When it comes to lists and rankings, we here at WATM love making them. So it makes sense for us to make one for non-fiction books. We read a lot, and not surprisingly, since we’re all veterans, we read a lot of books about military things.
These are the best non-fiction books about the military that we have ever read. If you want to see our favorite fiction books, click here. The books below are numbered, but they’re not in order of how good or bad they are. You should read them all.
“The Forever War” by Dexter Filkins
Journalist Dexter Filkins wrote “The Forever War,” which is about the war between the United States and radical Islamists. If you want to learn more about the war, read it. As a foreign correspondent for the New York Times, Filkins writes about the aftermath of the September 11th attacks and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in this book.
Filkins doesn’t write a neat history lesson. He tells the story from the ground up, by the only American journalist who covered all of these events. Instead, he tells the stories of people, from ordinary people to soldiers, and how they are affected by the things that happen around them. He also talks about how these things affect them. He does it in beautiful prose, and with very little sarcasm.
“The Pentagon Wars” by James Burton
Ex-Air Force Col. James Burton talks about what it’s like when the Pentagon wants to make a new weapon. The Bradley Fighting Vehicle was made after Burton worked for 14 years in weapons acquisition and testing, and he talks about how he had to work with people above him who were more interested in supporting defense contractors than soldiers in the field. This is why the Bradley Fighting Vehicle was made.
When Burton writes about the small group of military reformers who worked hard to try to fix the problems with Pentagon procurement from the 1960s through the 1980s, he gets into trouble for “rocking the boat.” Following a suggestion that the Bradley’s armor should be tested against Soviet anti-tank weapons, the Army tried to get Burton moved to Alaska, even though they knew it wouldn’t hold up. HBO made a very funny movie based on the very serious book:
“Black Hawk Down” by Mark Bowden
Most people have seen the movie, but this is one of those times when you should read the book instead. Journalist Mark Bowden has written an amazing book about the 1993 battle in Mogadishu, Somalia, when hundreds of elite U.S. Army soldiers had to fight back against thousands of militants when a simple mission went awry and they had to fight back.
When Bowden has the chance to do a lot of research, talk to a lot of people, and have access to a lot of information, he is able to write a book that perfectly captures the brutality of the fight and of the people who fought and died there.
“One Bullet Away” by Nathaniel Fick
An inside look at how a person changes from a person who doesn’t work for the Marines into someone who works for the Marines is in this book. Fick is a classics major at Dartmouth. He joins the Marines in 1998 as a young man who wants to help people. After serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, he comes back as a hardened and skilled leader who knows how to fight.
At times, Fick’s book is very personal and unpleasant. It talks about a lot of combat experiences. But that isn’t the main thing. This book is a must-read for anyone who wants to learn more about how Marine officers train, think, and act on today’s battlefields.
“Band of Brothers” by Stephen Ambrose
People who are normal do extraordinary things in “Band of Brothers.” That’s what historian Stephen Ambrose’s story about Easy Co. is all about. When the book came out, it was turned into a 10-part miniseries on HBO. It takes us from the unit’s hard training in 1942 to the liberation of Hitler’s “Eagle Nest” in 1945.
In Band of Brothers, Ambrose shows what one source calls “the secret pleasures of war.” These pleasures include “the pleasure in comradeship, the pleasure in destruction,” the source says. “War as a show,” writes Tim Appelo in his review of the book.
“We Were Soldiers Once… And Young” by Harold Moore and Joseph Galloway
When American and Vietnamese forces met for the first time in 1965, one of the fights was one of the most brutal of the year. There were 450 men who fought back against 2,000 enemy troops after being surrounded by them. Lt. Colonel Moore and reporter Galloway, who was there, tell the story.
This is a good book to read even if you don’t like movies. Rick Rescorla, a platoon leader on the cover, had a nickname called “Hard Core.”
“The Art of War” by Sun Tzu
“The Art of War” is a must-read for anyone who wants to learn about military strategy and theory. It was written more than 2,000 years ago, but it still has a lot to say today. But its ideas can be used by people who aren’t in the military. Tzu gives advice that everyone can use, from army generals to CEOs.
“Read this book, and you can throw out all the modern books about management leadership,” said Newsweek.
“Flyboys” by James Bradley
There have been many modern accounts of World War II, but “Flyboys” manages to bring to light something that had been hidden for almost 60 years. James Bradley tells the story of nine Americans who were killed when their plane was shot down in the Pacific off the island of Chichi Jima in 1941.
One of them, George H.W. Bush, was found and saved. They didn’t tell their families what happened to the eight other people. The US and Japanese governments did this for both of them. Bradley, who wrote “Flags of Our Fathers,” did a lot of research and found a story that had never been told before.
“1776” by David McCullough
David McCullough’s book, “1776,” is written in a very interesting way. It tells the story of how the United States came to be in great detail. McCullough is a great storyteller who makes you feel like you’re in the Continental Army when you read his stories.
From the Amazon page:
David McCullough has written a great book about the people who marched with General George Washington in the year of the Declaration of Independence. Without their help, the whole American cause would have been lost, and the noble ideals of the Declaration would have been nothing more than words on paper.
“Generation Kill” by Evan Wright
He was a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine at the time. Evan Wright rode into Iraq in 2003 with the 1st Recon Battalion of the Marines. After 9/11, there was a new generation of warriors who were born. Wright is embedded with the men and captures their mindset, how the Marines work together, and the new generation of warriors.
Soldiers today are more in touch with the culture of video games, reality TV shows, and Internet porn than they are with their own families, said Wright. One 19-year-old corporal said, “It was fucking cool.”
“The Outpost” by Jake Tapper
Journalist Jake Tapper tells a powerful story about an Afghan outpost that was doomed to fail even before it was built. The book has 704 pages. Tapper starts with the decision to build a combat outpost in Nuristan in 2006, and then talks about a series of bad decisions that led to a battle for survival at the outpost three years later. Many soldiers at the outpost would earn the Medal of Honor for their bravery.
Combat Outpost Keating is the name of the base. The story of the base is one worth reading about. As a best-seller, it has gotten great reviews from the critics, and the soldiers who served there say it does a good job.
“On Killing” by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman
Grossman’s “On Killing” is a classic study of how soldiers deal with the reality of killing other people in combat and how military training helps them overcome their reluctance to do so. It’s on many military reading lists.
Ex-West Point psychology professor Grossman talks about the psychological effects of war, and he makes a strong case that humans are naturally afraid of killing. With this, he also shows how militaries get around this main trait by conditioning and practicing in the real world.
“The Guns of August” by Barbara Tuchman
This Pulitzer Prize-winning book is one of the best military history books ever written. Tuchman tells a story about the first month of World War I in 1914, but it’s more than just a war story. It was an event that would change the world.
As a publisher says, “This was the last gasp of the Gilded Age.” It was a time when “Kings and Kaisers, pointed or plumed hats, colored uniforms, and all of the pomp and romance that went along with war.” People say, “Wow. How quickly everything changed and how bad it got.” Tuchman is very good at showing how quickly the world changed from the 19th century to the 20th century.
“The Good Soldiers” by David Finkel
David Finkel, a journalist, was embedded with soldiers from 2-16 Infantry as part of President Bush’s last-chance “surge” in Iraq. He saw the chaos and violence that astroops face on the streets of Baghdad.
Col. Ralph Kauzlarich’s motto is “It’s all good.” The book often follows him. But Finkel is very good at capturing everyone in and out of the chain of command and telling their stories very well. For his book, he doesn’t talk as much about big-picture surge strategy as he does about the people who did it. That’s a good thing.