Dr. Joshua Sinai Discusses Latest Book Review in 'The Washington Times'September 8, 2021
Recently, Dr. Joshua Sinai, professor of practice in Counterterrorism at Capitol, had a book review published in The Washington Times newspaper, titled, "Evaluating Afghanistan, a review of ‘Counterinsurgency: Theory and Reality." Dr. Sinai sat down with Capitology blog to explain the process of writing for a publication, from choosing the subject to printing the final work. The original article can be found here.
Q: Can you explain how you decide which books to write reviews on? Do you freely choose or are you approached by the author and asked to review?
I started writing book reviews on a regular basis in the late 1990s, after I had left the Library of Congress’s (LOC) Federal Research Division (FRD), where I worked as a Senior Intelligence Analyst. At the time, FRD was contracted by U.S. Government agencies to conduct open source analysis on international security issues, using its unique access to LOC’s book stacks, which at the time numbered more than 100 million books, including hundreds of thousands of academic journals. We had access to the books, which we could borrow for several weeks–but keep only in our Library offices (you can be arrested and fined by the LOC Police for attempting to remove library books from the buildings). Once I left FRD, I immediately lost this literally unparalleled world-class access to the books in my field, particularly terrorism and counterterrorism, so I came up with the idea to write book review columns for the Washington Times, which Colin Walters, the Books Editor at the time, was interested in publishing because it fit in with the newspaper’s international security orientation. He has since been succeeded by other editors, with whom I’ve been in touch. In my columns, I capsule reviewed several books in a single 1,000-word column. Readers liked it because they could find out about several new books quickly, and publishers also liked it because the reviews were actually read!
I also write full-length 850-word reviews of books.
Because of my professional interest, I generally select books to review that cover topics that I feel are “strategically important” to be reviewed in a newspaper and that the readership would find interesting, as opposed to books that are “overly academic” and filled with unnecessary jargon.
Over time, as my reputation was established as a book reviewer, publishers and authors would approach me to pitch their books for a review, especially in the Washington Times, whose online readership is several million.
Q: How is it determined where your review will be published? Again, do you get to choose or do publications approach you directly?
Over time, I started writing my capsule review columns and full-length reviews in several publications, as a way to build up my own research library. In addition to publishing the reviews in the Washington Times, I’ve been publishing my reviews in the quarterly “The Journal of Counterterrorism & Homeland Security International” and the bi-monthly, online, academic peer reviewed journal “Perspectives on Terrorism.” Occasionally, I might be requested to review a book in another publication.
Q: What is the process of getting a review approved and published in a newspaper?
Publishing a book review in a newspaper differs from an academic journal. It has to be written to appeal to a newspaper’s general readership, so it has to ‘hook’ their attention literally in the first sentence and, in clear and simple language, tell a story about the book to make it interesting for them to continue reading the review. The last paragraph, in particular, should highlight why the book is important and worthy of being purchased and read.
There are two ways of getting a review published in a newspaper. In the first, book review editors, who are inundated by review copies sent to them by publishers, will generally select books they would like to be reviewed and then, using their professional contacts, decide on a possible reviewer for the book. In the second approach, reviewers who are interested in reviewing a particular book (for whatever reason), will send an email to the book review editors to inquire if they might be interested in having them write the review. In this case, however, it is important for the review editor to ensure there is no conflict of interest, as sometimes the reviewer might have an ulterior motive for reviewing that particular book (whether favorably, as a friend of an author, or negatively, as an adversary).
Q: Does The Washington Times differ from other publications in any unique ways? Or is the process mainly the same?
Prior to the eruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, which necessitated cutbacks in the commentary and opinion sections of newspapers around the country such as the Washington Times (which have since been restored), this was the only newspaper in the United States that published book reviews on the same page as the editorials, thus giving the reviewed book extra prominence. At one time, it was also one of the few newspapers in the country that published book reviews daily (Monday through Friday). Finally, it is one of the few newspapers in the country to primarily publish book reviews on political and international security subjects.
The process of being commissioned (or to self-pitch) to write book reviews is pretty much the same for all publications.
Q: Do you ever have contact with the authors whose work you are reviewing?
This is one of the most sensitive and conflict-of-interest ridden aspects of book reviewing. Book reviewers are generally subject matter experts in their field, so they are likely to know some of the authors whose books they review. Often, an author will contact a book reviewer to inquire if they could have their publisher send them a complimentary review copy. If a book is truly worthy, then writing a favorable review is a genuine delight. When a book is problematic, however, then it becomes a conflict for the reviewer to decide whether writing a critical review might ruin the relationship with the author. In my case, there have been numerous occasions when I had to write a critical review in order to alert the readers to beware of a book. This is one of the hazards of writing hundreds of book reviews over the years.
Q: Is ‘Counterinsurgency: Theory and Reality’ a book you would recommend to your students in particular? Why or why not?
As I wrote in the book review’s concluding paragraph, this book is “highly recommended as a valuable yardstick in successfully waging counterinsurgency campaigns.” In my courses (and writings) I like to use a systematic methodology to assess measures of effectiveness in military warfare, with this book, in particular, highly useful in itemizing some of them, which will be very useful to our students. Specifically, as I discuss in the review, in counterinsurgency these include supporting “an overall effort to achieve a political solution, including upgrading the local government’s governing capability and legitimacy; the counterinsurgents must understand the nature of the local population, whose safety must be secured from insurgent attacks, and whose popular support needs to be gained (i.e., winning their ‘hearts and minds’); foreign support for the insurgents must be curtailed, while foreign support for the counterinsurgency campaign must be strengthened; and the insurgents base of support among the population needs to be marginalized in the effort to neutralize them militarily (i.e., defeated).”
Interestingly, many of these and other measures of effectiveness in counterinsurgency were not implemented effectively in Afghanistan, which is one of the reasons that the Afghanistan government and country were taken over so quickly by the Taliban insurgents.
Q: How does publishing reviews and other content influence your teaching career? Do you ever incorporate your published work into your curriculum?
Yes – one of the reasons for writing book reviews is to build up my own research library with books that I can use in my writing and teaching. Several of the books I’ve listed as assigned readings in my courses are the product of books I’ve requested in the past from publishers to review. This has even enabled me to be selective about the chosen textbooks since I now have a large selection of books in my study to choose from.
Q: US involvement in Afghanistan commonly comes up when people think about the concept of “counterterrorism.” Since it is such a longstanding topic, would you say that it is an area of special interest to you?
This is an excellent question because it points to the confusion underpinning the US involvement in Afghanistan. It was such a massive undertaking, that it involved more than counterterrorism, i.e., to counter al Qaida’s terrorist campaign against the US and its allies. Terrorists do not necessarily aim to mount a full-scale insurgency against their targeted government, but to carry out single attacks, as frequently as possible, against both civilians, military, and police targets, in order to kill as many victims as possible, spread panic throughout society, and thereby coerce their governments to give in to their demands. Guerrilla forces, on the other hand, deploy para-military units to engage government forces in battle, unlike terrorists who either escape from the scene of their attacks or intentionally die there. To defeat terrorists, a counterterrorism campaign is necessary, but to defeat guerrilla insurgents, a full-scale counterinsurgency campaign is required, which also involves upgrading the local government and its forces who are expected to eventually assume much of the fighting. Thus, to explain the situation in Afghanistan, one has to teach the components of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency. To examine these issues, it is necessary to define the components of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency and examine how they needed to play out in a country such as Afghanistan. So, in my work, I broaden my analytic aperture to include both counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, which I hope will also benefit the students’ knowledge of these issues.
Q: Are there specific standards or characteristics that you feel books must have before you’re willing to publicly review them?
Generally, I prefer to review books that are worthy by being well-written, interesting, and insightful in new ways that contribute to enhancing our understanding of these issues. These are the types of books that I would review in a newspaper such as The Washington Times. Many books, however, may be too narrow in their topical academic focus, but still worthy of being reviewed in an academic journal such as “Perspectives on Terrorism” and “The Journal of Counterterrorism & Homeland Security International.”
Q: Have you ever been asked to review a piece and declined? Why?
Yes! Some books are overly propagandistic and one-sided on controversial issues, so I decline to review them.
Q: Do you have any advice or guidance for others who want to have their reviews or other works published in a newspaper?
Writing for a newspaper is different from academic writing, although even academic writing should use sentences and paragraphs that are clear, simple, interesting, and as much as possible free of unnecessary jargon.