The best books about war beyond the state

Why am I passionate about this?

I've been writing about and teaching military history for many years (I'm a professor at the University of North Carolina), mostly focused on the pre-industrial world, and mostly about the maelstrom of the North Atlantic colonial experience (including warfare in Ireland, England, and in North America). I quickly decided that I needed to do more to understand the Native American perspective, and that also meant understanding the very nature of their societies: Not just how they fought, but how they imagined the function of war. This book is the product of constantly returning to that problem, while also putting it into a world comparative context of other non-state experiences of war. 


I wrote...

The Cutting-Off Way: Indigenous Warfare in Eastern North America, 1500-1800

By Wayne E. Lee,

Book cover of The Cutting-Off Way: Indigenous Warfare in Eastern North America, 1500-1800

What is my book about?

The Cutting-Off Way examines the logistics, tactics, operations, and strategies of Native Americans. It shows them as military thinkers, who understood the power and limits of their social system to use war to impose their will on their enemies, whether other Indians or arriving Europeans. To be sure, Native Nations adapted their methods as new technologies and animals arrived, but they also demonstrated cultural continuity in how they thought about warfare and what they sought from victory. Indians using the "cutting-off way of war" sought to overwhelm and surprise enemy forces or towns. Employed repeatedly over time, it could force submission and tribute on an enemy nation, or displace it, thus establishing sovereignty over vacated territory.  

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Victory With No Name: The Native American Defeat of the First American Army

Wayne E. Lee Why did I love this book?

Of all the books on my list, this is the one closest in subject to mine. 

Calloway tells the story of the first war fought by the United States after the American Revolution, but he tells it from the perspective of the Native coalition that fought it. It is a powerfully told story about how Native Americans understood the international politics in which they lived and then how they mustered the force to try to change those politics.

Unlike most writers on Native American warfare, Calloway understands logistics and how they shaped that war from both sides. This issue is also central to my book. 

Book cover of War in Human Civilization

Wayne E. Lee Why did I love this book?

I teach this book to my graduate students every year.

It is a wide-ranging, deeply researched attempt to understand the nature of war in the human experience. And unlike so many other surveys of military history, Gat goes all the way back to human evolution and the fundamental motives underlying human conflict. He also then shows how conflict itself shaped human cultural evolution and the rise of states. 

By Azar Gat,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked War in Human Civilization as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Why do people go to war? Is it rooted in human nature or is it a late cultural invention? How does war relate to the other fundamental developments in the history of human civilization? And what of war today - is it a declining phenomenon or simply changing its shape?

In this truly global study of war and civilization, Azar Gat sets out to find definitive answers to these questions in an attempt to unravel the 'riddle of war' throughout human history, from the early hunter-gatherers right through to the unconventional terrorism of the twenty-first century.

In the process, the…


Book cover of Constant Battles: The Myth of the Peaceful, Noble Savage

Wayne E. Lee Why did I love this book?

This one too takes on a much longer sweep of human history than most, here focusing on the role of resource competition in generating and shaping war among humans around the world. 

LeBlanc is an archaeologist who specialized in the desert Southwest of what's now the United States, and he is very concerned with the academic tendency to "pacify" the past. This is an excellent survey of the long role of war in societal competition, and the likely continued role of resource competition in wars to come.  

By Steven A LeBlanc, Katherine E Register,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

With armed conflict in the Persian Gulf now upon us, Harvard archaeologist Steven LeBlanc takes a long-term view of the nature and roots of war, presenting a controversial thesis: The notion of the "noble savage" living in peace with one another and in harmony with nature is a fantasy. In Constant Battles: The Myth of the Peaceful, Noble Savage, LeBlanc contends that warfare and violent conflict have existed throughout human history, and that humans have never lived in ecological balance with nature.

The start of the second major U.S. military action in the Persian Gulf, combined with regular headlines about…


Book cover of The Secret History of the Mongols: The Origin of Genghis Khan

Wayne E. Lee Why did I love this book?

Overall, my list focuses on books that deal with warfare by non-states in the pre-modern world. 

The nomads of the Eurasian steppe are a primary example of such warring peoples, even as they fought in a world filled with states. The "Secret History" was composed by the Mongols, after their rise to imperial power, but it was about their pre-imperial wars with each other and with similar nomads.

It showcases the values, motives, and methods of pre-imperial Mongols. It is a fascinating insight into how they viewed their place in the world and the role of war in it. There are a number of reasonable translations, this one is readily available.

By Paul Kahn, Francis Woodman Cleaves,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Recounts the genealogy and life of Genghis Khan, stories of his ancestors, the rise of the Mongol Empire, and the culture and customs of thirteenth-century Mongolia


Book cover of Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

Wayne E. Lee Why did I love this book?

Weatherford turns a biography of Genghis Khan (properly Chinggis Khan) into a vehicle for narrating the rise of the Mongols from a confederation of nomads into the largest land empire in history. 

Although we often think of the Mongol Empire as a "state," its origins were decidedly more "tribal" or confederal than state-like. Their motives and methods are essential to understanding the full variety of warfare in the human experience. 

By Jack Weatherford,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The name Genghis Khan often conjures the image of a relentless, bloodthirsty barbarian on horseback leading a ruthless band of nomadic warriors in the looting of the civilized world. But the surprising truth is that Genghis Khan was a visionary leader whose conquests joined backward Europe with the flourishing cultures of Asia to trigger a global awakening, an unprecedented explosion of technologies, trade, and ideas. In Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, Jack Weatherford, the only Western scholar ever to be allowed into the Mongols’ “Great Taboo”—Genghis Khan’s homeland and forbidden burial site—tracks the astonishing story of…


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By Darlene Marshall,

Book cover of Sea Change

Darlene Marshall Author Of Sea Change

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Why am I passionate about this?

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What is my book about?

David Fletcher needs a surgeon, stat! But when he captures a British merchantman in the Caribbean, what he gets is Charley Alcott, an apprentice physician barely old enough to shave. Needs must, and Captain Fletcher takes the prisoner back aboard his ship with orders to do his best or he’ll be walking the plank.

Charley Alcott’s medical skills are being put to the test in a life-or-death situation, Charley’s life as well as the patient’s. Even if she can save the American privateer's brother there will still be hell to pay—and maybe a plank to walk—when Captain Fletcher learns Charley…

Sea Change

By Darlene Marshall,

What is this book about?

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David Fletcher needs a surgeon, stat! But when he captures a British merchantman in the Caribbean what he gets is Charley Alcott, an apprentice physician barely old enough to shave. Needs must, and Captain Fletcher takes the prisoner back aboard his ship with orders to do his best, or he'll be walking the plank.

Charley Alcott's medical skills are being put to the test in a life-or-death situation, Charley's life as well as the patient's. Even if she can save the pirate's brother there will still be hell to pay--and maybe a plank to walk--when Captain Fletcher…


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Interested in Mongols, Genghis Khan, and the American Revolution?

11,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Mongols, Genghis Khan, and the American Revolution.

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