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.
While many installments of War Books feature prominent new titles that explore the leading edge of technological advancement and the current global operational environment, this edition takes us in the opposite direction. Sometimes the key to thinking creatively about today’s military challenges is by reading books from yesterday, and a visit to a used bookstore can be a powerful source of inspiration. This week, Jim Toole, a retired US Navy rear admiral and the former owner of Capitol Hill Books in Washington, DC died. For this War Books edition, MWI editorial director John Amble, whose shelves hold dozens of volumes purchased from Capitol Hill Books, describes several of the treasures he has discovered in used bookstores.
A version of this list was originally published in 2019.
Cliches abound that speak to the importance of learning from history. But they exist because it’s true. Technology advances. Geopolitical dynamics evolve. Tactics change. And yet in reading old books, particularly related to military operations, strategy, and national security, the challenges of the past and those present today are variations on a theme. Underlying and subtle similarities emerge. At times, thinking about today’s challenges by approaching them obliquely—reading old books and letting connections form between the past and the present—is uniquely effective. And for defense and security professionals, it can be especially rewarding.
I was reminded of that this summer when visiting a town known for its antique shops and used bookstores, where I found two first editions of books by the famous war correspondent Ernie Pyle, Here is Your War and Brave Men, and a copy of Lieutenant Colonel W.F. Kernan’s 1942 book Defense Will Not Win the War. Pyle’s books are timeless recordings of the fundamental experience of war by those who fight it. And Kernan’s book encourages a reader to grapple with broad questions of defense policy in the face of an aggressive, revisionist power—not unlike those that confront the United States today. The following books are others that have had the same effect on me, naturally leading me to think about the present while reading about the past.
Eastern Approaches, by Fitzroy MacLean
As a junior diplomat posted to Moscow in the 1930s, Fitzroy MacLean undertook a number of journeys across the Soviet Union, to Central Asia and even Afghanistan—often shaking secret police along the way. When World War II broke out, he enlisted as a private (and ultimately rose to the rank of brigadier), and had a remarkable wartime career with the SAS in North Africa and later embedded with Tito’s partisans in Yugoslavia. He tells the stories of all of these exploits in Eastern Approaches. This books reads like a thriller, and you’ll have to remind yourself repeatedly that it’s not a work of fiction. Its setting amid the tense geopolitical environment in the years leading up to World War II—and during that major war involving the world’s powers—will naturally force readers to consider the role of intelligence, diplomacy, and irregular warfare in today’s increasingly multipolar world.
Bonus: Vladimir Peniakoff, Popski’s Private Army. In a similar vein to Eastern Approaches, this autobiographical account of Vladimir Peniakoff’s remarkably unconventional military experience in North Africa and later in Italy is both a page-turner and a study in irregular warfare.
The Arms of Krupp, by William Manchester
The military-industrial complex is nothing new, and Americans don’t have a monopoly on it. For nearly four centuries, the Krupp family business served as the armorer to German leaders. Beginning with the Thirty Years’ War and extending until well after World War II, the Ruhr-based dynasty played an integral role in the military history of not just a country, but a continent. It raises questions about defense materiel, logistics, innovation that are as relevant today as they were at any time in the four hundred years Krupp was making weapons.
The Spy, by James Fenimore Cooper
Spy novels are my guilty pleasure, and for the past few years I’ve been searching out older and older volumes in the genre. This is my favorite. Written in the early nineteenth century, the book weaves a tale of Revolutionary War intrigue in the neutral ground of the Hudson River Valley between American and British forces. Where old novels often lose casual readers with what feels like archaic language, this book never does. It remains engaging from cover to cover. When you’ve read all of Le Carre, have had your fill of Graham Greene, and perhaps even looked far enough back to discover and enjoy W. Somerset Maugham, I encourage you to go a little further and try this one on. Intelligence might be the world’s second-oldest profession, but its basic objectives do not change.
The Double-Cross System, by J.C. Masterman
Britain’s World War II record of discovering (and detaining) intelligence agents sent by Germany is nothing short of remarkable. The decision to keep secret many of those apprehensions and use those agents to transmit information back to Germany for the purposes of deception was an inspired one. The entire operation was overseen by the “Twenty Committee” (XX, in Roman numerals—”double cross”), which was led by J.C. Masterman. His account of the inner workings of that committee and the decisions they made—all while the very survival of the country was at stake—is fascinating.
Bonus: Ewen Montagu, The Man Who Never Was. Speaking of British deception, Operation Mincemeat is one of the all-time classics. Ewen Montagu was the man who had the idea of dressing a corpse in a British uniform and dumping it in the sea where it would wash up and be reported to German authorities—and planting on the body military documents suggesting a planned invasion of Greece intended to divert defensive attention from Sicily, the real target.
A Rumor of War, by Philip Caputo
Philip Caputo’s memoir about his experience as a lieutenant in Vietnam is difficult to define. It isn’t about the politics of the war, it doesn’t overtly address the war’s strategy, and it doesn’t engage in questioning about why he and his soldiers were there. And yet it compels readers to grapple with all of those topics on their own. At its core, though, it is about the experience of war—the daily realities, the fear, and bonds that form between those with this shared experience.
Bonus: Horn of Africa. I actually read this novel by Caputo, less famous than his Vietnam memoir, first. Not long after I had spent some time in East Africa doing field research, and had begun to develop a deep affinity for the region and its history, I had this book recommended to me and I soon found it at my favorite used bookstore in DC, Capitol Hill Books. Its account of a secret military operation is entirely a work of fiction, but its reflection of Cold War-era great-power involvement in places like the Horn of Africa, of vast tracts of ungoverned territory, and of conflicts that mutate but never end—these are very real.
John Amble is the editorial director of the Modern War Institute at West Point.
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: jessica