Understanding War: “Now Read This! Now Read This!”

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Lines of Departure - War Reading List

I get asked from time to time to put out a preferred or suggested reading list for someone to develop a better understanding of war. I’ve been studying war for, well, a very long time. To the extent I can, I still do. And I learn new things about the subject all the time. No reading list I could give, therefore, could ever really be complete enough, indeed, could ever do more than scratch the surface.

On the other hand, if I can scratch the surface of your brain a bit, gentle reader, perhaps you will take off on the study of this most important subject on your own. Remember, too, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”1

Thus, then, this: My suggested reading list – with some whys and warnings – for gaining a decent understanding of war, “the father and king all.”2



Martin van Creveld has called “Napoleon the most competent human being who ever lived.” 3 British historian David Chandler refers to him as, “History’s greatest soldier.” Those are two bold statements about someone who ultimately lost. Still, I think they’re valid enough to suggest to you, Chandler’s The Campaigns of Napoleon, which is arguably several books in one. I suggest it not so much to learn from Napoleon – one must probably be a Napoleon to act as successfully as a Napoleon – but to learn something of leadership in war, and more from Napoleon’s operational approach which is largely still valid today.

Be prepared for some sticker shock, even if you buy it on Kindle.


We call George Washington “The father of his country.” Here, though, I’m siding with Heraclitus, quoted above. Our father, the father of modern American, is the Civil War. The best one volume history is probably McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom. I’m going to cheat, though, and give you one suggestion here that is actually eight volumes, all related, in three cohesive series, combining to make one series. The eight books are by Allan Nevins. The series those books comprise are, The Ordeal of the Union, The Emergence of Lincoln, and The War for the Union. Nothing you are likely to read is going to give a better overview of the intersection of technology, tactics, strategy, logistics, and politics, in a peculiarly American vein, as this.

The price in hardcover, used, for all eight volumes, is about the same as for Chandler’s book in Kindle.


There’s an old military aphorism to the effect that “amateurs study tactics; professionals study logistics.” Personally, I think real professionals study everything, since war is the art that subsumes all other arts and sciences, but give pride of place and weight of effort to logistics. There is surprisingly little written on the subject, too, and some of what is written fails to impress.

Martin van Creveld’s Supplying War does not fail to impress. Short and highly readable, it is unquestionably the best work in existence on the subject of supplying armies in the field.

This doesn’t come especially cheaply, even in paperback, but it’s worth its weight in gold.


Americans are the class of the world when it comes to logistics, not, perhaps, because we’re especially brilliant, but because we’re willing to throw the resources at the problem that it merits, and then some. Similarly, we tend to see many military problems as largely technological problems. Sometimes this works for us; sometimes it leads us astray, to overconfidence, and to waste.4

We’d have a lot less of that, and more useful and reliable technology, to boot, if we’d read van Creveld’s Technology and War.

The price is neither a heartbreaker nor a bank breaker.


One wonder’s if Xenophon’s Anabasis, the “March Upcountry” of about eleven thousand 5 unsupported Greek mercenaries out of the hostile Persian Empire, wasn’t, along with his Cyropaedia, the original inspiration for the Roman manipular legion. It’s one of my pet theories that it might well have been.

Never mind that; Anabasis is one of the founding documents, so to speak, to western military art and military dominance. And the story, the adventure, never really grows old.

It’s available for approximately dirt or less. As of this writing it can be had for free on Kindle.


What Nevins magnum opus is to the American Civil War Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War is to not only Hellenes, our intellectual, political, and spiritual forebears, but to all men, everywhere. He wrote it as “a possession for all time,” and, so far, it has met that standard. When you read it, pay particular attention to what is has to say about men, and about the states men create and inhabit, in conflict. Pay especial attention to the Revolution in Corcyra, and what it has to say about one of the modern leftist’s chief goals, the undermining and prostitution of language.

This is widely available, at reasonable prices, in all kinds of formats and translations.


Clausewitz’s On War is a toughie. Oh, it’s easy enough to recommend and not all that hard to read, really. But it requires a LOT of thought. The reader has to be careful; there is a reason Clausewitz gets quoted for all kinds of interesting but mutually exclusive propositions. You see, he wrote in a dialectic style, which is the major reason why a cursory reading is as likely as not to lead you astray. In other words, he posits opposites and then analyzes the relative merits of the opposing positions. That’s why you can find all kinds of quotes from Clausewitz that, taking his work as a whole, appear contradictory.

This is also widely available, at reasonable prices.


I confess to a certain soft spot for William T. Sherman.6 Thus, I recommend B. H. Liddell-Hart’s hagiography of the man, not for the writing, nor even for the circumstances, but because Sherman is one of the best, possibly the best, commander America has ever fielded, and because if we had another one such, now, he would never rise above the rank of captain.

In any case, Liddell-Hart’s Sherman: Soldier, Realist, American, is generally available at an acceptable price.


Though I recommend J.F.C. Fuller’s The Generalship Of Ulysses S. Grant, still I must warn the reader that Fuller, retired major general, forward thinker, visionary, and (absolutely a) fascist, will lie in a heartbeat (if he thinks he can get away with it) to make a point. On the other hand, he’ll tell the truth, too, if that works better. Here, with one or two minor exceptions (IIRC), he has.

It’s available at a reasonable price.


There are two basic styles of battle, close combat and skirmisher. The west is not alone on being inclined to close combat, others – the Zulu , for example – have developed it, too, on their own. The other way, the way of the skirmisher, is as legitimate a method of battle as close combat, by the only distinction that really matters; “Does it work?”

John Keegan’s A History of Warfare is particularly good at getting at the close combatant-skirmisher distinction. This is especially important, today, because we are, in fact engaged in a close combat versus skirmisher culture war, where it is by no means clear that close combat will prevail or be allowed to prevail.

A History of Warfare us available for considerably less than it is worth.

Next week; ten more suggestions.


1 Michael Walzer, paraphrasing Trotsky, Just and Unjust Wars.

2 Heraclitus of Ephesus

3 Martin van Creveld, Command in War

4 True story; when I was stationed at the War College, about 11 years ago, some defense firm had on display an electronic explosive sniffer. I asked them how dilute a trace it could pick up and was given an answer that couldn’t fail to impress. “What explosives can it pick up?” I asked. The answer to that was much less impressive, “But we’re working on that.” Then I asked, “Okay, now how do you deal with ten thousand kids in Baghdad with spray bottles containing water and traces of every explosive known to man, spraying every set of tires, every donkey, and every dog in the town?” Crickets.

5 They’re often called “the Ten Thousand,” but they started with, IIRC, something like eleven thousand, six hundred and ended up escaping with with between eight and nine thousand..

6 This is not, or not entirely, derivative of my fellow company commanders, nearly three decades past, insisting that I, too, had a mind “like a wonderfully intricate piece of machinery, [also] with all the screws just a little loose.”

Tom Kratman is a retired infantry lieutenant colonel, recovering attorney, and science fiction and military fiction writer. His latest novel, The Rods and the Axe, is available from Amazon.com for $9.99 for the Kindle version, or $25 for the hardback. A political refugee and defector from the People’s Republic of Massachusetts, he makes his home in Blacksburg, Virginia. He holds the non-exclusive military and foreign affairs portfolio for EveryJoe. Tom’s books can be ordered through baen.com.

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  • Ming the Merciless

    Too much van Creveld. =)

    What would you say is the most useful work about actually winning a counterinsurgency campaign? (As opposed to playing by tranzi rules and therefore losing slowly and expensively…)

  • James/G

    ‘War is not a Science, it is an Art, and it is truly unfortunate that we are not all Leonardo DaVinci’. From ‘Fiction and Fact from Duncan’s Almanac’

    One has to understand where the quotes come from and their relation to Warfare. For example, there is one concerning Logistics, ‘Tactics wins Battles, Logistics wins Wars’.

    What does it mean? That one should concentrate on the logistics? No, it means know when which is important, the log or the fight.

    Like the Col said about Clausewitz, you have to put his words in the proper context…

    I’ll stop rambling now.

  • Steven Schwartz

    I recommend to your attention, if you haven’t read it, and to other readers, “From the Jaws of Victory: On the Causes and Consequences of Military Stupidity”, by Charles Fair; sadly, it is (AFAICT) out of print, but used copies are easy to come by.

    • Tom Kratman

      That’s a good suggestion.

  • TBR

    Let me recommend

    The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command


    It not only brings in a naval perspective but also shows how bureaucracy and ossified traditionalism can affect military organisation and culture negatively. Though it leaves out some aspects of the Jutland/Skagerrrak battle and the technological aspects that description is also one of the better and less biased.

    And if Supplying War whets the appetite for logistics continue with

    The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger


    Is the ideal conitnuation of Supplying War and has a chapter on Vietnam War logistics in it as well.

    • Tom Kratman

      Actually, in an American Context, there is an official history of Logistics which has some excellent insights. I didn’t include it because I can’t fiund my *&^^%TUHGVBHY!!!@!!! copy at the moment.

    • Jack Withrow

      Are you referring to the Green Books? If so here is a link to downloadable .zip files for all of them.


    • Tom Kratman

      It _is_ a green book, but it doesn’t fit one of the normal war based series, since it covers US logistics from the beginning.

    • Jack Withrow

      “Global Logistics and Strategy 1940-43″ & “Global Logistics and Strategy 1944-45″?

    • Tom Kratman

      Nah. This went back to the revolution or maybe 7 years war.

    • Tom Kratman
  • Mark Andrew Edwards

    I prefer Shelby Foote over MacPherson, more for language and narrative flow than for content reasons.
    I was unaware of Nevins, thanks for that, just Amazoned the set.

    I do love Keegan’s work, I’m trying to collect and read all of it.

    Much appreciated, sir.

    • Tom Kratman

      Foote’s very good but, like Paul Carrell, one is rarely in much doubt about who he considers the good guys. His perspective is worth reading but, if I’m going to go multi-volume, Nevins is the class of the world for the ACW.

  • MacNillus

    Stalingrad by Beevor is a must read as well.

    • Tom Kratman

      If memory serves, that’s where I first learned about Sgt Pavlov and his house (qv).

    • Ming the Merciless

      Not from Craig’s classic Enemy at the Gates?

    • Tom Kratman

      Mentioned there, too, I am sure. But my best recollection of first learning about Sgt Pavlov was Beevor.

      Then again, I _am_ getting old, sooo…

  • Jack Withrow

    I’ve read Clausewitz probably 6 or 7 times. To me he is highly confusing and his works are not something I would recommend to someone with out a military background. There is a pretty steep learning curve to reading Clausewitz IMO.

    On Chandler, agreed on “The Campaigns of Napoleon”, but I would highly recommend “Napoleon’s Marshalls” also. While Napoleon rightly is considered one of the best commanders in history, he could not have done what he did without his Marshalls. Davout was probably every bit as good as Napoleon, while Lannes was probably a troop leader without peer. To me Napoleon’s genus was how he took those prickly Marshalls and almost conquered the entire European Landmass.

    • Tom Kratman

      The key to reading him is mostly what I said above, remember he is using a dialectical method to which I will add, forget the sound bites, look or the analysis.

    • TBR

      Should have brought this up earlier. Clausewitz “On War” is not only confusing because of his dialectic style but als because he died before finishing his works. It was his widow who edited and published “On War” with a preface of her own.

      Mind, do not underestimate her, this was an era when some (noble and/or high society) German women had tremendous intellectual influence in thier own right. Her efforts were productive and responsible for the endurance of the Clausewitz name.

      But still, “On War” would probably have been more concise and understandable if Clausewitz had survived to finalise his revision and to edit and publish it himself.

  • Sulla Felix

    I have gotten interested in the Rhodesian Light Infantry (RLI) recently because they fought an insurgency war in which they came up with new tactics and equipment to fight such a war. Some of which such as mine resistant vehicles have only now, many decades later been adopted by armies outside of African continent.

    Could you recommend any books on the Rhodesian Bush War and the RLI in particular?

    • Tom Kratman

      There’s one on the RAR, Masodja, which I thought was pretty good. Haven’t read much on the RLI and none of it stuck in my mind.

      Thing to remember about insurgency, though, is that there are a number of different models. Africa’s was, typically, terrorize the European population until enough of them left that the rest became demoralized and were willing to surrender to get a temporary peace that might allow them to sell off their property for pennies on the pound before it was confiscated anyway by the new chief kleptocrat. Central America’s is usually 1) build a political organization / recruiting command inside the country, 2) build an army outside, 3) invade. Asia tends to follow Maoist People’s Revolutionary War, which sets things up nicely for the children and grandchildren of the latter high party cadres, themselves the children and grandchildren of those who won the revolution, to become millionaires. South America tends toward urban guerilla warfare, which is fascinating for the spectacular degree to which it fails. Those are just broad trends, and you will find exceptions and cross overs all over.

      While there are some tactical, technical, and operational things to be learned from Rhodesia, it’s important to remember just how incompetent their enemies were.

    • James

      “urban guerilla warfare,”

      I always figured wars in CA would generally be more focused out in the Rural area’s.

      And do you know of any good sources of material on the Zulu and other african nations warfare wise and also ancient history wise? I know there were a few not to mention Axum and such but damn you’d think they never existed.

    • Tom Kratman

      For the Zulu I liked The Washing of the Spears. Battle for the Bundu was good for the German colonial black troops. For the rest, there really isn’t much, at least that’s in English and crossed my view.

    • Baron Adventurer

      Were such a thing to come to pass, by which method or methods do you think a North American insurgency be fought?

    • Tom Kratman

      IEDs, assassination, sniping, and specific terror, especially against families. Also expect all the same and more in return. And because it will not be by one group on either side, there will be no one to make peace who _can_ make peace, hence will go on and on with no real point besides revenge.

    • guest

      Only to a point, I suspect.

      I know it’s a vast oversimplification, and a sweeping statement of the sort which I should probably avoid when speaking about broad historical trends and predictions. But hear me out.

      In North America we have, approximately, two sides to the ongoing Kulturkampf, or, as some have called it, the Cold Civil War. And I’m going to paint both with an entertainingly broad brush here and make unwarranted generalizations, because it’s fun.

      One of these two sides thinks guns are icky and should be banned. The other thinks guns are tools and grows up with them close to hand and thinks the pearl-clutching antics of the first whenever someone mentions guns are getting really fucking old.

      One of these two sides is reflexively pacifist and claims to think, really and truly without irony or inserted smiley faces, that no problems do or ever could exist that can’t be talked out, as if all Pol Pot needed was a finger-wagging lecture. The other recognizes violence and conflict as part of the human condition and part of life and doesn’t get offended if their kids come home from school with a black eye as long as they gave better than they got.

      One side says it would be proud of its children if they grew up to be “trans-gender” and views such individuals as “heroes.” The other takes its view of heroism, manhood, and justice from rather different sources and views the first side as sick and insane if not evil.

      One side is a patchwork crazy-quilt of self-hating urban white liberals who loathe the “ignorant rednecks,” urban blacks who want to kill Whitey because “community activists” have spent the past fifty years telling them that Whitey makes it rain and Whitey makes the sun shine, animal rights activists who are enraged that AIDS drugs are tested on monkeys, angry queers who don’t give a fuck about the aforementioned monkeys unless they’re fucking them, and Mexican Sureño gangbangers who want to exterminate all their temporary allies down to the last infant. The other is ethnically monolithic, culturally cohesive, very well armed, and is living on top of the sources of food, drinking water, and electricity that flow, for the moment, to their opposition. Note particularly the tens of thousands of miles of unguarded, unguardable aqueducts that carry water to NYC, Boston, and the Southern California megalopolis, and the sheer amount of damage that even a small organization could do to them (and note that cities of tens of millions, when drinkable water is suddenly cut off, tend to transform magically transform into abattoirs with a 95% mortality rate and the surviving 5% fighting over the remaining canned food in the burnt-out ruins). This second group also makes up the vast majority of combat arms soldiers in the US military (note the ongoing bitching and moaning from the usual suspects that SpecOps has too many honkeys in it), but the Madison and Frisco Birkenstock crowd, who spit on them and call them “baby killers,” have convinced themselves that when the shit hits the fan they’ll still follow their orders and lay down their lives to protect people who hold them in open contempt from the bad karma they’ve spent the past century and a half earning. The looks on a whole lot of faces are gonna be as memorable as they are temporary.

      Speaking hypothetically and for entertainment purposes only, If the balloon goes up and the government can no longer keep the lid on, I don’t expect much actual fighting, and I don’t expect the bloodletting to last long, though I do anticipate it’s going to be widespread and it’s going to take place on a truly Biblical scale. “And the winepress was trodden without the city, and blood came out of the winepress, even unto the horse bridles, by the space of a thousand and six hundred furlongs,” can ya dig it? Vae victis!

      And all that stuff about “guerillas who move among the people like a fish swimming in the sea” doesn’t work so well in a race war, when “sheeyit muhfugga you a racist dis beez profilin an shit” isn’t going to make people genuflect and beg forgiveness any more–it’s going to make the hangman chuckle as he tightens the rope. And at the end there will be peace.

      For my part, I’d rather die in bed at the age of a hundred and three, preferably of sexual overexertion. I’d rather pursue my vocation in a peaceful place and have a loving family. That having been said, my irons and optics are zeroed, and I’ve got beans, bullets, and blankets put away for emergencies. If Team Tranzi is feeling froggy I wish they’d jump, I truly do–while I’m still young enough to enjoy CQB. “Better today than in my son’s time.” And it isn’t going to take long. It’s seriously, seriously not. If they were capable of fighting or even of finding their balls, they’d be us. They prefer to accomplish their goals by electing leftist politicians who appoint leftist judicial activist judges who cram their increasingly whimsical diktats down the throats of the nation as a whole. The other side tends to be rather more hands-on, and I think some of them might possibly not be joking when they talk about “voting from the rooftops.”

      As for books on war, you might enjoy Jim Dunnigan’s “How to Make War,” from the perhaps unique perspective of a game designer. And on the Korean War specifically, Fehrenbach’s “This Kind of War” is perhaps the single best book written on that conflict, with long digressions on the soldier and his place within civil society that remain relevant sixty years after it was written.

    • Tom Kratman

      The list (more tomorrow) isn’t about enjoyable works on war, though I agree on both Dunnigan and Fehrenbach, but educational works of war. Are they? Yes. But not so much in the way of eternal verities as the ones I list. I _think_.

      Your analysis has point, but The core problem with it is that people tend to become like what they fight (caveats, unless utterly destroyed quickly). Spartans and Romans take to sea to defeat Athenians and Carthaginians. Landknechts arise to deal with Swiss pike formations. Puritans get pretty good as skirmisher and raider actions in the Indians woods. Ditto scalping, for a minor instance. Marines become just as murderous as Japanese. For that matter, so do Americans as a whole. Russians become almost as operationally deft as Germans. Etc. So would the pearl clutchers of today plant a bomb somewhere to kill a family? No…not until so and so’s family was killed by the bomb, when so and so was also an SJW.

      I highly recommend, as I did above, reading and thinking about the breakdown in civilization on Corcyra, in Thucydides.

    • El Paso Mark

      Be a man among men. The Rhodesian army. Remember days gone by, of copies of Soldier of Fortune in the barracks and ads (And barracks talk) about going to Rhodesia? Rhodesian light infantry. Selous scouts. My my my.

    • Tom Kratman

      When I was a buck down in Panama I was in contact with their chief of recruiting. Though they normally wanted you to pay your own way over they were willing to pay for me to go over. My interest was in getting commissioned into the Rhodesian African Rifles, rather than the RLI, like most Americans. I thought if the country had a future it would be there, not in a whites-only regiment or a whites-only society..

      Just as well I decided against, all things considered.

  • http://randolphbeck.com/blog/ Randy Beck

    FWIW: For those of you who like audio (expecially free audio), Clausewitz, Xenophon and Thucydides are available at Librivox.org.

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