The best books on war in general

Beatrice Heuser Author Of War: A Genealogy of Western Ideas and Practices
By Beatrice Heuser

Who am I?

I have studied aspects of war and strategy – mainly on the political-military interface level – for the past forty years of my life. My interest originated from my parents’ stories about their childhood and early youth in the Second World Wars, its horrors and hardships, and from myself living in South-East Asia during the time of the Vietnam War. Moreover, I became obsessed with the fear of nuclear war through reading and hearing about it. So I have studied aspects of war, much as an oncologist studies cancer, in the hope that a better understanding may eventually help us ban it in practice (and not just in theory as it has been since the Briand-Kellogg Pact of 1928).

I wrote...

War: A Genealogy of Western Ideas and Practices

By Beatrice Heuser,

Book cover of War: A Genealogy of Western Ideas and Practices

What is my book about?

War has been conceptualised from many perspectives, military, ethical, legal, and philosophical, all of which this book explores, alongside the history of the bloody practice of war. Western ideas of war are excessively focused on war between sovereign states, and on supposed binaries: inter-State vs intestine war, just vs unjust war, citizen-soldiers vs professionals, civilians vs combatants. Yet realities have mostly straddled such demarcations.

Admittedly, much progress has been made in moving the laws of war from customary law to International Humanitarian Law.  But this ever more humane approach is not the only tradition we find in the West; extreme brutality always lurks close to the surface. 

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The books I picked & why

On War

By Carl von Clausewitz, Beatrice Heuser, Michael Howard (translator), Peter Paret (translator)

Book cover of On War

Why did I love this book?

Contrary to expectations of heavy reading, the work is presented in digestible short chunks, especially in this abridged version which skips all the dated parts. Clausewitz’s work is so outstanding because he started with a (relatively) clean slate, aiming to reach a better understanding of what drives war in general, rather than, as most of his predecessors, to write “how to” manuals. Clausewitz died of cholera before he could finish revising it – as he had changed his mind about a fundamental question: was all future warfare going to be like Napoleonic War? When he had set out to write, he had thought it would, but it dawned on him later that it might not.  Therefore some important contradictions remain. Still, the majority of Clausewitz’s insights are still extremely valuable today.

By Carl von Clausewitz, Beatrice Heuser, Michael Howard (translator), Peter Paret (translator)

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

'War is merely the continuation of policy by other means'

On War is one of the most important books ever written on the subject of war. Clausewitz, a Prussian officer who fought against the French during the Napoleonic Wars, sought to understand and analyse the phenomenon of war so that future leaders could conduct and win conflicts more effectively. He studied the human and social factors that affect outcomes, as well as the tactical and technological ones. He understood that war was a weapon of government, and that political purpose,
chance, and enmity combine to shape its dynamics. On War…

Book cover of War in Human Civilization

Why did I love this book?

This historical-analytical overview covers the last – wait for it – two million years. Gat surveys publications from zoology, paleoanthropology, and evolutionary psychology – to conclude (spoiler alert) that fighting is hard-wired into (human) males. This alone does not explain warfare, which is about getting organized groups to go and fight, and not spontaneously, but after extensive preparations. Using archaeology and urban-architectural history, taking the approach of an anthropologist, Gat marches us through dozens of civilisations of Antiquity and the Middle Ages which at earlier or later points developed urban settlements, generally seeing the need to fortify them to keep raiding nomads from pillaging. 

Moving on to modernity, Gat engages with several key debates about the causations and fueling of wars – was it gunpowder, was it industrialisation? And are liberal democracies peaceful?

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 Perilous Glory: The Rise of Western Military Power

Why did I love this book?

John France has a knack for making the history of war interesting and readable, without taking away its gore and horror, without making you think it in any way romantic or desirable. The title already captures it: the book is largely about the rise of Europe (or later: the West) on the back of military prowess, but at what perilous price! The book aptly traces military traditions and continuity of ideas and concepts, but also profound changes, from Antiquity to the present, giving us a grasp of the essence of warfare during different periods. This book can be said to replace Sir Charles Oman’s old classic.

By John France,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A major new history of war that challenges our understanding of military dominance and how it is achieved

This expansive book surveys the history of warfare from ancient Mesopotamia to the Gulf War in search of a deeper understanding of the origins of Western warfare and the reasons for its eminence today. Historian John France explores the experience of war around the globe, in Europe, Asia, Africa, and America. His bold conclusions cast doubt on well-entrenched attitudes about the development of military strength, the impact of culture on warfare, the future of Western dominance, and much more.

Taking into account…

Book cover of Winning Wars: The Enduring Nature and Changing Character of Victory from Antiquity to the 21st Century

Why did I love this book?

This book begins with our inherited views of what constitutes victory – the proudly-displayed Greek panoply of captured weapons, the Roman triumph, the medieval view of battle as awesome divine judgment, and the modern quest for “decisive battle” in mind. By contrast, other cultures – Iran, Assad’s Syria, China, and Russia for example, which are covered brilliantly – may be content with indecisive, drawn-out conflicts which give them the chance to keep their fingers in many pies and incrementally increase their influence. 

Thus our modern Western construct assuming that peace is the norm and war the exception, or that war should aim for a neat victory, and a lasting peace settlement imposed on the defeated adversary, is just that: a construct, rarely reflecting views and practices in other times and in other parts of the world. 

By Matthias Strohn,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

While 'winning' might be considered a fundamental part of the human objective, what constitutes winning and how one might achieve it remain somewhat abstract, in war as in any other human endeavour. 'Winning' militarily at the tactical level - in a firefight or a battle - has always been more quantifiable than at the strategic level. At the strategic level, success might be measured by means of three big ideas: ownership; intervention for effect; and fighting for ideas. The divergence between success at the tactical level and the political context of the war creates a challenge at the operational level…

Book cover of The Bloody Game: An Anthology of Modern War

Why did I love this book?

We are in danger of engaging with war as though it were a philosophical enquiry or a strategic game if we leave out its essence: the death, the suffering, the destruction, the fear, the devastation that it brings, reflected in many among the texts in this anthology, written by eye-witnesses. Others – including the poems – are the product of a different sort of engagement with war: not the attempt at rational analysis but of artistic sublimation of the experience. This, too, represents a thoroughly valid approach missing from the academic works recommended in this section. 

If this collection can be faulted, it is for leaving out works – many of great impact at their time, and some not without literary merit – that turned the experience of war into its direct or indirect praise. We thus look in vain for excerpts from Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel, for example. This omission is understandable, perhaps even commendable, but gives a skewed picture of how War was interpreted and how its image was passed on to new generations.

By Paul Fussell (editor),

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In sections ranging from outstanding works of fiction, to poems and simple letters home, this book presents the voices of the 20th century's major conflicts - the two World Wars, the Spanish Civil War and those in Korea and Vietnam. The greater power of weapons has made killing a more efficient but more macabre event, and this anthology consists of moments on the battlefields, captured in the words of those who faced wars in their newest and most brutal permutation. The contributors include great writers such as Rudyard Kipling, Wilfred Owen and Norman Mailer - and also the humble squaddies.

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