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Ask HN: good books about military strategy?
70 points by Tichy on Jan 29, 2009 | hide | past | favorite | 65 comments
The only books in that vein I know are "The Art Of War" by Sun Tzu and Clausewitz' "Vom Kriege". I suspect german book shops don't tend to stock as many books on war as some other countries (I remember seeing the "military" section of a bookstore for the first time in London).

Anyway, I would be interested in more detailed stuff, like how to use tanks, planes and so on. Maybe analysis of historical battles would be good, too.

I guess it won't help with a startup, but for some reason I have wondered about this (maybe for strategy game development...).

I used to have a lot more time for non CS reading and actually made an Amazon list on this topic back in 2005:


1. On War (Everyman's Library (Cloth)) by Carl Von Clausewitz

2. Leadership: The Warrior's Art by Barry R. McCaffrey

3. Small Unit Leadership: A Commonsense Approach by Dandridge M. Malone

4. The Defense of Hill 781: An Allegory of Modern Mechanized Combat by James R. McDonough

5. The Art of Maneuver: Maneuver-Warfare Theory and AirLand Battle by Robert Leonhard

6. Strategy: Second Revised Edition (Meridian) by B. H. Liddell Hart

7. The Art of War by Niccolò Machiavelli

8. Hagakure: The Book of the Samauri by Tsunetomo Yamamoto

9. The Emperor's Handbook: A New Translation of The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

10. The Art of War (Shambhala classics) by Sun Tzu

11. The Prince (Bantam Classics) by Niccolo Machiavelli

12. Evolutionary Game Theory by Jörgen W. Weibull

13. On Guerrilla Warfare by Mao Tse-tung

14. The History of the Peloponnesian War: Revised Edition (Penguin Classics) by Thucydides

15. The Histories (Penguin Classics) by Herodotus

16. The Persian Expedition (Penguin Classics) by Xenophon

17. Plutarch: Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans (Modern Library Series, Vol. 1) by Plutarch

18. Plutarch's Lives, Volume 2 (Modern Library Classics) by Plutarch

19. Livy: The Early History of Rome, Books I-V (Penguin Classics) (Bks. 1-5) by Titus Livy

20. The History of Rome from Its Foundation, Books XXI-XXX: The War with Hannibal (Penguin Classics) (Bks. 21-30) by Titus Livius Livy

hey.quite a bit of this is online at sonshi.com, in the library section ( or used to be..haven't been there for some time now )

+1 for #6. It's a great read. It would be fun to teach a high school history class around it.

Have you read all of these?

Commentary on The Gallic Wars by Julius Caesar

To those, I would add this:


A French View of Counterinsurgency by Roger Trinquier

Along these lines get "The Battle of Algiers" on netflix. When Iraq started going badly they actually had a huge screening in the pentagon.

Too bad that the tactics that served the French so well in Algiers can not be applied in Iraq.

They "served" the French for a while, as they might serve the US in Iraq... for a while that is. But remember that just when the French thought they'd suppressed Algerian resistance, it erupted violently and the result was a long and extremely bloody civil war.

A quick read is Wikipedia's summary of Miyamoto Musashi's "Book of Five Rings" - it's about Japanese swordsmanship in the early 1600's in a variety of situations: Full-on combat, a duel, outnumbered, with high/low ground, etc. It's strategic more than tactical, and if you like Sun Tzu you might dig it.


The story of his life, "Musashi," is one of my favorite books of all time and has good strategic and philosophical discussion mixed in with some really riveting action and social commentary. Musashi had a lot of potential at a young age, but was extremely undisciplined and constantly had it out with the law, society, and people whose motivations he couldn't understand. The book chronicles him becoming the greatest swordsman in Japanese history. An incredible read, especially for anyone who was bright at young age but questioned a hell of a lot of society's rules.

Amazon (no affiliate B.S., just a great book): http://www.amazon.com/Musashi-Eiji-Yoshikawa/dp/4770019572

The book of 5 rings is a nice book. Here's another: Arthashastra by Chāṇakya has some chapters on war - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthashastra

Martin van Creveld writes some serious analysis. Consider...

Supplying War -- on logistics (as in "professionals study...")

Command in War -- on communication, information, and the importance of local autonomy leading to quick action

The Transformation of War -- has strategy's biggest buzzword right there in the title, but this was written back in 1991. On the growing role of low-intensity and asymmetric conflicts.

His books tend to be short, but very dense.

The first book I checked to make sure was included in this tread was "Supplying War". There are many standard texts on conflict, but that one somehow misses many lists. I think the examination of conflicts from the point of view of logistics serves two very good purposes: it's an essential education in making sure a force is supplied and it's a good perspective of looking at a conflict as a long term temporal and spacial endeavor.

"Command in War" is also quite good, and I have not yet read "Transformation in War".

I read some interviews with van Creveld a few years ago. The guy sounded very smart.

I keep meaning to look up his books in a good library but I got distracted. Thanks for the reminder!

My absolute favourite in this class of books is:

Infantry attacks, Erwin Rommel: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infantry_Attacks

Don't let the word "Infantry" in the title fool you. It is an engrossing account on how to use armed forces to your advantage. He supposedly was working on "The Tank in Attack", but never made it that far. A good substitute is The Rommel Papers, which was published posthumously by his family.

The Rommel Papers http://books.google.com/books?id=JE8VFsdxNGgC

Patton - "Rommel, you magnificent bastard! I read your book!"

Along with the Anabasis and Caesar's Gallic Wars, I particularly recommend Johnnie Johnson's Wing Leader, Hanson's Western Way of War, and Oman's Art of War in the Middle Ages.

"Warfighting", hands down:


It won't teach you how to drive tanks and lob grenades, but it is one of the best military strategy books I've read.

If you just want the PDF, it's freely available here:


My favorite (copied from Wikipedia):

The Unfettered Mind (Japanese: 不動智神妙録 Fudōchi Shinmyōroku) is a three-part treatise on Buddhist philosophy and martial arts written by Takuan Soho, a Japanese monk of the Rinzai sect. The title translates roughly to "The Mysterious Records of Immovable Wisdom". The treatise was written as correspondence to Yagyū Munenori, inheritor to the Yagyū Shinkage-ryū school of swordsmanship. Written for the laity, the book makes little use of Buddhist terminology, but instead focuses on describing situations followed by an interpretation. Its contents make an effort to apply Zen Buddhism to martial arts.

Available in PDF form here:


Takuan Soho is also the one who brought enlightenment to Musashi, according to the stories (much about Musashi is fictionalized).

He also has a pickled daikon named after him.

The best I have read is by B.H. Liddell Hart:


He also wrote respected volumes on the world wars and biographies of Rommel and Scipio Africanus, among others.

Liddell Hart is good, though sometimes he reads like he's giving his subject a reach around when writing about him.

You can try downloading some of the army manuals that you can find on the net. I know there are some for the soldier level, so there is probably some for the general level too.

Then you can go back and try finding books written by generals or about them. i.e. I figure something written about Patton would have tank tactics there too.

Have you read Clausewitz On War? That was one of my favorite books last year.

This is more general than you are looking for and it stops a bit short of air war but it helped me to put historical events into a global context.

The outline of history; being a plain history of life and mankind. Rev. and brought up to date by Raymond Postgate and G.P. Wells. With maps and plans by J.F. Horrabin.

Wells, H. G. 1866-1946. (Herbert George), Garden City, N.Y. Doubleday 1971, Book. 1103p., D21 .W4 1971

I'd say definitely search for books written about Iraq and Afghanistan, that should give you some information about current strategies.

If you want to understand the context behind all other books on military strategy written since Clausewitz (any book written in the last hundred years), you must read Clausewitz. If you want to understand why the US Army was so dead set on failing to anticipate the next war and continued to train for symmetric war until very recently, you must read Clausewitz. If you want to understand why the new Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual written by General Petraeus, Lt General Amos, and Lt Colonel Nagl is so celebrated, you must read Clausewitz.

You should also read Petraeus et al's Counterinsurgency Field Manual. The difference in tone and scope is staggering. If you want to understand military strategy going forward, you must understand Petraeus's book. I assure you, it is on the nightstand of the President and every military officer (and not because it says that on the cover, but because I'm one of them).

If you are running a startup, read the Petraeus book as though you are the insurgent. If you are at MSFT or Google, read it as though you are in the US Army.

FM 3-24 MCWP 3-33.5




I think you will find the Chicago Press version a bit more readable:


You might also want to read Nagl's book: "How to Eat Soup with a Knife." (who knows how that period/quotation thing works...)

Anyways, he covers insurgencies fought unsuccessfully by Americans and successfully by the British, and why they succeeded and failed. Nagl doesn't come out and say the reasons are X, Y, Z. It's more here are important events A, B, C and here are important structural and cultural facts about the militaries that can help explain them.

Another book to read is "A Savage War of Peace." It describes the Algerian insurgency during French rule. While Petraeus based his strategy in Iraq on the French's strategy, it is also relevant due to the strong similarity between what happened with the French populace and what is happening with our own.

The author said he'd read Vom Kriege, which is Clausewitz's "On War"


Certainly not dry. I can't vouch for his accuracy, but he knows a lot and could point you to some interesting battles/periods to study.

I like the Defense News periodical, and have heard good things about Jane's Defence Weekly.

There are a lot of Field manuals available (e.g., see http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/policy/army/f...), but those are (in my experience) more about tactics than strategy.

I highly recommend John Boyd. His presentations are a bit dense, but you might try reading the biography of him written by Robert Coram first.

"Dense" is generous; you could go as far as "unrigorously terse". Sometimes they just don't make sense. But he got results.

A good collection of his presentations is at http://www.d-n-i.net/dni/john-r-boyd/ and there's low-quality video of his "Conceptual Spiral" on YouTube.

I found Boyd via Greene, check him on the wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Boyd_(military_strategist)

I can't think of any books, but you can find good descriptions of strategy used in famous battles on wikipedia. Some interesting battles.



This one kept me up one night: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Cannae -- and I almost never read history/military books.

Theres a downloadable Stanford lecture on Hannibal, wich is great; the archeologist guy who gives the talk was involved in a student expedition across the Alps, with a real elephant!

Nassim Nicholas Taleb's "Black Swan" had some pretty good insights into the "unknown unknowns" of military combat.


"The Art Of War" is great, I read this version when I was 13 but I would still recommend it as a good place to start before getting another translation or other books:

"Sunzi Speaks: The Art of War"

Tsai Chih Chung


Some online reading that you might find interesting:





Hmmm, guess no-one here is in the military? The (American) military branches all publish their own reading lists, updated annually, that'd be a great starting point. http://www.af.mil/library/csafreading/ http://www.history.army.mil/reference/csalist/csalist.htm and the National Defense University has a big compilation: http://www.ndu.edu/library/readinglist/PMReadingList.html

A lot of the suggestions here seem to follow the philosophical advice from generals meme, like the people who read Sun Tzu to learn how to better manage their sales team and etc.

The best book I know of in the "detailed stuff, like how to use tanks, planes and so on" area is James F. Dunigan's "How to Make War". It's a little cold-war oriented but still pretty applicable, and the first chapter is helpfully titled "How to Become an Effective Armchair General". Given that wars are usually massive economic and logistical operations, it has a lot of charts and tables to that effect, showing the number of shots per soldier killed over the centuries, tonnage of explosives per plane, etc.

Just by glancing over the charts you can see the basic history of military activity -- the Civil War being the first "modern" war in terms of slaughter, economic mobolization, and etc; then a period of regression to small wars, before WWI and so on.

As far as "how to use tanks" and so on, that is often considered tactics not strategy. There are books written on that stuff, however; how many people should be in a small platoon and how they should move, leapfrogging each other so one moves while the other keeps the enemy ducking; how two tanks can use their light machine guns to clear each other's close-in areas that they can't see or shoot at themselves; the strategy of having a tank attached to a platoon of infantry so they work together; etc.

But I don't know of one single book that collects all that. If I had to find them I would probably look at the some of the publications of the Army War College, and I would go to a gun show and find that guy who is always there with a lot of field manual publications, and ask him.

You can google the field manuals (FM) of the US Army and Marine, they range from operation of guns and marksmanship to strategy, to leadership. All great reads.

I found all these US Army manuals in the emule network. They still must be there. One very good manual to have is the Seal fitness training one (if you are into this).

I would recommend: 1) The Art of War by Niccolò Machiavelli (read by Napoleon) 2) Certain to Win by Chet Richards (talks about OODA loop by John Boyd)

I second "Certain to Win".

Game theorists might define a strategy as an approach to optimal decision-making while you are surrounded by other actors whose actions interact with yours. Chess strategies are a good example.

The author of Certain to Win, Chet Richards, takes a different approach. He defines strategy as "a scheme for creating and managing plans." It is a means to generate, act upon, and discard plans. Strategy is how you "plan to plan." OODA loops are a good example of this approach.

I've been waiting years for someone to ask this question :)

Wishlited this last night on amazon: Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise to Western Power by Victor Davis Hanson

Have read these and enjoyed these:

General Warfare theory: History of Warfare by Keegan

Intel: Intelligence and War by Keegan

Counterinsurgency: "Ghost Wars" by Steve Coll. For a really enjoyable experience read "The Great Game" by Hopkirk first.

The Civil War deserves it's own category. Watch the PBS dvds, actually buy them. If you're hungry for more dig into "The Civil War" by Shelby Foote is hefty but it's satisfying.

1776 is a classic.

"Blind mans bluff" is a great book about submarine warfare.

For more current stuff Robert Kagan is probably the most informed pundit on war and military strategy.

WW-II "The Last Lion" books 1 and 2 are about Churchill and they involve lots of military strategy. You should also check out "The gathering storm + the other six books Churchill wrote on WWII.

Man I could go on forever. I have "Panzer General" and "Caesar's Conquest of Gaul" on my nightstand...


PS: Once you're well versed you'll hear people referring to Clauswitz a lot. When you're sick of hearing his name and you want more than the wikipedia entry go read "On War." Art of War goes w/o saying as well...

War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History, 1500 to Today by Max Boot. Just published in 2006.


I don't agree with the guy's politics, but his view on the melding of technology and military history is pretty interesting.

"My major conclusion? Simply that it's not enough to acquire first-class technology. You also need the right organizational structure, training, and leadership to take advantage of that technology. Today, the U.S. is the undisputed leader in high-tech hardware, but our government bureaucracy is still designed to fight mirror-image adversaries from the Industrial Age--not nimble, decentralized foes like Al Qaeda." -- Max Boot

See also: http://www.cfr.org/publication/10313/war_made_new.html

I'm reading The 33 Strategies of War by Robert Greene now and am enjoying it, I have also previously read the 48 Laws of Power by him which is written in a similar fashion. Very extensive and uses a lot of historical examples from both military and other fields such as politics and business.

Check out Tom Clancy's non fiction books.

Very well written and I believe exactly what you are looking for.

You sound like you're looking for something like Jones' The Art of War in the Western World:


Or just go there and follow Amazon "related" links.

Jones is of the "very broad" school of military history. It can be a little bit dry, but it certainly tries to be comprehensive: It's like Civilization in that it starts with phalanx and then moves slowly forward through the history of strategy and tactics.

You might like the works of John Keegan, another famous military historian who takes a general approach. He's got a History of Warfare that's like a lighter-weight version of Jones -- I might recommend starting with that, actually. His one-volume histories of WWI and WWII are probably decent.

Keegan is British, so it wouldn't surprise me if his histories were heavy on the Western front. If you want the actual history of WWII you need a history that's more about the Eastern Front, which is pretty much where the war in Europe was actually decided. Unfortunately, the history on that subject lags decades behind, because the surviving Germans didn't exactly want to dwell on it and the Soviets weren't exactly forthcoming. (Many of the key Soviet figures either got disappeared by Stalin or lived under the constant fear of being disappeared by Stalin.) I'm not sure what the best current general history of the Eastern Front is, but I do know that the big Western expert on the subject is David Glantz, who has spent the last twenty years digging through formerly-sealed Soviet records of enormous battles that were covered up for years. I'd probably start with:


because I don't know any better and it comes up first on Amazon.

If you want something written by a gamer try the works of James Dunnigan, founder of SPI and author of a whole pile of famous simulation board games. I read most of his Dirty Little Secrets of World War II and it was interesting. A much breezier style than the heavy-duty military historians. And he's got books that cover contemporary military stuff as well as history.

Nobody should read about war at the 10,000 foot level without also reading about what it's actually like on the ground. Obviously, the great modern literary works on the subject are Slaughterhouse Five and, even more so, Catch-22. In the realm of nonfiction, Fussell's Wartime was interesting, but it led me to Eugene Sledge's With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa, which is even better: a very good book by a guy from the front lines in the Pacific who is not shy about telling you exactly what went on. Comes with an endorsement by PG! (from the last time I mentioned it on HN.)Don't read it over lunch if you're squeamish.

(I haven't actually read some of these, but my dad is a military boardgamer and military history buff. He's got several bookshelves packed with books like these.)

The best I've read wasn't a strategy book per se. 1776 - http://www.amazon.com/1776-David-McCullough/dp/0743226712 by David McCullough was full of useful insights on General George Washington and how he used his smarts to defeat the enemy. He wasn't a great strategist, but very pragmatic (like counting the number of shoes on the feet of his “army’ to asses their battle readiness) and willing to take risks. It book was also entertaining as Hell.

Military strategy? I'd like to hear your startup pitch :)

<i>analysis of historical battles</i>

I'd love to see a book of this nature concentrated on the Civil War.

There was a post recently on a class that examined Starcraft strategy. That might help.

I read that, and if it was nearby, I would definitely pay them a visit. Hope they'll make some materials available online.

Che Guevara's book, Guerrilla Warfare, is quite good.

The 33 Strategies of War (Robert Greene)

What are you up to?

> for some reason I have wondered about this (maybe for strategy game development...).

It's OK, you can be honest here. Your Kraut blood is imbuing you with an inexplicable and overwhelming drive to invade Poland. Reclaim your heritage!

Uhm, honestly, I consider that comment really inappropriate. Someone asks about books and you tell him that he must be a Nazi. Note for future reference in dealing with Germans: jokes where you call them a Nazi == not funny.

Most Germans I've met have been quite relaxed about that and even joked about it themselves. I guess one should be careful on internet forums though.

You sully a proud German tradition of marching on Poland by only giving credit to the nazis.

"War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning" is the best book on the psychological dimensions of war that I'm aware of.

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