Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

My best military book list ever: The ones that I went back to read a second time

Thinking about reading Good-bye to All That for the fourth time, as I discussed recently, I began to wonder which other military books I’ve re-read. This makes for an elite list of books for me, the all-time favorites, would be books I have voluntarily re-read. Anyone can read a book once and like it. The ...

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Thinking about reading Good-bye to All That for the fourth time, as I discussed recently, I began to wonder which other military books I've re-read.

This makes for an elite list of books for me, the all-time favorites, would be books I have voluntarily re-read. Anyone can read a book once and like it. The test of a second time is much harder: Did you find this book somehow so compelling that, knowing what it basically has to say, you went back and invested many additional hours in it?

This list turned out to be shorter than I expected. In literature, there were a bunch -- Shakespeare's major plays, John Updike's Couples (beautifully written snapshot of the early 1960s), my favorite books of poems by W.H. Auden, William Butler Yeats, and Philip Larkin. I just realized I've read The Friends of Eddie Coyle three times, which probably is one too many. (The first time I read it, I finished it and then immediately began reading it again, because I wanted to see how someone could deliver a plot solely through dialogue. I did something similar with Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, but only read that twice.) I've also read David Hackett Fischer's Albion's Seed twice (great book, lousy title).

Thinking about reading Good-bye to All That for the fourth time, as I discussed recently, I began to wonder which other military books I’ve re-read.

This makes for an elite list of books for me, the all-time favorites, would be books I have voluntarily re-read. Anyone can read a book once and like it. The test of a second time is much harder: Did you find this book somehow so compelling that, knowing what it basically has to say, you went back and invested many additional hours in it?

This list turned out to be shorter than I expected. In literature, there were a bunch — Shakespeare’s major plays, John Updike’s Couples (beautifully written snapshot of the early 1960s), my favorite books of poems by W.H. Auden, William Butler Yeats, and Philip Larkin. I just realized I’ve read The Friends of Eddie Coyle three times, which probably is one too many. (The first time I read it, I finished it and then immediately began reading it again, because I wanted to see how someone could deliver a plot solely through dialogue. I did something similar with Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, but only read that twice.) I’ve also read David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed twice (great book, lousy title).

But in military affairs — histories, memoirs, analyses — the list is much smaller. These books are really special. Or I was too ignorant to appreciate them the first time. Anyway, anyone can put together a list of books they read once. But this to me is different: Military books that I read twice. In addition to the books listed below, there are many books I dip into again and again (Eliot Cohen’s Supreme Command, Russell Weigley’s The American Way of War) but that isn’t the same as going back and reading it cover-to-cover, pen in hand (which is the only way to really study a book).

Here is what I came up with:

Karl Von Clausewitz, On War. Because I didn’t understand it the first time. (This is a repeated motivation, you will see.) I first read this in the early 1990s, then re-read it in 2005 as I was preparing to write Fiasco. I reviewed it again a lot when I was writing The Gamble, but didn’t re-read the whole thing, so I am counting this as a twice, not a thrice.

H.R. McMaster, Dereliction of Duty. Likewise, I didn’t understand it the first time.
Also, the first time I read it for what it could tell me about the Army of the 1990s. The second time I read it, more properly, to better understand the American mishandling of the Vietnam War. This book provides an account of exactly how not to run a war.

James McDonough’s Platoon Leader. I’ve mentioned this one before.

The memoirs of Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf. The first time I read these as a reporter for news (that is, something we didn’t know before, even if trivial). The second time I read them to try to understand the 1991 war, especially its outcome. Likewise, Gordon and Trainor’s The Generals’ War, which is a terrific book.

Andrew Krepinevich, The Army and Vietnam. Ditto. The first time I read it to better understand the Army. Ten years later I read it again to better understand the Vietnam War.

Dave Richard Palmer, Summons of the Trumpet. The best operational history of the Vietnam War, so far. There really is not a good history of the war.

The pattern here, I think, grows out of my feeling that we as a nation still don’t understand what happened in the Vietnam War. I keep on thinking of perhaps trying to write a modern, definitive history of that war — but then I think, do I really want to spend the next six or so years thinking about the Vietnam War?

Thomas 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 ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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