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.

The books I picked & why

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

By Robert M. Citino,

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

Why 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. 


The Air War, 1939-1945

By Richard Overy,

Book cover of The Air War, 1939-1945

Why 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. 


Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era

By James M. McPherson,

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

Why 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.  


Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege

By Antony Beevor,

Book cover of Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege

Why 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. 


Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

By Timothy Snyder,

Book cover of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

Why 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. 


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