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 have a special year-end edition of War Books. We asked a number of people across the MWI network to share with readers the best books they read in 2023—nonfiction or fiction, quick reads or massive tomes, newly published or rediscovered classics. Here’s what they told us.
Defense Will Not Win the War, by W. F. Kernan
Looking backward at history tends to smooth the jagged edges of uncertainty that characterize warfare. It’s easy to see the Allied war effort in Europe during World War II as a strategically wise march toward victory, and even that victory feels, if not inevitable, certainly more likely than it must have appeared to strategists charged with sequencing Allied campaigns to defeat Axis power. In 1942, when this book was written, opinion was divided on how best to pursue a military victory. It advocates for one such approach—eschewing the strategy of defense-first, liability-limiting warfare in favor of an offensive thrust directly at the heart of Europe. It’s value to readers today, though, is in challenging our biases and assumptions as we conceptualize the next big war—and how it will be won.
Conflict: The Evolution of Warfare from 1945 to Ukraine, by David Petraeus and Andrew Roberts
Studying a number of wide-ranging conflicts over an extended period of time to correctly identify both through lines that connect them and significant but often subtle departures from existing trends is challenging. Doing so in a narrative manner that presents a comprehensive, detailed, and nuanced picture of warfare’s evolution is even more so. This book fulfills this task better than almost any book that sets out to do so.
The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World, by General Rupert Smith
This book contributes to an important discussion on how the military instrument can and should be introduced to achieve strategic aims (and the necessity of having clear strategic goals to start with).
SAS: Rogue Heroes, by Ben Macintyre
It is interesting to see the degree of innovation the SAS (Special Air Service) had during World War II, a good reflection when we see the degree of changes taking place in the current Ukrainian-Russian conflict.
Confronting Saddam Hussein: George W. Bush and the Invasion of Iraq, by Melvyn P. Leffler
Leap of Faith: Hubris, Negligence, and America’s Greatest Foreign Policy Tragedy, by Michael J. Mazarr Mazarr
Japan at War: An Oral History, by Haruko Taya Cook and Theodore F. Cook
Like Studs Terkel’s The Good War, but focused on Japan, this is a vast, insightful, humanizing look into an enemy we tried so hard to dehumanize in World War II. In light of current competition with China, it’s more important than ever to study cultures that are so fundamentally different from our (still) largely Eurocentric way of thinking.
Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives, by Siddharth Kara
Energy transitions have not occurred neatly—many sources of renewable and low-emission energy have quite messy origin tales. Take for example, cobalt, largely found in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s worth knowing more about just one of the supply chains in our “new era” of energy.
Conflict: The Evolution of Warfare from 1945 to Ukraine, by David Petraeus and Andrew Roberts
Our obsession with mapping wars and seeking elements of change or continuity rages on. This book expands our quest with assessments of the ongoing war in Ukraine and leaves me questioning if humans ever really learn from the past war—can we truly evolve in warfare?
On Wars, by Michael Mann
I think we need to hear a lot more from sociologists and anthropologists in matters of conflict and war. Mann delves into the role of individuals in opting to declare war or negotiate for peace.
Red Arctic: Russian Arctic Strategy under Putin, by Elizabeth Buchanan
Red Arctic charts Arctic strategy under Putin—how it is formulated, what drives it, and where it’s going. It’s a great book, although I may be biased. Help me feed my kids.
Fighting Power: German and U.S. Army Performance, 1939–1945, by Martin Van Creveld
I had occasion to reread this book this year, and it is still a superb analysis of the effect of personnel systems on military capability, a subject that gets much less attention than equipment or tactics.
This book is a tremendous contribution to literatures on the domestic politics of war and civil-military relations. Positioned at the confluence of domestic and international politics, both require complex and clever analyses. Payne’s book is innovative, important, and researched at an impressive scale. Not only is it compelling, but it’s artfully written and a lovely read.
Defeat Into Victory: Battling Japan in Burma and India, 1942–1945, by Field Marshal Viscount Slim
Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd, by Frans P.B. Osinga
Chip War: The Fight for the World’s Most Critical Technology, by Chris Miller
Miller explores the influential impact of Moore’s Law, which projected the doubling of transistors on a chip every two years and has been a driving force in the rapid advancement of technology, exemplified by the growth from four transistors on a chip to 11.8 billion today. The book delves into the geopolitical and economic significance of semiconductor chips, detailing their role in global power structures and the race for technological supremacy, particularly highlighting the strategic importance of the semiconductor industry in global politics and economics. The narrative spans historical figures and pivotal moments in semiconductor development, including the Cold War’s tech race, Europe’s lag in transistor technology, and the rise of Asian semiconductor powerhouses, while also critiquing the industry’s masculine culture and providing insights into the global implications of chip manufacturing and distribution.
2034: A Novel of the Next World War, by Elliot Ackerman and James Stavridis
Ackerman and Stavridis delve into a futuristic conflict where technology and military strategy collide. The novel’s story, drawing a parallel with the historical hoax of “The Turk” chess machine, reflects on the dangers of overreliance on technology in warfare. Central characters navigate a tense geopolitical landscape involving the United States, China, Russia, Iran, and India, revealing a world where strident nationalism contrasts with global interconnectedness. The novel underscores the pivotal role of human decision-making in warfare, even as it is increasingly dominated by artificial intelligence and cyber capabilities, leading to a conclusion that the key to overcoming technological dominance might lie in eschewing technology altogether.
Men at Arms, by Evelyn Waugh
I’d like to recommend Evelyn Waugh’s Men at Arms (and the broader Sword of Honor trilogy). I turn to these books most years. As I wrote in a review around Veterans Day this year, “Waugh helps me make sense of my military service.”
The Misbehavior of Markets: A Fractal View of Risk, Ruin and Reward, by Benoit Mandelbrot and Richard L. Hudson
While on its face this is a book about the volatility of financial markets, the ideas apply more broadly to complex systems, including situational awareness and prediction in the tactical environment.
Command: The Politics of Military Operations from Korea to Ukraine, by Lawrence Freedman
Brave Men, by Ernie Pyle
This is a valuable firsthand account of World War II that captures the essence of the human experience during wartime. Pyle brings to life the stories of ordinary soldiers, depicting their struggles, camaraderie, and resilience amid the chaos of war. It is a reminder of how universal the emotions of soldiers fighting are, no matter what conflict or time period.
Fighting in the Dark: Naval Combat at Night, 1904–1944, edited by Vincent P. O’Hara and Trent Hone
This is a fantastic collection of historical essays that trace the evolution of the naval technological and procedural innovations that fostered the ability to fight at night, something that was rare and deliberately avoided before the twentieth century.
For everyone who complains about the “woke” military this book should be required reading. Generational cultural shifts are nothing new, nor is how older generations react to them.
People in Glass Houses, by Shirley Hazzard
This book, the funniest I read this year, satirizes the bureaucracy of the 1960s United Nations. Yet those serving in the military today will recognize the world Hazzard sketches as theirs, and so get much from it—perhaps above all, catharsis.
Should We Ban Killer Robots? by Deane Baker
I found this book useful to understand how we think about the moral and ethical implications of lethal autonomous weapons systems, and what can shape soldiers’ trust in partnering with them during future wars.
Radical War: Data, Attention, and Control in the Twenty-First Century, by Matthew Ford and Andrew Hoskins
I found this book useful to understand how emerging technologies have not only respatialized war but potentially instituted a new trinity of interdependent mechanisms that shape modern warfare and its outcomes, thus replacing the fabled Clausewitzian model of chance, passion, and politics.
Diary of a Madman, and Other Stories, by Lu Xun (translated by Willam A. Lyell)
Written during China’s Republican Era following the fall of the Qing dynasty, Lu Xun’s stories offer a unique and intimate view into the chaos and tragedy that defined much of that period. The book helped me better understand why so many Chinese were drawn to the Chinese Communist Party in the Republican Era and the years that followed, as the promise of order—virtually any order, so long as it did not involve domination by foreign powers—must have been extraordinarily appealing. And it has helped me empathize with—while continuing to strongly disagree with—adherents to other at-times fanatical movements in today’s modern wars.
White Sun War: The Campaign for Taiwan, by Mick Ryan
Ryan’s book is a thrilling, fictional take on what an invasion of Taiwan and resulting war might look like in the next decade or so. This book will keep you reading all through the night.
Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, by Christopher Browning
Browning’s study of a single unit’s role in the Holocaust is a powerful and chilling portrait of how evil can be done by the eponymous “ordinary men” who made up the battalion, and the effect that it had on them.
As an introvert, I appreciate the candid assessment of the dangers of relying on extroverts as leaders. This book provides a more comprehensive differentiation between introverts and extroverts based on energy management versus simply saying an extrovert is a people person and an introvert is not.
Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know, by Malcolm Gladwell
I appreciate this book’s case study approach to showing the dangers of inherent bias and preconceived notions. As a member of a security force assistance brigade, this hits home considering how often we find ourselves in some form of negotiations with foreign partners, each of whom operates within a context distinct from ours and other partners with whom we may interact.
These were written by a former member of MACV-SOG (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam–Studies and Observations Group) in the Vietnam War. The reason I liked them both so much was first the immense bravery of these guys fighting at such close distances and second the author’s ability to describe the tactical situations he was in so that at least people with military experience can imagine it the way it actually was.
The Weaponisation of Everything: A Field Guide to the New Way of War, by Mark Galeotti
Hybrid Warriors: Proxies, Freelancers and Moscow’s Struggle for Ukraine, by Anna Arutunyan
Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism, by Anne Applebaum
Let the Sea Make a Noise . . . A History of the North Pacific from Magellan to MacArthur, by Walter A. McDougall
What is old is new again: a keen reminder of the principle that geopolitics trumps ideology. This book is composed in a bit of a strange style (interludes are scattered throughout consisting of fictional banter between numerous historical figures). Setting that quirk aside the book is extremely readable and full of information. It clearly traces the connections between the activities and motivations of multiple nations regarding the Pacific over the past few hundred years as Russia ventured east into Siberia and North America, the United States forged west across the North American continent, and Japan modernized in response to encroaching European powers in Asia. I believe every US military leader should be required to read this book. Now.
The Russo-Ukrainian War: The Return of History, by Serhii Plokhy
This is about why successful crisis and wartime leaders would often be described as mentally less healthy than successful peacetime and garrison leaders, who are typically very mentally healthy.
Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, by Adam Grant
This one is about making change. It’s less directly war related and more focused on organizational leadership.
White Sun War: The Campaign for Taiwan, by Mick Ryan
This novel paints a great picture of a future fight.
The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine, by Serhii Plokhy
This book on Ukrainian history from a Ukrainian perspective is essential reading for gaining a deeper understanding of Russia and Ukraine today. From a review of the book: “Plokhy combines scholarly authority with narrative flair.”
This should be on every military reading list. Frankly, it best explains the challenges of counterinsurgency in general and in Afghanistan specifically.
This book seems especially relevant in light of the Israel-Hamas war and was quite revelatory.
Elon Musk, by Walter Isaacson
Among this book’s themes, one that stands out is the degree to which—and the manner in which—social media is influencing the information dimension of politics and war, which we’re seeing today in Israel and Ukraine.
World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, by Max Brooks
This is without a doubt the best audiobook ever created. The novel’s plot might be science fiction, but so much of it is actually very real. It is fundamentally about human reactions to catastrophes and a lot can be learned from it.
A highly recommended small book that stimulates integrated thinking on strategy, irregular warfare, and security sector assistance.
Germany 1923: Hyperinflation, Hitler’s Putsch, and Democracy in Crisis, by Volker Ullrich
An examination of Germany and the Weimar Republic one hundred years ago. It offers unique insights and understanding of the post-WWI victor’s peace and its results for Germany.
This book chronicles Winston Churchill’s first year as prime minister, a period that saw the United Kingdom stand alone as the last line of opposition to Nazi Germany’s attempted conquest of Europe. Employing the “novelistic” approach to history that he popularized with Devil in the White City, In the Garden of Beasts, and Dead Wake, Larson deconstructs all the personalities and debates of the various orbits that informed Churchill’s strategic decision-making, from his war cabinet, to his political and military opponents in Nazi Germany, to his noncommittal American ally, and, most importantly, to his family and closest friends. This treatment provides essential insight into the nature and character of Churchill’s well-earned profile in courage, but without exclusive focus on him and removed from the hagiography of other recent popular works (especially in film and television). As such, The Splendid and the Vile is essential scholarship for any student of Churchill, World War II, or strategic leadership. Beyond this, Larson continues to churn out bestsellers for a reason—he’s a damn engrossing writer, and at the risk of sounding gauche, I would read anything by him sight unseen.
Benjamin Van Horrick
“How Is It Possible to Be Loved and Yet to Feel Deeply Lonely?” by Kaitlyn Creasy
Dr. Creasy’s essay treats return and the loneliness that often follows with rare depth, nuance, and warmth. The essay articulates many emotions servicemembers and veterans feel upon reentry. A thankful nation and relieved families welcome home veterans, but for servicemembers, nagging loneliness often persists following their transformative, both negatively and positively, deployment. Reading this generative essay can stoke a meaningful discussion for those returning and those eager to embrace.
“How to Beat Roulette: One Gambler Figured It Out and Won Big,” by Kit Chellel
Risk, luck, and persistence punctuate Kit Chellel’s Bloomberg long-form piece on how one gambler learned how to beat to roulette. Chellel’s detailed reporting and breakneck prose are not just a mediation on beating the odds but how obsession and practice overcame a once insurmountable obstacle. For military planners, the story of beating roulette serves as a template for how to solve a vexing problem. Those operating on the fringes of society to gain an edge offer military practitioners an unconventional yet effective model for approaching nagging problems and emergent threats.
With his characteristically erudite and eloquent application of historical lessons, Rehman renders a distressing conclusion: a war between the world’s two most powerful countries could drag on indefinitely, exacting human, military, and economic costs that strain the capacity of imagination. One hopes that his analysis will renew the determination of US and Chinese policymakers to ensure that competition does not culminate in catastrophe.
Image credit: Benjamin White (adapted by MWI)