Best War Books: Learn Through Stories of Terrible Tragedy

class=alignleftWar is not something that I or anyone should take lightly. The dangers, causes, and effects of every war that has ever happened on this planet are real, and each war has had its specific impact on every single person even if they haven’t realized it.

When the word “war” first comes into my mind, you almost immediately flinch away from the negative thoughts that it brings. Death, destruction, and doom are all easily associated with tales of humanity at its very worst.

War does, in fact, cause all of those terrible things. But there are many essential things about experiencing war as well, and those things can be rediscovered through the best books on war.

War has had huge influences on the world around us; stories of war have been written, told, and shared for as long as humanity has existed. Without these war tales making their way down to people like me, the world would not exist as it does today.

Every book about war has its own unique story, even if the stories are set within the same war. Each perspective, each culture, each country, and each person had their own story to tell, and I am but a student ready to learn the lessons embedded in each story.

There is a lot that the best war books can teach us:

  • The psychological effects of war and how those effects carry on long past each battlefield.
  • The idea that moral codes are not strictly written on a human scale but often differ between countries and cultures.
  • Ideas of what is worth fighting for and what is worth losing to secure those victories.

These are far from the only things that the best books on war have shown me. To begin your education led from the battlefield, try the following books recommended by the best professionals and entrepreneurs in the world.

Best Negotiation Books

Call

Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead

Combining simplicity and thoughtfulness, Jim Mattis has produced a classic account of a lifetime of service. Call Sign Chaos is a lesson in leadership and an evocation of humanity in the cause of peace.
Henry Kissinger
Political Scientist, Diplomat
On

On War

I know this will offend many strategy purists, but for most audiences I recommend these two books only with a pretty strong disclaimer. While both are clearly full of strategic wisdom, they are hard to separate from their respective eras and brands of warfare. As budding strategists in business and in life, most of us are really looking for advice that can help us with our own problems. The reality is that Napoleonic warfare does not exactly have its equivalents in today’s society. On the other hand, Sun-Tzu is so aphoristic that it’s hard to say what is concrete advice and what is just common sense. But the books are so convincing that you might still end up leaving thinking that they can be easily applied. So, again, check these books out if you’re really interested, but I think some of the other books are much better places to start.
Ryan Holiday
Founder/Brass Check
Churchill:

Churchill: A Life

Churchill, A Life by Martin Gilbert is the most impactful book I've read this year. I generally enjoy reading biographies, as they're a great way to understand history in a more personal viewpoint, while also getting a glimpse of how influential figures overcame adversities and pursued their ambitions.

Churchill's life stood out to me for a couple reasons. When you think about the personal decisions made before, during, and after World War II, it's really amazing to realize how much one person's vision and leadership influenced the outcome of world affairs during the 1900s. During his long public career of 50+ years, it is admirable to see how he navigated politics and overcame setbacks to reach the pinnacle of his career as a war time prime minister.

Overall, it was very humbling to learn about Churchill's work ethic. As a political leader as well as an author, he is a true example of a public servant who envisioned a better (and more peaceful) world order and worked hard throughout his career to carry out that vision while also securing his legacy in history.

Gunhee Park
Co-Founder/Populum
War

War in European History

The best way to understand how the world resolves its conflicts and its tensions is by looking at how a conflict that has been studied thoroughly, like World War I, unfolded and resolved. Business is like this too. If anyone were to ever get to the heart of Coke vs. Pepsi, they would see a parade of mistakes in the same way World War I looks in retrospect—so many ways you could have done better.

Matt Calkins
CEO/Appian
The

The Second World War

I always say I got all my understanding of how business and life works from studying the Second World War. Aside from The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Casey's favorite book is The Second World War by John Keegan. He's read this massive tome three times, cover to cover. He remembers showing up to work and getting in trouble because he was tired from staying up all night reading this textbook.
Casey Neistat
Co-Founder/Beme
I

I Remember the Last War

I Remember the Last War by a guy named Bob Hoffman [...] Again, it’s not always clear that oh, here’s the leadership principle; here’s what you should be doing. No, it’s not always clear like that. But when you understand what people are going through emotionally and you start to get a glimpse at human nature and how people react in certain situations and how their egos flare up, that’s what makes these books good. Because it gives you a frame of reference.
Jocko Willink
Founder/Echelon Front
Presidents

Presidents of War

Once again, Beschloss captures our Presidents in terms both historic and human, showing that whoever holds the office will fearlessly—or fearfully—impact our world.
Tom Hanks
Actor, author
The

The Gathering Storm (The Second World War)

When I look back at my career path, it is the one of an entrepreneur. I have built various businesses, from accounting and financial advisory firms to tech and security businesses. I have also spent most of my adult life in China, a country that is quite hostile to foreigners and very unfair. I have accepted to suffer the hardships of building my business without any investment from anybody, and stick very firmly to my values. I would recommend young people to read about adventure, hardships, and moral choices. Of course, it would be important to also read about the drivers of our humanity, hence the motley list below:

[...]

  • The Second World War by Winston Churchill. In War: Resolution, In Defeat: Defiance, In Victory: Magnanimity, In Peace: Goodwill.
Stephane Grand
Managing Partner/S.J. Grand Financial and Tax Advisory
Eisenhower

Eisenhower in War and Peace

I also strongly recommend Eisenhower in War and Peace by Jean Edward Smith–I did not fully appreciate what a strategic and political genius Eisenhower was until this book.
Ryan Holiday
Founder/Brass Check
This

This Hallowed Ground: A History of the Civil War

This year I loved Bruce Catton’s This Hallowed Ground: A History of the Civil War and A Stillness at Appomattox. If you want to understand the Civil War and you want to see one of the greatest non-fiction writing ever, read Catton.
Ryan Holiday
Founder/Brass Check
Boyd:

Boyd: The Fighter Pilot who Changed the Art of War

Boyd was probably the greatest post-WWII military strategist; he developed the F-15 and F-16, revolutionized ground tactics in war and covertly designed the US battle plans for the Gulf War. He shunned wealth, fame, and power all to accomplish what he felt needed to be accomplished. Coram captures his essence in a way that no other author has touched.
Ryan Holiday
Founder/Brass Check
Interventions:

Interventions: A Life in War and Peace

It was helpful to learn about the other side of Annan’s work at the UN -- peacekeeping issues and the work of the Security Council. It is clearly very challenging work. One day, the Secretary-General has to be an impartial arbiter of disputes among member states. The next, he has to challenge member countries he believes are not acting in the interest of world peace. Surviving in that position for 10 years says a lot about Annan’s diplomatic skills.
Bill Gates
CEO/Microsoft
The

The Legacy of the Civil War

I also read discussions of a bunch of Southern/Civil War writers in Patriotic Gore by Edmund Wilson and The Legacy of the Civil War by Robert Penn Warren, which helped me understand and contextualize what I’d already read from the people listed above.
Ryan Holiday
Founder/Brass Check
Army

Army of None: Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War

Autonomous weapons aren’t exactly top of mind for most around the holidays, but this thought-provoking look at A.I. in warfare is hard to put down. It’s an immensely complicated topic, but Scharre offers clear explanations and presents both the pros and cons of machine-driven warfare. His fluency with the subject should come as no surprise: he’s a veteran who helped draft the U.S. government’s policy on autonomous weapons.
Bill Gates
Founder/Microsoft
We

We Were Soldiers Once…and Young: Ia Drang – The Battle That Changed the War in Vietnam

When a look back at my career path, it is the one of an entrepreneur. I have built various businesses, from accounting and financial advisory firms to tech and security businesses. I have also spent most of my adult life in China, a country that is quite hostile to foreigners and very unfair. I have accepted to suffer the hardships of building my business without any investment from anybody, and stick very firmly to my values. I would recommend young people to read about adventure, hardships, and moral choices. Of course, it would be important to also read about the drivers of our humanity, hence the motley list below:

[...]

  • We were soldiers once, and young … because entrepreneurship is infantry combat.
Stephane Grand
Managing Partner/S.J. Grand Financial and Tax Advisory
Civil

Civil War Stories

Fiction-wise, I read all of Ambrose Bierce’s Civil War Stories and was blown away–it is dark, beautiful writing.
Ryan Holiday
Founder/Brass Check
A

A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II

A few months back, I read a book called A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II that led me to want to learn more about Nazi Germany and Hitler, so I then picked up The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which led me to wanting to learn more about Winston Churchill.
Gunhee Park
Co-Founder/Populum
Overconfidence

Overconfidence and War: The Havoc and Glory of Positive Illusions

Johnson uses studies from military affairs to explore the various psychological and political sources of overconfidence. These lessons are important, of course, not just for world-changing cases of global conflict, but also for day-to-day decision making in business and personal affairs. Our tendency to overestimate our capabilities and to believe that we can control the future — what the author thinks of as “an integral part of the human psyche” — can be our downfall. In geopolitics, self-deception can lead to war; in business, it can lead to strategic blunders or worse. It’s important to test what we know, uncover what we don’t know, understand where we are prone to bias, and calibrate our goals and risk-taking.
Martin Reeves
Director/ BCG Henderson Institute
Patriotic

Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War

I also read discussions of a bunch of Southern/Civil War writers in Patriotic Gore by Edmund Wilson and The Legacy of the Civil War by Robert Penn Warren, which helped me understand and contextualize what I’d already read from the people listed above.
Ryan Holiday
Founder/Brass Check
Xenophon's

Xenophon’s Cyrus the Great: The Arts of Leadership and War

Xenophon, like Plato, was a student of Socrates. For whatever reason, his work is not nearly as famous, even though it is far more applicable. Unlike Plato, Xenophon studied people. His greatest book is about the latter, it’s the best biography written of Cyrus the Great (aka the father of human rights). There are so many great lessons in here and I wish more people would read it. Machiavelli learned them, as this book inspired The Prince.
Ryan Holiday
Founder/Brass Check
The

The Art of War

I know this will offend many strategy purists, but for most audiences I recommend these two books only with a pretty strong disclaimer. While both are clearly full of strategic wisdom, they are hard to separate from their respective eras and brands of warfare. As budding strategists in business and in life, most of us are really looking for advice that can help us with our own problems. The reality is that Napoleonic warfare does not exactly have its equivalents in today’s society. On the other hand, Sun-Tzu is so aphoristic that it’s hard to say what is concrete advice and what is just common sense. But the books are so convincing that you might still end up leaving thinking that they can be easily applied. So, again, check these books out if you’re really interested, but I think some of the other books are much better places to start.
Ryan Holiday
Founder/Brass Check
Beyond

Beyond Band of Brothers: The War Memoirs of Major Dick Winters

Beyond Band of Brothers by Dick Winters [...] Again, it’s not always clear that oh, here’s the leadership principle; here’s what you should be doing. No, it’s not always clear like that. But when you understand what people are going through emotionally and you start to get a glimpse at human nature and how people react in certain situations and how their egos flare up, that’s what makes these books good. Because it gives you a frame of reference.
Jocko Willink
Founder/Echelon Front
The

The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War

This book has wonderful qualities that I am certain will be picked up by other reviewers. But I would like to add the following. This is the most profound examination of how nationality is enforced on a group of people, with the internal colonization process and the stamping out of idiosyncratic traits. As someone suspicious of government and state control, I was wondering how France did so well in spite of having a big government. This book gave me the answer: it took a long time for the government and the nation to penetrate the depth of deep France, la France profonde. It was not until recently that French was spoken by the majority of the citizens. Schools taught French but it was just like Greek or Latin: people forgot it right after they finished their (short) school life. For a long time France's villages were unreachable.

A great book, a great investigation.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Flaneur
Lessons

Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam

Fact or fiction, the president knows that reading keeps the mind sharp. He also delved into these non-fiction reads:

  • Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Evan Osnos
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman
  • Moral Man And Immoral Society, Reinhold Niebuhr
  • A Kind And Just Parent, William Ayers
  • The Post-American World, Fareed Zakaria
  • Lessons in Disaster, Gordon Goldstein
  • Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari
  • The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin
  • Andy Grove: The Life and Times of an American, Richard S Tedlow
  • Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, Katherine Boo
Barack Obama
Former USA President
The

The Memoirs of W.T. Sherman

I went so deep into Civil War in 2012 that I lost track of all the books. I started this last year when I read Sherman by B.H Liddell Hart (and recommended as a favorite). I came to admire Sherman so deeply that I read two more books about him. I came to admire Sherman so deeply that I read two more books about him: Sherman’s Memoirs and a big old book from 1933 Sherman: Fighting Prophet.
Ryan Holiday
Founder/Brass Check
A

A Stillness at Appomattox

This year I loved Bruce Catton’s This Hallowed Ground: A History of the Civil War and A Stillness at Appomattox. If you want to understand the Civil War and you want to see one of the greatest non-fiction writing ever, read Catton.
Ryan Holiday
Founder/Brass Check
The

The Guns of August

This book started my obsession with WWI, illustrating how drastically the world went from interrelated monarchies and cavalry charges to chemical warfare between modern nation states. If you want to see what disruption looks like, there's no greater period in human history.

Erik Martin
VP of Member Engagement/WeWork
Grant

Grant

This is a good time for Ron Chernow’s fine biography of Ulysses S. Grant to appear… As history, it is remarkable, full of fascinating details sure to make it interesting both to those with the most cursory knowledge of Grant’s life and to those who have read his memoirs or any of several previous biographies… For all its scholarly and literary strengths, this book’s greatest service is to remind us of Grant’s significant achievements at the end of the war and after, which have too long been overlooked and are too important today to be left in the dark… As Americans continue the struggle to defend justice and equality in our tumultuous and divisive era, we need to know what Grant did when our country’s very existence hung in the balance. If we still believe in forming a more perfect union, his steady and courageous example is more valuable than ever.
Bill Clinton
President/United States
The

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany

A few months back, I read a book called A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II that led me to want to learn more about Nazi Germany and Hitler, so I then picked up The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which led me to wanting to learn more about Winston Churchill.
Gunhee Park
Co-Founder/Populum
My

My Berlin Child

I’m reading more books at the same time. Guilty. Some of them are Tools of Titans - Tim Ferriss, My Berlin Child – Anne Wiazemsky, Women who Run with the Wolves - Clarissa Pinkola Estés. Tim is full of lessons to learn, remember & implement, I’ll see what the rest of the books will unfold.
Irina Botnari
Managing Partner & Co-Founder/Bucur's Shelter Hostel
Live

Live from the Battlefield: From Vietnam to Baghdad, 35 Years in the World’s War Zones

I remember in particular reading the autobiography of CNN correspondent Peter Arnett (Peter Arnett - Live from the Battlefield), who grew up in a remote town in New Zealand, bored and looking for trouble as a teenager, much like I did in the remote town I was growing up in in The Netherlands. And I thought to myself, “well, he made it alright, and so can I”. And I think that helped.
Max Gurvits
Director/Cross Border Angels
Rebel

Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson

Related and with equal weight, I want to recommend George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon by Stephen W. Sears (a biography of the talented but utterly delusional General George McClellan), Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson by S.C. Gwynne (a biography of the brilliant but manic Stonewall Jackson) and Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton (an equally brilliant, more accomplished but equally tragic founding father). All these books made me angry, sad, and confused. But they also made me look inward and taught me quite a bit.
Ryan Holiday
Founder/Brass Check
The

The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History

There’s one book that I’ve given that it was just Christmas, that I’ve given away a lot of copies. This is a book about Winston Churchill by Boris Johnson. A very talented guy.

Arnold Schwarzenegger
Actor, Politician & Businessman
The

The Knowledge: A Too Close To True Novel

The Knowledge, Steve Pressfield's new book, is put together like a Swiss watch. Every single word, every scene... it's a master class in what it means to get out of your own way and write a book that works. I am walking around the house, unable to put it down.
Seth Godin
Author & Entrepreneur
Sherman,

Sherman, Fighting Prophet

I went so deep into Civil War in 2012 that I lost track of all the books. I started this last year when I read Sherman by B.H Liddell Hart (and recommended as a favorite). I came to admire Sherman so deeply that I read two more books about him. I came to admire Sherman so deeply that I read two more books about him: Sherman’s Memoirs and a big old book from 1933 Sherman: Fighting Prophet.
Ryan Holiday
Founder/Brass Check
Stalingrad:

Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege, 1942-1943

Today is World Book Day, a wonderful opportunity to address this #ChallengeRichard sent in by Mike Gonzalez of New Jersey: Make a list of your top 65 books to read in a lifetime.
Richard Branson
Founder/Virgin Group
Fall

Fall of Giants

It’s vacation time so I got brave enough to start a sizeable trilogy by Ken Follett, The Century (Fall of Giants, Winter of the World, Edge of Eternity). The only expectation I had was to enjoy a good story, take my mind off into a different space. And it delivers, it’s a nice blend of history and fiction, an absorbing story throughout 20th century.

Tudor Mihailescu
Finance and Business Enablement Manager
Redeployment

Redeployment

As a devoted reader, the president has been linked to a lengthy list of novels and poetry collections over the years — he admits he enjoys a thriller.
Barack Obama
Former USA President
Dead

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

There's so much in this one about leadership, failures and how winners write history.
Bethanye McKinney Blount
Founder/Project Include
Upheaval:

Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis

I’m a big fan of everything Jared has written, and his latest is no exception. The book explores how societies react during moments of crisis. He uses a series of fascinating case studies to show how nations managed existential challenges like civil war, foreign threats, and general malaise. It sounds a bit depressing, but I finished the book even more optimistic about our ability to solve problems than I started.
Bill Gates
Founder/Microsoft
Wicked

Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild

In terms of obscure or unusual books related to the war, I love Incidents and Anecdotes of the Civil War by Admiral David Porter (1885) and Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild by Lee Sandlin (plus his WWII article which is the best essay I’ve ever read).
Ryan Holiday
Founder/Brass Check
The

The Making of the Atomic Bomb

My favorite book is The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes. It's a book that covers a vast range of topics over a fifty year period. It talks about the scientific advances that led to the bomb, the personalities that made those advances, and at the same time covers the political choices and escalation of violence over the course of the first half of the 20th Century that paint the use of the atomic bomb on Japan as an almost inevitable conclusion of that escalation. The prose is as incredible as the story. It's really a treat to rea

Bill Earner
Founder/Connect Ventures
One

One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer

[One of] the books I’ve read the most.
Peter Attia
Founder/Attia Medical
Bodyguard

Bodyguard of Lies: The Extraordinary True Story Behind D-Day

The book is a masterclass in the art of strategy. (No wonder it was one of John Boyd’s favorites).
Ryan Holiday
Founder/Brass Check
Lincoln

Lincoln in the Bardo

I thought I knew everything I needed to know about Abraham Lincoln, but this novel made me rethink parts of his life. It blends historical facts from the Civil War with fantastical elements—it’s basically a long conversation among 166 ghosts, including Lincoln’s deceased son. I got new insight into the way Lincoln must have been crushed by the weight of both grief and responsibility. This is one of those fascinating, ambiguous books you’ll want to discuss with a friend when you’re done.
Bill Gates
CEO/Microsoft
Slaughterhouse-Five

Slaughterhouse-Five

I’m also a Murakami and Vonnegut fan, Kafka on the Shore, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, Norwegian Wood, Slaughterhouse-Five, etc. Now that I look at the books listed, they seem to carry an existential theme. I guess I like to understand humanity and human behaviour ultimately to better understand myself. I find reading a means to connect with people who may have lived before my time, or in a distant country, that I may never have had the chance to connect with in real life. As three-dimensional humans, we are all made up of so many faces and emotional layers that we find it hard to dissect them all, and when we find writers who can explain these thought processes in a way that’s tangible and digestible, there’s this incredibly comforting eureka moment of feeling understood.
Bernard Tan
Founder/ReCactus
The

The Fifth Domain: Defending Our Country, Our Companies, and Ourselves in the Age of Cyber Threats

In the battle raging between offense and defense in cyberspace, Clarke and Knake have some important ideas about how we can avoid cyberwar for our country, prevent cybercrime against our companies, and in doing so, reduce resentment, division, and instability at home and abroad.
Bill Clinton
Former USA President