43 Books About War Every Man Should Read

by A Manly Guest Contributor on December 2, 2013 · 238 comments

in Books, Travel & Leisure

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Ryan Holiday.

War is unquestionably mankind at his worst. Yet, paradoxically, it is in war that men — individual men — often show the very best of themselves. War is often the result of greed, stupidity, or depravity. But in it, men are often brave, loyal, and selfless.

I am not a soldier. I have no plans to become one. But I’ve studied war for a long time. I am not alone in this.

The greats have been writing and reading about war — its causes, its effects, its heroes, its victims — since the beginning of written text. Some of our most powerful literature is either overtly about war or profoundly influenced by it. Homer’s epic poems are about war — first, ten years of battle against Troy and then ten years of battle against nature and the gods. Thucydides, our first great historian, wrote about the Peloponnesian War — the great war between Sparta and Athens. Rome was built by war and literature, and the world has been influenced by that ever since. The American Empire is no different — our men came home and wrote about the Civil War, about the Spanish-American War, about WWI, about WWII. A new generation has come home and has written (and is still writing) powerful books about the counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The study of war is the study of life, because war is life in the rawest sense. It is death, fear, power, love, adrenaline, sacrifice, glory, and the will to survive.

As Virgil put it, “the sword decides all.” We must learn how: the strategy, the motivation, defenses. We must understand and respect the darkness and the consequences: pain, death, evil, greed.

This is a post about the canon of books about war. Each book is about a different civilization, a different set of tactics, a different cause. But timeless themes always emerge. The lessons are always there. They do not — despite what the History Channel and school teachers try to make you think — pertain to flanking movements, or dates, or locations. I don’t really know those things. What’s the point? What matters is what we can take from them and apply to our own lives and society.

I’m certainly not recommending every book about war ever written, or even every book I’ve read on the subject, but instead a collection of the most meaningful. I’m sure I’ll miss some great books you’ve loved, so please suggest them in the comments.

Note: I have them roughly organized by chronology and era but feel free to skip around. I know I certainly did.

the_persian_expedition The Persian Expedition by Xenophon. In 400 BC, 10,000 Greeks are hired as mercenaries by Cyrus the Younger in his attempt to steal the Persian throne. They win the battle but Cyrus is killed in the fighting, stranding the entire Greek force thousands of miles and dozens of hostile countries from home. Xenophon is elected to be a leader of the troops and encourages them to fight their way home. All sorts of wonderful tactical thoughts and stories of leadership and bravery are shown in their journey home. Xenophon was a student of Socrates and philosophy so this book is a chance to see those teachings in action.
greek tragedy Greek Tragedy by Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles. There is no better reminder of the horrors of war than the work of these playwrights. From Euripides’ Trojan Women, which shows what happened to the innocent citizens of Troy after the Greeks pierced the city gates with their Trojan Horse, to Aeschylus’ Seven at Thebes (the battle between the sons of Oedipus, which reads like a video game), and The Persians, which tells of the massive defeat at Marathon and Salamis from the perspective of Xerxes, these are stunning works of art. People also forget that Aeschylus, known to us mostly as a great writer, actually thought of himself as a soldier. In fact, his epitaph makes no mention of his plays — which are now considered some of the best ever written — and instead highlight his bravery in battle against the Persians.
pelo war History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides. I won’t lie to you, this is a long book. But it tells the history of the epic war between Athens and Sparta — it is geo-politics, it’s strategy, it’s leadership, it’s lessons in grief, rhetoric, and persuasion. From the beautiful and moving words of Pericles’ funeral oration to the cunning and creative tactics of the Spartan general Brasidas, this book has everything. There is also the powerful lesson of Athens’ overreach, which culminated their loss at Syracuse and still has immense implications today. And then there was the ultimate overreach by Sparta, who won the war but had no understanding of how to rule an empire. It’s a must read for any student of the world. (My favorite little tidbit, Thucydides fought in the war, but was apparently disgraced and missed much of it because he caught the plague.) As a follow up, the book A War Like No Other by Victor David Hanson is a good accessible but modern history of the battle.
gatesoffire Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae by Steven Pressfield. It might seem weird to recommend a book of fiction on this list, but smarter people than I — and many actual soldiers — have all raved about the accuracy and poignancy of this book. It is perhaps the clearest and best book written on the 300 Spartans who fought the Persians (and sacrificed themselves) at Thermopylae.
westernwar The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece by Victor Davis Hanson. Victor Davis Hanson is a controversial guy and this is a controversial book, but I think you can put that aside and pick up some of the interesting thinking in this book. Hanson tested all sorts of assumptions and tropes we have about war. For instance, the phrase “and then the [soldiers] laid waste to the land” — what does that mean? How hard is that? It turns out that it is extremely hard. In full hoplite gear, Hanson and his team tried to destroy an olive orchard like a Spartan force might. It’s extremely difficult to do much more than superficial damage. What about those rousing speeches given before battle? Oops, war helmets in ancient Greece didn’t have ear holes! Hanson really helps you put aside what you’ve seen in movies and understand how battles were actually fought and how much those techniques are still with us today.
art of war The Art of War by Sun Tzu. In some ways, I find this book hard to apply (and easy to misapply) because it’s so aphoristic and general. But it is of course one of the most important texts on warfare and strategy ever written. If you don’t leave with a couple good lines — like knowing yourself as well as you know the enemy — you’re missing out.
alexander The Campaigns of Alexander by Arrian. Arrian gifted us with two amazing documents: one was the lectures of the philosopher Epictetus and the second was his history of the wars of Alexander the Great. Alexander is a wonderful example of the toxic burden of ambition. Yes, it brought him to the edges of the conquered world — but that’s also where he died, likely murdered by his own men. He had no real purpose for it all, no real plan or true empire — it was just fight, win, own, fight, win, own until the end (and in the end, as Epictetus observed, he still died and was buried like the rest of us). I’m not saying there are no other lessons, but this is the most salient one. Other lessons include: leading from the front and the importance of speed, surprise, and boldness. Another great book on Alexander is Steven Pressfield’s The Virtues of War.
genghis khan Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford. The Mongols were vicious animals and sub-human brutes weren’t they? Or was that all part of their strategy, aimed to intimidate enemies into submitting without a fight? Genghis Khan was one of the smartest warriors who ever lived, so I’ll say it was the latter. The Mongols turned war into a science — in fact, the first thing they did when they conquered new territory was find the scientists and scholars and deploy them as needed. They were masters of speed, surprise, and maneuver. They were also masters of cruelty and violence, no doubt about it. But these tactics were all used to surprising ends and built an empire that rivaled any other in history, and one that was actually known for its peace, prosperity, and freedom.
five rings The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi. I prefer this book to The Art of War. Technically, Musashi was not a general or a soldier but a samurai warrior. But given his profession, it is safe to say he was in a constant state of war. He fought in duels with the best warriors in the world, often all at the same time. His lessons on the difference between the seeing eye and the perceiving eye are good. He too talks of knowing the enemy better than their own commanders — so that your moves actually command and direct them where you want them to go. This book has many philosophical lessons that transcend sword fighting. You’ll love it.
napoleon Napoleon: A Life by Paul Johnson. Napoleon is not my strong suit and is someone I still need to study more directly. But I have picked up quite a bit through this great introductory biography and through books about the period – specifically On War and The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World (see below). Even Emerson has an enlightening essay on the man. I was also surprised to read The Black Count by Tom Reiss, which tells the story of one of Napoleon’s generals — a former slave who happened to be the father of the novelist Alexandre Dumas. There is also a fair amount about Napoleon in Robert Greene’s 33 Strategies (see below).
on war On War by Carl von Clausewitz. In terms of tactical warfare, this book would probably be better titled On War Against Napoleon, because that’s really what Clausewitz was writing about. It is in his understanding of politics — or rather, what happens when politics break down — that Clausewitz really made his contributions. So read On War for that, not for specific strategies.
decisive battles The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World: From Marathon to Waterloo by Sir Edward Shepherd Creasy. You could argue that every battle affects history. But there are a select few that change the world immediately and permanently. The Battle of Marathon meant the triumph of Western civilization over Eastern civilization and set the stage for democracy. The American victory at Saratoga over the British meant the success of the revolutionary cause. Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo changed Europe and made Britain the dominant power. The reason this book stops at Waterloo and mentions nothing of the Civil War, or the World Wars, is that it was written in 1851. It’s a unique historical document that gives greater influence to our classical past. If you’re a strategy nut, read this.
civil war stories Civil War Stories by Ambrose Bierce. Forget Mark Twain, forget Stephen Crane. They didn’t really know the Civil War. Ambrose Bierce was an officer in Sherman’s army and fictionalized his experiences into some of the more harrowing, disturbing portraits of warfare and its stupidity and indiscriminate destruction (and yet, deep allure), ever written. He hated war, but also loved it — all that comes through in a powerful way. Kurt Vonnegut considered Bierce’s “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” the best short story ever written and that’s enough for me. You have not truly experienced the Civil War until you read this book.
grant Ulysses S. Grant: Memoirs and Selected Letters by Ulysses S. Grant. Written by Ulysses S. Grant while at death’s door (and edited by Mark Twain), these are the thoughts of the man who won the Civil War through grit and determination and persistence (shockingly, traits lacked by almost all the generals who proceeded him). He calls the Mexican-American War one of the worst and most pointless wars, and the Civil War one of the most important and justified. There is a moment in the book early in Grant’s career as a soldier where he was sent to hunt down a band of guerrillas, shaking with fear as he arrived at their camp only to find they had run away. It was then that he realized the enemy was often as scared of you as you were of them. It changed his approach to battle forever. I think about that line often.
sherman Sherman: Soldier, Realist, American by B.H. Liddell Hart. There is no better biography of a military genius, period. B.H. Liddell uses Sherman to not only explain the Civil War, but strategy itself. It’s impossible to reduce a book down to just one thought or line, but Hart’s strategic explanation of attacking, always “along the line of least expectation and tactically along the line of least resistance” will change your life. Read about Sherman not because you want to learn about how the Civil War was won (though you will learn that), but to learn how wars are won, period. I would also strongly recommend Hart’s Strategy and Why Don’t We Learn From History?.
sherman2 Memoirs of General William Tecumseh Sherman by William Tecumseh Sherman. That’s right, there are two books about Sherman on this list. He was one of the greatest strategic minds who ever lived. He was also perpetually riled up (some think he may have been bipolar) and loved going on the attack. It makes for a great memoir. He’s one of the few generals to ever truly capture the horrors of war. He predicted exactly how long and how hard the Civil War would be. He won it by slowing coming to believe in himself and his instincts. He also won because he understood grand strategy – that the war would only be won by destroying its soft assets (the support and resources of the Southern women and plantation culture which had largely motivated the war in the first place). By collapsing that support, the will of the opposing armies collapsed as well.
daring suffering Daring and Suffering: A History of the Great Railroad Adventure by William Pittenger. Imagine this mission: You’re sent deep into Confederate territory in disguise. You and a handful of men are to steal a train and run the engine back to enemy lines, destroying the tracks and depots behind you as you go. Of course, something goes horribly wrong, a chase ensues, and you make it less than 50 miles. You’re then captured and sent to the South’s worst prison camp, where many of your comrades are immediately executed. THAT is the true story of Daring and Suffering. I don’t think I need to say much more in favor of the book, other than it’s a totally true story, and the subject — also the writer of the book — was ultimately the first recipient of the freshly created Medal of Honor. Another good book in this vein (though more contemporary) is Junius and Albert’s Adventures in the Confederacy, about two northern journalists who were captured at Vicksburg and ultimately sent to the same prison camp. They made a preposterous escape after two years in the camp and crossed over much of the same territory as the protagonist in Cold Mountain (see below).
Incidents_and_Anecdotes_of_the_Civil_War_1000359180 Incidents and Anecdotes of the Civil War by Admiral David Porter. We often forget that the Civil War was also a naval war. The North’s successful blockade of the South prevented it from surviving economically as a separate nation, and a series of key victories on the Mississippi (New Orleans, Vicksburg, and a few others) split the South in half and gave the Union the control of the most crucial waterways. Admiral David Porter was a large part of these victories (for instance, he ran the gun batteries in Vicksburg which helped Grant win and cement his status as the preeminent fighting general). Porter was also with Lincoln on his last days, including his foray into Richmond after the Confederate capital fell. This is a surprisingly fun, but sadly forgotten book.
civil war The Civil War: A Narrative by Shelby Foote. This epic three-volume masterpiece is to war what Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was to history. It is the definitive history of the US Civil War — it gives equal treatment to both sides, and is more than one million words, but is never boring. This book was a large part of Ken Burns’ amazing documentary The Civil War, which prominently features Shelby Foote in all his tweed jacket and pipe-smoking glory. Even if you don’t read the whole thing, it’s worth having on your shelf to flip through. Another great guide to the Civil War is the New York Times’ acclaimed book (and blog) Disunion, which has been narrating the war in a series of amazing articles coinciding roughly with the 150th anniversary for the last few years.
cold mtn Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. This is sort of a bonus recommendation. Though this book is fiction (and was at the time extraordinarily popular — and eventually a bad movie), it is actually quite good. Not only that, it covers a few themes that are quite important to the Civil War. One is the home guard, which patrolled for deserters and draft dodgers (on both sides) with brutal effectiveness. The war basically descended into gang violence in the middle states. Second, it includes the Battle of the Crater, which Inman fought in. It’s not very well known but incredibly strange. Third, the disillusionment of Confederate soldiers at the end of the war. People forget how utterly beat the South was (in large part due to the strategies of Sherman) and how this made many people realize how utterly bankrupt the cause was.
company k Company K by William March. What Ambrose Bierce was to the Civil War, William March was to WWI. Forget All Quiet On the Western Front, read this instead. It is WWI — possibly one of the worst things Western Civilization has ever done to itself — as it actually was. No glamor, no glory. Just a bunch of guys dying in trenches, trying not to go insane. If you want a second book (from the British perspective), try Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That. Like March, Graves went on to be an important and successful writer but never got over the demons he met on the battlefield.
7 pillars Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence. To some, T.E. Lawrence was a brilliant soldier, strategist, and cultural expert. But to others he was a charlatan. Regardless of what side you fall on, there is no doubting that T.E. Lawrence was a talented writer and expert on guerilla warfare. And with Seven Pillars of Wisdom he wrote an excellent — if at times embellished — account of his time as a liaison with rebel forces during Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire in 1916.
liberator The Liberator by Alex Kershaw. Col. Felix Sparks (later to be a Brigadier General) lands in Sicily in the first European invasion and makes it all the way to the gates of Dachau. He basically saw the entire trajectory of the Allied fight and victory over the Axis powers in WWII and this book is required reading for that reason. It gives you a full sense of just how awful the fighting in WWII really was and the quiet heroes who did it. Along with the other WWII books mentioned here and below, I recommend Ken Burns’ documentary The War, if only because it is largely based on these books and gives you a sense of the whole picture.
old breed With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa by E.B. Sledge. This book is the basis for the HBO mini-series The Pacific. It also happens to be one of the most haunting, realistic, and harsh memoirs of WWII. It was written in secret on scraps of paper during landings and island battles of Peleliu and Okinawa. These were two utterly horrendous campaigns, fought to the last man against thousands of entrenched (and often suicidal) Japanese troops in insane tropical conditions. Sledge writes about it as a man trying desperately to hold on to the last dregs of humanity inside him. He was never the same afterwards; only writing about it many years later was he able to find some peace.
Helmet_for_my_pillow Helmet for My Pillow: From Parris Island to the Pacific by Robert Leckie. This is the other important memoir of the Pacific Theater in WWII. Leckie, a journalist turned Marine, writes of Guadalcanal and Peleliu. His book is every bit as harrowing as Sledge’s but also humorous, giving us a glimpse into the fraternity and life of ordinary soldiers struggling to pass the time in some of the worst places on earth.
sandlin Losing the War by Lee Sandlin. Okay, this one isn’t a book — it’s just an essay. But this essay is better than almost any full book ever written on WWII. It may in fact be one of the best essays ever written (seriously). I’m not going to even bother to try to say more than that. Just read it, trust me.
Captain_Corelli's_Mandolin_1994_book_cover Captain Corelli’s Mandolin: A Novel by Louis de Bernieres. Consider this another bonus fiction recommendation (from a side you wouldn’t normally empathize with). It’s the story of the unusual circumstances of the Italian invasion and occupation of Greece during WWII. When Italy dropped its alliance with Germany, Germany attacked the Italian troops in Greece and committed unbelievable atrocities on the local population. All that said, this book is a beautiful love story and is also quite funny. It might be weird to admit this but if I recall correctly the book nearly made me cry — seriously. This book may be “about” war, but it is, like most of these books, mostly about people.
knights-cross-life-field-marshal-erwin-rommel-david-fraser-paperback-cover-art Knight’s Cross: A Life of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel by David Fraser. It’s going to feel weird reading a book about a German general in WWII but for Rommel we must make an exception. Yes, he fought for a terrible cause. But he did so brilliantly — as a soldier, strategist, and leader. His victories in North Africa were the stuff of legend, and had the US and British troops not ultimately had better resources, the whole thing might have turned out very differently. You cannot read about Rommel and not like and admire the man. I’m saying this so you’ll be prepared and ready to remind yourself that that doesn’t excuse his actions. But you can still learn from them.
american patriot American Patriot: The Life and Wars of Colonel Bud Day by Robert Coram. Bud Day might be one of the most decorated soldiers in American history. He fought in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. It was in Vietnam where he made history — shot down during a flight, he immediately made a death defying escape, with a broken leg and no food, only to be recaptured after three weeks just yards from American lines. Once imprisoned, he spent the next eight years waging a war of defiance against his captors. His nearly inhuman bravery and stoicism is still spoken of in awe by the men who witnessed it (John McCain was one of them). After the war, he was awarded the Medal of Honor. Calling Bud Day a badass almost seems patronizing. He was one of the strongest, bravest, boldest men who ever lived, period. Learn from him. Related recommendation: John McCain’s Faith of My Fathers discusses not only his own time in the Hanoi Hilton but also the exemplary military service of his father and grandfather (both Admirals in the US Navy).
book-gotowar-cvr What It Is Like To Go To War by Karl Marlantes. Read this book if you’re ready to have myths of war destroyed for you. A Yale and Oxford grad is dropped into Vietnam. There he is awarded two Purple Hearts and multiple other medals for bravery and leadership. In this book, you can actually watch as he struggles with the very human impulses to rationalize, glamorize, and justify what he was forced to do in those jungles. Yet he doesn’t — he is honest and introspective and gives us one of the most unique documents of combat and the mind of war ever written. (The essay Why Men Love War — also about Vietnam — is worth reading for similar reasons.)
rumor of war A Rumor of War by Philip Caputo. Considered one of the definitive memoirs of the Vietnam War, it is, “Simply a story about war, about the things men do in war and the things war does to them.” He was well aware that his job was to kill as many people as possible and he tells this to the reader, who needs to know it. His observations are jarring and uncomfortable. “I had seen pigs eating napalm-charred corpses — a memorable sight, pigs eating roast people.” Wow.
boyd-fighter-pilot-who-changed-art-war-robert-coram-paperback-cover-art Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War by Robert Coram. One of the greatest fighter pilot instructors who ever lived made his mark not in the air, but on the ground. Boyd, a master strategist and thinker, essentially reinvented our understanding of maneuver warfare. (His plans were used for the overwhelming victory in the First Gulf War.) The lessons in this book are incredibly valuable for anyone fighting against a bureaucracy, against inertia, against doubters and ass-kissers. It’s considered a classic and read by most strategic thinkers across the armed forces today for a reason.
cw war Charlie Wilson’s War by George Crile. If you want to understand why Iraq and Afghanistan are the way they are, this book helps. Basically, a congressman from Texas helped turn the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan into their Vietnam by empowering the rebel Mujahideen. Trained by the CIA with the appropriations he made available for the task, these fighters (which eventually included Osama Bin Laden) wreaked havoc on the invading and occupying forces. But the US had no exit strategy, no end in mind with all this. Those fighters went on, in many ways, to become the jihadists who are fighting many “Western” countries all over the world — in some cases using arms we provided them. This is a good book to help you understand that wars are often fought, won, and lost by people you’d never expect could influence the process.
war gone by My War Gone By, I Miss It So by Anthony Loyd. A British soldier turned journalist who craves combat like a drug addict is sent to report on the exploding crisis and genocide in Bosnia. His love of war mirrors his actual drug addiction. It’s a powerful, beautifully written book on a relatively forgotten and mostly ignored conflict — one that occurred in our lifetimes no less.
war-is-a-force-cover-193x300 War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges. Hedges is a masterful writer. We are lucky that he has given us a portrait of war so we would never leave our inclinations and attraction to it unquestioned. Hedges, a former divinity student, shows the effects of war on the men who fight it, on the countries they fight it for, and the politics and people who fall as collateral damage. If you like this book, you cannot go wrong by reading his others, including Empire of Illusion. I also strongly recommend William James’ essay “Moral Equivalent of War” from 1906 which looks at some of those same urges and drives.
TheHeartAndTheFist The Heart and the Fist: The education of a humanitarian, the making of a Navy SEAL by Eric Greitens. Having spent his teenage and college years volunteering in refugee camps all over the world, Greitens was bothered by the impotence of it all — that he could do nothing but comfort innocent people in harm’s way. So he became a Navy SEAL. Sometimes, he observes, you have to be strong to do good, but you have to do good to be strong. Thus, the heart and the fist. This is a powerful, moving book about our recent conflicts abroad and an inspiring memoir about strength, will, and empathy.
krakauer Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman by Jon Krakauer. The world needs more men like Pat Tillman. Ostensibly the story of a professional football player who gave up a $3M NFL contract to join the Army Rangers after 9/11, only to die under suspicious circumstances in the hills of Afghanistan, Where Men Win Glory is in its own way, a book about everything that is right and wrong with the military. On the one hand, there is the honor and selflessness and bravery. On the other, there is its inability to truly appreciate the individual, and of course, its shameful history of politics, ass-covering, and lack of accountability. Pat Tillman wasn’t perfect, but he was a man we could all learn a thing or two from.
brave_new_war Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization by John Robb. If you want to understand the future, read this book. John Robb is one of the greatest living systems thinkers in the world. The name for the kind of warfare John Robb studies is known as 4th Generation Warfare. You can think of him as a modern John Boyd — applying his thinking not to troop warfare or Pentagon politics but to super-empowered individuals, decentralized groups, and economics. I first read this book while researching for a speech Robert Greene (see below) was giving at West Point. I’m not sure any other text has shaped my view of politics and international affairs in the time since.
greene war The 33 Strategies of War by Robert Greene. This book was written by my mentor Robert Greene but my bias is far outweighed by the fact that it is universally regarded as a classic. Robert combines and synthesizes many of the texts above — plus countless other lessons — into a comprehensive book about strategy, execution, and campaigning. It can be applied to a job, a product launch, or yes, a war. This book works as both a great introduction text and a next level addition on top of some of the originals mentioned previously.
savior generals The Savior Generals: How Five Great Commanders Saved Wars That Were Lost by Victor Davis Hanson. This book tells of five different generals, each who came in and saved a war that was otherwise likely to be lost. Those generals are Themistocles, Belisarius, Sherman, Ridgway (in Korea), and Petraeus (in Iraq).
on killing On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by Dave Grossman. This is a controversial book too, but for other reasons. I suggest reading it because it deflates some of the puffery and glorification inherent in our assumptions and beliefs about war. It disputes the view that killing comes naturally to us and that soldiers take to war like ducks to water. In fact, most soldiers don’t ever fire their guns in battle (and this is pretty convincing evidence of that). I suggest this book as a counterbalance to many of the others listed here.
warbook WAR by Sebastian Junger. Although the war in Afghanistan has been going on for more than a decade, soldiers and cultural pundits alike have often noted how completely removed the vast majority of the American public is from that reality. Journalist Sebastian Junger closes that gap a little by transporting us to a hooch in the Korengal Valley where he spent five months living, sleeping, and coming under fire with the US 2nd Battalion. Junger offers a vivid, page-turning portrait of what it’s like to be in combat, the powerful bond between men who experience it together, the nature of the love and courage born from battle, and why despite its danger and hardships, men are drawn to it again and again. The book is a must-read, however, not simply because of its penetrating observations on war, but for its insight into the very nature of manhood and honor –- stripped to its most basic core.
thnak you Thank You for Your Service by David Finkel. Two former Marine officers suggested I end this list with a book about what happens when people leave the military. This book is one of the best and one of the most recent (though most of the memoirs above discuss this issue in some way). It will break your heart and frustrate you at the same time. On the one hand our military selects and then subjects a certain segment of our population to unimaginable stresses — and then expects them to navigate and deal with it on their own. (As they say “the rich wage war, the poor fight and die in them.”) This is a segment of the population often without the resources and support networks to deal with things like Traumatic Brain Injury (which is a LOT more serious than PTSD). On the other hand these same soldiers will frustrate you with their dysfunctional relationships and in some cases, generally poor choices. It’s a sad and frustrating situation all the way around. It reminds you that our soldiers are not all well-adjusted Ivy League grads like some of the authors mentioned above. But they still deserve better — they deserve better than empty thanks like getting upgraded on airplanes and platitudes. Related fictional read: Billy Flynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain.


There’s no question it is a good thing a full generation has passed in the West without requiring the majority of young people to feel the full brunt of war. War is a terrible thing (which, as Robert E. Lee once said, is good because otherwise men might grow too fond of it). To not need to experience it is a stroke of fortune that the previous generations were not gifted with.

At the same time, this can lead to a profound ignorance and naivete. As Cormac McCarthy once wrote, “depravity and violence and the ‘readiness to kill’ lurks beneath all human interaction like ‘the fiscal standard.’” The causes and realities of war are still there — always — they are just obscured.

They may rear their ugly head tomorrow. Or we may experience them by proxy or feel the impact of those drives sublimated through some other means.

For this reason we must understand war and how it is won. And we must understand what it does to people. Doing this helps us politically, socially, and consciously. It also helps us with whatever we happen to be doing. Wars are textbooks in logistics, planning, leadership, and execution. We can learn those skills by studying the best. We can also learn what not to do from the wars and generals who fared badly.

No one is saying you need to read all these books. I have read them over many years (and partially because it’s my job) but you will be better for exposing yourself to whichever ones strike or intrigue you. And don’t stop with these titles either — fall down the rabbit hole and take it where it leads you. And if you liked these recommendations, you can get more every month by signing up for my reading newsletter.

Chart your own course and report back on what you’ve learned.


Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me I’m Lying and Growth Hacker Marketing. His third and highly anticipated book with Penguin/Portfolio — The Obstacle is the Way — will be about practical philosophy and stoicism. Ryan writes at RyanHoliday.net and maintains an email list of monthly book recommendations for over 10,000 readers.

{ 238 comments… read them below or add one }

101 Mike December 3, 2013 at 2:26 pm

One Bullet Away – Nathan Fick

Chickenhawk – Robert Mason

102 Tom Macko December 3, 2013 at 2:28 pm

I literally just bought your book Ryan, and now you’re doing articles on AoM that’s funny.

103 Augustub December 3, 2013 at 3:02 pm

I can’t wait to get started on this. I’m currently reading Vincent Cronin’s Napoleon but that was aimed to be about the man himself. The Rise and Fall of Napoleon Bonaparte is pretty good and laden with details about each war he fought in. Though it lacks real analysis and the prose is awfully dry.

104 Zach December 3, 2013 at 3:11 pm

I’m not going to read all 100 comments so if this has been said already I apologize but Rick Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy needs to be mentioned in the same breath as any of these classic books on war.

I’ve read a lot of history, which obviously means I’ve read a lot on war, and no other books have ever done half as much to capture the humanity of the men who do the fighting. I found myself laughing at the audacity and humor under fire of the men on one page, and moved to tears on the next. They are truly remarkable books.


105 R J Vincent December 3, 2013 at 3:56 pm

I’ve read a little bit of “The Art of War” and read “Boyd” and used to know someone who flew with him. Said he was pretty much as described in the book.

106 Lienne December 3, 2013 at 3:59 pm

War Poems – Siegfried Sassoon

107 MAJ Michael December 3, 2013 at 4:00 pm

Grossman is an interesting cat; his book is pretty good. Alas, though, much of his hypothesis is based on the thoroughly discredited research by SLA Marshall. Marshall made up much of the data he used for his seminal work ‘Men Against Fire,’ which is the basis for much of what Grossman wrote in ‘On Killing.’

108 Jean-Francois December 3, 2013 at 4:09 pm

I always enjoy a book list built around a concrete theme.

I would recommend the addition of Sebastopol by Tolstoi. He builds on his experience as an officer in the Crimean War to construct a fictionalized account of the siege of the city.

This war was a precursor to modern warfare with a nearly year long stalemate involving heavy shelling of an entrenched position. Beyond the interesting account of a conflict remembered by few, Tolstoi delves into the question of virtue and nobility in an conflict increasingly won through shells rather than human agency.

109 Dan December 3, 2013 at 4:23 pm

Scipio Africanus: A Greater than Napoleon

110 Geoff December 3, 2013 at 4:42 pm

Catch-22 didn’t make the list???

111 Bryan December 3, 2013 at 4:44 pm

Two I read this summer, and would highly recommend:

1) “The Brigade: An Epic Story of Vengeance, Salvation, and World War II”, by Howard Blum. The British owned what is now Israel, and they were hesitant to let the Jewish settlers join the British Army, since many of these guys were involved in the Zionist movement. Reluctantly they let them join, train, get deployed, and see combat. After the war, these men started working their own missions: helping Holocaust survivors, tracking down Gestapo and SS men, etc. Amazing story, and true. Excellent read.

2) “Beyond Band of Brothers” by Major Dick Winters. These are Winters’ memoirs of serving as commander of Easy Company, 506th PIR during WWII. Interesting reflections on everything that happened, and some great insight on leadership. Actually, I thought the book was worth reading just for the lessons on leadership.

112 John Stater December 3, 2013 at 5:08 pm

I came across a WW1 memoir in an antique store years ago. The title is “War Bugs”. Found it very illuminating as it was written from the trenches, so to speak, by an American soldier. Probably difficult to find, but worth the read.

113 Wilson Hines December 3, 2013 at 6:09 pm

The Rise & Fall of the Third Reich????

How in God’s name is this not listed?

114 Thomas December 3, 2013 at 6:25 pm

All Quiet on the Western Front is probably my favorite book.

It shows the horrors of war as they were, no propaganda included and it’s intense. But it also shows the psychological affects war has on young men who know nothing else. It didn’t make it onto this list but I would seriously recommend it to anyone who wants a brutally honest book about WWI.

115 The Old Man in the Cave December 3, 2013 at 6:26 pm

I have to add “Once a Warrior King.”

One of the best books I’ve ever read, but nobody ever seems to have heard of it.

116 Orhan December 3, 2013 at 6:29 pm

War is a Racket – Smedley Butler

117 Will December 3, 2013 at 6:31 pm

I have to say On War is one of the best books to understand the relationship between the military and the state

118 Nick December 3, 2013 at 7:16 pm

I would like to recommend Samurai! It is the story of WWII as seen through the eyes of Saburo Sakai, one Japan’s leading ace pilots during the war. It follows his story from before WWII, thoroughly describes his training process into a naval pilot, his experience fighting throughout the Asia Pacific theatre and even his long distance romance. It culminates in the sad revelation that he became Japan’s leading ace through attrition.

If you ever wanted to understand WWII from the view point of a Japanese soldier, this book would be hard to beat.

119 Angus December 3, 2013 at 7:41 pm

I’d like to weigh in on Knight’s Cross and Erwin Rommel.

I’ve read it and quite a few other books on the man and whilst he was a General in an army fighting for a regime with a despicable agenda… HE wasn’t fighting for them. He fought for Germany. He fought for his country and what he thought was best for his countrymen.

He wasn’t a member of the Nazi Party, and when he realised Hitler was going to drag Germany down with him, he joined the conspiracy to have Hitler murdered. Whilst he wasn’t an active member of the conspiracy, association alone cost him his life.

Further, he was particularly Humanitarian. The German Africa Korps were never accused of War Crimes and Rommel openly defied Hitler’s orders to have Jewish POWs deported or executed.

I endorse the idea that Rommel is a man to be admired to its fullest and think that his behaviour during the war is to be lauded – especially when you consider the political affiliation of his fellow soldiers (and Germany as a whole) at the time.

Rommel and his troops fought against my great grandfather (an Australian soldier) in North Africa, and even though the conflict ultimately cost him his life… I still have nothing but respect for the man.

I think his ‘actions’ need not be excused.

120 Rob December 3, 2013 at 7:46 pm

Catch 22, by Joseph Heller.

All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque.

Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut.

Goshawk Squadron, by Derek Robinson.

Love and War in the Apennines, by Eric Newby.

Of those five, four of them were written by veterans.

121 Nathaniel December 3, 2013 at 7:47 pm

I’d also add The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien (http://www.amazon.com/The-Things-They-Carried-OBrien/dp/0618706410). It is an incredible memoir, easily one of the best written about the experience of men on the front lines, and is brilliant in the way it blurs the lines between fiction and reality. That’s a lot of positive adjectives in one sentence, but believe me, it deserves all of them. Any list of books on war should absolutely include The Things They Carried.

122 Andrew December 3, 2013 at 7:49 pm

The Iliad – Homer

123 Jamie December 3, 2013 at 8:00 pm

And No Birds Sang by Farley Mowat

124 Bryan Baldwin December 3, 2013 at 8:02 pm

I’m really surprised nothing by Tim O’brien made this list.

125 Sean December 3, 2013 at 8:10 pm

I have read Boyd, and I would recommend it as the first book to read on this list. Another good book to read is
“None of Us Were Like This Before: American Soldiers and Torture “. It offers an insite into the affects of being a POW. As an additional item, pick up a psychology book or pamphlet about PTSD, referring to war zones, and it will help with understanding the affects of these situations on soldiers.

126 Brock December 3, 2013 at 8:11 pm

Red Badge of Courage!

127 Graham December 3, 2013 at 8:17 pm

Great list. I would add the following:

War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy. The best novel ever written, period.

Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell. Great memoir of his experience fighting facism in the Spanish Civil War. Also a brilliant critique of the Stalinist takeover of the left in that war, and of the Stalinist-supporting left wing intelligentsia and press in Britain, which he later allegorized in Animal Farm.

In Pharaoh’s Army: Memories of the Lost War, Tobias Wolff. A vivid, absorbing memoir of the great American writer’s time in Vietnam.

128 Issac December 3, 2013 at 8:27 pm

Though Victor Davis Hanson’s books can be very dense if you are not a Classics scholar, all of his books are amazing works for the period and can help bridge the gap of why its important for Americans to still learn the classics.

129 Vicente December 3, 2013 at 8:29 pm

A little note on what concerns Rommel:
We wasn’t really much of a Nazi, and never cooperated on massacres and anything like that. Rommel was a soldier, and a brilliant one, he did what he was taught to do: fight wars. He didn’t agree with Hitler’s racial policies, and he was part of the coup from operation Valkyrie.
P.S.: I’m not German, so don’t think my opinion is biased, I’m portuguese, and I just admire Rommel for his brilliant strategies.

130 khairul helmi December 3, 2013 at 8:32 pm

I recommnend Antony Beevor masterpieces ‘Stalingrad’ and ‘Berlin: Downfall 1945′ among must read for these two books brilliantly captures the tragedy of war in Eastern Front both from military point of view as well as common soldiers and civilians caught in it.

131 Keys December 3, 2013 at 8:53 pm

I too read The Rise & Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer. It was a great book on the politics and propaganda of war. I highly recommend this book

132 Matthew December 3, 2013 at 8:59 pm

I apologize if these have already been mentioned, but I would recommend “The Forgotten Soldier” by Guy Sajer and “Storm of Steel” by Ernst Junger. They are German accounts of WWII and WWI respectively. The accounts of the defeated lend an interesting perspective not found in many of the other greats on this list.

133 Parker December 3, 2013 at 9:12 pm

Where the hell is For Whom The Bell Tolls? Hemingway anyone?

134 David December 3, 2013 at 9:17 pm

Once an Eagle by Anton Myrer. Taken from wikipedia:

General H. Norman Schwarzkopf described Once an Eagle as “[a] classic novel of war and warriors. Sam Damon doesn’t preach, he lives his values and they are universal, not only military.”
The book has also been on the Army Chief of Staff’s recommended reading list for professional development, and is currently on the Marine Corps Commandant’s recommended reading list as well.

135 Clay Roberts December 3, 2013 at 9:57 pm

This is a great list. I would probably start reading the books listed here. I wonder which one should I start with.

136 Ryan Holiday December 3, 2013 at 10:44 pm

@Clay: Start with Ambrose Bierce or William March or Pressfield. Great fiction is always the best place to star

@Angus and Vincente: At the very best Rommel was fighting in a war of the worst and least justifiable imperialism. Germany sought, essentially, to colonize Europe. Not some foreign land (which is still awful) but its direct neighbors and at the direct expense of the people there. Rommel was part of that. I’m not saying the man wasn’t brave or a genius. He was and so was Robert E. Lee, but as Byron once put it “the Cause is all / degrades or hallows courage in its fall.”

137 Mercury_Alchemist December 3, 2013 at 10:51 pm

Honestly? Missed Patton’s Biography, and his books. Best General of the Twentieth century, had a huge impact on tank warfare. Missed a couple others too — this is less a list of books about how to fight war and more a list of books that touch war.

138 Joe Proctor December 3, 2013 at 11:08 pm

“Panzer Battles” by von Mellenthin

This is THE STORY of the blitzkrieg. He served as a staff officer for Rommel, Guderian, Jodl, etc. This guy was there for every major offensive & defensive conducted by the German Army in WWII from Poland, to the Desert, to Russia, to American capture. It’s a very unique viewpoint from the crushing battles of 1939-40 to learning to fire a Tiger when he arrived in Russia because he learned quickly he may require the knowledge.

More Americans need to see WWII from this vantage point.

139 Chris F. December 3, 2013 at 11:14 pm

“War and Peace” by Tolstoy all the way. I think it is one of the greatest novels ever written, and certainly the greatest of our war novels.

140 Eric December 3, 2013 at 11:15 pm

I haven’t read nearly this volume of books on war, but I believe Catch-22 by Joseph Heller belongs on the list. It’s such a confusing, paradoxical story, but it gives a lot of great insight into the paradoxical nature of war itself. It’s also rather critical of the hierarchy of the military.

141 Simeon December 3, 2013 at 11:44 pm

Sergeant York and the Great War by Skeykill/Wheeler

Basically his diary during the war. Very good book. (their is a movie)

Black Hawk Down is another good book, a bit more modern as it happened in the 90′s. (also a movie)

142 L. Mike December 4, 2013 at 12:07 am

Just reading your list, and the comments you’ve added about them, is worth while! Thanks for the list! Some fiction writhers have very good history backgrounds as well as military service and their writings share this, while “entertaining” us. Not everyone enjoys reading straight history, even about those “exciting times” we all know are all to prevalent. Thanks again for your insights.

143 Ian Miller December 4, 2013 at 12:13 am

All Quiet on the Western Front is probably my favorite war novel. I’m surprised it wasn’t listed here! I definitely recommend it to all.

144 Pat S. December 4, 2013 at 12:52 am

Shelby Foote’s Civil War trilogy is a veritable blow by blow description of the war, great read but a major investment of time.

Caputo’s “Rumor of War” is excellent with it’s brutal, gritty and sometime infuriating description of the war in Viet Nam.

Suggestions for the list:

Victor Davis Hansen “Carnage And Culture” (ancient through modern war’s epic battle analysis showing the success of Western armies due to their inherent abilities)

Charles MacDonald “Company Commander” (descriptive of that role in WW II US Infantry in Europe)

Eric A. Jacobson “for Cause & for Country”
(study of Civil War incidents of Spring Hill and the resulting Battle of Franklin)

145 praymont December 4, 2013 at 12:58 am

I second Junger’s Storm of Steel, and I ‘third’ War & Peace. I also recommend Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War. An English officer in WWI, Blunden served on the western front longer than Graves (and just about any other WWI author). Blunden took Graves and Remarque to task for their exaggerations and inaccuracies about life on the front, but Blunden (a poet) chillingly conveys the horrors of that life.

146 Craig Lyons December 4, 2013 at 1:20 am

I’m glad to see this post. A democracy gives the citizen the right and thus the responsibility to have a say in determining matters of national defense, directly or indirectly through representatives, so it’s worthwhile (and I would say rather important) to have some awareness of matters of warfare and strategy, as a man should of any matter he has a hand, however small or indirect, in shaping. Of course, that’s every bit as true for one opposed to war as well.

I like the list, though if I were to make one change I would bump one book down to “further reading” and add at least one work on naval strategy, if only to serve as that “rabbit hole.” Even though naval strategy has taken a back seat to “boots on the ground,” air strikes, and spec ops in terms of coverage and cultural visibility in the recent conflicts the US has engaged in, it’s still a rather vital part of our national policy, being a nation of extensive coastlines featuring major clusters of population and resources, discontiguous states and territories, and a huge economic reliance of shipping. A couple folks have recommended Corbett’s work, and I would too, though I wouldn’t toss out Alfred T Mahan completely. His classic work, “The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783,” had a massive influence on the military and political thought and developments of the US and many other nations at the turn of the century, and though some of the strategies he advocates are no longer orthodox naval thought, his arguments for the need of a strong navy and the ability to project naval power in defense of mercantile shipping are still quite relevant, particularly when one of our largest overseas trading powers is an increasingly strong and belligerent rival naval power. I personally found this work to be a great starting point from which to build up an interest in and awareness of maritime strategy.

Beyond that, my own “further reading” suggestions would start with echoing those who have advocated the works of Caesar. One of the great enduring features of these classical works is their focus on the human condition, relevant through all ages, and Caesar’s works offer great bits of insight into the human elements of warfare, leadership, courage, duty, and so forth.

I’d also second the recommendation of Ernst Jünger’s “Storm of Steel” as an interesting companion to “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Unlike the latter work, “Storm of Steel” presents first-hand accounts of the horrors of war the author experienced, but without the bitter disillusionment we have come to expect, even demand of a WWI soldier in no small part due to “All Quiet.” However, precisely because of the lack of that motive, I found Jünger’s descriptions of the horrors of war to be all the more impactful, and they have stayed in my mind far longer than those of Remarque’s work.

Finally, for something a bit different, I’d recommend “Defeat into Victory” by Viscount Slim, the British general who ultimately won the largely forgotten brutal jungle warfare against Japanese troops in Burma during WWII. After massive initial defeats and setbacks, Viscount Slim pulled together a battered and poorly-supplied multinational army in some of the most miserable warfighting terrain imaginable, and not only held this force together against adversity but pushed back the Japanese with a vengeance. His memoir was very well received when it was published, but like the Burma Campaign the memory of it has faded. A copy randomly caught my eye on a bookshelf when I was at the University of Hawaii, and I’m glad to have discovered it.

147 s.c. December 4, 2013 at 1:26 am

I want to list 2 that are great.

On Yankee Station

The Ravens

both are about Vietnam, The Ravens were forward air controllers who fought secretly in Laos. You really ought to read The Ravens

In response to other comments, I could never understand why slaughterhouse five was considered so great, but I read Chickenhawk and its a good book.

148 Charles December 4, 2013 at 3:56 am

Agree with Mercury Alchemist. patton’s definitely missing!

149 Ryan Grimm December 4, 2013 at 4:40 am

About Face….David Hackworth.
Brazen Chariots…Major Robert Crisp
Company Commander….Charles B.Macdonald
A time for Trumpets…C.B. Macdonald
The Pacific…Hugh Ambrose
The First And The Last..Adolf Galland
Blond Knight Of Germany

in fiction:
Team Yankee…Harold Coyle

150 ThoDan December 4, 2013 at 5:07 am

I would say read Clausewitz with caution AFAIK he didn´t finished his books and advised and warned to use them unfinished

Infantrie greift an(Infantry Attacks) from Erwin Rommel
His expereiences in WWI till his Service with the WGB Wüttembergisches Gebigrsjäger Battailon = Württemberg Mountaineer Battailon) ends

151 Andrew December 4, 2013 at 7:21 am

I would add Churchill’s exhaustive 5 volume set on World War 2. It’s one of those rare texts written from one of the movers and shakers of the War.

Also, as a fictional look at war, I would recommend Joe Halderman’s “The Forever War”. It’s sci-fi, but like good sci-fi, it reflects the situations of the time it was written, which in this case, was the soldiers return to the US after Vietnam.

While I enjoyed “The Rise And Fall of The Third Reich”, I think that Richard Evans’s “Third Reich” series dove deeper into exactly what it was like to live in and fight for Hitler’s Germany and conquered territories.

152 Billy Beck December 4, 2013 at 9:27 am

(a note that I worked-up in Facebook)

That’s not a completely rotten list, although it seems a bit light, to me. There are essentials there: Sun Tsu, Xenophon, Thucydides, and Hanson. The American Civil War section could use some help. Ulysses S. Grant’s diaries would be good.

I don’t know how to get through a list like this without Mahan’s “Influence Of Sea Power Upon History” or Churchill’s “Second World War”. The former is necessary to understanding a great deal of early twentieth century global politics and the latter is pre-eminently comprehensive to a scope that more detailed studies cannot entail.

From my own shelves, I’d recommend Rick Atkinson’s “An Army At Dawn” (2002) and “Day Of Battle” (2007), which respectively account for the American army’s campaigns in North Africa and Italy (1942-’43). This is a crucial turning point in American history: it’s mainly about what Hitchens called “the passing of the torch of empire” from Britain to America in an unprecedented assertion of military power. The American soldier really took his place on the world stage in those two fights in a way that had not been approached in World War I.

Excepting Col. Bud Day and Col. John Boyd, aviation is sorely neglected. They’re not bad, but I would point out things like Capt. Bert Stiles’ “Serenade To The Big Bird” for its poetic intimacy, and Saburo Sakai (“Samurai” and “Zero”) and Adolf Galland (“The First And The Last”) for the enemy view of the air war of WW II, which is where the airplane came of age in battle. James Salter’s “The Hunters” is a novel, but a timeless look at fighter-pilot ethics, set in Korea. (Also, on these lines: Michener’s “The Bridges At Toko-Ri”.) The Southeast Asian War Games (aka “Vietnam”) deserve a look for a couple of terrific efforts which highlight the advance of technology to the verge of third-generation (say; the F-4 Phantom) jet combat: Col. Jack Broughton’s “Thud Ridge” and Maj. Ed Rasimus’ “When Thunder Rolled” *and* his “Palace Cobra”. I mention Ed not because he was a friend of mine, but because he wrote important books.

In general, I would also add John Heresy’s “Hiroshima”, because nukes change everything, and he wrote about the dawn of potential for worldwide hell. He simpers a bit, but it’s still important.

I could go on, but then it becomes easy to get beyond essentials. There are probably things I’ve forgotten momentarily and would update later, but anyone could get started with what’s posted here.

I might hope that I wouldn’t have to go into reasons why the study of war is important, at the very least. Everyone of any serious turn of mind ought to pay elementary attention to it.


Also on the Vietnam and aviation tips: Ed Rasimus and Christina Olds writing the biography of her father, Brig. Gen. Robin Olds, “Fighter Pilot”. This is a splendid picture of devotion to leadership in the very best traditions of the American warrior. No matter their walk of life, everyone could benefit from reading it.

153 Mike Gilhooly December 4, 2013 at 10:28 am

Great list, and well thought out. I would add the following:

Flying Through Midnight by John Halliday. A fliers memories about a little know part of the Viet Nam conflict. Flare ships over the Ho Chi Minh trail..

The Lost Battalion by Thomas Johnson and Fletcher Pratt. The story of one American Army battalion which refused to yield it’s part of the line in the final weeks of WW I. It was a major engagement which was instrumental in breaking Germany’s will to carry on the war.

Patton’s Panthers by Charles Sasser. For my money a close look at the African American experience in WW II.
Men who fought through discrimination to defend their country. Much has been written, as they deserve it, about the Tuskegee Airmen. But little is known about the black tankers who amazed George Patton Jr.

154 Chris December 4, 2013 at 10:32 am

I have two recommendations:

The Miracle at St. Anna – although it is fiction it is grounded in a historical conflict, WWII. As well as, based on the massacre of St. Anna by the Germans in Italy.

Another recommendation, Bloods: The Oral History of African-Americans and the US Military. It provides a concise and multifaceted perspective of the service of African Americans, enlisted and commissioned. I highly recommend it as a read.

Bonus suggestion: House to House – I highly recommend this book. It details the battle of Falluhjah in a gritty, and honest manner.

155 Morgan December 4, 2013 at 10:34 am

Originally from Hawaii, I bought a copy of The Art of War from the shop at the monument of Pearl Harbor. Over the course of 3 months while living on a goat farm in Oklahoma waiting to go to the Search and Rescue School at Hawk Mountain, PA later that summer I read and reread it and annotated in all of the margins and left note cards in it.

When I got back to Hawaii I taught a class at my CAP squadron all about the book and its many applications. It goes far beyond just applications to war, but can be applied to relationships, friendships, businesses, etc.

When I went to college I lent it to a pot head that said he was interested in it. I never saw that book again. My wife has since purchased me a new copy of it, but it’s just not the same. I poured so much of myself into it, something I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do again.

156 Travis December 4, 2013 at 10:37 am

As an update the Clausewitz, I would also suggest Martin van Creveld’s The Transformation of War. Creveld claims, rightly I think, that since 1945 war has shifted from conventional state vs. state (ie. Clausewitzian) conflict to small-scale unconventional warfare, namely guerrilla warfare, insurgency, and terrorism. Creveld brilliantly covers both the strategic and philosophical implications of this development, and it’s a great read to boot.

157 Dan Hurley December 4, 2013 at 12:21 pm

“Guerilla Days in Ireland” by Tom Barry (Irish General) is a great read, and in fact was (not sure if still is) required reading at both the Westpoint and Sanhurst officer training schools.

158 Joe December 4, 2013 at 1:10 pm

One of my favorites is “We Were Soldiers Once and Young” by Col. Hal Moore and Joe Galloway about the Ia Drang campaign in Vietnam

159 Hugh December 4, 2013 at 1:34 pm

I just finished a little collection of war reading, myself it started with “The Yellow Birds” by Kevin Powers, and I read everything it was compared to in reviews:

“Red Badge of Courage”
“All Quiet on the Western Front” (also watched the movie.)
“The Things they Carried”

From that list, I thought “The Yellow Birds” was the best – I re-read it and liked it better the second time after having read the others.

Kevin Powers is an Iraqi vet and a poet laureate.

160 Scott December 4, 2013 at 1:39 pm

Pierre Berton’s “Vimy”, about how the Canadian army in WW1 took an objective neither the French or British could take, helping to create an identity for a young country.

161 Jake December 4, 2013 at 2:13 pm

Surprised that Keegan’s “The Face of Battle” isn’t here… And it is a novel, but Bernard Cornwall’s “Azincourt” is in my opinion one of the best novelizations of any battle ever.

162 Daniel December 4, 2013 at 3:07 pm

D-Day by Stephen Ambrose

163 Andrew December 4, 2013 at 3:27 pm

Few of my favorites –

-Matterhorn (a novel of the Vietnam War). Karl Marlantes’ other book.

-Dispatches by Michael Herr. One of the best on Vietnam

-Shake Hands With the Devil. While not explicitly about war, a very moving account of the Rwandan Genocide as told by Romeo Dallaire.

-For the more academically inclined, the works of Antoine-Henri Jomini (a contemporary of Clausewitz)

164 Chickasha Hoolba December 4, 2013 at 3:48 pm

I’d recommend “MIG Pilot” by John Barron, a cold war story of Soviet fighter pilot, Victor Belenko, who defected to the US in the late 1970s by flying his MIG-25 from Kamchatka to Hokkaido.

Also, “Apache Warrior” by David C. Cooke, a very readable account of Mangas Coloradas, a Mimbreno Apache who successfully united the various Apache bands to fight a two front war against both the Mexicans and Americans.

165 Jon December 4, 2013 at 5:37 pm

Panzer Commander by Hans von Luck. von Luck was friends with Stephen Ambrose.

166 Jared Adams December 4, 2013 at 6:10 pm

Vimy by Pierre Burton, Great book about one of the most decisive battle of the first world war. The Invasion of Canada: 1812–1813, and Flames Across the Border: 1813–1814 also by Pierre Burton, about the War of 1812, told in a very personal view and gives a good accountant of just how incompetent military leaders on both sides were.

167 John December 4, 2013 at 8:32 pm

Caesar’s “Gallic Wars”…

168 Scott B. December 4, 2013 at 9:07 pm

It shows that you were not a warrior, because you missed so many great ones out there. Academics are not enough. However, you did mention some good ones.

“For those who have fought for it, life has a special flavor the protected shall never know”.

169 scb0212 December 4, 2013 at 9:14 pm

-The Prince
-The Art of War
-Discourses on Livy

170 Ryan December 4, 2013 at 11:25 pm

I’m an American currently serving in the National Guard. I deployed in 2010 and read a lot of books on my downtime. Here’s a short list of what I read.

House to House-about the Battle of Fallujah written by Army vet David Bellavia. He was nominated for the Medal of Honor for his actions.

19 with a Bullet- This is about the South African Bush War. It was written by a South African Paratrooper who went into Namibia and Angola.

Fireforce- This is about a guy in the Rhodesian Light Infantry. He talks about serving with a lot of Vietnam vets who had difficulty adjusting to life after Vietnam.

Irish Soldiers- basically talks about the history of Irish soldiers who served in all conflicts ranging from America, Argentina, the Congo, WWI and more.

Sniper One Under Siege in Iraq- a book written by a British army sniper who fought in the same city that al-Sadr was rumored to be operating out of.

Legionaire by Simon Murray- this book shows what the French Foreign Legion used to be. A young Brit escaping for adventure. Classic tale of most Legionaires.

171 Serafin Nunez December 5, 2013 at 7:04 am

1776 by David McCullough.

172 Patrick Morrison December 5, 2013 at 7:49 am

I’d add ‘The Making of the Atomic Bomb’, Richard Rhodes, to the list because:
1) It observes the shift in victims over the 20th century from soldiers and civilians on the battlefield to civilians in their cities, to the obliteration of whole cities.
2) It observes the early construction of what Eisenhower would later call the ‘military-industrial complex’.
3) It is an extremely well-written book.

173 Richard December 5, 2013 at 10:48 am

The three novel WWII trilogy by James Jones.
1. From Here to Eternity won the National Book Award and was named one of the 100 Best Novels of the 20th century by the Modern Library Board.
2. The Thin Red Line, based on Jones’ experience on Guadalcanal, which British historian and military writer John Keegan nominated as, in his opinion, one of only two novels portraying Second World War combat that could be favorably compared to the best of the literature to arise from the First World War.
3. Whistle, which according to Jones, contains “Just about everything I have ever had to say, or will ever have to say, on the human condition of war.”

174 ceasar December 5, 2013 at 11:02 am

How could you forget ceasars de bello gallico?

175 Christian Schock December 5, 2013 at 11:38 am

Two amazing books about the same conflict, by the same author should be on this list.

Hell in a very small place

Street without joy.

Both by the war correspondent Bernard Fell, dealing with the insanity of the Dien Bien Phu conflict during the French-Vietnamese conflict.

176 Matthew Hines December 5, 2013 at 11:47 am

Don’t forget Eisenhower’s Crusade In Europe – one of the best memoirs of World War II I have come across. Ike was fair in his assessments of tactics and of his subordinates, and took blame when he clearly was to blame.

I found it interesting that Ike was a student of Grant’s 1864 campaign which resulted in the capitulation of the South. He used elements of Grant’s strategy in his grand plan when he deployed Allied forces after D-Day, and we know it worked. And like Grant, he despised the tactics of Napoleonic warfare, which were still taught at military academies.

177 JRB December 5, 2013 at 11:59 am

The Great Siege – Malta 1565 – Ernle Bradford

This list goes from antiquity and skips over to the 19-20 centuries. The siege of Malta in 1565 was arguably the most decisive and epic battles in the Middle Ages and prevented the Ottoman Turks from conquering Europe. This book is impossible to put down.

178 Cody December 5, 2013 at 8:33 pm

Great List, I’d like to order them all right now, alas.

My recommendation would be “Mind over Muscle” by O Sensei Dr. Jigaro Kano, the founder of Judo.

If anything it is a guide to conquer the self or at least to live in peaceful coexistence. The work itself embraces an important maxim of Judo: Maximum and Efficient Use of Energy.

Kano was a great man and in many respects can be seen as a samurai. His work would go well with Musashi’s.

179 minuteman December 5, 2013 at 9:32 pm

A Bridge to Far
The Longest Day
The Last Battle

All by Cornelius Ryan.

180 Nicolás December 6, 2013 at 7:10 am

The Daring Dozen by Gavin Mortimer.

This is the story of twelve men (axis and allies) who changed the way wars were fought. Prior to these men, the concept of Special Forces was not only unknown but also rejected by the Military authorities of the time. It’s well written, full of anecdotes that will make you understand what the meaning of willpower is.

181 Jack Collins December 6, 2013 at 6:53 pm

All those Civil War books and The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara isn’t included?

182 Winston December 6, 2013 at 8:35 pm

I agree “Homage to Catalonia” is a significant omission. Orwell’s best, IMO.

183 Bill December 7, 2013 at 1:52 am

I know some other people have mentioned it, but I do believe that you have overlooked a key author on the Vietnam War: Tim O’Brien. I have read his book The Things They Carried (my apologies for the lack of italics) for a few English classes now, one in high school and now in college. He is truly an amazing author, and I believe deserves to be on this list. I do seem to recall though that you had his book listed somewhere else, but I just cannot recall at this moment. Anyways, great list!

184 John Stanton December 7, 2013 at 5:18 am

George C. Marshall bio (forthcoming) by Josiah Bunting. Marshall was Patton’s, Eisenhower’s and Grove’s boss. Check out Orson Wells on You Tube describing who the greatest American he ever met was. Can’t fathom how he gets excluded from history of US/World military.

Life and Fate;Everything Flows by Vasily Grossman

Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo

They Were Soldier by Ann Jones (just out)

Culture of War by MV Creveld

Guns of August by B. Tuchman

Collected Works of Chairman Mao, 1917-1949 (online)

Military Art and other writings by General Vo Nguyen Giap

My Life by Moshe Dayan

185 Marc Sills December 7, 2013 at 9:51 am

Take David Grossman off this otherwise excellent list, please. Grossman is a total fraud. Imagine bragging that your work is required reading at West Point, then bragging about sharing a stage with Westy talking to VW vets, and then going on to prescribe treatment to soul-damaged vets with the use of propaganda – telling them they should feel good about themselves because “we” (the US) “won the war” – against the USSR, which died somehow, in 1989. An Army shrink who lives in and by denial, ain’t that something.

Replace Grossman with David Hackworth’s “About Face,” a blood-soaked chronicle of a self-described “combat bum” – who tears apart the same work by SLA Marshall that Grossman relies on as his primary source.

Also, please add to this list “Moon of Bitter Cold,” by Frederick Chiaventone – which describes Red Cloud’s war against the United States in the 1860s and 70s, featuring Crazy Horse’s brilliant ambush staged in sub-zero temps, which Crazy Horse fought while stark naked.

186 Salman December 7, 2013 at 11:14 am

The Iliad – Homer

187 LauraB December 7, 2013 at 12:10 pm

For a feminine side of things…
“To War With Whitaker” by Hermione Ranfury is a nice bit of calm in the wild sea of battle.
“…the diaries of the indomitable Countess Ranfurly whose newlywed husband was despatched in 1939 to North Africa with his valet, Whitaker. When her husband was taken prisoner, she bluffed and cajoled her way to the Middle East and stayed there, against the rules, with Whitaker as her ally.”

188 Travis December 7, 2013 at 1:50 pm

Nobody’s going to read my comment at this point, but I do have to mention a major oversight made.

Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars is the book on the ethics of war and fighting well. It’s also one of the best-written books of philosophy of our modern era. Part of what makes it so compelling is his mix of theory with real, historical examples, from the Melian Dialogue to the Crimean War to the firebombing of Dresden. I cannot recommend it more.

189 Patrick December 7, 2013 at 4:37 pm

The Road to Unafraid – Jeff Struecker

190 Wesley Latassa December 8, 2013 at 1:39 am

Quite cool Mr. Elliot. I’m starved for missives from the mailbox. I’ll admit it, I even open junk mail. (Hey, maybe it’s a check with a lot of zeros at the end.) Such a sad existence for me when my 1 a small rush of importance is ripping open junk mail. Bills can wait around, so a real letter sounds excellent. Will subscribe.
Cheers, Iris

191 Ken December 8, 2013 at 12:55 pm

Two by Barbara Tuchman:

March of Folly: from Troy to Vietnam

Guns of August

192 George December 8, 2013 at 1:13 pm

Great list, I definitely have a few more ideas for Christmas lists now… A few I would add:

Band of Brothers:by Stephen Ambrose – Great miniseries, I think the book was even better.

On Combat by Dave Grossman – Great book I would recommend to anyone but especially to LEOs, military and anyone who carries a weapon regularly.

Citizen Soldiers by Stephen Ambrose – A great collection of stories from WWII across the organization-from Generals, Junior Officers, Enlisted as well as medics and other support staff.

Fearless by Eric Blehm – Great story on the life of Navy SEAL Team Six Operator Adam Brown.

193 Tim December 8, 2013 at 1:27 pm

I’ll be the third to recommend Ernst Junger’s “Storm of Steel.” Unlike Remarque, Junger eschews deep philosophical and political undertones. “Storm of Steel” provides a non-fiction account of the grim realities of war. Junger acknowledges that he is in a war and that his goal is to win, despite the horrors and personal losses involved. I highly recommend this for anyone contemplating a career in combat arms.
Also, “The Code of the Samurai” (trans. Thomas Cleary) is a great read to develop the mindset of someone facing combat. You don’t have to be into martial arts or eastern philosophy to get a lot out of this read. Think of it as Sun Tzu on an individual level.

194 Adam December 10, 2013 at 12:43 am

I was very excited to see Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan book, that book gave me so much respect for the Mongols and it’s a fantastic read.

To echo several others here, War and Peace is a must. It’s one of those books people say you have to read because it’s the greatest novel, blah blah blah, but I went ahead and read it during November and wish I had read it years ago.

W&P is a very easy read (it’s just long), but it’s gripping, and Tolstoy’s commentary on war, and his historical analysis of the Napoleonic wars is nothing short of amazing. Tolstoy thoroughly discredits the Great Man theory of history and pours forth a voluminous tale on human nature and the effect of war, as well as a deeply thought out discussion on the cause of war.

Seriously, read Tolstoy. Read 5% a day (65 pages) and you will finish the book in 20 days and you will not regret it.

195 TONY SARAO December 10, 2013 at 2:27 am

I agree with Angus(Knights Cross and Erwin Rommel), Jon(Panzer Commander ), Hines(The Rise & Fall of the Third Reich) and–Thomas(All Quiet on the Western Front), Nick ( Samurai),Ryan Grimm(The First And The Last..Adolf Galland).
Infact all the listed books make excellent reading .Mansteins Lost Victories,Mark Clarks Calculated Risk ,David Rees Korea the Limited War and Alan Clark’s Barbarossa can also be included

196 Erik Tempest December 10, 2013 at 1:23 pm

When speaking of Manliness and War, it would be a tragedy to not include the story of Sergeant Carlos Hathcock, a legendary Marine sniper in the Vietnam War.


197 Chris December 10, 2013 at 4:02 pm

Great list, and I’m going to pick up the recommended books by Hart and Bierce.

Wanted to pass along the name of what I consider the most entertaining one-volume work on the Civil War.

Fletcher Pratt’s A Short History of the Civil War. It was first published under the name Ordeal by Fire.

I have not found a more readable account of the War Between the States than it.

198 Darrel December 10, 2013 at 7:07 pm

All Quiet on the Western Front
The Forgotten Soldier
The Longest Day

199 Lefty December 11, 2013 at 4:04 am

For books on WWII, check out the work of Antony Beevor.

200 Mark Eikost December 11, 2013 at 5:41 am

I can’t believe you left out the autobiography “Devil at My Heals” by Louis Zamperini or the excellently written “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand also about Zamperini. His life story is the epitome of resilience.

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