by Leo Tolstoy

The very size of one of the greatest novels ever written presents the reader with a formidable challenge. For military professionals with little time on their hands, the challenge is even more daunting—especially since the bulk of the novel has little to do with war but rather the social interactions that take place within a family. But the two sections dealing with the Austerlitz campaign and the 1812 campaign represent a brilliant and eloquent examination of war by a great novelist and former combat officer. My feeling is that Tolstoy’s depiction of the Battle of Borodino in 1812 and the events leading up to that terrible battle is the finest piece of fiction about war ever written. And even if the reader disagrees in the end with Tolstoy’s pacifism, the novelist’s arguments are well worth considering.


by Ulysses S. Grant

Most memoirs by generals are filled with lies, deceptions, and half-truths. Grant’s memoirs represent one of the few exceptions to that rule, being honest, deeply insightful, and a brilliant piece of writing. Mark Twain argued that Grant’s memoirs were the greatest piece of English literature written in the nineteenth century. (He may well have been right.) Grant wrote these memoirs in the last two years of his life when he knew he was dying. His style appears to be simple, direct, and honest. In fact, it contains sharp and deep observations on the character of his contemporaries and opponents as well as the basic issues involved in the Civil War. The Memoirs are a must read for anyone who considers themselves a serious historian of the American Civil War.


by James M. McPherson

There are relatively few books that through their eloquence, their depth of knowledge, and their breadth of vision manage to overturn the generally held conceptions about an historical period. McPherson’s study of the Civil War is such a work. In the largest sense, McPherson entirely overturns the idea that the antebellum South was a society on the defensive against the swelling tide of history. Rather its very aggressiveness contributed mightily to the outbreak of the war. What makes this a particularly compelling book is McPherson’s ability to interweave military events with the political and strategic context of the war. After Grant’s memoirs, this is the greatest book about the American Civil War. Battle Cry of Freedom won its author a Pulitzer Prize but the contempt of his colleagues because it was popular with the general public.


by Michael Howard

Michael Howard is the premier military historian of the twentieth century. He is the only author with two books on this list. In this work he examines the intellectual framework that has made war such a difficult phenomenon for the West, particularly in liberal Britain and the United States, to come to grips with. This is intellectual prose at its best. And Professor Howard is truly one of the magisterial writers of the English language. This work represents a brilliant examination of an intellectual framework that has increasingly dominated the Western world, best exemplified by the 1933 Oxford Union motion that there was no cause worth fighting for, including king and country.


by Frederic Manning

Michael Howard considers The Middle Parts of Fortune to be the finest piece of literature written about war. It is set on the Western Front in one of the great killing battles of 1917. The author catches the dialect and the language of his soldiers in a fashion that few authors have been able to do. It is a grim tale, made even grimmer by the death of its hero. And it captures the sound and landscape of the war that in its course led to the development of modern war. It is a great but depressing read.


by Vera Brittain

Few books cover the impact that war has on women and their lives better than this memoir of the First World War. At times Brittain’s account is overly long, and her account of her post-war efforts in pacifist causes detracts from the terrible sense of tragedy and loss that hangs like a dark angel over her account of the war. The author was admitted to Oxford just before the war broke out, but then volunteered to serve as a nurse. During the course of the war she fell in love with several young men. They were all to be killed, as was her brother. No other author has managed to convey the sense of loss at the death of one’s companions and lovers.