Editor’s note: Welcome to another installment of our weekly War Books series! The premise is simple and straightforward. We invite a participant to recommend five books and tell us what sets each one apart. War Books is a resource for MWI readers who want to learn more about important subjects related to modern war and are looking for books to add to their reading lists.

This week, we’re highlight a phenomenal series called Dusty Shelves, published by our friends at WAR ROOM, the online journal of the United States Army War College. The series focuses on historical books and other artifacts, telling their stories and relating the lessons learned to the modern environment. It’s edited by Thomas Bruscino, a professor at the US Army War College. We asked him to contribute this edition of War Books and gave him the following prompt: What five books featured in the Dusty Shelves series are your favorites?

Oh boy, this is like asking to pick your favorite child, which is always a bad idea. This editor loves them all equally. Instead, here are five entries that represent the range and diversity of contributions to the Dusty Shelves series.

Air Warfare, by William C. Sherman (reviewed for Dusty Shelves by Heather Venable)

We’ll start with our most recent entry, Heather Venable’s wonderful review of a 1926 work by a largely forgotten American airman. Venable points out that Sherman’s book is a helpful corrective to the image that all interwar airpower theorists were in lockstep about the primacy of strategic bombing. Common tropes can be useful in providing coherence to the story of the past, but military history is almost always more complicated than such generalizations allow. This entry is an expression of that truth.

The Third World War, by Sir John Hackett (reviewed for Dusty Shelves by Adam Seipp)

In the summer of 2020, when we were facing our own Armageddon of sorts, Adam Seipp reminded us about a 1978 work of fiction imagining what World War III would look like. Speculative fiction, especially speculative fiction about future war, has a long history of being filled with opportunities and pitfalls for policymakers and military professionals. Seipp reminds us Hackett was the one to “jump-start the genre” in the 1980s, and we have also seen a recent spate of similar works in recent years. Plus, this entry led to an entertaining, if I say so myself, podcast episode that explored Hackett further.

Fleet Admiral King: A Naval Record, by Ernest King (reviewed for Dusty Shelves by Jonathan Klug)

Memoirs have gotten a bad rap. Yes, a lot of autobiographical accounts have a healthy amount of apologetic reputation burnishing, but historians too often dismiss them altogether. A lot of memoirs are also remarkably frank, and even when authors get defensive, how they explain their decision-making says something important, too. Klug’s article is an excellent lesson in all that can be learned from military memoirs. That is especially true when the subject is as entertaining as he was important, and King certainly fits the bill.

Major General Guy V. Henry, Jr.’s Travel Itinerary, 1944, (reviewed for Dusty Shelves by Matthew Morton)

Speaking of entertaining. The Dusty Shelves series is not just about books and articles. We also take commentaries on old documents from the archives. Working at the US Army Heritage and Education Center, Morton dug up an epically complex travel itinerary for a historically anonymous World War II general working on issues of hemispheric defense. What follows is a lighthearted romp through the joys of planning, executing, and funding official travel, and also a reminder of the vast and diverse roles played by leaders in modern militaries at war.

The Moon is Down, by John Steinbeck, (reviewed for Dusty Shelves by Rick Chersicla)

The final entry here is on a lesser-known work of historical fiction written during World War II by famous American author John Steinbeck. The setting is an occupied country somewhere in Northern Europe. Chersicla documents how Steinbeck handles the complicated problem of how people deal with occupation, and all the issues at play in developing resistance movements to the same. As with any good fiction, the specifics of the scenario are less important than the larger truths revealed along the way. For Chersicla, The Moon is Down calls to mind the dynamics of the ongoing war in Ukraine, and it is hard to be more relevant than that.

I’d also like to recommend five books I personally enjoy that haven’t yet been covered in the series. Give them a read. Hopefully, some of you will be inspired to write about them for Dusty Shelves.

The Nation in Arms: A Treatise on Modern Miliary Systems and The Conduct of War, by Colmar von der Goltz

As is evident from the entries I described last week, writing about older or forgotten books usually involves learning about the authors, their lives and careers, and the effects of their work. Colmar von der Goltz was a fascinating figure in imperial Germany in his own right, and these two books had an outsized influence around the world. That includes in the United States, where he was arguably the most influential foreign military theorist for the US Army from the 1890s to the 1920s.

Quartermaster Support of the Army: A History of the Corps, 1775–1939, by Erna Risch

Official histories have a similar reputation as memoirs and are often treated as “court histories” and unfairly neglected. Add to that bias that military historians shy away from supposedly boring logistics, and no one reads works like Erna Risch’s broad, insightful, and engaging study of the Quartermaster Corps. Sustainment always matters, and this is as good a review as you’ll find by an author who wrote specialized studies from the Revolutionary War to World War II. Besides, someone needs to tell the story of Risch, a woman who earned her PhD at the University of Chicago in 1931, joined the historical section of the Quartermaster General during World War II, and then served as chief of that section (later Army Materials Command) in the 1960s.

Washington, Lincoln, Wilson: Three War Statesmen, by John McAuley Palmer

When I took over Dusty Shelves, we provided a short article explaining the intent of the series. One example I provided back then was Palmer’s long-lost work. No one has bit. Don’t let the name fool you. The book is a one-of-a-kind history of key issues in the development of American military policy, especially when it comes to preparedness. Palmer is a biased source—he was an advocate for a certain type of preparedness and was the key author of the National Defense Act of 1920. In this case, that is the main strength of the book: he had direct experience with how and why approaches did or did not work, and he applies that experience to writing about America’s military past.

Guns, Sails, and Empires: Technological Innovation and the Early Phases of European Expansion, 1400–1700, by Carlo M. Cipolla

I could go on for days with examples from modern American military, especially US Army, history. But the Dusty Shelves series has featured works from other eras, countries, domains, and even languages, and we would love for that to continue. At the risk of venturing out of my lane, Cipolla’s book always struck me as an example of military history of the boldest sort. It is a short work, deeply researched and elegantly crafted, linking minute details about technological change to the grand sweep of human history. It is also a useful maritime balance against the ground-focused side of the Military Revolution debate. And if you experts out there think Cipolla is all wrong, write in and explain that to us too.

The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Ancient Greece, by Victor Davis Hanson

I know. Stay with me here. Some of Hanson’s later works may have overreached, and certainly his political writings have alienated plenty of potential readers, all of which has led folks to ignore his earlier work. But The Western Way of War is not Carnage and Culture, and it definitely isn’t The Case for Trump. What it is is a breathtakingly original look at the motivations for, and conduct of, ancient Greek warfare, derived from his earlier work on the agrarian influences on warfighting and incorporating vivid descriptions of the experience of troops in combat. Here is war and military history in all its horror, meaning, and importance. Don’t bury this book.

Thomas Bruscino is a professor in the Department of Military, Strategy, Planning and Operations at the US Army War College and the editor of the Dusty Shelves series published by WAR ROOM.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: Nenad Stojkovich