Joan of Arc monument in Philadelphia

8 Books for the Military History Undergrad

The size of my library ebbs and flows, but it is currently pushing 600 books. I collected most of them during the past four years, as I worked on a military history degree. The focus was vast, covering the ancient Egyptians all the way to the Libyan Civil War. While I have used all of my books to some extent, not all of them are equal.

Here are the ones I used the most throughout my military history degree.

What is Military History? by Stephen Morillo

Most schools will kick off your degree with A Guide to the Study and Use of Military History. It is old and outdated, missing more than 20 years of advancements in military history. If the field was a stagnant one, this would not be an issue, but any budding military historian needs a no-nonsense book that will honestly explain the pros and cons of the “Western Way of Warfare,” “Military Revolution,” “war and society,” and other evolving threads in the field. Morillo’s book does that and more, as it provides a succinct overview of the historiography, including a robust overview of the past 50 years.

What is Military History? is a short read from a seasoned military historian. Buy it and read it several times throughout your degree, at least once at the beginning and again during your final year. It will reach you on different levels as you progress in your studies.

On War by Clausewitz

Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) was a Prussian officer from the Napoleonic Wars. After the wars, he wrote On War, but he died before he finished revising it. Today, it is standard reading in war colleges.

I have kept it near my desk always. It is not the sort of book you read once and then put it down. The book, like others on this list, requires some time to marinate. I found myself reading a chapter and putting it down for weeks, even months, at a time, but always returning for more. I have read several chapters multiple times.

While I continue to reread this book, some portions have proven extremely useful. Book Two concerning the theory of war is invaluable to any historian, especially those focusing on warfare. Clausewitz espouses some useful concepts on the purpose of theories, as well as how to construct and test them. Many of his principles are timeless. For example, “Theory exists so that one need not start afresh each time sorting out the material and plowing through it, but will find it ready to hand and in good order. It is meant to educate the mind of the future commander, or, more accurately, to guide him in his self-education, not to accompany him to the battlefield” (141). This is invaluable stuff.

The Art of War by Sun Tzu

Some texts know how to encapsulate a purpose in a few short words: “War is a matter of vital importance to the State” (1.1). Sun Tzu’s 2,500-year-old text is more widely recognized than Clausewitz is, and for good reason. It is a short work and seemingly applicable to any sort of conflict, if you believe all the promotional material on Amazon or ask Gordon Gecko. However, the text was intended for guiding leaders of a state in competition with other states. This often involved war, but was ultimately about grand strategy.

As I studied past campaigns and battles, I discovered that Sun Tzu’s work not only transcends culture, but also history. Events disconnected from the writing by continents and thousands of years only serve to validate most of the principles original exposed in this ancient text. The public mind can more easily accept an ancient truth recently borne out through experience. Consider Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan when Sun Tzu states, “There has never been a protracted war from which a country has benefited” (2.7). However, some ancient truths may be more elusive, but prove true with some analysis, such as, “A victorious army wins its victories before seeking battle” (4.14).

I own several copies, as each translation provides something different (e.g., prose vs. verse). However, I often turn to the Samuel B. Griffith translation, as it is very readable and widely utilized.

Strategy by B. H. Liddell Hart

B. H. Liddell Hart’s Strategy is one of countless attempts to prove a military theory using historical examples. While not everyone buys into this theory, the book is a classic for its approach, as Hart believes

the foundation of any theory of war should be as broad as possible. An intensive study of one campaign unless based on an extensive knowledge of the whole history of war is likely to lead us into pitfalls. But if a specific effect is seen to follow a specific cause in a score or more cases, in different epochs and diverse conditions, there is ground for regarding this cause as an integral part of any theory of war (5).

With this approach, Hart emphasizes that armies are better utilized when they use an “indirect approach” to battle, that is taking the route least expected by the opposing side. Often this requires extra marching and maneuvering, but the result is victory, sometimes very easily won, as opposed to strength smashing against strength on an open field.

Hart uses examples from the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Napoleon, Sherman, World War II, and many others, exposing the reader to a vast array of military history.

Medieval Military Technology by Kelly DeVries

Medieval Military Technology was clearly a labor of love for DeVries, as he helps shatter the perception that this 1000-year period was somehow stagnant in the realm of technological advancements. The work is topical with four major categories—arms and armor, artillery, fortifications, and warships. However, within each chapter, he traces the evolution of weapons in a chronological fashion. Starting with the Romans, who influenced much of the medieval world, DeVries traces how each piece of technology evolved over time and from culture to culture.

While the style of the book is written so that you can read it cover to cover, the index is extremely useful for tracking down specific terms. My experience has been with the first edition, but the second edition brings on Robert Douglas Smith, and expands and corrects items. In addition, these two authors collaborated on a textbook-like work of a similar vein—Medieval Weapons: An Illustrated History of Their Impact. The main difference is this second book provides more illustrations and photos, but no footnotes. I have found both immensely useful while studying the period and researching the origins of military technology.

A History of Warfare by John Keegan

Those who are familiar with the thesis of A History of Warfare will find it surprising that it is on the same list as Clausewitz, who Keegan spends part of the book disputing, and even trashing. However, what students will benefit from is the process of analysis Keegan goes through, as he analyzes warfare throughout history from a cultural perspective. He often focuses on non-Western periods, peoples, and wars less covered in most texts, exposing the reader to a slew of military history often neglected.

In addition, he touches on just about every aspects of warfare, including logistics, sieges, navies.

Rethinking Military History by Jeremy Black

I am reluctant to recommend Rethinking Military History, as most students starting their first year in military history will find it overwhelming, possibly cumbersome. However, by the third and fourth year, it should speak with remarkable clarity to the undergraduate student. Prolific military historian Jeremy Black analyzes the shortcomings of military history from just about every angle, demonstrating where it is strong, weak, and overdone. He is also very candid in his discussion, as he covers academic, public, national, popular, and amateur approaches.

You do not have to read this work cover to cover, but the first three chapters focusing on the state of military history today and Eurocentrism should be required reading for all undergrads. After which, the reader can spend time on each period-focused chapter, as it lines up with his or her interests.

Navies in History by Clark G. Reynolds

Naval warfare and logistics remains both the most expensive and important aspect of war and the most neglected in history. For example, Clausewitz and Sun Tzu have little to say about navies. Today, few Americans could tell you that the U.S. boasts 10 active aircraft carriers while the country in “second place” for number of active carriers has two (Let’s hear it for Italy!). Fewer could probably tell you that after the American Civil War, the U.S. had the largest navy in the world.

Not all historians neglect navies. DeVries and Smith cover warships in Medieval Military Technology. Regardless, naval warfare cannot remain separate from studying military history. It is a glaring gap in many histories and somehow, the field of naval warfare has become a secluded sect from military history as a whole.

There are plenty of works on navies out there, but an undergraduate needs more context, and Reynolds’s Navies in History is the most accessible and succinct work on the topic, covering the ancient world through the Persian Gulf War. The book is useful, as it dedicates a chapter to terms, it analyzes how navies evolved and affected wars and strategies, and it even dedicates portions to specific battles. However, a reading of the book will help the student understand that battle is not always the most important use of a navy.

That covers it. Although there are plenty of books I enjoyed, I turned to these books most often while working on my bachelor’s in military history.

Which books would you recommend?