The best books about how wars are won and lost

Cathal J. Nolan Author Of Mercy: Humanity in War
By Cathal J. Nolan

Who am I?

I'm an award-winning teacher and writer who introduces students and readers to war in a profession that today is at best indifferent to military history, and more often hostile. That gives me a wry sense of irony, as colleagues would rather teach about fashion than fascism and truffles over tragedy. Having written a multiple award-winning book that covered 2,000 years of war, frankly I was sickened by how the same mistakes were made over and again. It has made me devoted to exploring possibilities for humane behavior within the most inhumane and degraded moral environment humanity creates; where individuality is subsumed in collective violence and humanity is obscured as a faceless, merciless enemy.

I wrote...

Mercy: Humanity in War

By Cathal J. Nolan,

Book cover of Mercy: Humanity in War

What is my book about?

War presents the most degraded moral environment humanity creates. It is an arena where individuality is subsumed in collective violence, and humanity is obscured as a faceless, merciless enemy pitted against its reflection in an elemental struggle for survival.

A barbaric logic has guided the conduct of war throughout history. Yet as Cathal Nolan reveals in this gripping, poignant, and powerful book, even as war can obliterate hope and decency at the grand level, it simultaneously produces conditions that permit astonishing exceptions of mercy and shared dignity. Pulling the trigger is usually both the expedient thing and required by war's grim and remorseless calculus. Yet somehow, the trigger is not always pulled. A different choice is made. Restraint triumphs. Humanity is rediscovered and honored in a flash of recognition.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The German Way of War: From the Thirty Years' War to the Third Reich

Why did I love this book?

Connects military gamblers from Frederick II to Hitler, demonstrating that “rolling the iron dice of destiny” (Bismarck) by starting wars they hoped would be short but even though they knew they could not win if they went long instead, was always the German national tradition. I learned a great deal from this key book about the irrationalities of decisions made to go to war, contrary to the assumption in most analysis that decision-makers weigh the odds with care. And how many wars are started with a roll of the dice and without a real plan to win them? Or at least, no Plan B once Plan A goes awry, as it always does. 

By Robert M. Citino,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

For Frederick the Great, the prescription for warfare was simple: kurz und vives ("short and lively")-wars that relied upon swift, powerful, and decisive military operations. Robert Citino takes us on a dramatic march through Prussian and German military history to show how that primal theme played out time and time again.

Citino focuses on operational warfare to demonstrate continuity in German military campaigns from the time of Elector Frederick Wilhelm and his great "sleigh-drive" against the Swedes to the age of Adolf Hitler and the blitzkrieg to the gates of Moscow. Along the way, he underscores the role played by…

The Air War, 1939-1945

By Richard Overy,

Book cover of The Air War, 1939-1945

Why did I love this book?

Single most comprehensive study of the air war, from primary production to combat tactics and most notably, air strategy. No other work so capably weaves together the critical technical issues and statistics of productive capacity with how these factors underlay, and in a real sense almost predetermined, why the Allies won and the Axis lost the war in the air in both the ETO and PTO. Superbly researched, conceived and written. You will never again think of air war merely as a compilation of dog fights or squadron actions over Britain, or Germany, or Japan. 

By Richard Overy,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Air War, 1939-1945 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Originally published in 1980 and still the best one-volume aerial history of World War II, Richard Overy's classic work remains profound and highly origi-nal. Far from just an account of the various air battles, Professor Overy treats the air war as a complex and fascinating historical web, woven out of grand strategy, economic mobilization, the recruitment of science, and the nature of leadership and training. Analyzing the achievements and failures of the aerial component of the war, he places it in perspective by explaining the role aviation played in the overall conflict. He points out that while the Axis powers…

Book cover of Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era

Why did I love this book?

Beautifully written masterwork on one of the most important wars of the 19th century. It takes the reader from the experience of ordinary soldiers in battle to key debates around the cabinet table, in a rare display of dexterity and understanding of all levels of war. You will enter Grant’s HQ from where he ran the critical Western theater of operations and sit across from Lincoln as he makes the key decision for a hard war that let the Union maximize its resources and win. And you will walk into Lee’s HQ where the Confederacy lost the war in bursts of Southern hubris that led to two ill-conceived invasions of the North that provoked the final crushing.  

By James M. McPherson,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Battle Cry of Freedom as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Now featuring a new Afterword by the author, this handy paperback edition of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom is without question the definitive one-volume history of the Civil War.
James McPherson's fast-paced narrative fully integrates the political, social, and military events that crowded the two decades from the outbreak of one war in Mexico to the ending of another at Appomattox. Packed with drama and analytical insight, the book vividly recounts the momentous episodes that preceded the Civil War including the Dred Scott decision, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry. From there it moves into…

Book cover of Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege

Why did I love this book?

Beevor has a rare gift of presenting war at the level of both the ordinary soldier and the generals and distant leadership making decisions both good and bad. His sources range from letters home, to diaries, to dispatches on both the Soviet and German side. He writes without flinching about the horrors of war, or too overtly playing the cheerleader as so many military histories do, to their detriment. 

By Antony Beevor,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Stalingrad as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This authoritative and well written book recreates the battle for Stalingrad that became the focus of Hitler and Stalin's determination to win the gruesome and vicious war for the Eastern front. A detailed examination of the most pitiless, and perhaps the most important battle in WW2 history. Focusing on the experiences of soldiers on both sides, driven beyond the limits of physical and mental endurance this work stands as a testament to human endeavour and to the vital role of the Soviet wareffort. This will be the classic book on the subject,

Book cover of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

Why did I love this book?

A profoundly humane and different kind of history, setting the most exceptional and bloody period in all of human history in the context of two opposing, mass murderous regimes. It sets a new standard for how history should be written, not as cold operations divorced from cause but as causes and issues that are at stake in war driving decisions about operations and genocides. It is also notable for writing the history of the eastern front as a single, unified tale of the clash of ideas and power, and not just disjointed stories that only meet where the armed forces touched. 

By Timothy Snyder,

Why should I read it?

10 authors picked Bloodlands as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Americans call the Second World War "the Good War." But before it even began, America's ally Stalin had killed millions of his own citizens-and kept killing them during and after the war. Before Hitler was defeated, he had murdered six million Jews and nearly as many other Europeans. At war's end, German and Soviet killing sites fell behind the Iron Curtain, leaving the history of mass killing in darkness.
Assiduously researched, deeply humane, and utterly definitive, Bloodlands is a new kind of European history, presenting the mass murders committed by the Nazi and Stalinist regimes as two aspects of…

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