- 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.
A spell of lousy weather recently enabled me to finish putting together bookcases and then unpack the remaining boxes of military-related books I had in the basement. Now I have all books on military affairs in one place, and shelved, except for perhaps 50 volumes at my office at CNAS, and about 16 feet of military reference books I also have in DC.
There were a few surprises to me in shelving the books. First, how many books I now have on the Iraq war. Second, how few I have on the American Civil War — a surprise in part because I feel like I’ve read too much about it, compared to the rest of American and global military history.
So I got out a tape measure to begin comparing the sections by size, measured in terms to shelf space occupied.
The big winner was World War II, with 32 feet of books. This is not a surprise because I just finished writing a book that begins with eight chapters on American generals in World War II. I’ve read almost all of these except a couple of fairly recent books on Churchill. The case is similar for most sections, except as noted.
The second biggest section was the U.S. war in Iraq, with a total of 31 feet. But the Vietnam War was surprisingly close behind, with 27 feet. This surprised me because I went to Iraq 14 times but have only made one, short trip to Vietnam, decades after the war there ended. The Vietnam section likely will grow in the next year and pass the Iraq section, because I am thinking about writing a book on the Vietnam War.
The next biggest section isn’t really a section — it is an overarching "general U.S. military history from all over the place," like Russell Weigley’s classic The American Way of War. It came in at 12 feet.
That’s also about the size of the section on the American Revolution, but I have read very few of those. I assembled the collection because I thought I might write a book on George Washington’s early military career, and how it shaped his approach to the Revolution, but no one seems much interested in having me do such a book.
In sixth place was the Korean War, with 9 feet. I feel like I have read pretty much everything worthwhile on that one.
Just behind that was the "literature of war" section, which is novels, plays, poetry and literary memoirs, which came in at just under 9 feet. (One-third of that was WWII, one-third was stuff from the last 30 years, and one third was other, such as World War I poetry and John Masters’ Bugles and a Tiger.)
The intelligence section measured 7 feet, but that overstates my interest. I have only read about half of this section. Also, about 2 feet of it is old congressional reports on intelligence from the 1970s I saved because I once thought I might write about that someday. But with the passage of time the subject seems less compelling
Next was World War I, at 5 feet long. That surprised me because I don’t feel I know that much about that war.
At 4 feet
—Terrorism, of which one foot is "getting bin Laden."
–American Civil War. As I say, I thought it would be more.
–"Other ’90s section: Haiti, Somalia, etc": 4 feet
—Ancient military history, general military theory/strategy
—Middle Eastern military history, from Crusades to the present.
—U.S. Navy, general history
—Air Force, ditto
—Special operations. If I included the "getting bin Laden" section here, it would be 3.5 feet-that is, bigger than my collections on the Navy and Air Force. The American public loves reading about Special Operators, and so publishers churn out these books and mail them to me. I haven’t read a lot of these books.
—Pakistan/India (haven’t read many of them)
–U.S. military personnel issues (manning the force, women in military, gays in military)
–U.S. wars in Balkans in ’90s
–Military transformation (no one remembers but this was a hot issue in the ’90s)
—Pre-20th century British military history, excluding wars with U.S.: 2 feet
—Marine Corps, general history : 1.5 feet. I thought there would be more, but I guess many of the Marine books are in the war sections, especially World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.
—Nuclear weapons: 1.5 feet, but haven’t read most of them. I always have found the subject kind of boring.
—Military-media relations: 1 foot