“Now Understand This! Now Understand This!” Military Reading List Part 2

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Mon, Aug 24 - 9:00 am EDT | 2 years ago by
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    Lines of Departure - Military Reading List

    Continuing from last week, my not entirely random selection of books to give the reader a better understanding of war, the father of us all.

    (If you haven’t read the first half of the list, you can do it now.)


    “Si vis pacem, para bellum.” If you want peace prepare for war. This is a message often difficult to get through the head of even a fairly normal human being, let alone a pacifist leftist. “Why not,” asks the latter, “if you truly want peace, prepare for peace?” The message itself admits of a number of interpretations. One is that by being prepared for war you frighten off another attacker. Another is that by preparing for peace, which is to say, by disarming, you invite attack from outside.1

    The core of the problem, in any case, between the pacifistic or just hopeful man or woman, and the realistic or militaristic, is that war – human conflict, generally – does not follow linear logic. It has, instead an inverse logic. To get an understanding of that, I know of no single work better than Edward Luttwak’s Strategy.

    Strategy is available for a very reasonable price.


    Sometimes books by the same author, but which have no obvious correlation, still will tend to reverberate off of each other if they are read in pari materia. Such is the case with Luttwak’s The Pentagon and the Art of War, which was, I think, published before Strategy. In this case, by looking at our rather screwy and unmilitary way of doing business – as true today as it was in the mid-80s – and bouncing that off of the non-linear logic of war, I think one would get a better understanding of both. At least, I did. Pay particular attention to the way the research and development bureaucracy defeats good sense and economy every time. Then contemplate the Littoral Combat Ship, the F-22, and the F-35.

    It’s available for dirt, used, from Amazon.


    There are few indictments of our largely box-o-rocks stupid general officer corps worse than the damage they’ve done or allowed to be done to Artillery, “the killer.” Damage? Yes, among the other incredible idiocies of the brigade combat team, this son of Pentomic division (itself an organizational disaster from which the US Army never has and never shall recover), is that we’ve nearly wrecked our artillery. I don’t know if we’ll ever get back to full effectiveness this branch that, more than any other, made US forces nearly unbeatable on the battlefield, but a good place to start would be reading Marine Bruce Gudmundsson’s On Artillery.

    It’s available at a fair price via Amazon.


    In yet another instance of the utility of pairing somewhat dissimilar books by the same author, I also recommend Gudmundsson’s Stormtroop Tactics. You see, artillery doesn’t seize military objectives, it demoralizes, stuns, and kills enemy who may be on them. To seize them requires ground gaining combat arms, Infantry, Armor, and Combat Engineers. The tactics used by those, however, derive pretty much entirely from those developed by the Germans in the latter half of the Great War. If you want to know where you’re going or which direction to turn in, it’s useful to know where you came from. Gudmundsson provides the map of the passes and turns behind us.

    It’s available at a fair price via Amazon.


    This is a first half of the last pairing I’ll offer. Though it comes under fire sometimes, still, S.L.A. Marshall’s Men Against Fire remains a classic of the psychology of men in battle, of how to command them, and how not to. The fire the book, itself, comes under is sometimes phrased as doubting Marshall’s integrity in reaching his conclusions. I leave those charges to others, but I am not quite persuaded, myself. I think a more important factor in attacking him and the book is that the military is a very liberal institution, liberal in the sense that the common outlook is one of supreme optimism that man’s character can be profoundly and lastingly changed by training, education, social engineering, propagandization, and relentless bloody nagging. “Well it ain’t, see?”2

    It’s a short book and worth more than you will pay for it.


    I’ve commented on it in a previous column in this space, but we are never going to beat lightly armed and equipped, but highly dedicated, tribesmen until and unless we chop the load on the troops’ backs; yes, I mean the load that renders them doubly safe, safe from being harmed and safe from harming anyone else, either. You can go back and read the column, if you like, or you can – and I recommend you do – go to the inspiration and read Marshall’s Soldier’s Load and the Mobility of a Nation. It was true when it was written and it is as true today. Moreover, while I think both this and Men Against Fire are valuable, I give pride of place to this. After all, the soldier spends a lot more time marching than shooting or being shot at.

    It is also a short book and worth more than you will pay for it.


    “You are well aware that it is not numbers or strength that bring the victories in war. No, it is when one side goes against the enemy with the gods’ gift of a stronger morale that their adversaries, as a rule, cannot withstand them.” ~ Xenophon, Anabasis

    Morale is a relatively difficult thing to pin down. It’s not just about whether or not the troops are happy at a particular time. They can be very happy and have wretched morale. Neither is it about whether they are unhappy; they can be miserable and their morale still be holding up firmly. It is also difficult to compare it across cultures. Fortunately, despite our being separated by a common language, the cultures of the United Kingdom and of the United States still have enough in common that lessons applying to one will frequently be applicable to the other. Thus, for one study of morale under the very worst sort of adversity, I recommend John Baynes’ Morale, which revolves around a Scottish regiment in the Great War, shot to bits and still ready to fight after that.

    Get it quick because I doubt it’s going to be in print much longer. Just one of those feelings.


    There are ways in which war never changes. There are also ways in which no two wars are alike. There are are different kinds of wars even within a particular sub-set. For example, there are a number of different modes for guerrilla warfare: ranging from Maoist Peoples Revolutionary War to urban guerilla war, most notable for the spectacularly disastrous way in which it fails. There will, no doubt, be further refinements and approaches in the future. The important thing, therefore, is to learn how to think about war flexibly, so that no war is completely beyond one’s ability to understand.

    One form of guerrilla war, a local variant on people revolutionary war, occurred in Malaya in the late forties and fifties. One of the movers and shakers of that war was Sir Robert Thompson. Thompson, a friend of both democracy and the United States, attempted to steer us clear of some highly questionable actions and procedures during Vietnam.

    Personally, I doubt that we’d have won by following his suggestions. Our war in Vietnam was always a tougher proposition, and against a tougher enemy, than the UK’s in Malaya. That’s not what’s important. What’s important is looking at a kind of war from a different perspective than that of the normal conventional soldier. Though he wrote several books on the subject, the one I find best for my purpose here is No Exit from Vietnam.

    It’s out of print and available used for a reasonable price, or new for something your wife will nag you into an early grave over spending.


    Armies exist mostly in peace and prepare in peace for war. Hopefully, they do, anyway. I was in the Army that came out of Vietnam, shortly after it came out. It was a horror show, rife with drugs, racism (on all sides), indiscipline. You just wouldn’t believe. It took a lot of things to fix that dump. One was the natural, quasi-Teutonic love affair between the American people and their armed forces. Another was the gradual dying away of the memory of defeat in some circles, oddly coupled to a determination never to suffer that kind of loss again, in still others.

    Another factor that doesn’t get nearly enough credit was a book by a retired Lieutenant General, one Arthur S. Collins. The book was Common Sense Training and, although perhaps a bit dated now, it still has more concentrated wisdom on how to do that preparation for war than anything else in existence. Read it, apply it if that’s your job, and you will never be entirely wrong. Now, with the armed forces coming out of another couple of lost campaigns, we need this book in wide usage again.

    It’s still in print and you can get it for dirt if you want to buy used.


    My last recommendation for this series is a sobering and disheartening one. Niall Ferguson’s The War of the World. You needn’t agree with everything he says, but you ought to at least take it under consideration.

    It’s available, new or used.

    And that’s my twenty suggestions to start yourself on the road to understanding this thing, war. They’re not exclusive nor even exhaustive. If you read them and it sparks you to read a 21st volume by someone I’ve never heard of, GREAT!

    Remember, Ferguson notwithstanding, the next century may be worse than the last.


    1 I won’t get into inferences, like, “If you want peace, buy a Luger.” Extra points for whoever gets that joke.

    2 An unknown corporal before the walls of Troy, as quoted by Robert A. Heinlein.

    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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