Pre-Departure Book List

“..who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war”

-Ginsburg, Howl

As an up-and-coming international student of war at Kings College London, I am putting together my reading list or, more appropriately speaking, the list of books I will actually purchase ahead of time and bring to University with me, which involves a transatlantic flight. This in past would have been a massive headache, an agonizing gut-wrench over what literature to take with me and what to leave behind. In the age of the ever-expansive, yet slim, Kindle library I have fewer worries in terms of weight, but still I find certain literature better marked and held physically. I am not still totally convinced that I can read and process information as well on a digital reader as I can with the book, which as an object alone is steeped in connotation and inflames my scholarly pride. That, and maybe I am just not fully committed to the digital revolution, wherein you can get everything online and most likely for free.

I also need to reverently protect a certain cadre of my studies in book form; a form which has been good enough for authors since the High Middle Ages (Believe me, it beats doing everything in rolls, though I am sure there are some Medieval hipsters out there who insist fidelity is better on a roll). I am an innate reactionary in this matter because I am hideous and unrepentant bibliophile: a hoarder without conscious and, save for financial consideration, totally beyond repair.  So, as I have to choose (having rejected an earlier plan where I considered just wearing one set of clothes in order to free up space), what books will I take?


The first is fairly obvious. It will of course be Clausewitz’s On War. This is a given. Any man who wears his collar that high deserves to be re-read in every military academy for at least the next century and a half.

Likewise it seems very plausible that Thucydides will be along for the ride. Between them they form about 98% of the substance of the canon of military, diplomatic, and strategic literature in the European tradition and, as that is the school to which I am an inheritor, they both will need to be flipped through often. At least enough to make it worthwhile to have them literally in hand. The Athenian and Spartan dichotomy has been the meat and potatoes of strategic studies since the Renaissance, and it doesn’t appear to have worn out its welcome in the 21st century. Homer would be in there too, but more for flavour of the combat depicted. At any rate, I already have two big books without him, so no Iliad. In addition, Sun Tzu will be along in Ralph Saywer’s Excellent Seven Military Classics of Ancient China, which contains among other things the Tai Kung’s Six Secret Teachings, which is perhaps the most amazing and intricate strategic texts of antiquity. I doubt I will need it for academic pursuit, but it is always good for an anecdote involving “martial awesomeness”.

Despite the underpinnings of the western strategic canon being an extensive array of literature, some will have to be done without. Machiavelli’s The Art of War is currently on the fence: while making excellent points about the use of mercenary forces and the citizen militia, and the political ethics and classical underpinnings thereof, Machiavelli’s descriptions of formations, camp deployments, and the like are very specific to their time, and occupy little of direct value to a student of contemporary warfare. As I learned to my shock after completing my Undergraduate education, 17th century Swedish and Dutch tactical competence does not guarantee employment in the American economy of the 21st century. I know you are all as stunned as I am, and just remember you heard it here first. Gustavus, I hate to admit it, but you let me down.

For similar reasons, one might omit Frederick The Great’s military writings, but I am still going to bring my newly acquired copy of David Chandler’s The Campaigns of Napoleon, both as background to Clausewitz and as a guide to a series of wars of which I know very little and desire to know more. This volume will edge out a few other contenders solely based on its sheer mass. But hey, Napoleon wasn’t exactly a pacifist.

The questions of additional choices are more esoteric. Makers of Modern Strategy is a strong contender for its variety of essays on the evolution of strategic doctrine on and off the battlefield, as is Schelling’s (now slightly dated) Arms and Influence, which neatly encapsulates a great deal of the fundamental considerations of might making right. Likewise strategies of deterrent coercion have rather steep implications for the United States at the moment, both in the deployment of Unmanned Aerial Drones and the potential for involvement in the ongoing Syrian Conflict to say nothing of the ongoing state of nuclear proliferation. I am tempted to bring John Keegan’s Face of Battle, which I admit I have never read, but is supposedly one of these game-changing analyses that is a must-read.

That makes a good start, but besides there are a host of other books about contemporary and antique warfare I’d like to bring. Yet I am hesitant to read too far back, fearful that the information is too distant to be applicable in a meaningful way, even as an object lesson. It will not be nearly as helpful in the context of today’s security concerns to read of the campaigns of the Black Prince as it would to be versed in the history of the Syrian Army or a political history of the Arab Spring movement. Approaching this from a historian’s understanding, I am used to the “facts” being far less of a moving target than an evolving situation, riddled with the uncertainty and only very short-term hindsight. While they are in their own way working from equally sketchy and reconstructed facts, historians usually has the luxury of having some additional time to form cogent analysis which is not afforded to the student of contemporary affairs. It will be hard for me to abandon the dusty volume for the ever-updating twitter feed.

Yet, as one can argue that man is fundamentally the same creature and prone to the same cycles, one could potentially say “twas ever thus” (The Talking Heads have also made statements to that effect) and for that reason it will be hard to dismiss some of these old friends as less than useful, like Peter Wilson’s excellent Europe’s Tragedy: A History of the Thirty Years War, or Shelby Foote’s The Beleaguered City: The Vicksburg Campaign.  But airline weight restrictions being what they are, and considering other books beside histories, I will have to make some hard choices.

And, as my non-hoarder friends often remind me, there is a library at the University where one can acquire books of this sort nearly anytime. I doubt this will do much to assuage my mania: history has taught me that if nothing else.

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