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. 

The Books I Picked & Why

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On War

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

Book cover of On War

Why 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.

War in Human Civilization

By Azar Gat,

Book cover of War in Human Civilization

Why 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?

Perilous Glory: The Rise of Western Military Power

By John France,

Book cover of Perilous Glory: The Rise of Western Military Power

Why 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.

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

By Matthias Strohn,

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

Why 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. 

The Bloody Game: An Anthology of Modern War

By Paul Fussell (editor),

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

Why 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.

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