The best books on war, full stop

Martin van Creveld Author Of The Privileged Sex
By Martin van Creveld

The Books I Picked & Why

The Iliad

By Gareth Hinds

Book cover of The Iliad

Why this book?

The Iliad is not a book on strategy. Nor on tactics, nor on logistics, nor on command and control, nor on any other individual aspect of warfare about which any number of lesser authors have written. An epic poem, it provides an unparalleled panorama of men (and, playing a secondary yet crucially important role, a few women) at war: the hope, the despair, the fear, the elation, the kindness, the rage, the horror, the love and the sex (which both increases the horror and to some extent makes up for it). All intertwined, and all pulsating along with the human heart. Probably written down around 750 BCE, but making use of much older material, for almost three millennia now it has been regarded not just as a classic but as the greatest classic of all. Unquestionably it will continue doing so for millennia more. 

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The Art of War

By Sun Tzu, Skyhigh Publication

Book cover of The Art of War

Why this book?

Some three decades ago I was teaching this work to a postgraduate class. At one point a young woman raised her hand. Professor she said, you do not understand. This is a Daoist Text.

It was as if a hammer had hit me on the head! I knew, or thought I knew, what war is, and I knew, or thought I knew, what Daoism is. What had never occurred to me was to bring the two together. Morale versus materiel. Strength versus weakness. Force versus guile. Maximum versus minimum force. The full versus the empty. And vice versa, of course. All considered from a point of view that is almost god-like: both supremely utilitarian and surprisingly humane. And all written in plain and unadorned language that comes through in the best translations (there are at least five). Unlikely to be equaled. Ever.

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The Jewish War

By Flavius Josephus

Book cover of The Jewish War

Why this book?

A flaming patriot and a superb writer, Josephus is to Thucydides what a journalist is to a historian. But what a journalist! One who participated in the events he described, first as a commander, then as a prisoner, and finally as a valued companion of the enemy commander in chief. One intimately familiar with the theater of war, the history and traditions of both sides, their weapons, their organization, and their ways of fighting. All leading up to the story of the mass suicide of the Zealots at Masada, high on a desolate rock overlooking the Dead Sea. Almost every time modern archaeologists do research on the period in question they end up confirming the text; which, besides being truthful, is probably the most dramatic account of any war ever written.

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On War

By Carl von Clausewitz, Beatrice Heuser, Michael Howard, Peter Paret

Book cover of On War

Why this book?

Most theoretical works on war claim to instruct their readers about how to wage war. With the result that, especially in modern times when technology is racing ahead, quickly becomes out of date. By contrast, Clausewitz, a student of the philosopher Immanuel Kant, all but ignores technology. Instead he focuses on two cardinal questions: what war is, and what it is waged for. From this, using reality to check on theory and theory to check on reality, he proceeds step by step. Many of his conclusions, e.g “war is a duel on an extended scale means.” “The best strategy is always to be very strong, first in general and then at the decisive point.” “The attacker always wants peace.” “The stronger form of war is the defense.” “In war everything is simple, but the simplest thing is very complex.” “Comes the culminating point, every offense will turn into a defense,” are as valid and as useful today as they were when he wrote them down around two centuries ago—and are likely to remain so as long as war itself exists.

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Arms and Influence: With a New Preface and Afterword

By Thomas C. Schelling

Book cover of Arms and Influence: With a New Preface and Afterword

Why this book?

In the whole of military history, no year was more important than 1945. Why? Because it introduced nuclear weapons to the world and the world to nuclear weapons. Both before and after Hiroshima new weapons have always affected the way war is waged; whereas nuclear ones, by threatening to turn even the “victor” into a radioactive desert, have cast doubt on the purpose for which may be waged and even whether it can be waged at all. 

As the current war in Ukraine has shown once again, provided both sides have a credible second-strike capability using nuclear weapons to win a war is impossible. So what can they be used for and how? Proceeding step by step Schelling, a Nobel-Prize winning professor of game theory, provides the answers in ways that not only have not been improved upon since the book was published in 1965 but are easy to understand and often entertaining as well.

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