humanity. After opening with the beginning of the Nuremberg trials, the documentary gives the viewer a brief history of the Nazi Party and discusses the ideological methods the Nazis used to take over the German mindset and justify the atrocities Germany would later commit.
Although I found this film truly sobering to watch (its detailed depictions of Nazi atrocities were incredibly disturbing), I enjoyed learning about the world’s first trial for crimes against humanity. Given the number of wars that have taken place throughout human history, it shocked me that there had never before been a trial for perpetrators of large-scale atrocities. The film made me appreciate the legal processes that protect against atrocities like these in the future; since Nuremberg, international law has continued to develop, and international peacekeeping organizations (the United Nations, for example) have formed to attempt to safeguard the world against large-scale war crimes. Unfortunately, modern-day war crimes still occur (the Rwandan Genocide, for instance, occurred decades after Nuremberg). Hopefully, the world can draw inspiration from films like Nuremberg, which warn of the horrors that can transpire when governments and militaries are left unchecked. As the prosecution declared at the beginning of the film, “The real complaining party at your bar is civilization.”
Additionally, I appreciated the “frame story” device employed by the filmmakers. The use of this narrative style provided me with more context, allowing me to better understand the nature and scope of the Nazis’ crimes. The sheer number of European countries that the Nazis took over surprised me; I was shocked that the international community (especially the United States) waited so long to fight back against Nazi invasions. I suppose that, immediately after the Depression, the U.S. had other political priorities, as did the rest of the world. (It was this economic fragility that allowed Hitler to rise to power so easily.) Even so, this film serves as a sobering reminder of the often-necessary role of “peacekeeping” states on the international state. If the U.S. had gotten involved at an earlier stage, perhaps the Holocaust (or at least the invasion of several European countries) could have been prevented, and Europe might not have been left in such utter ruin after the war.
This film also gave me greater appreciation for the United States’ role in economic development. World War II was filled with so many battles and worldwide atrocities that people often forget about the destruction of cities and livelihoods across Europe itself (including within Germany, where the United States wiped out entire cities with firebombs). The U.S. helped rebuild Europe using the Marshall Plan and even supplied aid to Germany, despite its role in the war.
In addition to serving as a reminder of the necessity of international law, Nuremberg demonstrated the necessity of domestic policy and domestic order. As the constitution of UNESCO states, “War begins in the minds of men”: in other words, individuals’ thoughts and actions play a role in the selection of political leaders, some of whom go on to commit war crimes. The German people allowed Hitler to come to power; they attended his rallies, elected him, and burned books in the streets. This is not to state that all German civilians were evil or were directly responsible for the Holocaust; however, Nuremberg affirms the importance of critical thinking and knowledge of history, especially in the field of politics. Had the average German citizen thought a bit more critically about Hitler’s rhetoric and policies, he might not have voted him into power. It is incumbent upon citizens in democracies to consider the domestic and international effects that a leader might have given enough power.
The Nuremberg Trials, 1946
Film Review: The Reckoning: The Battle for the International Criminal Court (2009)
The Reckoning, a film describing the development and work of the International Criminal Court, begins with an emotionally jarring and disturbing scene: a group of men walking through a field and picking up a human skull lying on the ground. From this scene, the film transitions into a review of other atrocities – those that took place in Nazi Germany, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and Bosnia during its period of ethnic conflict – and leads into the 1998 Rome Conference. The film tells us that after the millions of wartime and genocide deaths that occurred throughout the 20th century, states decided to meet in Rome to form the International Criminal Court. Although the Rome Conference took a great deal of time due to states’ inability to agree on international laws and norms, 66 nations eventually “joined” the ICC by ratifying the Rome Statute. (This number would later increase to 92 states by 2004.)
The rest of the film focuses on the ICC personnel themselves, as well as the first several war crimes cases that the ICC faced. Although the ICC struggled at first (and continues to struggle in the absence of U.S. support), this court has successfully tried some of the world’s worst perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity. With every case study, interviewees emphasize the ICC’s goal of ending impunity – in other words, remedying the fact that the world’s worst criminals often go unpunished.
The International Criminal Court, pictured in 2020 (Wikimedia Commons)
Interestingly, bits and pieces of the ICC’s history are interspersed between the case studies. The filmmakers interview John Bolton, the main U.S. opponent to the ICC, who sought to prevent all negotiations and cooperation surrounding the court. Bolton, who has since been fired from his position in the Trump administration, has opposed the ICC virtually since its inception. The U.S. has not only refused to ratify the Rome Statute, but has actively resisted it by convincing other states to eschew it.
This film’s stirring soundtrack, excellent editing, and strong composition made it incredibly engaging to watch. A film about the founding of an international court could easily become bogged down with stories of bureaucracy, red tape and paperwork, but the filmmakers took care to add human interest to every element of the story. I appreciate that the film “shows,” rather than simply “tells,” the development of the ICC. By using interviews and trial footage, the viewer can trace the growth of the ICC from the Rome Conference to the courtroom. By mixing courtroom footage with scenes from everyday life – people walking through the streets of Kampala, children playing in refugee camps, and mothers caring for their babies – the film immerses the viewer in the real lives of the people affected by war crimes.
The filmmakers also took great care to record the physical environment of each location – the rivers, fields, and refugee camps in Africa, and the stately government buildings in Colombia, for instance. These ambient shots evoke a sense of place and put the reader in the shoes of the ICC personnel on assignment. I appreciate the close camera angles used during the interview segments. They made the film all the more intimate, allowing the viewer to observe quite closely the facial expressions of the interviewees.
Of course, several scenes – images of child soldiers, shots of bones lying in killing fields, and blurry footage of burned bodies – would greatly sadden and disturb any viewer. These scenes serve to remind the viewer of the importance of organizations like the ICC: humanity is clearly capable of depravity and evil, and evildoers must be brought to justice. This being said, a strong sense of hope and justice pervades throughout the film. Despite the horrifying images of senseless brutality against civilians, I had the sense that the ICC would prevail in the end and eliminate the impunity that the international criminals depicted in the narrative often enjoy.
I appreciate that the filmmakers interviewed such a wide variety of people – both those who supported the ICC and those who opposed it, as well as civilians involved in the conflicts the ICC was investigating. The diverse nature of the interviewees serves as an important reminder that international law is just that – international. If world peace is to be achieved, all states and ethnicities must agree to cooperate, even if their views initially seem at odds. On the topic of international cooperation, this film made me wonder at the United States’ reasons for eschewing the ICC. John Bolton’s inflammatory rhetoric regarding the Court, as well as the fact that states with admittedly terrible human rights records also fail to cooperate with the ICC, made me wonder if the U.S. has committed some sort of atrocity abroad that the ICC could uncover. I admit, I do have a somewhat conspiratorial nature – notwithstanding, though, I found Bolton’s aggressive position suspicious. When he argues that the court acts against U.S. interests, does he mean that it actively discriminates against the United States, or is he simply trying to avoid prosecution for war crimes?
I find it especially ironic that, as the film pointed out, the U.S. provided valuable input to the Yugoslavia and Rwanda tribunals but still decided not to support the ICC. This calls to mind the League of Nations, a United States brainchild that collapsed when the U.S. failed to join after its creation. I’m a realist at heart, and I admit I am skeptical of IR liberals’ faith in international institutions. I believe that states, as a general rule, manage their own affairs best. Even so, this film made me think about things in a different light, and I certainly support other decisions that the ICC has handed down in the past (the 2016 decision on the South China Sea, for instance). Hopefully the ICC will achieve its goals more successfully than the League of Nations did, ideally with greater cooperation from all member states.
A 2019 Rwandan Genocide memorial in Geneva, 2019. The ICC exists to punish perpetrators of genocide and discourage such atrocities from taking place again (Wikimedia Commons)
Film Review: Unbroken (2014)
Unbroken (2014) follows the athletic career, military service, capture and imprisonment, and eventual release of American Olympian Louis Zamperini. Zamperini, an Italian-American track runner turned soldier, survives a plane crash and spends 47 days on a life raft before being captured by the Japanese. After his capture, Zamperini must endure horrific torture and forced labor at the hands of notorious Japanese officer Mutsuhiro Watanabe. Based on a true story, the film follows Zamperini’s riveting survival story and eventual return to the United States.
Unbroken tells a powerful story of strength, courage, and forgiveness: as depicted in the film’s epilogue, Zamperini returns to Japan at age 80 to carry the Olympic torch and forgive the Japanese (even Watanabe) for their crimes. Watanabe refuses to meet with Zamperini, but it is clear that Zamperini has moved past his trauma regardless and gone on to live a long, happy and successful life after the war. Interestingly, the film portrays not only the events of the Second World War, but also some of the political events leading up to the conflict. (In one scene rich with foreshadowing, Zamperini is shown participating in Hitler’s 1936 Olympics.) Although Unbroken slightly dramatizes Zamperini’s experience for the screen, the film stays quite true both to Zamperini’s narrative and and to the broader events of WWII. As such, it constitutes a war drama that will likely remain a classic for years to come.
How historically accurate is the film? Unbroken illustrates one aspect of Japanese war crimes in the Pacific, as well as the impact of the Second World War on American soldiers fighting in Asia. Historian Antony Beevor writes of the atrocities committed by the Japanese in China and Korea, including mass rape, murder, and torture. Beevor describes how the Japanese military systematically sought to desensitize its soldiers to extreme violence, to the point at which they no longer viewed the enemy as human. “At Nanking, wounded Chinese soldiers were bayoneted where they lay. Officers made prisoners kneel in rows, then practised beheading them…Any who refused were beaten severely by their NCOs.” Similar atrocities took place in Manchukuo, a Japanese colony before the US even entered the war, where the Japanese forced locals into labor and executed those who stood in their way, including children. In agreement with the events of the film, the Japanese treated American prisoners of war with similar brutality. One Japanese doctor, for instance, has recounted brutal medical experiments, including organ removal, that his superiors carried out on American POWs. Atrocities on a massive scale – the Bataan Death March, for example – still live in infamy in American memory. The conditions in Japanese POW camps were horrific, even by wartime standards. While only 1% of American prisoners died in German POW camps, an estimated 40% of captured Americans died in Japanese camps.
Unbroken is an immersive film that, for the most part, stays true to historical events. As one “fact-checking” Time Magazine article points out, details of Zamperini’s life and survival story (including his “standout” Olympic run and the albatross-eating scene) really did happen. Jolie did dramatize the dynamic between Watanabe and Zamperini, “focusing on [Zamperini’s] relationship with a single guard rather than, say, his untreated beriberi.” If anything, the conditions in the Japanese POW camp were likely far worse than portrayed in the film. According to the “fact-checking” article, prisoners could not even speak to one another, despite often doing so in the film.
Even so, the film’s accuracy has remained largely uncontested due to the meticulous research carried out by its director, Angelina Jolie. Jolie is no stranger to films that tackle difficult, often brutal, historical topics. Jolie’s film In the Land of Blood and Honey deals with Bosnia’s civil war, and her memoir-based First They Killed My Father examines the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. An established humanitarian who has made dozens of trips to the field as a UN ambassador, Jolie remains inspired by compelling historical stories and the intersection of large-scale world events and personal resilience. She has worked closely with the subjects of her films – Zamperini included – to ensure accuracy and a sense of personal connection in her narratives.
“It wasn’t a conscious plan of, I was going to make war films, it’s just what I was drawn to,” Jolie told the New York Times in a 2017 interview. According to one ABC News report, Laura Hillenbrand, author of the biography that inspired the film, has “praised the dedication of the film’s crew in wanting to get the details right.” Hillenbrand, who interviewed Zamperini dozens of times for her biography, acted as a story and costume consultant to ensure historical accuracy. She told ABC news that the film’s main actor (Jack O’Connell) played a highly convincing Zamperini – so convincing, in fact, that viewing the film “felt like…watching Louie.”
Unbroken constitutes more than a typical “war film,” however; it portrays a story of resilience, courage and forgiveness in the face of unbelievable brutality. It also stands out as one of the youngest WWII films to date – part of a new generation of narratives encompassing modern classics such as Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017) and David Ayer’s Fury (2014). These films, shot with pioneering techniques and innovative special effects, will ensure that America’s newest generations remain both knowledgeable of and moved by narratives of the bloodiest conflict in human history.
Zamperini passed away before the film came out (fortunately, though, he was able to view an unedited version before his death). Now, his memory lives on through the film. “‘I’ve spent time with Lou and have been influenced by his story,’” Jolie stated in a 2014 Los Angeles Times interview. “‘I think it’s something we need today more than ever: You look around you and there’s so much to be overwhelmed by, and you study this life, this imperfect life, which is what’s so beautiful about him…And he turned his life around and became somebody who would later inspire so many people.’”
Zamperini with his B-24 Liberator in 1943 (Wikimedia Commons)
 Antony Beevor, The Second World War (New York: Back Bay Books, 2012), 60.
 Jung Chang, “‘They All Say What a Happy Place Manchukuo Is’ – Life Under the Japanese” in Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (London: Flamingo, 1992), 74.
 Justin McCurry, “Japan Revisits Its Darkest Moments Where American POWs Became Human Experiments,” The Guardian, August 13, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/aug/13/japan-revisits-its-darkest-moments-where-american-pows-became-human-experiments.
 Kirk Spitzer, “The American POWs Still Waiting for an Apology From Japan 70 Years Later,” Time Magazine, September 12, 2014, https://time.com/3334677/pow-world-war-two-usa-japan/.
 Daniel D’Addario, “The True Story Behind Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken,” Time Magazine, December 24, 2014, https://time.com/3645696/unbroken-fact-check-true-story/.
 Cara Buckley, “Angelina Jolie: Unbroken,” New York Times, September 13, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/13/movies/angelina-jolie-brad-pitt-first-they-killed-my-father.html.
April Chan, “Unbroken: Author Laura Hillenbrand discusses Angelina Jolie’s film on WWII POW Louis Zamperini,” ABC News, January 15, 2015, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-01-12/author-laura-hillenbrand-unbroken-film-louis-zamperini/5976876.
 John Horn, “Angelina Jolie Found Louis Zamperini of ‘Unbroken’ Inspiring,” Los Angeles Times, December 12, 2014, https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-et-mn-ca-angelina-jolie-20141214-story.html.