- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
These are my picks-books that I loved. Your choices may be very different. Keeping yourself to just ten, what would they be?
The American Revolution
By David Hackett Fischer
Hands down, Fischer is my favorite historian. I have read every book he has written, and one of them, Albion’s Seed, his masterpiece, twice. After this, check out his Paul Revere’s Ride. I’d love to see him take on the Civil War sometime.
Battle Cry of Freedom
By James M. McPherson
A lively, sweeping, comprehensive history of our most important war.
Son of the Morning Star
By Evan S. Connell
A great take on Custer, and also of the life of the American soldier in the taking of the West.
World War II
I think our best-written war. If you haven’t, read these next two together:
Band of Brothers
by Stephen Ambrose.
With a company of the 101st Airborne from D-Day to the end of World War II. I was reading this book once aboard a Marine CH-53 flying off Bosnia, and the grizzled old sergeant running the helicopter saw the book and gave me two thumbs up. By the way, I think the HBO series based on this book is the best war movie ever made.
by Joseph Heller.
The flip side of the band of brothers: Someone is trying to kill me, even though I have done nothing to him. More of a military book than many remember. “Without realizing how it had come about,” Heller writes, “the combat men in the squadron discovered themselves dominated by the administrators appointed to serve them.” Thus is it always.
And two from the war in the Pacific:
With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa
by E.B. Sledge.
No one passage or quotation leaps out, just the clear-eyed descriptions of mud, filth, flies and maggots by a young Marine who was amazed to be alive when the war ended (“You will survive,” a mysterious voice assured him during a battle) and went on to become a professor of biology.
by Eugene Fluckey.
A bad title for a sprightly memoir by a young submarine captain in the Pacific war, written by an old man looking back as a retired admiral, perhaps a bit amazed at the feats of his reckless youth. After sneaking into a harbor and shelling Japanese ships, he ran his sub into shoals, figuring correctly that no one would be crazy enough to follow him.
This Kind of War
by T.R. Fehrenbach.
The book to read about the Korean War, if only for one passage: “You may fly over a land forever, you may bomb it, atomize it, pulverize it and wipe it clean of life — but if you desire to defend it, protect it and keep it for civilization, you must do this on the ground, the way the Roman legions did, by putting your young men into the mud.” This should hang on a wall somewhere in Washington. I am always amazed at the amount of mud that military operations churn up. And how heavy it can be on your boots. In parts of Iraq, the mud is like cement-gray, heavy and very difficult to chip off.
Both these Vietnam books are as much about how war changes people as about the war itself.
Achilles in Vietnam
by Jonathan Shay.
Written by a full-time veterans’ counselor. “Bad leadership is a cause of combat trauma,” but good training is a preventive medicine that can reduce trauma. Even so, “prolonged combat can wreck the personality.” It makes me think of Oliver Wendell Holmes’ report to his mother after the battle of Cold Harbor in 1864 that he was done.
The Nightingale’s Song
by Robert Timberg
Obscure title, but a wonderful book about how war shaped John McCain, James Webb, Oliver North, and others schooled at the Naval Academy in the 1960s.
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