The best books on war and society

Gregory A. Daddis Author Of Pulp Vietnam: War and Gender in Cold War Men's Adventure Magazines
By Gregory A. Daddis

Who am I?

I am the USS Midway Chair in Modern US Military History at San Diego State University. I’ve been teaching courses on the relationships between war and society for years and am fascinated not just by the causes and conduct of war, but, more importantly, by the costs of war. To me, Americans have a rather peculiar connection with war. In many ways, war has become an integral part of American conduct overseas—and our very identity. And yet we often don’t study it to question some of our basic assumptions about what war can do, what it means, and what the consequences are for wielding armed force so readily overseas.

I wrote...

Pulp Vietnam: War and Gender in Cold War Men's Adventure Magazines

By Gregory A. Daddis,

Book cover of Pulp Vietnam: War and Gender in Cold War Men's Adventure Magazines

What is my book about?

Pulp Vietnam delves into the world of men’s adventure magazines, popular in the United States from the 1950s until the early 1970s. Catering to a white, male audience, they featured pin-up girls, exploits of courageous soldiers in battle, and exotic tales of adventure. They also appealed to working-class men, the same target audience forming the bulk of American ranks in the Vietnam War. Within these trendy magazines—boasting titles like Man’s Conquest and For Men Only—men read exciting tales that brought together two popular notions of masculinity: the heroic warrior and the sexual conqueror. Rather than low-brow kitsch, they were perceptive Cold War cultural commentary and a source of untapped insights about those young American soldiers heading off to war in the 1960s.

The books I picked & why

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Globalization and War

By Tarak Barkawi,

Book cover of Globalization and War

Why this book?

Barkawi speaks of war as a form of “interconnection” among peoples and wisely reasons that we have to talk about war from a global perspective if we are truly to understand it. War may be an extension of politics, to quote a certain Prussian, but it’s also a social activity. And that activity has been globalized for far longer than many of us might think.

I really enjoy the way Barkawi weaves together a global story of war, culture, and identity. His case study on the Indian Army—he argues it was at “once a tool and an object of imperial control”—is superbly fascinating and highlights how localities can be affected by martial activities from faraway, distant places.

From Coveralls to Zoot Suits: The Lives of Mexican American Women on the World War II Home Front

By Elizabeth R. Escobedo,

Book cover of From Coveralls to Zoot Suits: The Lives of Mexican American Women on the World War II Home Front

Why this book?

I teach at a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) and it’s important for my students to identify with the historical actors we study. Escobedo resonates with them because she artfully discusses how the “Good War” was perceived within Mexican American families living in Southern California. She argues that Mexican American women, especially those working in the defense industry, were “racially malleable” and members of an “in-between” community during the war.

There’s so much going on in this story—insights into race and gender, sexuality and family dynamics, fears about “race mixing,” and wartime demographic shifts. Yet in all this, Escobedo never loses sight of the women themselves and their powerful voices.

War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning

By Chris Hedges,

Book cover of War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning

Why this book?

First published in the aftermath of 9/11, this compact book still packs a wallop. Hedges forces us to think deeply about how we define the term “war” and why human beings remain so attracted to something so horrible. And there are many definitions here. Hedges alternatively calls war a “drug,” a “crusade,” a “lethal addiction,” and a “myth.”

There’s also a warning here about the relationship between war and patriotism that remains as relevant today as it was twenty years ago. Hedges cautions his readers not to be seduced by the “patriotic drivel” that often is made worse by war. This isn’t an uplifting account of war. Nor is it meant to be.

War Time: An Idea, Its History, Its Consequences

By Mary L. Dudziak,

Book cover of War Time: An Idea, Its History, Its Consequences

Why this book?

When do wars begin? When do they end? Dudziak maintains that these questions aren’t so easy to answer and that there is a disconnect between the practice of war and how we imagine war. Part legal history, part memory study, War Time forces us to reevaluate the balance between national security and individual rights and how war itself can distort what should be, but often isn’t, a sense of equilibrium between the two.

In many ways, Dudziak and Hedges make for a great pairing because they both challenge us to reconsider our definitions of war. Plus, there’s a brilliant discussion on “wartime” versus “peacetime” using a chart of American military campaign medals that is itself worth the price of admission. 

No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes

By Anand Gopal,

Book cover of No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes

Why this book?

I have been teaching about the wars in Afghanistan since 2004 and this book is the best at showcasing how individual lives are indelibly affected by armed conflict. Gopal is fabulous in humanizing his characters—a Taliban commander, a member of the US-backed Afghan government, or a village housewife. And he demonstrates how none of these people fit neatly into the preconceived categories applied to them by Americans.

Perhaps better than any other book on Afghanistan after 9/11, Gopal also reveals the limits of US military power overseas. In many ways, the presence of American soldiers exacerbated local conflict rather than ameliorating it. A powerful book arguing against those who extol the value of “generational wars” to achieve US foreign policy objectives.

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