The best books on war and what it all means

Why am I passionate about this?

My father, John Bradley, was a veteran and fought on Iwo Jima in World War 2 in 1945. Later I walked in the sands of Iwo Jima and eventually wrote four books about war. I am a New York Times best-selling author and Steven Spielberg and Clint Eastwood made my first book into a movie, Flags of Our Fathers. I've been traveling in and learning about Asia since 1974, when I attended Sophia University in Tokyo. I am also the host of a podcast called Untold Pacific that mines 40 years of my life to create historical travelogues about the American experience on the other side of the Pacific. 

John and I did a podcast about these book recommendations and if you want to listen to the full episode go here.

I wrote...

Book cover of Flags of Our Fathers

What is my book about?

In this powerful book, James Bradley takes as his starting point one of the most famous photographs of all time. In February 1945, American Marines plunged into the surf at Iwo Jima and into a hail of machine-gun and mortar fire from 22,000 Japanese. After climbing through a hellish landscape and onto the island's highest peak, six men were photographed raising the stars and stripes. James’s father, John Bradley, a Navy Corpsman, was there. The senior Bradley never spoke to his family about the war, but after his death in 1994, they discovered closed boxes of letters and photos.

Bradley has written a classic story of the heroic battle for the Pacific's most crucial island - an island riddled with sixteen miles of tunnels and defended by Japanese soldiers determined to fight to the death. In the thirty-six days of fighting, almost twenty-seven thousand combatants lost their lives. Above all a human - and personal - story, few books have captured so brilliantly or so movingly the complexity of war and its aftermath and the true meaning of heroism.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society

James Bradley Why did I love this book?

This book is about the psychological cost of learning to kill and the act of killing. What is the psychological difference between lobbing a mortar over a mountain versus putting a knife in someone's gut? It is huge. The author is a warrior who has fought and he writes in-depth about the psychological ramifications of these actions.

I gave this book to my son when he was young, I think this is an important read for everyone because as humans we are killing, we are fighting, and we are committing acts of violence all over the world. This book is brilliant. 

By Lt. Col. Dave Grossman,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked On Killing as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The good news is that the vast majority of soldiers are loath to kill in battle. Unfortunately, modern armies, using Pavlovian and operant conditioning have developed sophisticated ways of overcoming this instinctive aversion. The psychological cost for soldiers, as witnessed by the increase in post-traumatic stress, is devastating. The psychological cost for the rest of us is even more so: contemporary civilian society, particularly the media, replicates the army's conditioning techniques and, according to Lt. Col. Dave Grossman's thesis, is responsible for our rising rate of murder among the young. Upon its first publication, ON KILLING was hailed as a…

Book cover of Slaughterhouse-Five

James Bradley Why did I love this book?

Kurt Vonnegut’s short masterpiece is a must-read for those who want to understand the insanity of war and also for those who want to study how to write a great book. Everyone needs to read this book, it is ridiculous... the different levels, the characters, what it means... all in only 150 pages. 

Kurt was in Dresden when it was firebombed during World War 2 and this book is 25 years of work to communicate the trauma and horror of that experience. He uses science fiction techniques, insane humor, and you need to read this book. This is about the best book I've ever read. 

By Kurt Vonnegut,

Why should I read it?

27 authors picked Slaughterhouse-Five as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A special fiftieth anniversary edition of Kurt Vonnegut’s masterpiece, “a desperate, painfully honest attempt to confront the monstrous crimes of the twentieth century” (Time), featuring a new introduction by Kevin Powers, author of the National Book Award finalist The Yellow Birds
Selected by the Modern Library as one of the 100 best novels of all time
Slaughterhouse-Five, an American classic, is one of the world’s great antiwar books. Centering on the infamous World War II firebombing of Dresden, the novel is the result of what Kurt Vonnegut described as a twenty-three-year struggle to write a book about what he had…

Book cover of The Best and the Brightest

James Bradley Why did I love this book?

David Halberstam documents how fools go to war. This book is about the whiz kids that got us into the Vietnam war and ran it under the JFK and the Johnson administrations. The same ones who got us into the Iraq War, the Spanish American War, and so on. There is a quote that I love from this book that effectively says, "they used brilliant policies that defied common sense." And, that sums this all up. These whiz kids ran a war as if it was part of American politics and from thousands of miles away with memos and meetings in DC. They completely screwed it up.

David Halberstam was a correspondent in Saigon and knew these insiders. He wrote about the decision-making that was happening behind closed doors that led to one of our greatest follies. He is a master storyteller and I strongly recommend this book. 

By David Halberstam,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Best and the Brightest as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

David Halberstam’s masterpiece, the defining history of the making of the Vietnam tragedy, with a new Foreword by Senator John McCain.

"A rich, entertaining, and profound reading experience.”—The New York Times

Using portraits of America’s flawed policy makers and accounts of the forces that drove them, The Best and the Brightest reckons magnificently with the most important abiding question of our country’s recent history: Why did America become mired in Vietnam, and why did we lose? As the definitive single-volume answer to that question, this enthralling book has never been superseded. It is an American classic.

Praise for The Best…

Book cover of Tarawa: The Incredible Story of One of World War II's Bloodiest Battles

James Bradley Why did I love this book?

This is the best book on the Pacific campaign in World War 2. Tarawa was a small island the USA wanted to build a landing strip on and the Japanese put 5,000 soldiers in elaborate well built bunkers to defend it. Robert was a war correspondent who was on the beach for the invasion. You are right there with him as he is huddled in fear behind a burned-out tank during the landing. You can feel the bullets pinging near your head and see the dead all around you.

It was a massacre. It started with a rare low tide that prevented the landing craft from reaching the beach. The American troops had to wade through the water while Japanese machine guns raked them. The water turned red with American blood. Robert was there for everything and wrote it all. Even the aftermath as he surveyed the scene with the "victorious" American general. Read this book. 

By Robert Sherrod,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In the summer of 1943, at the height of World War II, battles were exploding all throughout the Pacific theater. In mid-November of that year, the United States waged a bloody campaign on Betio Island in the Tarawa Atoll, the most heavily fortified Japanese territory in the entire Pacific. They were fighting to wrest control of the island to stage the next big push toward Japan-and one journalist was there to chronicle the horror.

Dive into war correspondent Robert Sherrod's battlefield account as he goes ashore with the assault troops of the U.S. Marines 2nd Marine Division in Tarawa. Follow…

Book cover of Sun Tzu's The Art of War

James Bradley Why did I love this book?

This book is about the art of war, the artistry of war, and the thinking behind war. In The Best And The Brightest David Halberstam documents how the people running the Vietnam War had no grasp of what war was. And, they were going up against Ho Chi Minh who translated this book from Chinese to Vietnamese and ingrained the concepts into his soldiers. 

The Americans had all the technology and industry that was possible during this era. They had machine guns, bombs, aircraft, and helicopters. They were building ports, warehouses, flying over ping pong tables, ice-cold Coca Cola machines, whatever they wanted. And, nobody was thinking about war. They were thinking logically and that all these mechanical things were going to win the war. On the other side, the Vietnamese had this book. They studied this book and they lived this book. I was interviewing a 67-year-old member of the Vietnamese army and at 15 he was absorbing the lessons from this book. 

By Sun Tzu, Lionel Giles (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Sun Tzu's The Art of War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A new edition of the trusted Lionel Giles translation of the Ancient Chinese treatise on warfare. It has defined the tactics and strategies on the battlefield and more recently the business world, for the last 2500 years.

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By Norrin M. Ripsman,

Book cover of The Oracle of Spring Garden Road

Norrin M. Ripsman Author Of The Oracle of Spring Garden Road

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Too often, I find that novelists force the endings of their books in ways that aren’t true to their characters, the stories, or their settings. Often, they do so to provide the Hollywood ending that many readers crave. That always leaves me cold. I love novels whose characters are complex, human, and believable and interact with their setting and the story in ways that do not stretch credulity. This is how I try to approach my own writing and was foremost in my mind as I set out to write my own book.

Norrin's book list on novels that nail the endings

What is my book about?

The Oracle of Spring Garden Road explores the life and singular worldview of “Crazy Eddie,” a brilliant, highly-educated homeless man who panhandles in front of a downtown bank in a coastal town.

Eddie is a local enigma. Who is he? Where did he come from? What brought him to a life on the streets? A dizzying ride between past and present, the novel unravels these mysteries, just as Eddie has decided to return to society after two decades on the streets, with the help of Jane, a woman whose intelligence and integrity rival his own. Will he succeed, or is…

The Oracle of Spring Garden Road

By Norrin M. Ripsman,

What is this book about?

“Crazy Eddie” is a homeless man who inhabits two squares of pavement in front of a bank in downtown Halifax, Nova Scotia. In this makeshift office, he panhandles and dispenses his peerless wisdom. Well-educated, fiercely intelligent with a passionate interest in philosophy and a profound love of nature, Eddie is an enigma for the locals. Who is he? Where did he come from? What brought him to a life on the streets? Though rumors abound, none capture the unique worldview and singular character that led him to withdraw from the perfidy and corruption of human beings. Just as Eddie has…

5 book lists we think you will like!

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