The best military policy books

7 authors have picked their favorite books about military policy and why they recommend each book.

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The Bomb

By Fred Kaplan,

Book cover of The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War

Kaplan does a marvelous job describing, as the subtitle indicates, “the secret history of nuclear war.” It is in a sense a sequel to Kaplan’s earlier The Wizards of Armageddon, which examined theorists of nuclear annihilation. In The Bomb, Kaplan takes us on a deep dive into the bowels of actual doomsday planning; an unforgettable and darkly educational trip!

Who am I?

I have worn two hats for many decades: evolutionary biology and antinuclear activism. The former appeals to my scientific self and the latter, to my political and emotional passions (although I pride myself in applying science and reason to my antinuclear work as well). The danger of nuclear war has NOT disappeared — or even notably diminished — with the end of the Cold War, and yet, public awareness of this situation has plummeted. Fortunately, there are many technically accurate and yet accessible book-based treatments of this topic, which I am happy to recommend ... my own not least!

I wrote...

Threats: Intimidation and Its Discontents

By David P. Barash,

Book cover of Threats: Intimidation and Its Discontents

What is my book about?

"It's a rare author who can combine literary erudition and an easy fluency of style together with expert knowledge of psychology and evolutionary biology. David Barash adds to all this a far-seeing wisdom and a humane decency that shines through on every page. The concluding section on the senseless and dangerous futility of nuclear deterrence theory is an irrefutable tour de force which should be read by every politician and senior military officer. If only!" - Richard Dawkins

With Enough Shovels

By Robert Scheer,

Book cover of With Enough Shovels: Reagan, Bush, and Nuclear War

If Jonathan Schell’s Fate of the Earth examined the scientific, ecological, and social impacts of nuclear war, Robert Scheer’s With Enough Shovels is a direct inquiry into the Reagan Administration about their initial thoughts on the subject. Those thoughts, frankly, are frightening. As the title implicates, then-Deputy Under Secretary of Defense T.J. Jones literally suggested that surviving thermonuclear war was easy: “Dig a hole, cover it with a couple of doors and then throw three feet of dirt on top…it’s the dirt that does it…if there are enough shovels to go around, everybody’s going to make it.” Comments by Reagan, Vice President Bush, Defense Secretary Weinberger, and an increasing contingent of “Neo-Conservatives” writing in journals such as Commentary echoed these sentiments. In part, Scheer’s book began a long process of the Reagan Administration scaling back their bravado and recognizing the real dangers of the atomic age. 

Who am I?

My interest in the decade and in the Cold War came during graduate school. This was where I discovered Carl Sagan’s theory of a nuclear winter: that after a nuclear war, the debris and smoke from nuclear bombs would cover the earth and make it inhabitable for life on earth. Tracing debates between this celebrity scientist and U.S. policymakers revealed a hesitancy on either side to even consider each other’s point of view. This research made me reconsider the pop culture of my youth—films like The Day After and Wargames, music like “Shout” and “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” and books from Don DeLillo’s White Noise to Dr. Seuss’ Butter Battle Book—and ultimately see them as part of a political contest in which lives—our lives—were in the balance.  

I wrote...

Nuclear Freeze in a Cold War: The Reagan Administration, Cultural Activism, and the End of the Arms Race

By William Knoblauch,

Book cover of Nuclear Freeze in a Cold War: The Reagan Administration, Cultural Activism, and the End of the Arms Race

What is my book about?

The early 1980s were a tense time. The nuclear arms race was escalating, Reagan administration officials bragged about winning a nuclear war, and superpower diplomatic relations were at a new low. Nuclear war was a real possibility and antinuclear activism surged. By 1982 the Nuclear Freeze campaign had become the largest peace movement in American history. Alarmed, the Reagan administration worked to co-opt the rhetoric of the nuclear freeze and contain antinuclear activism. Recently declassified White House memoranda reveal a concerted campaign to defeat activists' efforts.

In this book, William M. Knoblauch examines these new sources, as well as the influence of notable personalities like Carl Sagan and popular culture such as the film The Day After, to demonstrate how cultural activism ultimately influenced the administration's shift in rhetoric and, in time, its stance on the arms race.

Marching Masters

By Colin Edward Woodward,

Book cover of Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army During the Civil War

Most Confederate soldiers were not slaveholders, but as historian Colin Woodward argues, all of them were products of a slaveholding culture and, as a result, fought to maintain the rigid racial hierarchy that had come to define their respective communities. Appreciating the central place that the defense of slavery occupied for most Confederates helps us to better understand why the war lasted as long as it did. Some of the most interesting chapters in this book explore the roles played by thousands of body servants that accompanied officers from the slaveholding class. Enslaved men performed a wide range of jobs, including cooking meals, washing clothes, and digging ditches. Their presence served as a constant reminder of the army’s reliance on enslaved labor and its broader significance as the Confederacy’s “cornerstone.”

Who am I?

I am a historian and educator based in Boston. I have authored three books and numerous essays on the Civil War era. You can find my op-eds in The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The Daily Beast. Over the past few years, I have worked with students and teachers across the country to better understand the current controversy surrounding Confederate monuments.

I wrote...

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War's Most Persistent Myth

By Kevin M. Levin,

Book cover of Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War's Most Persistent Myth

What is my book about?

More than 150 years after the end of the Civil War, scores of websites, articles, and organizations repeat claims that anywhere between 500 and 100,000 free and enslaved African Americans fought willingly as soldiers in the Confederate army. Such claims would have shocked anyone who served in the army during the war itself. Searching for Black Confederates is the first scholarly study to explain how imprecise contemporary accounts, poorly understood primary-source material, and other misrepresentations helped to fuel the rise of this myth, beginning in the mid-1970s. 

Searching for Black Confederates also explores the roles that thousands of personal body servants and forced laborers actually performed in support of the Confederate army. Regardless of the dangers these men faced in camp, on the march, and on the battlefield, their legal status remained unchanged. The thousands of enslaved men that traveled with the army serves as an important reminder of the central importance that the Confederacy placed on protecting slavery.

Arms and Influence

By Thomas C. Schelling,

Book cover of Arms and Influence: With a New Preface and Afterword

In the whole of military history, no year was more important than 1945. Why? Because it introduced nuclear weapons to the world and the world to nuclear weapons. Both before and after Hiroshima new weapons have always affected the way war is waged; whereas nuclear ones, by threatening to turn even the “victor” into a radioactive desert, have cast doubt on the purpose for which may be waged and even whether it can be waged at all. 

As the current war in Ukraine has shown once again, provided both sides have a credible second-strike capability using nuclear weapons to win a war is impossible. So what can they be used for and how? Proceeding step by step Schelling, a Nobel-Prize winning professor of game theory, provides the answers in ways that not only have not been improved upon since the book was published in 1965 but are easy to understand…

Who am I?

As a professor emeritus of history at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, over the years I’ve been widely mentioned as one of the world’s foremost experts on military theory and history. On these and other topics I have written 34 books, which between them have been published in 19 languages. I’ve also consulted with defense departments, taught and lectured all over the world, etc., etc.

I wrote...

The Privileged Sex

By Martin Van Creveld,

Book cover of The Privileged Sex

What is my book about?

As I said, I’ve written about many topics besides military history. My favorite is The Privileged Sex (2013, German, Dutch and Portuguese translations available). Ranging far and wide over history, in it I show that for every disadvantage under which women have labored, they have enjoyed a privilege that is theirs alone. Starting in ancient Egypt, where men but not women were commanded to “fill the bellies and clothe the backs” of their spouses, and ending today when women, but not men, are allowed to leave Ukraine. So controversial is the book that, simply for quoting from it, people have been fired! To decide for yourself, buy it, read it, and review it.

The Fear of Invasion

By David G. Morgan-Owen,

Book cover of The Fear of Invasion: Strategy, Politics, and British War Planning, 1880-1914

This book genuinely changes our understanding of British defence policy before the First World War. It is often assumed that the German challenge to British naval supremacy before 1914 was a mirage and that fears that Germany might launch an invasion of the British Isles were simple scaremongering. The reality was different. The Royal Navy may have been bigger and stronger than its German counterpart, but its task was harder and its leaders were not confident that they could prevent German soldiers from landing on British soil. Based on first-rate research, this book explains why.

Who am I?

I am a British naval historian and winner of the Sir Julian Corbett Prize for Naval History. My main area of interest is the Anglo-German naval race before the First World War. I have written numerous books on this topic including Rum, Sodomy, Prayers, and the Lash Revisited: Winston Churchill and Social Reform in the Royal Navy, 1900-1915 (2018); The Naval Route to the Abyss: The Anglo-German Naval Race, 1895-1914 (2015); The Royal Navy and the German Threat, 1901-1914 (2012); Naval Intelligence from Germany (2007); and Spies in Uniform: British Military and Naval Intelligence on the Eve of the First World War (2006). 

I wrote...

Rum, Sodomy, Prayers, and the Lash Revisited: Winston Churchill and Social Reform in the Royal Navy, 1900-1915

By Matthew S. Seligmann,

Book cover of Rum, Sodomy, Prayers, and the Lash Revisited: Winston Churchill and Social Reform in the Royal Navy, 1900-1915

What is my book about?

The book is built around a quotation often attributed to Winston Churchill that depicted naval life as consisting of “Rum, Sodomy, Prayers and the Lash.” Churchill may not have said this, but it is a remarkable coincidence if he didn’t because, as the book shows, the Churchill Admiralty of 1911-1915 attempted to reform conditions in the Royal Navy by introducing new measures respecting the spirit ration, homosexuality, religion, and corporal punishment. As such it opens up a new aspect of the career of Winston Churchill, who as First Lord did not just prepare the Royal Navy for war with Germany, he also attempted to reform social conditions in the senior service and bring it into the modern world.

The Insurgents

By Fred Kaplan,

Book cover of The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War

The insurgents of the title are a group of military officers, many of whom had taught at West Point’s Department of Social Sciences, who attempted to help the Army and the nation come to terms with the war in Iraq. Ironically, most had been opposed to the invasion of Iraq in 2003; nonetheless, they worked with great urgency to understand the conflict and produce better policies to minimize the suffering and harm to U.S. interests it caused. The team, led by Army General David Petraeus and Marine General James Mattis, created the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual that Petraeus implemented when he took command of the Iraq war effort in 2007, changing the course of the war and America’s understanding of the future of conflict.

Who am I?

I am a retired Army officer who served in a tank unit in Operation Desert Storm. After that war, I became convinced that the future of warfare looked more like America’s experience in Vietnam than like the war in which I had just fought. I taught at West Point and then served in another tank unit early in the war in Iraq before being sent to the Pentagon where I helped Generals David Petraeus and Jim Mattis write the Army and Marine Corps doctrine for counterinsurgency campaigns. I am now studying and teaching about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as a professor at the U.S. Army War College.  

I wrote...

Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam

By John A. Nagl,

Book cover of Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam

What is my book about?

Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife compares the course of the Malayan Emergency from 1948 to 1960 with the Vietnam War from 1950 to 1975. Both of these long campaigns demanded that foreign armies adapt to meet the demands of insurgencies with complicated strategies that incorporate politics, economics, information warfare, and training foreign armies and police forces. The British were more effective at this series of tasks in Malaya than was the American Army in Vietnam, with tragic results for America, Vietnam, and all of Southeast Asia. I closed the book by arguing that future American enemies were likely to fight us as terrorists and insurgents and that we needed to prepare for that kind of war.  

No Good Men Among the Living

By Anand Gopal,

Book cover of No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes

I have been teaching about the wars in Afghanistan since 2004 and this book is the best at showcasing how individual lives are indelibly affected by armed conflict. Gopal is fabulous in humanizing his characters—a Taliban commander, a member of the US-backed Afghan government, or a village housewife. And he demonstrates how none of these people fit neatly into the preconceived categories applied to them by Americans.

Perhaps better than any other book on Afghanistan after 9/11, Gopal also reveals the limits of US military power overseas. In many ways, the presence of American soldiers exacerbated local conflict rather than ameliorating it. A powerful book arguing against those who extol the value of “generational wars” to achieve US foreign policy objectives.

Who am I?

I am the USS Midway Chair in Modern US Military History at San Diego State University. I’ve been teaching courses on the relationships between war and society for years and am fascinated not just by the causes and conduct of war, but, more importantly, by the costs of war. To me, Americans have a rather peculiar connection with war. In many ways, war has become an integral part of American conduct overseas—and our very identity. And yet we often don’t study it to question some of our basic assumptions about what war can do, what it means, and what the consequences are for wielding armed force so readily overseas.

I wrote...

Pulp Vietnam: War and Gender in Cold War Men's Adventure Magazines

By Gregory A. Daddis,

Book cover of Pulp Vietnam: War and Gender in Cold War Men's Adventure Magazines

What is my book about?

Pulp Vietnam delves into the world of men’s adventure magazines, popular in the United States from the 1950s until the early 1970s. Catering to a white, male audience, they featured pin-up girls, exploits of courageous soldiers in battle, and exotic tales of adventure. They also appealed to working-class men, the same target audience forming the bulk of American ranks in the Vietnam War. Within these trendy magazines—boasting titles like Man’s Conquest and For Men Only—men read exciting tales that brought together two popular notions of masculinity: the heroic warrior and the sexual conqueror. Rather than low-brow kitsch, they were perceptive Cold War cultural commentary and a source of untapped insights about those young American soldiers heading off to war in the 1960s.

A Terrible Glory

By James Donovan,

Book cover of A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn - The Last Great Battle of the American West

James Donovan combined impeccable research with an engaging style to produce the best book about the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The battle is the subject of more books than just about any other fight in American history, but Donovan’s has set a new standard. I referred to the book regularly while writing my biography of Custer. You can’t really begin to understand a complex battle like the Little Bighorn without a seasoned guide. But Donovan doesn’t just explain the battle. He writes in a way that gives his book the feel of a novel rather than a dry recitation of facts. A Terrible Glory will take you on an exciting ride and teach you everything you need to know about Custer’s Last Stand.

Who am I?

As a journalist, the Little Bighorn fascinates me because it has all the elements of a great story: larger-than-life characters, conflict, fighting against the odds, and mystery. I turned that fascination into research when I left newspapering to pursue a Ph.D. at the University of Texas. I wrote a number of articles about press coverage of Custer and the Last Stand, and this research eventually led to two books, most recently a biography of Custer focusing on his artistic personality, especially his writing career. I’ve continued to explore the history of war reporting, always looking for topics that make good stories.

I wrote...

Ambitious Honor: George Armstrong Custer's Life of Service and Lust for Fame

By James Mueller,

Book cover of Ambitious Honor: George Armstrong Custer's Life of Service and Lust for Fame

What is my book about?

George Armstrong Custer, one of the most familiar figures of nineteenth-century American history, is known almost exclusively as a soldier, his brilliant military career culminating in catastrophe at Little Bighorn. But Custer, author James E. Mueller suggests, had the soul of an artist, not of a soldier. Ambitious Honor elaborates this radically new perspective, arguing that an artistic passion for creativity and recognition drove Custer to success—and, ultimately, to the failure that has overshadowed his notable achievements.

What Ambitious Honor provides is the context for understanding how Custer's theatrical personality took shape and thrived, beginning with his training at a teaching college before he entered West Point. Teaching, Mueller notes, requires creativity and performance, both of which fascinated and served Custer throughout his life.

War with Russia

By General Sir Richard Shirreff,

Book cover of War with Russia: An Urgent Warning from Senior Military Command

Published in 2016, the provocative title of this novel seemed outlandish at the time, but regrettably, some of what it predicted has now come to pass. As you’d expect from a novel written by such a senior Army officer, this is a military novel delivered with technical accuracy and an eye on strategy, but also contains some interesting political elements – and how military chiefs interact with them. The politicians have often been renamed, but it’s not too hard to draw a dotted line to the real world. Owing to the author’s closeness to the events he describes, sometimes this doesn’t feel like a novel at all, more like a work of military history viewed from an unknown future, particularly when viewed through the lens of the horrors we’ve seen in Ukraine. 

Who am I?

I was a political journalist in London for the BBC and HuffPost for many years, so thinking about our current politics, and where we are headed kind of fixates me! From the day I read 1984 as a twelve-year-old, I’ve been obsessed with how novels set in the near future or an alternate past can be intensely political, and instructive. I enjoy sci-fi, but it’s the extrapolation of our world into a similar yet different one that can tell us so much about our own society. 

I wrote...

Weeks in Naviras

By Chris Wimpress,

Book cover of Weeks in Naviras

What is my book about?

Weeks in Naviras is a speculative fiction novel set in the near future, where the worlds of British and American politics converge in a Portuguese fishing village. The narrow streets of Naviras are the backdrop to the secret life of Ellie, the wife of the British prime minister. Now she’s back to remember her time there, recalling the secrets which sprang up at Casa Amanha, the home of a weather forecaster where her love for two men begins and ends.

Ellie has returned to Naviras just as a conspiracy to destabilise the Middle East is erupting. The village is the first and last place she ought to be, but Naviras has saved its biggest and deadliest secret for last.

Those Angry Days

By Lynne Olson,

Book cover of Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America's Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941

Although not technically about the Pearl Harbor attack, Those Angry Days is an excellent companion to understand the mood in America in those months before the attack.  While Grew was focused on avoiding an almost inevitable conflict between Japan and the United States, Olson shows that Americans in general and President Roosevelt in particular were far more focused on whether and how to engage in the ongoing conflict in Europe.

Who am I?

I'm a lawyer (Harvard Law School) who loves to write. My books reflect my eclectic interests. I've written nonfiction books about John Kennedy’s presidency, Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, CBS Founder William S. Paley, Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series between the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Pearl Harbor. Each of my nonfiction books tries to focus on something with respect to a particular person or event that had not been addressed in detail in any other book. I've also written a thriller (Deadly Risks) which revolves around JFK’s assassination and can be likened to John Grisham’s book, The Pelican Brief.

I wrote...

In the Cauldron: Terror, Tension, and the American Ambassador's Struggle to Avoid Pearl Harbor

By Lew Paper,

Book cover of In the Cauldron: Terror, Tension, and the American Ambassador's Struggle to Avoid Pearl Harbor

What is my book about?

My book traces the efforts of Joseph Grew, America’s ambassador to Japan, to orchestrate an agreement between Japan and the United States to avoid the war he saw coming. The book also explains how – when he saw those efforts would fail – Grew tried to warn Secretary of State Cordell Hull and President Franklin D. Roosevelt about the imminent conflict with Japan, including a telegram on November 3, 1941, saying that Japan was prepared to launch a “suicidal” war with the United States and that armed conflict could come “with dangerous and dramatic suddenness.” There are countless books about Pearl Harbor. In the Cauldron is different. It is the first book to tell the story of the build-up to Pearl Harbor from Grew’s perspective.  

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