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

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Mon, Aug 17 - 9:00 am EST | 1 year ago by
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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.

    Note: If you follow the retail links in this post and make purchases on the site(s), Defy Media may receive a share of the proceeds from your sale through the retailer’s affiliate program.

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