Would-Be War Experts Should Give H.R. McMaster’s Reading List A Quick Glance

U.S. President Donald Trump and his newly appointed National Security Adviser Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster (L) speak during the announcement at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida U.S. February 20, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin LamarqueU.S. President Donald Trump and his newly appointed National Security Adviser Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster (L) speak during the announcement at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida U.S. February 20, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

President Donald Trump’s pick to head the national security council, Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, outlined his reading list for military professionals in a 2013 interview with the McKinsey company.

The reading list was originally distributed by Thomas Ricks of Foreign Policy and is organized by subject matter. McMaster preceded the list saying: “we need leaders who can adapt and innovate. As Sir Michael Howard has said—and I’m paraphrasing—we’re never going to get the problem of future war precisely right. The key is to not be so far off the mark that you can’t adapt once the real demands of combat reveal themselves, and you need leaders who can adapt rapidly to unforeseen circumstances. They need to be able retain the initiative as well as sustain the types of campaigns that require a broad range of capabilities—rule of law, development of indigenous forces, and military support for governance, for example.”

General grounding

There are several essential reads for professionals involved in military affairs:

Carl von Clausewitz, On War. The author uses a dialectical approach to understanding war without being prescriptive.

Michael Howard, War in European History. This book is excellent, as is anything by this author.

Elting Morison, Men, Machines, and Modern Times. The author discusses the limitations of emerging technologies—specifically, he argues that instead of taming our environment, technology has further complicated it.

Williamson Murray, The Making of Strategy: Rulers, States, and War. This book helps connect military action to strategy.

Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War. The Greek historian shows that the drivers of war—fear, honor, self-interest—haven’t changed over time.

Innovation and the world wars

Much has been written about World War I, World War II, and the interwar period—and about how these events changed the nature of war. The following are favorites:

Marc Bloch, Strange Defeat

Robert A. Doughty, The Breaking Point: Sedan and the Fall of France, 1940, and Pyrrhic Victory: French Strategy and Operations in the Great War

Timothy T. Lupfer, Dynamics of Doctrine: The Changes in German Tactical Doctrine During the First World War

Williamson Murray, Military Innovation in the Interwar Period

Memoirs and biographies

It is important to understand how leaders have adapted and thought about war and warfare across their careers. The Autobiography of General Ulysses S. Grant: Memoirs of the Civil War is perhaps the best war memoir ever written. The following are some other significant titles:

Carlo D’Este, Patton: A Genius for War

David Fraser, Knight’s Cross: A Life of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel

Matthew B. Ridgway, The Korean War

Selected histories of military campaigns

For selected histories of wars and military campaigns, the following are some of my favorites; I’ve also included recommendations on contemporary threats:

Ancient warfare

Donald Kagan, The Peloponnesian War

Seven Years’ War

Fred Anderson, Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754–1766

The American military profession and the American Revolution

David Hackett Fischer, Washington’s Crossing

Don Higginbotham, George Washington and the American Military Tradition and The War of American Independence

Civil War

James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era

Franco–Prussian War

Michael Howard, The Franco–Prussian War: The German Invasion of France 1870–1871

World War II

Rick Atkinson, An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942–1943; The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943–1944; and the forthcoming The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944–1945

Gerhard Weinberg, A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II

Korean War

T. R. Fehrenbach, This Kind of War

David Halberstam, The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War

Vietnam War

Eric Bergerud, Red Thunder, Tropic Lightning: The World of a Combat Division in Vietnam

Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway, We Were Soldiers Once . . . And Young: Ia Drang—The Battle That Changed the War in Vietnam


Michael R. Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor, Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq and The Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama


Peter Tomsen, The Wars of Afghanistan: Messianic Terrorism, Tribal Conflicts, and the Failures of Great Powers

Contemporary threats to international security

Peter Bergen, The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict between America and Al-Qaeda

Victor Cha, The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future

David Crist, The Twilight War: The Secret History of America’s Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran

Bruce Riedel, Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America, and the Future of the Global Jihad

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Saagar Enjeti
the authorSaagar Enjeti
National Security/Foreign Policy Reporter

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