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...

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.

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The books I picked & why

Globalization and War

By Tarak Barkawi,

Book cover of Globalization and War

Why did I love 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.

By Tarak Barkawi,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

War doesn't just tear nations apart-it brings peoples and places closer together, providing a new lens on globalization. This book offers a fresh perspective on globalization and war, topics rarely considered together. It conceives war as a form of interconnection between home and abroad, and as an occasion for circulation and interchange. It identifies the political and military work required to create and maintain a free-trading world, while critiquing liberal and neoliberal conceptions of the pacific benefits of economic globalization. Speaking from the heart of old and new imperial orders, Tarak Barkawi exposes the Eurocentric limitations of military history and…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Elizabeth R. Escobedo,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked From Coveralls to Zoot Suits as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

During World War II, unprecedented employment avenues opened up for women and minorities in U.S. defense industries at the same time that massive population shifts and the war challenged Americans to rethink notions of race. At this extraordinary historical moment, Mexican American women found new means to exercise control over their lives in the home, workplace, and nation. In From Coveralls to Zoot Suits, Elizabeth R. Escobedo explores how, as war workers and volunteers, dance hostesses and zoot suiters, respectable young ladies and rebellious daughters, these young women used wartime conditions to serve the United States in its time of…

Book cover of War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning

Why did I love 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.

By Chris Hedges,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

As a veteran war correspondent, Chris Hedges has survived ambushes in Central America, imprisonment in Sudan, and a beating by Saudi military police. He has seen children murdered for sport in Gaza and petty thugs elevated into war heroes in the Balkans. Hedges, who is also a former divinity student, has seen war at its worst and knows too well that to those who pass through it, war can be exhilarating and even addictive: It gives us purpose, meaning, a reason for living."Drawing on his own experience and on the literature of combat from Homer to Michael Herr, Hedges shows…

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

Why did I love 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. 

By Mary L. Dudziak,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

When is wartime? On the surface, it is a period of time in which a society is at war. But we now live in what President Obama has called "an age without surrender ceremonies," when it is no longer easy to distinguish between wartime and peacetime. In this inventive meditation on war, time, and the law, Mary Dudziak argues that wartime is not as discrete a time period as we like to think. Instead, America has been engaged in some form of ongoing overseas armed
conflict for over a century. Meanwhile policy makers and the American public continue to view…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Anand Gopal,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked No Good Men Among the Living as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Through their dramatic stories, Gopal shows that the Afghan war, so often regarded as a hopeless quagmire, could in fact have gone very differently. Top Taliban leaders actually tried to surrender within months of the US invasion, renouncing all political activity and submitting to the new government. Effectively, the Taliban ceased to exist - yet the Americans were unwilling to accept such a turnaround. Instead, driven by false intelligence from their allies and an unyielding mandate to fight terrorism, American forces continued to press the conflict, resurrecting the insurgency that persists to this day. With its intimate accounts of life…

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