The best books about violence and restraint in wartime

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m an anthropologist, trained in political economy, who began doing fieldwork in southern Mexico in the early 1980s. While there, Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees were flowing into the area from Chiapas. I visited El Salvador in 1986 and in 1991 made several trips to an FMLN-controlled area. After the war ended I made nine field trips to northern Morazán, the last in 2012. My interests in catechists and liberation theology developed early on as I sought to reconstruct the region’s pre-war history. I wrote one book on the El Mozote massacre and am currently working on a third book on the area.


I wrote...

From Popular to Insurgent Intellectuals: Peasant Catechists in the Salvadoran Revolution

By Leigh Binford,

Book cover of From Popular to Insurgent Intellectuals: Peasant Catechists in the Salvadoran Revolution

What is my book about?

The book examines the roles of peasant lay catechists, trained in liberation theology, before and during the Salvadoran Revolution (1980-1992). The book is anchored in the experiences of Fabio Argueta, a peasant catechist who later became a wartime political activist charged with explaining the struggle to both civilians and rebel troops. Driven into the opposition leftist Farabundo Martí Front for National Liberation (FMLN) by government repression of religious groups dedicated to improving the lot of poor farmers and rural workers, Fabio and other catechists put their communicative skills to work mediating between FMLN commanders and both civilians and troops.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Commander's Dilemma: Violence and Restraint in Wartime

Leigh Binford Why did I love this book?

Green investigates The Commander’s Dilemma in the Salvadoran Revolution through a combination of questionnaires with ex-combatants from the FMLN and government forces, interviews, documents, and secondary resources. She argues that all military commanders everywhere confront the dilemma of ensuring that troops are skilled in meting out violence but that they reign in their violent tendencies so as to respect the human rights of civilians and adversaries that have been wounded and captured. The rebel FMLN educated its troops far more than the government military and according to the United Nations and other organizations committed but a small percentage of the wartime human rights violations.

By Amelia Hoover Green,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Commander's Dilemma as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Why do some military and rebel groups commit many types of violence, creating an impression of senseless chaos, whereas others carefully control violence against civilians? A classic catch-22 faces the leaders of armed groups and provides the title for Amelia Hoover Green's book. Leaders need large groups of people willing to kill and maim-but to do so only under strict control. How can commanders control violence when fighters who are not under direct supervision experience extraordinary stress, fear, and anger? The Commander's Dilemma argues that discipline is not enough in wartime. Restraint occurs when fighters know why they are fighting…


Book cover of Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam

Leigh Binford Why did I love this book?

Terse provides a tsunami of information showing that a combination of youth, military training, racism, the emphasis on “body count,” and access to highly destructive weaponry led to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of civilian deaths in Vietnam at the hands of US military forces. In this case he discusses the consequences for Vietnamese civilians when most US officers and their charges employed violence indiscriminately. He also documents how the military’s role in covering up violations contributed to a representation of the My Lai massacre as an aberration rather than business as usual. I found the book both profound and shocking. It is exceptionally well-written, -documented, and -argued. A must-read. 

By Nick Turse,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Kill Anything That Moves as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Americans have long been taught that events such as the notorious My Lai massacre were isolated incidents in the Vietnam War, carried out by just a few "bad apples." But as award-winning journalist and historian Nick Turse demonstrates in this groundbreaking investigation, violence against Vietnamese non-combatants was not at all exceptional during the conflict. Rather, it was pervasive and systematic, the predictable consequence of official orders to "kill anything that moves." Drawing on more than a decade of research into secret Pentagon archives and extensive interviews with American veterans and Vietnamese survivors, Turse reveals for the first time the workings…


Book cover of Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland

Leigh Binford Why did I love this book?

I never tire of reading and learning from this insightful book about the conditions that lead “ordinary people” to carry out shocking massacres. Browning explains how German recruits, mostly working-class Hamburgians that formed Reserve Police Battalion 101, participated in the Nazi effort to exterminate Jews in Poland and Russia. This battalion of about 500 men accounted for the deaths of an estimated 83,000 Jews between the 38,000 killed in massacres and during “Jew hunts” and 45,000 placed on trains for extermination in the gas chambers of Treblinka. Browning explains the actions as driven by “the mutually intensifying effects of war and racism.” 

By Christopher R. Browning,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Ordinary Men as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Christopher R. Browning's shocking account of how a unit of average middle-aged Germans became the cold-blooded murderers of tens of thousands of Jews-now with a new afterword and additional photographs. Ordinary Men is the true story of Reserve Police Battalion 101 of the German Order Police, which was responsible for mass shootings as well as round-ups of Jewish people for deportation to Nazi death camps in Poland in 1942. Browning argues that most of the men of RPB 101 were not fanatical Nazis but, rather, ordinary middle-aged, working-class men who committed these atrocities out of a mixture of motives, including…


Book cover of Nightmarch: Among India's Revolutionary Guerrillas

Leigh Binford Why did I love this book?

Anthropologist Alpa Shah spent a week traveling 150 miles clandestinely with India’s Naxalite rebels, a long-standing opposition group formed among an ethnic minority subjected to intense state repression and capitalist incursion. Shah provides historical and sociological context to this Maoist movement and insight into the ideological indoctrination that minimizes human rights violations among its adherents. 

By Alpa Shah,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Nightmarch as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the 2020 Association for Political and Legal Anthropology Book Prize

Shortlisted for the Orwell Prize

Shortlisted for the New India Foundation Book Prize

Anthropologist Alpa Shah found herself in an active platoon of Naxalites-one of the longest-running guerrilla insurgencies in the world. The only woman, and the only person without a weapon, she walked alongside the militants for seven nights across 150 miles of dense, hilly forests in eastern India. Nightmarch is the riveting story of Shah's journey, grounded in her years of living with India's tribal people, an eye-opening exploration of the movement's history and future and…


Book cover of The School of the Americas: Military Training and Political Violence in the Americas

Leigh Binford Why did I love this book?

Known critically as the School of Dictators, Gill has written the first in-depth anthropological account of US military training for Latin American officers at the School of the Americas (now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) in Fort Benning, Georgia. She discusses the way that Latin American military officers sent to the school are attracted to the “American way of life,” how the courses enhance officers’ ability to exercise indiscriminate violence, their enduring ties to the global U.S. military mission, and downplay of human rights violations, which School officials attribute to “a few bad apples.” Carefully researched, thoughtfully structured, and exceptionally well-written, Gill shows that foreign training of Latin American military officers plays an important role in U.S. imperialism. 

By Lesley Gill,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The School of the Americas as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Located at Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia, the School of the Americas (soa) is a U.S. Army center that has trained more than sixty thousand soldiers and police, mostly from Latin America, in counterinsurgency and combat-related skills since it was founded in 1946. So widely documented is the participation of the School's graduates in torture, murder, and political repression throughout Latin America that in 2001 the School officially changed its name to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. Lesley Gill goes behind the facade and presents a comprehensive portrait of the School of the Americas. Talking to a retired…


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Native Nations: A Millennium in North America

By Kathleen DuVal,

Book cover of Native Nations: A Millennium in North America

Kathleen DuVal Author Of Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a professional historian and life-long lover of early American history. My fascination with the American Revolution began during the bicentennial in 1976, when my family traveled across the country for celebrations in Williamsburg and Philadelphia. That history, though, seemed disconnected to the place I grew up—Arkansas—so when I went to graduate school in history, I researched in French and Spanish archives to learn about their eighteenth-century interactions with Arkansas’s Native nations, the Osages and Quapaws. Now I teach early American history and Native American history at UNC-Chapel Hill and have written several books on how Native American, European, and African people interacted across North America.

Kathleen's book list on the American Revolution beyond the Founding Fathers

What is my book about?

A magisterial history of Indigenous North America that places the power of Native nations at its center, telling their story from the rise of ancient cities more than a thousand years ago to fights for sovereignty that continue today

Native Nations: A Millennium in North America

By Kathleen DuVal,

What is this book about?

Long before the colonization of North America, Indigenous Americans built diverse civilizations and adapted to a changing world in ways that reverberated globally. And, as award-winning historian Kathleen DuVal vividly recounts, when Europeans did arrive, no civilization came to a halt because of a few wandering explorers, even when the strangers came well armed.

A millennium ago, North American cities rivaled urban centers around the world in size. Then, following a period of climate change and instability, numerous smaller nations emerged, moving away from rather than toward urbanization. From this urban past, egalitarian government structures, diplomacy, and complex economies spread…


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