Phil Knight, the founder of Nike and author of Shoe Dog, spoke of how he was constantly reading books about combat, war strategy, and generalship to help keep him focused during the early and turbulent days of Nike.
It also inspired many of his quests to Asia, where he stood amid the ruins of Hiroshima, where he stayed in the villa once occupied by General Douglas MacArthur in the Philippines, and how his solo request to the Republic of Vietnam was to meet Vo Nguyen Giáp, their most prominent warrior of the Vietnam War.
Those quests to Asia opened the door for Nike’s production efforts in Japan and China and subsequent domination of the shoe game. And they were partly fueled by Knight’s penchant for military literature. Business is War, Knight would quip.
Among the millions of books related to war, which ones are the best to read?
Pondering this thought, I set out to compile a list of the best books on combat, war, and strategy hoping to assemble a knowledge base that could rival the likes of Nike.
The study of war is the study of life, because war is life in the rawest sense. It is death, fear, power, love, adrenaline, sacrafice, glory, and the will to survive.” – Ryan Holiday
THE PROFESSION OF WAR
The Art of War by Sun Tzu. This ancient Chinese manuscript still serves as a foundational text within the military community. It is perhaps the first known study of planning and conducting military operations, which details the fundamentals of military maneuvers as well as the political, economic, and psychological factors involved in war.
The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi. Not a Soldier or commander, he was a Samurai Warrior that sought out the best in the world in an attempt to become a peerless sword fighter. Musashi eventually became so good that he started fighting with two swords against multiple opponents (after years of deep reflection, banishment, solitude, and self-study). There are lessons here that transcend war and sword fighting altogether: the path to greatness is the path.
On War by Carl von Clausewitz. More of a memoir of the nature of war as opposed specific strategies. He speaks voluminously about the politics of war, or what happens when politics break down: war.
Strategy by B.H. Liddell Hart. The Clausewitz of the 20th Century, Hart encapsulates most of the commonly referenced military strategems in an easy to read digest without too much jargon.
The Forever War by Dexter Filkins. In addition to The Field of Fight (see below), The Forever War was instrumental in helping me understand the nature of the war we are currently fighting. Most people living in America will never understand the mentality of a terrorist or the driving force behind their action. It’s hard to comprehend when you live in a place with structure (and hope). However, Filkins helps to illustrate the intricacies involved in a war with Radical Islamists and does so with on the ground correspondence as a journalist with the New York Times.
The Field of Fight by LTG (Ret.) Michael Flynn. This is a very controversial book about unconventional thoughts regarding Radical Islam. Although I don’t agree with many of Flynn’s ideas and he seems to take things out of context to suit his position, he does address the very difficult topic of a Western solution to Radical Islam.
Also check out the article From Muhammad to ISIS: Iraq’s Full Story by Tim Urban of Wait But Why. It is a short read but provides a lot of foundational information, including the murky and mysterious differences between the Sunni and Shia.
MEMOIRS, BIOGRAPHIES, & FIRST-HAND ACCOUNTS
Napoleon: A Life by Andrew Roberts. An outsider rises to the apex of French political life: a self-made emperor. Similar to my fondness of Genghis Khan, I like stories of those that rise to the height of power with nothing else but the ambition to do so. Despite his flaws as a military commander, Napoleon was a great man, one that worked harder than anyone else and built his empire through sheer persistence and self-education.
Ulysses S. Grant: Memoirs and Selected Letters by Ulysses S. Grant. The thoughts of the man that won the Civil War through grit, determination, and persistence. He found his footing early in the war as a Colonel and never looked back.
Sherman: Soldier, Realist, American by B.H. Liddell Hart. A military genius, Sherman will teach you how wars are won, period.
Platoon Leader by James McDonough. One of my most recommended reads for any junior officer. McDonough takes over an Infantry platoon in Vietnam, where the previous platoon leader was ineffective at best. He immediately works to reshape his outfit but realizes that the structure he was expecting within the platoon did not exist, leaving him to figure it out on his own in the middle of a patrol base in Vietnam.
In the Company of Heroes by Michael Durant. Following the 1993 Battle in Mogadishu, Durant was held captive for 10 days by Somali militiamen. He weaves tales of his time with the elite “Night Stalkers” helicopter unit during his time in captivity while also speaking to the empathy of his sympathetic guard who feeds, bathes, and bonds with him. A rare look into a modern day POW.
Generation Kill by Evan Wright. A reporter with Rolling Stone rides with the Marine 1st Recon Battalion into Iraq in 2003. Closely nested with young marines, he gets an in-depth look into the fighting spirit and grunt mindset that encapsulates Generation Kill.
One Bullet Away by Nathaniel Fick. A classics major at Dartmouth joins the Marines as an idealist and leaves a battle-hardened leader after tours to Afghanistan and Iraq. His experience was not always pleasant but he details what it takes to be a Marine officer.
Inside Delta Force by Eric Haney. One of the few books that I have read many times over. I like to read it to give me perspective before undertaking any kind of military training, since Haney, as a founding member of elite Delta Force, has done things much more difficult and within the same context. He covers the training and selection process of Delta as well as his assignments in Beirut, Grenada, and Iran.
1776 by David McCullough. Through remarkable endurance, a fierce dedication to the American way, and indomitable leadership by the nation’s first president came together to mark the creation of the free world. Any patriot will enjoy this narrative and any history buff will treasure each moment spent learning about the hardships and defeats of a tiny minuscule and ill-equipped American force against the all-powerful British Army.
History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides. The great war between Sparta and Athens told by a former general turned historian. This book is one of the toughest you’ll ever read but it can also be one of the most important and eye-opening accounts of human nature you could ever stumble upon. I am planning to read again soon.
The Persian Expedition by Xenophon. A student of Socrates and philosophy selected to lead 10,000 Greeks on their forced march home after a failed conquest of the Persian throne: a treasure trove of leadership and tactical insights.
The Campaigns of Alexander by Arrian. Arrian was a military commander that gives us a unique insight into the military campaigns of Alexander the Great. Alexander was no doubt a great commander but he was burdened with a toxic ambition that drove him to an early death, most likely killed by his own men. He had no real purpose or plan for an empire, which makes him seem more like a bloodthirsty warlord than someone like Genghis Khan, who fought to build the Mongol Nation.
Genghis Khan by Jack Weatherford. Besides the podcast series, The Wrath of the Khans, this is the best resource we have on Genghis Khan and the Mongol empire. Genghis was a ruthless leader, yes, but it was part of his ultimate strategy of victory. He did not kill unless it pushed the efforts of his nation forward. He did not waste life. He had a vision to unite the world under one nation and as a self-made king from the Steppes of Asia, he transformed the lifestyle of the mounted horserider into an unstoppable fighting machine.
FICTION & HISTORICAL FICTION
The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. A Pulitzer-Prize winning fictitious rendering of the Battle of Gettysburg. The characters and order of events are accurate but the dialogue is completely fictional, which is what gives it its flavor. Shaara supposedly spent seven years researching the battle and its characters, thus revealing many unseen insights which led to real-world changes with how the battle is now seen.
Starship Troopers by Rober Heinlein. Being a Solider means “being on the hop,” or constantly on the move and with a certain vigor that emanates from a force training to fight invading aliens. The little nuances and day to day Soldiering are what makes this classic such a good read for Soldiers and those looking to them for inspiration.
Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield. The famous Battle of Thermopylae is depicted in this narrative by one of the best storytellers of our time. 300 battle hardened Spartans stand against a superior force, defending the values that made them one of history’s most revered fighters.
The Conqueror Series (Genghis Khan) by Conn Iggulden. I started reading these historical fiction masterpieces last summer and just finished up recently. My thoughts are here and here.
In Pursuit of Excellence
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