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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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: 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 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.
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 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.
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: 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?.
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 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 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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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: 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.
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: 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.
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: 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).
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.)
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: 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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: 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.
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.
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: 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.
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.
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.
Be sure to listen to our podcast with Andrew Roberts about lessons from great wartime leaders:
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.