When I have time in the winter, I can often be found at the hockey rink, more often terrifying my teammates rather than my opponents. I also have a great interest in political and military history, which results in the admittedly idiosyncratic list below.
My Favorite Military History Books
(These are in roughly the chronological order of the topic covered.)
- John Keegan. A History of Warfare. From the dawn of civilization to the present, war has always been there, but its form has changed considerably. It's amazing how well this has held up over the years. I still enjoy reading it again every now and then. I learn something new each time, and it has a literary quality often missing in newer books.
- Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War. On the other hand, some things have not changed that much. Athens here is much like France during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Period. There is much to admire in the culture, but much to dislike about their drive towards hegemony.
- Michael Howard, War in European History. From 1600 to the present in 165 pages.
- N.A.M. Rodger. The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815. This title is exactly what it says, and despite it's making a serviceable door-stop, it's quite readable.
- Ian Beckett. Modern Insurgencies and Counter-Insurgencies: Guerrillas and Their Opponents Since 1750 (Warfare and History). An exhaustive history and theory of insurgencies, which Beckett defines as guerilla warfare mated to a revolutionary cause. This is important reading for anyone who wants to understand Iraq, Afghanistan, or any number of other flashpoints around the world which are troubled by what has become arguably the dominant mode of warfare since the Second World War.
- John Ferling. Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence. This is, in my humble opinion, first decent, comprehensive history of the Revolution. In particular, Ferling does a nice job covering the mixed conventional/guerilla war in the Carolinas, which is often left out. Ferling is a bit more critical of Washington as a general than I would be (Washington did make a lot of amateur mistakes, but he was an amateur, and he did learn from them), but that is a minor, interpretive issue. Ferling could just have easily titled his book, "How to Win a War with no Money and Less Political Support." In short, it's a well-written, informative read and steads head-and-shoulders above any similar treatment with which I am familiar. An honorable mention should also go to David Hackett Fischer's Washington's Crossing, which treats the 1776-1777 winter campaign and describes the first evidence of an "American way of warfare."
- Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs. The best war memoirs in the English language written by the first modern general of the first modern war. Also includes some interesting insights into the Mexican War, in which Grant also participated. He was also quite an interesting character. As Col. Theodore Lyman described him, "He habitually wears an expression as if he had determined to drive his head through a brick wall, and was about to do it. I have much confidence in him."
- James M. McPherson. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. This is simply the best omnibus political and military history of the Civil War. For a purely military history, read Bruce Catton's The Civil War. Shelby Foote gets more press, but Catton writes better. He is a bit more sympathetic to the Union than the Confederacy. Better yet, listen to The American Civil War by Gary Gallagher, which is a series of lectures by the Great Courses Company available on Amazon. It's much more recent, and I think it has much more depth and nuance because of its format. Finally, one must read Michael Shaara, The Killer Angels. No apologies here for this being a novel. This is the American Iliad. Robert E. Lee takes the role of Achilles when for once he let his pride overcome his judgment.
- Peter Hart, The Great War: A Combat History of the First World War is the best one-volume history on the Great War I've read, and it even taught me some new things about warship design. John Keegan's The First World War also deserves special note as he has managed to take a history of what I thought was the saddest, most depressingly monotonous war in modern times and somehow made it into a page-turner.
- Antony Beevor, The Second World War. I've read a number of one-volume histories of World War Two, and this is by far the best in respect not only to the quality of its content, but also its breadth. For example, it covers the China-Burma-India campaign in some detail. As my aunt (no joke) served in this theater, I'm glad it wasn't overlooked. It also covers new information made available in recent years such as the transcripts of senior Wehrmacht commanders discussing the cover up of atrocities on the Eastern Front. Beevor has also written the best of all the seven books I've read on the Normandy invasion and subsequent campaign (D-Day: The Battle for Normandy), which sadly is out of print. On the other hand, if you want to try something different, Rick Atkinson's An Army at Dawn is a literary masterwork describing the little known baptism-by-fire of the American Army in North Africa during Operation Torch. Lastly, Williamson Murray's A War to be Won: Fighting the Second World War discusses things that are often missed by other histories, such as grand strategy issues or, even more interesting to me personally, industrial strategies. Part of the reason World War Two was won by the allies in Europe is that civilians (or technocrats in the USSR) ran the allied industries, but the military command ran Germany's.
- Martin van Creveld, The Sword and the Olive: A Critical History of the Israeli Defense Forces. A must-read for anyone who wants a deeper understanding of modern conventional military conflict or its best practitioners in recent history. It is light on the diplomacy and politics behind the Israeli Conflict. If this is your interest, please consider Michael B. Oren's Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East..
- David Hackworth, About Face. Okay, so he's the probable real-life inspiration for Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, but the book reveals a lot about the U.S. experience in Vietnam. (Thanks to Geoff Parker for this one!) Other great ground level histories include Harold Moore's We Were Soldiers Once and Young, also about Vietnam, and Stephen Ambrose's Band of Brothers, about World War II.
Best Books on Military Theory for the Layman
(These are listed in the chronological order of when they were written.)
- Sun Tsu, The Art of War. It's good to be stronger than your opponent, but it's even better to be sneakier. Do get an annotated version of this if possible.
- Carl von Clausewitz, On War. The guide to modern land warfare. All modern armies are its intellectual descendents. (Of course, we may currently be shifting into another phase of history.)
- Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783. This book is why we have more aircraft carriers than the rest of the world's navies combined.
- Archer Jones. The Art of War in the Western World. Keegan tells you what happened in his History of Warfare. Jones explains in his own magnum opus how people went about it, both at the strategic and tactical level. Be warned, however. It is a substantial book, big enough to be used to kill snakes if necessary. (Hey, I live in Texas!)
- Martin van Creveld, Command in Warfare. This document explains the methods and doctrine behind what the U.S. Marines call Maneuver Warfare.
- Trevor N. Dupuy. A Genius For War: The German Army and General Staff, 1807-1945. Dupuy argues that the qualitative superiority in German land troops from about 1850-1945 was due to the quality of its general staff and the culture in engendered in the German army. His thesis is that they general staff actively created institutions in which mere individual competence could be translated on an ongoing basis into organizational genius. It was out of print, but fortunately Amazon has resurrected it for the Kindle.
- John Nagl. Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam. This book explains why the superpowers are 5 and 0 (well, maybe now 8 and 0) in dealing with insurgencies while the British Army has a much better record. It is the intellectual background to the famous U.S. Army Manual FM 3-24 on counterinsurgency. Be warned: reading this book will make you wonder about U.S. chances in Iraq (note: the prior sentence was written back in 2010).