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Books of War: Building a Library of Must-Reads

War is a reality that we cannot escape. War is a drug that keeps calling your name, in your sleep, as you eat, when you sit down and wonder if what you're doing really matters any more. Building a library begins with an aim. Without a direction, a mission, or a purpose, collecting that wealth of wisdom will end in failure. Without an objective, all effort begins to look like toil. Whether it is to try to understand the human condition, or to familiarize one's self with the past, books of war offer a vast and monumental challenge. Before one begins to seriously consider what will ultimately become a life-long journey, they must face the mirror and ask Why?

What For?

The variety alone tells a story. One need only take a brief glance at the vastness of published books of war to recognize their own smallness. Beginning with a question, one is forced to struggle against the grain of easy reading to consider what they seek out to obtain. For all the millions of copies of Art of War that can be found on shelves, so few of them have been read, and fewer so comprehended. Ancient tomes like that have long been idolized as bearing secret wisdom, but for those who's daily life does not include land-borne battles, and maneuver-warfare, the best, it seems, are strategies for gaining the upper hand in aggressive business deals.

First hand accounts of war stretch from untrustworthy to horrific, from being romanticized through embellishments, to suffering under poorly disguised attempts at making excuses for past failures, as if the audience could be responsible for forgiving the author. Historical books can be found on more conflicts than one can become an expert in, and when they often number in the thousands of pages, and come in volumes, one quickly recognizes that there's too much to read and not enough years in multiple lifetimes to get through it all. And then there's those types of books along the periphery which tend to end up on best sellers lists, not only for the context within which they were written, but for the lesson they offer to the reader.

So, before building a library for books of war, take the time to write out, what for? For here Nietzsche's cogent words ring true:

If we have our own why in life, we shall get along with almost any how.”

~ Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols.

Fiction vs. Reality

A strict diet of only factual accounts may, for some, sound like the perfect meal plan of historical and intellectual matter to consume. While we, as readers, must be cautious of confusing the is for the ought, there is something to recognize in stories. An author such as Hemingway may not have written factually when he gave life to the characters of A Farewell to Arms, but the reader shouldn't be considering his work for the kinds of details that end up on a generals report table, but rather, as an attempt to understand what the author thought about the war and his place in it. Books of War that are not necessarily factual in a historical sense, are often the best conduit by witch the writer can give body to a series of facts and attempt through osmosis, to hydrate the reader with the emotions and less-than-logical thoughts of war.

books of war

Military manuals read like drying paint, but with the context of historical battles, they can begin to take shape as both teaching tools, and technical information.

In contrast, books like My War Gone By, I Miss It So, by Anthony Loyd, are the factual accounts that hinge 0n the assumption that they are the author's honest attempt at truth, even when the fog of war or the haze of the author's drug addiction cost the reader confidence in what they read. The difficulty of returning to the United States after Vietnam bears its significance in the factual accounts of Veterans who were rejected by the very society they were supposedly protecting.

So, strictly sticking to only factual accounts, and not historical fiction isn't as simple as highschool made it out to be. Instead, a careful consideration, and a sense of protectiveness over recommendations will serve as both a guide and a guardian when building a library of books on war. Works like the Illiad, and the Nordic Sagas give perspective into what their respective cultures believed to be the right way to go about a fight. Similarly, one begins to really comprehend the disparity that came with the industrialization of war in All is Quiet on the Western Front. 

Books of War: Pick One.

Where to begin? Like a series of University courses, the relevance of studying a given war is lost without a perspective of the greater picture. The impact of the World Wars was long enough ago that to assume one understands the relevancy of each war in regards to their surrounding context is to approach the subject with either folly or the innocence of youth. That being the case, starting with a specific conflict is ideal, and after surveying a list of important characters, events, and inventions, one can begin to “specialize” within a specific set of details.

napoleon books

The advantage of building one's own library is that the reader ultimately chooses how to categorize their selection, be it digitally or otherwise. Historical accounts, or a specific focus on someone like Napoleon easily generate a long list of options to fill the shelf and generally self-regulate. There are also the classics, from the Book of Five Rings to On War to On Killing, these often attribute their value not only to keen observations about the individual, troop movements, or phychology, respectively, but each easily becomes a node, with additional books orbiting around them.

Top Suggestions

Loosing the War by Lee Sandlin

Not actually a book, but a freely available essay on the aftereffects of World War II. Taking into account the severity of the Atom bomb, and contrasting it with the horrific devastation of the bombing of Dresden, Sandlin takes the time to consider why we remember the first, but rarely give attention to the much more deadly second. He takes the reader through a steady observation of what post-WWII America looked like as the people it called heroes began dying from old age, and with it, the memory of what was won and lost in the world's greatest war. It is available for reading here.

Napoleon: A Concise Biography by David A. Bell

While the enigmatic First French Emperor has firmly made his name in history, the many accounts of his life tend toward the extremes. From brilliant general to ruthless despot, to merely a result of the circumstances, each of these merely takes an aspect of Napoleon and paints his whole life in one color. Not only a book of war in that time, but also an account of the man who changed the face of Europe during an age of revolutions.

On Killing by Lt. Col. Grossman

A long-standing must-read for many soldiers, and a regular placeholder on many a Commander's required reading list, the challenge with On Killing is not that he doesn't make a strong argument, but that it leaves the reader in a fight to consider if he thinks it is true. Taking into consideration both the history of violence, and looking at what he believes to be central to the psychological effects of both violent encounters, and war as a whole, Lt. Col. Grossman led the way for conversations about the cost of war, and why some seem less effected by it.

My War Gone By, I Miss It So by Anthony Loyd

A reporter and journalist documents his journey through the Bosnian conflict, watching neighbors turn mercilessly on neighbors, and what once was thought of as a peaceful region split violently into racial and religious conflict. Intermittently he accounts the drug like effects of war, complete with the relapses into drug use when away from the adrenaline of the battlefield. A challenger to the norm of oversimplifying war into merely being hell, he takes the reader through painful experience after elation of surviving and watching horrors and atrocities with narcotic obsession.

War by Sebastion Junger // Tribe by Sebastian Junger

Imbedded with American Soldiers in one of the most notorious locations in Afghanistan, Junger documents not only the effects of a long and hard deployment on the physical and mental health of those far from home, but notes the pain of being away from their team, but also examines the threatening isolation that comes only after they have returned from the battlefield. Many have taken to reading his works in the desperation of returning to an America that both doesn't and cannot understand the molding effects of war.

The Terminal List by Jack Carr

A modern take on the iconic novels by famous names such as Tom Clancy. The fictional characters, though bearing resemblance to real-life counterparts, turns the adrenaline of a political thriller into a violent exploration into the heart of humankind. Wrestling with certain death, and grievous loss, while remaining entertaining on the surface, Carr has since published three full novels at the time of this writing following the adventures of a fictional retired Navy Seal. For those who are well-versed in both weapons and the tools of modern war, the flavor of these novels are sweetened with not-so-subtle references to the guns and tactics typically found in the world of Special Operations.

Books of War: Conclusions

A word of caution to those who choose to continue: even for veterans now removed from combat, or those still duty-bound to their military careers, a library of books on war does not make a man into an excellent warfighter alone. Though great men and women read, it is not reading alone that makes them great. Books on war serve as a unique window into mankind, and though filled with great darkness, also make way for understanding virtue, consequence, and in the end, just what makes us human.

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  • Andrew says:

    This is a great topic, and one I don’t think true justice could ever be done towards. I’d just like to add a few of my personal favorites for anyone interested in this topic:

    “Matterhorn” by Karl Marlantes

    “Forgotten Soldier” by Guy Sajer

    “A Higher Call” by Adam Makos

    “Killer Angels” by Michael Shaara

  • Gun Trash says:

    I’ve read Forgotten Soldier a number of times since picking it up at a yard sale over 40 yrs ago. It’s a great read from a German soldier’s perspective while serving on the Eastern Front.

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  • This is a great topic, and one I don't think true justice could ever be done towards. I'd just like to add a few of my personal favorites for anyone interested in this topic:

    "Matterhorn" by Karl Marlantes

    "Forgotten Soldier" by Guy Sajer

    "A Higher Call" by Adam Makos

    "Killer Angels" by Michael Shaara

  • I've read Forgotten Soldier a number of times since picking it up at a yard sale over 40 yrs ago. It's a great read from a German soldier's perspective while serving on the Eastern Front.

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