The best books on military history for people who think

James Kelly Morningstar Author Of Patton's Way: A Radical Theory of War
By James Kelly Morningstar

Who am I?

I have a passion for this theme because I served as an armor officer in the U.S. Army for more than twenty years. I saw the effect of both thinking and non-thinking commanders first-hand in places like the inter-German border during the Cold War, Iraq in combat during the first Gulf War, and Bosnia in ‘operations other than war.’ My experience drove me to continue my military studies resulting in four degrees, including my PhD and my current occupation as a professor of military history. My search for understanding war and military decision-making reflects a desire to better instruct the future leaders among my college students and readers.


I wrote...

Patton's Way: A Radical Theory of War

By James Kelly Morningstar,

Book cover of Patton's Way: A Radical Theory of War

What is my book about?

Patton’s Way is an analysis of how General George S. Patton, Jr. intellectually developed and physically applied his uniquely effective approach to modern warfare. In it I cut through popular historiographical misrepresentations of Patton to explain his fundamentally radical doctrine purposely crafted over several decades of careful thought and practice. In separate chapters I isolate four core principles in Patton’s doctrine: shock to undermine enemy morale; highly practiced combined arms mechanized columns; mission tactics and flexible command and control; and multi-layered and synthesized intelligence systems focused on enemy capabilities and weak spots.

In sum, Patton’s Way provides a distinctive explanation of how an enigmatic military mind rewrote the rules of modern war in ways previously not perceived. 

The books I picked & why

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Decoding Clausewitz: A New Approach to on War

By Jon Tetsuro Sumida,

Book cover of Decoding Clausewitz: A New Approach to on War

Why this book?

This too often overlooked classic—written by my PhD advisor—not only explains why Clausewitz wrote his masterpiece but what he was trying to say. In doing so, Sumida breaks conventional understandings of both the great German military philosopher and the very subject of military history. Clausewitz and Sumida combine to eschew history limited to explaining outcomes by linearly tracing them back to their origins and instead advocate for narratives that reveal what the participants saw as their options in the moment and then contextualizes their choices and actions. It is this path that leads to knowledge gained through synthetic experience. Decoding Clausewitz is the single most influential work in my approach to military history.


The War Lords and the Gallipoli Disaster: How Globalized Trade Led Britain to Its Worst Defeat of the First World War

By Nicholas A. Lambert,

Book cover of The War Lords and the Gallipoli Disaster: How Globalized Trade Led Britain to Its Worst Defeat of the First World War

Why this book?

With unmatched research and brilliant analytical thought, Nicholas Lambert upends long-accepted explanations of a military disasterthe Gallipoli Campaignthat not only rocked Britain in World War I but reverberates in international relations to this very day. His forensic examination of the British government’s symbiotic political, diplomatic, economic, and military decision-making should be required reading for all students of those disciplines. His approach dismantles accepted histories derived from the political assignment of blame and instead gives the reader an understanding of policy decisions tortured by a wide array of then-pertinent circumstances ranging from the price of a loaf of bread to the power of a Russian Tsar. We can hear the echoes of Lambert’s analysis in today’s cable news reports regarding globalization, disruption to wheat markets, and the political impact of inflation. A timeless work indeed. 


Torpedo: Inventing the Military-Industrial Complex in the United States and Great Britain

By Katherine C. Epstein,

Book cover of Torpedo: Inventing the Military-Industrial Complex in the United States and Great Britain

Why this book?

Katherine Epstein unravels the tale of a single weapon system—the pre-World War I self-propelled torpedo—to reveal a remarkably informative and entertaining history of the interconnectedness of world politics, economics, law, industry, and military power. National leaders in the early 20th Century had to reach into all these spaces to develop effective, cheap torpedoes that could potentially upset rival naval powers resting on traditional, expensive, and vulnerable big gun ships. American and British leaders succeeded only by reshaping obsolete procurement processes into partnerships between public fund managers and private sector research and development, leading to attendant legal clashes between intellectual property rights and national security concerns—and creating the basis for the Military-Industrial Complex. With brilliant research and analysis, Epstein illustrates how complicated and seemingly unrelated factors merge to dictate the flow of a revolution in military affairs that changed the world. In the process, she reminds historians like me to explore new and untapped sources in search of key pieces to our narrative puzzles. 


Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era

By James M. McPherson,

Book cover of Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era

Why this book?

This New York Times bestseller is deservedly well known, and like many others, I believe it stands as the best single-volume history of the Civil War. More than a military history, it is a social and cultural documentation of this vital moment in the evolution of the country. Moreover, I love the interdisciplinary tone of the book, one that combines the sensibilities of the Annales School and the precision advocated by Hans Delbrück. An entertaining 900-page military history, it almost subliminally educates the reader on the importance of industry, the impact of $50 bonds and inflation, the influence of international diplomacy, and other such topics that usually act as Kryptonite to my college student Supermen. More than a history, Battle Cry of Freedom is a seminar on how to write history on a large scale. 


The West Point Atlas of American Wars: Vol. 1, 1689-1900

By Vincent J. Esposito (editor),

Book cover of The West Point Atlas of American Wars: Vol. 1, 1689-1900

Why this book?

I probably have referred to this work more than any other in my personal library of several thousand books. This original hardback covers more than thirteen wars in hundreds of detailed maps. Later hardback and online editions have added all major conflicts from the Korean War to the recent war in Afghanistan. Patton once said that terrain is the skeleton upon which we flesh out our plans and operations. I believe no historian can understand battles and campaigns without first understanding the terrain. These maps make it possible to see the restraints and constraints imposed by terrain and give the possibility for the trained eye to retrospectively measure the coup de oeil in their subject’s eye. All military history begins with a map and the maps begin here. 


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