While there are many books about war, it’s important to read more than one perspective and take notes from them. Books can help you better understand the world around us.
The “best books on warfare” is a list of 43 books that every man should read.
Note from the editor: This is a guest article by Ryan Holiday.
War is, without a doubt, humanity at its worst. Surprisingly, it is in battle that individuals — individual men — frequently display their greatest qualities. Greed, folly, and depravity are often the causes of war. Men, on the other hand, are often bold, loyal, and selfless in it.
I’m not a soldier by any stretch of the imagination. I have no intention of becoming one. But I’ve spent a lot of time studying war. I’m not the only one that feels this way.
Since the dawn of written literature, the greats have been writing and reading about war – its causes, consequences, heroes, and victims. Some of our most compelling writing is either explicitly or implicitly about war (e.g. the best war movies). Homer’s epic poems are about war, first against Troy for 10 years, then against nature and the gods for ten years. Our first great historian, Thucydides, wrote about the Peloponnesian War, which was fought between Sparta and Athens. War and literature established Rome, and the world has been impacted by it ever since. The American Empire is no exception; our soldiers returned home and wrote about the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, WWI, and WWII. A new generation has returned home and written (and continues to write) important works on counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Because war is life in its purest form, studying war is studying life. Death, terror, power, love, adrenaline, sacrifice, glory, and the desire to live are all part of the game.
“The sword determines everything,” as Virgil put it. We need to figure out how: strategy, motivation, and defenses. We must comprehend and appreciate the darkness and its ramifications: suffering, death, evil, and greed.
This is a post on the war literature canon. Each volume focuses on a distinct civilisation, a set of methods, and a different purpose. But there are certain themes that never go out of style. Lessons are always available. They have nothing to do with flanking maneuvers, dates, or places, unlike what the History Channel and school instructors would have you believe. I’m not sure about those things. What’s the goal of it all? What counts is how we can apply what we’ve learned to our own lives and society.
I’m not advocating every book about war ever published, or even every book on the topic that I’ve read, but rather a selection of the most important. I’m sure I’ll forget about some wonderful novels you’ve enjoyed, so please leave recommendations in the comments.
Note: I’ve grouped these by chronology and period, but feel free to go around. That’s something I’m sure I did.
Xenophon’s Persian Expedition. In 400 BC, Cyrus the Younger hires 10,000 Greeks as mercenaries in an effort to usurp the Persian throne. They win the battle, but Cyrus is murdered in the process, leaving the whole Greek army stranded thousands of miles away from home and surrounded by dozens of hostile nations. Xenophon is chosen to head the army and urges them to battle their way back to Greece. In their return voyage, they display a variety of tactical ideas and tales of leadership and courage. Because Xenophon was a student of Socrates and philosophy, this work provides an opportunity to see those lessons put into practice.
Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles wrote Greek tragedies. The work of these playwrights serves as a powerful reminder of the tragedies of war. These are stunning works of art, from Euripides’ Trojan Women, which depicts 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 Oedipus’ sons, which reads like a video game), and The Persians, which tells of the massive defeat at Marathon and Salamis from Xerxes’ perspective. People frequently forget that Aeschylus, who is most renowned for being a brilliant playwright, was also a soldier. His gravestone, in fact, makes no mention of his plays, which are today widely regarded as among the finest ever written, instead focusing on his valor in combat against the Persians.
Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. I’m not going to lie to you: this is a lengthy book. But it is geopolitics, strategy, leadership, and lessons in mourning, eloquence, and persuasion that it relates the narrative of the great conflict between Athens and Sparta. This book has it all, from Pericles’ magnificent and emotional funeral oration to the Spartan commander Brasidas’ clever and inventive tactics. There’s also the tremendous lesson of Athens’ overconfidence, which resulted in their defeat at Syracuse and continues to have far-reaching consequences today. Then there came Sparta’s final overreach, when they won the battle but had no idea how to administer an empire. It is a must-read for every global student. (One of my favorite tidbits is that Thucydides participated in the battle, but was shamed and missed most of it due to the epidemic.) As a follow-up, Victor David Hanson’s book A War Like No Other offers an excellent accessible yet current chronicle of the war.
Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae is an epic novel about the battle of Thermopylae. It may seem strange to include a fiction book on my list, but better people than me — as well as many genuine troops — have unanimously praised the novel’s veracity and poignancy. It is the most accessible and well-written book on the 300 Spartans who battled the Persians (and sacrificed themselves) at Thermopylae.
Victor Davis Hanson’s The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece. Victor Davis Hanson is a contentious figure, and this is a controversial book, but I believe you can overlook that and focus on the book’s excellent ideas. Hanson put all of our war beliefs and clichés to the test. What does it imply, for example, when “and then the [soldiers] lay waste to the land”? Is it really so difficult? It turns out to be quite difficult. In full hoplite regalia, Hanson and his crew attempted to demolish an olive grove in the manner of a Spartan army. It’s incredibly tough to do anything more than little harm. What about those stirring pre-battle speeches? Oops, ancient Greek combat helmets didn’t have ear openings! Hanson does an excellent job of helping you put what you’ve seen in movies aside and realize how wars were truly fought, as well as how much those strategies are being used today.
Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Because it’s so aphoristic and generic, I find this book difficult to apply (and easy to misapply) in several aspects. However, it is unquestionably one of the most influential works on warfare and strategy ever published. You’re losing out if you don’t leave with a few of memorable statements, such as knowing yourself as well as the opponent.
Arrian’s Alexander’s Campaigns is a book on Alexander’s campaigns. The lectures of the philosopher Epictetus and his account of Alexander the Great’s campaigns were two great texts that Arrian bestowed to us. Alexander is an excellent illustration of the perils of ambition. Yes, it led him to the outskirts of the conquered globe, but it was also there that he perished, most likely assassinated by his own troops. He had no real purpose for it all, no real strategy or actual empire — it was simply fight, win, own, fight, win, own, fight, win, own, fight, win, own, fight, win, own, fight, win, own, fight, win, own, fight, win, own, fight, win, own, fight (and in the end, as Epictetus observed, he still died and was buried like the rest of us). I’m not saying there aren’t any other lessons to be learned, but this is the most important. Other lessons include the significance of speed, surprise, and fearlessness, as well as leading from the front. Steven Pressfield’s The Virtues of War is another excellent book about Alexander.
By Jack Weatherford, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. Isn’t it true that the Mongols were terrible beasts and subhuman brutes? Is it possible that this was all part of their plan to terrify foes into surrendering without a fight? I’ll go with the latter since Genghis Khan was one of the greatest warriors of all time. The Mongols converted combat into a science; in fact, when they invaded new land, the first thing they did was locate scientists and intellectuals and deploy them as required. They were masters of surprise, movement, and speed. Without a question, they were also masters of brutality and violence. However, these strategies were put to astonishing results, resulting in an empire that rivaled any other in history and was recognized for its peace, wealth, and independence.
Miyamoto Musashi’s The Book of Five Rings This book is better than The Art of War in my opinion. Musashi was a samurai fighter, rather than a general or a soldier. But, considering his line of work, it’s reasonable to say he was always at war. He fought in duels with the world’s top fighters, frequently at the same time. His explanations of the distinction between the seeing and perceiving eyes are excellent. He, too, speaks about understanding the adversary better than their own commanders, so that your actions command and steer them in the direction you wish. There are numerous philosophical insights in this book that go beyond sword combat. You’ll like it.
Paul Johnson’s book Napoleon: A Life is a biography of Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon is not my strong suit, and I still need to learn more about him. But thanks to this excellent introductory biography and books on the time – particularly On War and The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World – I’ve learned a lot (see below). Even Emerson wrote an insightful article on him. The Black Count by Tom Reiss, which relates the tale of one of Napoleon’s generals — a former slave who also happened to be the father of author Alexandre Dumas — also astonished me. In Robert Greene’s 33 Strategies, there is a lot about Napoleon (see below).
Carl von Clausewitz’s On War. On War Against Napoleon might be a better title for this book in terms of tactical warfare, since that’s exactly what Clausewitz was writing about. Clausewitz’s significant contributions came from his knowledge of politics — or, more precisely, what occurs when politics breaks down. As a result, read On War for that purpose rather than for particular techniques.
Sir Edward Shepherd Creasy’s The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World: From Marathon to Waterloo. Every fight, you may claim, has an impact on history. There are, however, a chosen few who have the ability to transform the world swiftly and forever. The victory of Western civilisation over Eastern civilization at the Battle of Marathon paved the way for democracy. The victory of the Americans against the British at Saratoga signaled the triumph of the revolutionary cause. After Napoleon’s loss at Waterloo, Europe shifted and Britain became the dominating power. Because it was published in 1851, this book ends with Waterloo and makes no mention of the Civil War or World Wars. It’s a one-of-a-kind historical record that lends our classical past more weight. Read this if you’re a strategy fanatic.
Ambrose Bierce’s Civil War Stories Forget about Mark Twain and Stephen Crane. They had no true understanding of the Civil War. Ambrose Bierce served in Sherman’s army and turned his experiences into some of the most terrifying and frightening pictures of warfare, its folly and indiscriminate devastation (and yet, profound attraction) ever penned. He despised war but yet admired it, and this comes through clearly in his writing. Bierce’s “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” was deemed the finest short tale ever written by Kurt Vonnegut, and that’s enough for me. Until you read this book, you haven’t actually experienced the Civil War.
Ulysses S. Grant: Memoirs and Selected Letters. Ulysses S. Grant: Memoirs and Selected Letters. These are the sentiments of Ulysses S. Grant, who won the Civil War with grit, drive, and persistence, as written when on the verge of death (and edited by Mark Twain) (shockingly, traits lacked by almost all the generals who proceeded him). He considers the Mexican-American War to be one of the worst and most meaningless conflicts in history, whereas the Civil War is one of the most significant and justifiable. Early in Grant’s career as a soldier, he is sent to track down a gang of insurgents, and when he arrives at their camp, he is terrified to discover they have fled. He knew then that the adversary was frequently just as afraid of you as you were of them. It affected the way he fought for the rest of his life. That statement has been with me for a long time.
B.H. Liddell Hart’s Sherman: Soldier, Realist, American Period. There isn’t a greater biography of a military genius. B.H. Liddell utilizes Sherman to describe not just the Civil War, but also strategy. It’s tough to distill a book into a single notion or statement, but Hart’s strategic explanation of assaulting “along the line of least expectation and tactically along the line of least opposition” can transform your life. You should read about Sherman not to discover how the Civil War was won (though you will), but to learn how wars are won in general. Hart’s Strategy and Why Don’t We Learn From History? are two more books I heartily suggest.
General William Tecumseh Sherman’s Memoirs, by William Tecumseh Sherman. Yes, there are two Sherman-related books on this list. He was one of the most brilliant strategic thinkers of all time. He was also always agitated (some speculate he was bipolar) and enjoyed going on the offensive. It would make a fantastic memoir. He’s one of the few generals who fully understand the hardships of war. He foresaw how lengthy and difficult the Civil War would be. He gained it by gradually learning to trust himself and his intuition. He also triumphed because he grasped big strategy: the war could only be won by eliminating the enemy’s soft assets (the support and resources of the Southern women and plantation culture which had largely motivated the war in the first place). The opposing armies’ will also crumbled as a result of the breakdown of such assistance.
William Pittenger’s book Daring and Suffering: A History of the Great Railroad Adventure is a history of the Great Railroad Adventure. Consider the following mission: In disguise, you’re dispatched deep into Confederate territory. You and a small group of soldiers are supposed to hijack a train and drive it back to enemy lines, damaging the rails and depots along the way. Of course, something goes terribly wrong, there’s a pursuit, and you only make it 50 miles. You’re then apprehended and sent to the harshest prison camp in the South, where several of your companions are killed right away. THAT is the real Daring and Suffering narrative. I don’t believe I need to say much more in favor of the book than that it’s based on a real tale, and that the subject — who also happens to be the book’s author — was the first person to receive the newly minted Medal of Honor. Junius and Albert’s Adventures in the Confederacy, about two northern journalists who were kidnapped at Vicksburg and brought to the same prison camp, is another wonderful work in this style (albeit more recent). After two years in the camp, they staged a ridiculous escape, crossing much of the same terrain as the protagonist in Cold Mountain (see below).
Admiral David Porter’s Civil War Incidents and Anecdotes We sometimes overlook the fact that the Civil War was also a maritime conflict. A succession of critical successes on the Mississippi (New Orleans, Vicksburg, and a few others) divided the South in two and gave the Union control of the most important waterways. Admiral David Porter had a significant role in these successes (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 there during Lincoln’s last days, including his journey into Richmond after the Confederate capital was captured. This is a really enjoyable novel that has been terribly overlooked.
Shelby Foote’s Civil War: A Narrative This three-volume epic is to warfare what Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was to history. It is the classic history of the American Civil War; it treats all sides equally and is almost one million words long, yet it is never dull. This book is featured heavily in Ken Burns’ magnificent documentary The Civil War, which includes Shelby Foote in all his tweed jacket and pipe-smoking magnificence. Book’s worth keeping on your shelf even if you don’t read it all the way through. The New York Times’ famed book (and blog) Disunion, which has been recounting the Civil War in a series of fantastic stories corresponding approximately with the 150th anniversary for the past several years, is another excellent resource.
Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain This is a type of supplementary suggestion. Despite the fact that this book is fiction (and was quite popular at the time — later becoming a horrible movie), it is really rather wonderful. Not only that, but it also touches on a few key issues from the Civil War. The home guard, for example, was ruthless in its pursuit of deserters and conscription evaders (on both sides). In the middle states, the conflict essentially devolved into gang warfare. Second, it covers Inman’s participation in the Battle of the Crater. It’s not well-known, but it’s rather weird. Third, toward the conclusion of the war, Confederate troops were disillusioned. People overlook how badly the South was beaten (thanks in great part to Sherman’s strategy) and how this made many people understand how hopeless the cause was.
William March’s Company K. William March was to WWI what Ambrose Bierce was to the Civil War. Instead of reading All Quiet on the Western Front, read this. It’s World War I as it was, arguably one of the worst things Western Civilization has ever done to itself. There’s no glitz and glitter here. Simply a group of men dying in trenches while trying not to go nuts. Try Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That for a second novel (from a British viewpoint). Graves, like March, went on to become a well-known and accomplished author, but he never got over the demons he encountered on the battlefield.
T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom T.E. Lawrence was regarded as a skilled soldier, tactician, and cultural expert by some. Others, on the other hand, thought he was a charlatan. Whatever side you choose, there is no denying that T.E. Lawrence was a gifted writer and guerrilla warfare specialist. And in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, he offered an outstanding — if inflated — account of his time working as a liaison with rebel troops during the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire in 1916.
Alex Kershaw’s The Liberator In the first European invasion, Col. Felix Sparks (later a Brigadier General) landed in Sicily and makes it all the way to the gates of Dachau. For that reason, this book is compulsory reading. He practically witnessed the full trajectory of the Allied war and triumph over the Axis forces in WWII. It gives you a true feeling of the horrors of WWII combat and the unsung warriors that fought it. I suggest Ken Burns’ documentary The War, which is primarily based on these novels and provides you a feel of the whole picture, in addition to the other WWII works indicated here and below.
E.B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa. The Pacific, an HBO miniseries, is based on this novel. It’s also one of the most heartbreaking, genuine, and severe war diaries ever written. During the landings and island battles of Peleliu and Okinawa, it was scribbled on pieces of paper in secret. These were two dreadful wars, fought to the death against tens of thousands of entrenched (and sometimes suicidal) Japanese forces in arid tropical circumstances. Sledge portrays it as a guy helplessly clinging to the last vestiges of humanity inside him. He was never the same after that; it was only after many years of writing about it that he was able to find some peace.
Robert Leckie’s Helmet for My Pillow: From Parris Island to the Pacific This is the other significant WWII memoir from the Pacific Theater. Guadalcanal and Peleliu are described by Leckie, a journalist turned Marine. His book is as terrifying as Sledge’s, but it’s also funny, offering us a view into the brotherhood and lives of regular troops trying to pass the time in some of the world’s most dangerous locations.
Lee Sandlin’s “Losing the War.” This isn’t a book; instead, it’s an essay. However, this article is superior than practically any full-length book about WWII ever published. It’s possible that it’s one of the greatest articles ever written (seriously). I’m not going to bother trying to say anything else. Please believe me when I say that you should read it.
Louis de Bernieres’ Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is a novel. Consider this a bonus fiction suggestion (from a perspective you would not otherwise sympathize with). It tells the extraordinary account of the Italian invasion and occupation of Greece during WWII. When Italy ended its partnership with Germany, Germany launched an offensive on Italian forces in Greece, committing unspeakable crimes on the Greek populace. All in all, this is a lovely love tale that is also rather hilarious. It may seem strange to confess, but if my memory serves me well, the book almost made me weep – truly. This book may be “about” war, but it is mostly about people, as are most of these works.
Field Marshall Field Marshal Field Marshal Field Marshal Field Marshal Field Marshal Field Marshal Field Marshal Field Marshal Field David Fraser’s portrait of Erwin Rommel. It will be strange to read a book on a German commander during WWII, but we must make an exception for Rommel. He did fight for a bad cause, to be sure. But as a soldier, tactician, and leader, he did it superbly. His triumphs in North Africa were legendary, and had the US and British soldiers not eventually had superior resources, the outcome may have been quite different. You can’t read about Rommel without liking and admiring him. I’m telling you this so you’ll be ready to remind yourself that his actions aren’t justified. You may still learn from them, however.
Robert Coram’s book, American Patriot: Colonel Bud Day’s Life and Wars, is a biography of Colonel Bud Day. Bud Day is considered to be one of America’s most decorated warriors. He served in the military throughout WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. He made history in Vietnam when he was shot down during a flight and staged a life-or-death escape with a damaged leg and little food, only to be caught three weeks later just yards from American lines. After being imprisoned, he waged an eight-year disobedience campaign against his captors. The individuals who saw his almost supernatural fortitude and stoicism still speak about it in admiration (John McCain was one of them). He was awarded the Medal of Honor after the conflict. It’s almost insulting to refer to Bud Day as a badass. He was one of the most powerful, daring, and fearless men who ever lived. Take notes from him. Related recommendation: John McCain’s Faith of My Fathers examines not just his own experience in the Hanoi Hilton, but also his father and grandfather’s remarkable military service (both Admirals in the US Navy).
Karl Marlantes’ book, What It’s Like To Go To War, is about what it’s like to go to war. If you’re ready to have war myths debunked for you, read this book. A Yale and Oxford alumnus is sent to Vietnam. He receives two Purple Hearts as well as several other awards for courage and leadership. You can see him fight with the very human inclinations to explain, glamorize, and excuse what he was compelled to do in those jungles while you read this book. But he doesn’t — he’s open and honest, and he offers us one of the most unusual accounts of fighting and the thinking of a warfighter ever published. (For similar reasons, the article Why Men Love War — also about Vietnam — is worth reading.)
Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War It is “just a narrative about war, about the things men do in war and the things war does to them,” according to one of the authoritative memoirs of the Vietnam War. He was fully aware that his profession required him to murder as many people as possible, and he informs the reader of this fact. His insights are disconcerting and unsettling. “I’d seen pigs eating napalm-charred corpses – animals eating roast humans was an unforgettable sight.” Wow.
Robert Coram’s Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War. Not in the air, but on the ground, one of the greatest fighter pilot teachers of all time left his imprint. Boyd, a brilliant strategist and thinker, effectively revolutionized maneuver warfare for us. (His preparations were important in the First Gulf War’s resounding success.) The teachings in this book are invaluable to anybody battling bureaucracy, lethargy, naysayers, and ass-kissers. It’s a classic for a reason, and most strategic thinkers in the armed services today read it.
George Crile’s Charlie Wilson’s War This book may help you comprehend why Iraq and Afghanistan are the way they are. By arming the insurgent Mujahideen, a Texas congressman helped turn the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan into their Vietnam. These warriors (who later included Osama Bin Laden) caused havoc on the invading and occupying troops, having been trained by the CIA using funds he made available for the purpose. The US, on the other hand, has no exit plan, no ultimate goal in mind for all of this. Those militants went on to become jihadists who are battling numerous “Western” nations across the globe, using guns we gave them with in some instances. This is an excellent book for understanding how wars are often fought, won, and lost by individuals you would never think to have a say in the outcome.
Anthony Loyd’s poem “My War Gone By, I Miss It So Much.” A former British soldier who loves conflict like a drug addict is sent to Bosnia to report on the escalating crisis and atrocities. His passion for combat is mirrored in his drug addiction. It’s a dramatic, wonderfully written book about a mostly forgotten and underappreciated struggle that happened in our lives.
By Chris Hedges, war is a force that gives us meaning. Hedges is a brilliant writer. We are fortunate that he has painted a picture of war for us so that we would never be able to ignore our tendencies and attraction to it. Former divinity student Hedges depicts the impact of war on the individuals who fight it, the nations for which they fight it, and the politicians and people who suffer as a result of it. If you like this book, you won’t be disappointed if you read his previous works, including Empire of Illusion. I also highly suggest reading William James’ 1906 article “Moral Equivalent of War,” which examines some of the same impulses and desires.
Eric Greitens’ book The Heart and the Fist: The Education of a Humanitarian and the Making of a Navy SEAL. Greitens was troubled by the helplessness of it all, having spent his adolescent and college years serving in refugee camps all over the globe. He could do nothing except console innocent people in danger. As a result, he became a Navy SEAL. He notes that sometimes it is necessary to be strong in order to do good, but it is sometimes necessary to do good in order to be strong. As a result, the fist and the heart. This is a strong, poignant memoir about courage, will, and empathy, as well as a powerful, touching book about our recent battles overseas.
Jon Krakauer’s Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman More guys like Pat Tillman are needed in the world. Where Men Win Glory is, in its own way, a book about everything that is right and wrong with the military. It is ostensibly the story of a professional football player who gave up a $3 million NFL contract to join the Army Rangers after 9/11, only to die under suspicious circumstances in the hills of Afghanistan. There is the dignity, sacrifice, and courage on the one hand. On the other hand, it has a history of sordid politics, assassination, and lack of responsibility, as well as an incapacity to fully understand the person. Pat Tillman wasn’t flawless, but he was a guy from whom we might all learn something.
John Robb’s book Brave New War: Terrorism’s Next Stage and the End of Globalization. This is the book to read if you want to grasp the future. John Robb is regarded as one of the world’s foremost living systems theorists. 4th Generation Warfare is the term given to the kind of warfare that John Robb examines. You may think of him as a modern-day John Boyd, applying his ideas to super-empowered people, decentralized groupings, and economics rather than troop combat or Pentagon politics. I originally read this book while doing research for a lecture given at West Point by Robert Greene (see below). Since then, I’m not sure any other book has affected my perspective on politics and world events.
Robert Greene’s The 33 War Strategies My prejudice is significantly offset by the fact that this book is generally considered as a classic, despite the fact that it was authored by my mentor Robert Greene. Many of the works listed above, as well as numerous additional teachings, are combined and synthesized by Robert into a complete book about strategy, execution, and campaigning. It may be used at a job interview, a product launch, or even a war. This book serves as an excellent introductory text as well as a follow-up to some of the originals listed before.
Victor Davis Hanson’s book The Savior Generals: How Five Great Commanders Saved Lost Wars. This book relates the story of five distinct generals, each of whom salvaged a war that was on the verge of being lost. Themistocles, Belisarius, Sherman, Ridgway (in Korea), and Petraeus are the generals in question (in Iraq).
Dave Grossman’s book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. This novel is also divisive, but for different reasons. I recommend reading it because it deflates some of the puffery and exaltation that pervades our war ideas and attitudes. It refutes the notion that killing is in our blood and that warriors are drawn to battle like ducks to water. In reality, the majority of troops never fire their weapons in combat (and this is pretty convincing evidence of that). This book serves as a good counterpoint to many of the others on this list.
Sebastian Junger’s WAR Despite the fact that the war in Afghanistan has been ongoing for more than a decade, troops and cultural commentators have often emphasized how disconnected the great majority of the American people is from the situation. Journalist Sebastian Junger bridges the gap by transferring us to a hooch in the Korengal Valley, where he spent five months with the US 2nd Battalion living, sleeping, and coming under fire. Junger paints a vivid, page-turning picture of what it’s like to be in conflict, the intense link that develops between men who share the experience, the nature of the love and bravery that emerges from war, and why, despite the dangers and sufferings, men are attracted to it again and time again. The book is a must-read not just for its insightful insights on combat, but also for its insight into the very character of masculinity and honor –- reduced down to its most fundamental elements.
David Finkel’s “Thank You for Your Service” Two former Marine officers recommended that I finish this list with a book about what occurs when service members leave the military. This is one of the greatest and most latest books on the market (though most of the memoirs above discuss this issue in some way). It will simultaneously hurt your heart and annoy you. On the one hand, our military picks and sends a subset of our people to inconceivable stressors, then expects them to navigate and cope with the situation on their own. (As the saying goes, “the wealthy wage war, the poor fight and perish in it.”) This is a demographic group that often lacks the resources and support networks necessary to cope with issues such as traumatic brain injury (which is a LOT more serious than PTSD). These same troops, on the other side, will irritate you with their broken relationships and, in some instances, lousy decisions. It’s a depressing and aggravating scenario all around. It serves as a reminder that, unlike some of the writers cited above, our troops are not all well-adjusted Ivy League graduates. But they still deserve more – they need more than hollow gestures like improved seats on aircraft and platitudes. Ben Fountain’s Billy Flynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a related fictional book.
It’s undeniably a positive thing that a generation has passed in the West without the majority of young people having to experience the full force of war. It is a dreadful thing to go to war (which, as Robert E. Lee once said, is good because otherwise men might grow too fond of it). Not having to go through it is a blessing that earlier generations were not blessed with.
At the same time, this may lead to a great deal of naivete and stupidity. “Depravity and violence, as well as the’readiness to murder,’ lie underneath every human contact like ‘the fiscal norm,’” said Cormac McCarthy. The causes and facts of conflict are always there; they are only concealed.
They could show up again tomorrow. Alternatively, we may have a proxy experience or feel the influence of those desires sublimated in some other way.
As a result, we must comprehend war and how it is won. And we need to know what it does to individuals. This is beneficial to us on a political, social, and conscious level. It also assists us with whatever we are doing. Logistics, planning, leadership, and execution are all classic topics in wars. By studying the greatest, we may gain their talents. We may also learn from failed wars and generals what not to do in the future.
No one is implying that you must read all of these novels. I’ve read a lot of them over the years (partly because it’s my work), but you’ll be better off reading whichever ones strike or excite you. Also, don’t stop at these titles; go down the rabbit hole and see where it takes you. If you like these suggestions, join up for my monthly reading email to get more.
Create your own path and report back on your findings.
Listen to Andrew Roberts’ podcast on the lessons learned from great wartime leaders:
Listen to Andrew Roberts’ podcast on the lessons learned from great wartime leaders:
Ryan Holiday is the author of the New York Times best-selling books Trust Me I’m Lying and Growth Hacker Marketing. The Obstacle is the Way, his third and much anticipated book with Penguin/Portfolio, will be about practical philosophy and stoicism. Ryan runs an email list of monthly book suggestions for over 10,000 subscribers at RyanHoliday.net.
The “best anti war novels” is a list of 43 books that are about war, written by authors from around the world. These books cover topics such as the Vietnam War, World War II and more.
- books better than the art of war
- best war stories
- tactical novels
- war novels based on true stories
- books about civilians in war