Books To Read If You Want To Learn About War
United States Marines in action. Military equipment, army helmet, warpaint, smoked dirty face, tactical gloves. Military action, desert battlefield, smoke grenades

Books To Read If You Want To Learn About War

Charis Gambon April 10, 2022

As previously discussed, I choose to study warfare at university and I enjoy learning about, writing about and reading about warfare. Here are some of the books that I would suggest spending some time reading if you would like to learn about war. I have found all of the books below to be useful to my understanding of war in their own way.

On War, Carl von Clausewitz

Clausewitz’s On War has often been called, “not simply the greatest, but the only truly great book on war.’’ If you want to learn about war, it is certainly a book that is worth visiting. Despite being wrote in 1832 the book makes some strong points on war which are still relevant within modern society.  This book is considered one of the most important classical works on the philosophy of war. However, is It is a difficult and dense book so I would highly suggest reading small amounts at once and then discussing what you have read with another individual who has also read on war.  One famous and relevant quote from the book is ‘war is the continuation of politics by other means’ due to the fact that it highlights that it is politicians who create war. Clausewitz is certainly one of the most quoted books when it comes to the topic of warfare.  The principles and nature of war are the main focus of on war, he also discusses that there are no absolutes or certainties in the conduct of war.  Clausewitz also suggests that before you are able to fight a war you must first establish what kind of war it is. Lastly, he suggests the revolutionary idea that it is the defender not the attacker who makes the war.  Book One is the most relevant and the best one to read In terms of one war.

War in European History, Michael Howard

Howard’s on war is a survey of the changing ways that war has been waged in Europe over the last thousand years. He covers everything from the Norse invasions to the Cold War and beyond within his book to demonstrate that wars have always been fought and to showcase the developments and changes within wars throughout history.  Howard’s book is far more than a simple military history, he aimed to demonstrate how warfare has shaped the development of European society as a whole.  The Updated edition even contains a new final chapter which brings the warfare story into the 21st century via the invasion of Iraq and the ‘War on Terror.’ Due to the fact that Howard’s book looks at wars from thousands of years ago up till the current century the book is incredibly relevant and demonstrates that war has always existed while also demonstrating the development of warfare. He provides good insight about the society at a particular moment in time and explains why and how important historical changes were brought about.  War in European history is only 150 pages; however, you learn a lot of varied content within the small book. The chapters within the book are able to summarise the changes in warfare, demonstrating the progression and the reasons behind the changes.  Howard’s book is incredibly easy to follow and can even be read in one sitting.

The Shortest History of War, Gwynne Dyer

Dyer argues that War has always been a defining feature of human society within his book he examines why we conduct war and how we can attempt to stop it. To do so he examines the story of war from its prehistoric origins up to the present age of algorithms and atom bombs within this book.  Dyer explores and expands upon themes of hierarchy, nationalism, terrorism and the tentative return towards our more egalitarian past. The shortest history of war does not examine details, as there are plenty of sources that do so, instead he aims to examine what drives humans and how the weapons and methods have changed over time. The book is incredibly relevant due to the large time span discussed and the fact that the last date within the book is 2021.  The book is only 256 pages but Dyer manages successfully to argue his point that human nature never changes.  The book could be read In one sitting and is easy to follow, it serves as a great starting point for understanding war. Dyer also examines war in a unique way which makes his book relevant.

Rethinking military history, Jeremy Black

Black examines military history from 1500 to the present day within this book. Within the book Black calls for military history as a whole to move away from its main preoccupations based around operational history, decisive battles and technological advances. He suggests that military history should embrace a wider context of differing political environments and the varying requirements which follow from these. He also suggest that history should re-value many of its assumptions based upon Western military and naval superiority.  Black aims to eradicate our Western centric view of military history by suggesting that the rise of the West in history was largely due to technical and professional prowess. He discusses why we know about certain battles or empires but not others and examines history that is not previously discussed.  Anyone wishing to challenge their perspective on military history should read rethinking military history. Black also discusses the pressures on publishers, academics and writers of military history to produce content on topics or issues within history that readers are already familiar with which is why some topics remain left out of the historic narrative.

The Face of War, Martha Gellhorn

Gellhorn is possibly one of the best war reporters to have ever lived. She covered the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, reported on the rise of Hitler in Germany. Additionally, she was on scene during the American invasion of Europe despite the fact that she did not have proper credentials. Later in her life, she reported on Vietnam, conflicts in the middle east, and civil war in South America before retiring in her 80s. Gellhorn writes about the very real impact on people from 9 wars zones in a 40 year span. The dispatches she sent from the battle front, many of them published by Colliers Magazine, form the chapters in this book as a result the book provides a very unique and vital perspective on war.  She highlights the randomness by which winners and losers are picked during conflict, who will live, who will die.  Gellhorn condemns the US complicity in the mini-wars around the world within her book via quotes such as “There is never enough money for life, though money can always be found for armaments, nuclear and conventional, and for our immense military establishments.” she was a very courageous woman, far ahead of her time. Gellhorn served as witness to the unfairness in the world and was not afraid to write about it, even if it cost her sanction or censor.

The Face of Battle, John Keegan

Keegan provides a more accurate representation of combat in three important battles in British history: Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme. Within his book he examines the world of the common soldier. Keegan aimed to challenge stereotypical views of the key battles.  He demonstrates that at Agincourt, French knights do not valiantly ride into battle against the English. Instead, they stumble up a muddy hill and climb over the bodies of their dead and wounded comrades to engage in hand-to-hand combat with the enemy. Soldiers at waterloo would have had to face artillery fire which was enormously destructive when cannonballs were fired into infantry which were deployed in line or square.  However, despite losses and due to discipline and a sense of honour, the British lines remained unbroken until the end. Lastly the most horrific of the three battles the Somme. Keegan suggests that this is largely due to the enormous killing power of “automatic and inhuman” modern industrial weaponry. One of Keegan’s main arguments is that unless you digs into the details of battles you will never understand the outcome of the battles.

War and the British: Gender and National Identity, 1939-91, Lucy Noakes

Noakes argues that Popular memory of World War II was the dominant factor which contributed to the development of the sense of national identity in the Falklands War of 1982 and the Gulf War of 1991.  She examines public and private ideas of national identity to determine how they were arrived at and the extent to which they were shaped by their gender and societal views of gender and roles. Noakes links the key concepts of ‘national identity’, ‘popular memory’ and gender as a social and cultural construct to the theme of war within this book.  She argues that despite women’s wartime role in ‘total war’, men in the armed forces were encouraged to regard themselves as a tight unit via masculinity and common experience, while women remained individuals with gendered responsibilities to home and family. Noakes suggest that gender roles and the armed forces remined problematic even up to the Gulf War in 1991.  Noakes aims to break down the stereotypical view of war and examines how men and women were affected by war.  Her inclusion of women means that the book is unusual and provides insight into sources that are not always examined by historians.  Noakes examined male and female sources in order to create her book and a result it is certainly worth a read.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Thomas Edward Lawrence

Seven Pillars of Wisdom is the autobiographical account of the experiences of British Army Colonel T. E. Lawrence.  The aim of the book is to discuss his time serving as a military advisor to Bedouin forces during the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire of 1916 to 1918. Seven pillars of wisdom encompasses an account of the Arab Revolt against the Turks during the First World War alongside general Middle Eastern and military history, politics and adventure.  T.E Lawrence is a fascinating and controversial figure within middle east history. His  talent as a vivid and imaginative writer is present within the book. Lawrence provides a unique portrait of his time in the military and an insight into the birth of the Arab nation within his book. This book is monumental autobiographical of nearly 700 pages of an important military historical figure, Lawrence of Arabia. To have a source such as this one is incredibly unusual and as a result reading this piece if you are interested in learning about war is key.  There are a few biographs wrote by British officers from various time periods but this one is certainly different.  Many people regard this book as one of the literary treasures of the Twentieth Century.

Have something to tell us about this article?
Let us know
Hi my name is Charis, I am a MA History of Warfare student at University of Birmingham. I have always enjoyed writing and I enjoy researching and writing about history, life, television, film and culture. I also enjoy new opportunities.