I recently returned John Keegan’s, A History of Warfare to Amazon. Having been up for ‘perhaps the most remarkable study of warfare that has yet to be written’, and Keegan being ‘the most readable’ of military historians (The New York Times), I found that after 50 or so pages (and a fascination with proving Clausewitz wrong) I didn’t want to wade through anymore. While that was a waste of time it did inspire me to write this post on those books on war that I’ve enjoyed and would recommend to others. Looking at the books piled up around me as I type, there are some recurring themes and authors which reflect my interests – you’ll see as we go along. What they all have in common, however, is that they’re all well written and real ‘page-turners’.
As a military historian, in my book Max Hastings can do no wrong. I’ve read The Battle for the Falklands (with Simon Jenkins) (1983), The Korean War (1987), All Hell Let Loose – The World at War 1939-1945 (2011) and Catastrophe – Europe Goes to War 1914 (2013). They’re all well written and offer something a bit different from a number of military books I’ve read. Hastings has the knack of being able to address grand military strategy while painting a picture of what life is like for the soldier and those way behind the front line, such as the families at home. Unlike Keegan, or what I’ve read of him, Hastings doesn’t over-theorise things. You’re left in no doubt why something happened, which is a good job, especially if you plan on reading about World War One. Hastings is a go-to-guy for military history and I’m looking forwards to my next journey with him.
David Halberstam, like Hastings, is another of my go-to-guys. You know that whatever you’ll read of his will be incisive and well written. While Hastings writes almost exclusively about military matters, Halberstam has delved into the world of sports, notably baseball and basketball. His book The Fifties (1993) is a great read, setting out why the 50s was more important than the 60s in terms of its impact on the United States: the rise of the fast food franchise, rock ‘n’ roll, and the US’s initial foray into Vietnam. It’s this last subject which Halberstam is arguably most famous for. His book The Best and the Brightest (1972) is a classic text on the Vietnam War. Halberstam is interested in how things could have gone so wrong for the US given the ‘best and the brightest’, from industry, academia, etc., that were appointed to senior posts within the Kennedy administration. The wikipedia page on TBATB nicely summarises how these intellectuals could get it so wrong but it doesn’t capture the essence of the book. It’s a very rewarding read, the lessons of which go way beyond the US intervention in Vietnam. War in a Time of Peace – Bush, Clinton and the Generals (2001) is another good read from Halberstam. It does what the title says, setting out the struggles and internecine warfare within the Bush (George H.W) and Clinton administrations. It’s a good read but not an essential one.
Robert S. McNamara’s In Retrospect – The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (1995), is another, classic book on the Vietnam war, written by one of its major protagonists. McNamara had just been made president of the Ford Motor Company when JFK recruited him to the post of Secretary of Defense in 1961 (one of Halberstam’s ‘best and brightest’). McNamara remained SOD until 1968, serving under both JFK and LBJ and therefore well placed to comment on the war. Simply, McNamara is clear that ‘we were wrong, terribly wrong’, the two major protagonist countries failing to understand one another’s intentions. It’s a fascinating book written by a man who appeared to have spent the rest of his life making amends for Vietnam, notably as the head of the World Bank from 1968 to 1981. If you’re not quite prepared to read 500-odd pages, I highly recommend you watch Errol Morris’s 2003 documentary The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, in which McNamara features heavily.
The Iraq War, like Vietnam, has spawned numerous books, Thomas Ricks’s Fiasco (2006) being one of the best. Ricks focuses on the failings of both senior US administration figures and the military in prosecuting the war. Another good book looking at things from a slightly different angle is Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City (2006), made into a film, Green Zone, starring Matt Damon. I’m not a fan of the film, preferring by far the book, which describes what life was like in the so-called Green Zone in which coalition forces were based. The book sets out how the Coalition Provisional Authority went about rebuilding Iraq, from trying to get power to homes to setting up a provisional government and a functioning army. Another fiasco. Blackwater – The rise of the world’s most powerful mercenary army (2007) by Jeremy Scahill isn’t a book on the Iraq war though the war features heavily. The book covers the rise of Blackwater, a private military company (PMC) and the largest PMC operating in Iraq. It offers another perspective on how wars are prosecuted and the moral and legal issues associated with PMCs operating alongside state forces.
Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower – Al-Qaeda’s Road to 9/11 (2006) has had praise heaped on it including a Pulitzer Prize. The book describes the events leading up to 9/11, from the 1940s through to a dissection of the institutional problems which hindered the US government from preventing 9/11. Any book on 9/11 worth its salt has to include Osama Bin Laden and this book does a good job in describing the early life of the Saudi business man, turned Mujahideen funder, turned chief architect of 9/11. It’s detailed in parts but is a thrilling and rewarding book on one of the defining moments of our time.
If you haven’t guessed by now, I’m interested in US foreign policy. The last handful of recommendations are all autobiographical in nature and some of the best books of this sort that I’ve read. First up is Robert Gates’s Duty – Memoirs of a Secretary at War (2014). Gates was US Secretary of Defense under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, an unprecedented (I think) appointment, i.e. the same SOD serving a republican and democrat president. Gates served in the US air force, was a career CIA official rising to become Director of the CIA and President of Texas University before being appointed SOD. Gates’s autobiography could lose a few hundred pages but is nevertheless a rewarding read. Gates is candid about the role of SOD and the challenges he faced in the pentagon trying to do what he could to make sure the troops got all the equipment they needed. He also comes across as a likeable and humane individual which is the opposite of what you’d expect.
Colin Powell’s My American Journey (2003) is similarly, if not more rewarding a read. Powell’s is an inspiring story which takes him from the South Bronx to National Security Adviser to President Reagan and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Powell later went on to become the first African-American to become the US Secretary of State, which isn’t covered by this book). Powell’s book is very readable and he comes across as an earnest, driven but likeable individual.
Richard Holbrooke couldn’t be described as ‘likeable’. His nickname was ‘the bulldozer’ which may be what you need to be when assigned to the role of peace envoy in Bosnia. Holbrooke’s book, To End a War (1998) captures his experience of trying to negotiate a peace, sometimes in a war zone (three of Holbrooke’s team were killed on the road to Sarajevo at the start of their mission), between warring and intractable factions in Bosnia. If you want to know what brokering peace – which Holbrooke and team ultimately achieved via the Dayton Accords in late 1995 – look like under these circumstances then check out this book.
My final recommendation is Douglas Feith’s War and Decision – Inside the Pentagon at the Dawn of the War on Terrorism (2008). The book documents the origins of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and how those wars were prosecuted. Feith was an assistant secretary in the Pentagon at the time of 9/11 and the aforementioned wars and is well placed to discuss how events transpired and how decisions were taken. Unlike all of the other books mentioned above, Feith’s book benefits from the inclusion of numerous memos, which were classified as secret. While somewhat repetitive in parts, the book is a compelling read and really ‘puts you in the room’ of the chief decision makers on the Iraq war. Regardless of your thoughts on the Iraq war this book is highly recommended.
Apart from Max Hastings’ books, I’ve focussed largely on books by US authors and on US foreign policy. Hopefully there’ll be something here to interest you. If you’ve got your own recommendations do let me know via the comments section. I’m always in the market for a good read.