The 10 Best War History Books

Updated April 03, 2018 by Quincy Miller

10 Best War History Books
WWII: The Definitive Visual History
1776 by David McCullough
History of the Peloponnesian War
We spent 44 hours on research, videography, and editing, to review the top selections for this wiki. As the philosopher, essayist, and poet George Santayana said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." When it comes to the subject of armed conflicts, we would be wise to take heed. Our selection of war history books are fascinating, enlightening, and even entertaining, and will be equally of interest to students, historians, and those wishing to learn from days gone by. When users buy our independently chosen editorial picks, we may earn commissions to support our work. Skip to the best war history book on Amazon.

10. The War That Forged a Nation

James McPherson's The War That Forged a Nation takes a look at America's deadliest conflict through modern eyes. He examines why it is so deeply embedded in our national psyche and identity, and illuminates its continuing resonance some 150 years later.
  • collection of easy-to-read essays
  • covers all facets of the war
  • includes previously published info
Publisher Oxford University Press
Model n/a
Weight 15.2 ounces
Rating 3.5 / 5.0

9. The Cold War: A New History

John Lewis Gaddis' The Cold War: A New History is an excellent, if abridged, accounting of the greatest war that never truly took shape, except by proxy and politics. It draws on many newly available resources and archives to tell not just what happened, but why.
  • highly readable format
  • covers end of ww2 to post-soviet era
  • seems to skip over some key events
Publisher Gaddis, John Lewis
Model n/a
Weight 10.4 ounces
Rating 4.1 / 5.0

8. The Soul of Battle

The Soul of Battle by Victor Davis Hanson examines three great generals who led inexperienced and untrained soldiers to triumph over superior forces by way of brilliant military strategies. It also looks at how moral confidence can play a big part in victory or defeat.
  • interesting and controversial
  • engaging and fast-paced prose
  • can be repetitive at times
Publisher The Soul of Battle
Model n/a
Weight 14.9 ounces
Rating 3.6 / 5.0

7. The Crusades

The Crusades is a comprehensive look at one of the most fascinating periods in history. It covers the events from 1095 to 1291 in chronological order, going over everything from Islam's nascency to its arrival as a world power, with equal weight given to both sides.
  • avoids simplifying the conflict
  • helps explain subsequent centuries
  • writing can get overly dense
Publisher Ecco Press
Model n/a
Weight 1.5 pounds
Rating 4.1 / 5.0

6. History of the Peloponnesian War

Thucydides wrote his History of the Peloponnesian War 400 years before the common era began, yet still it ranks as one of the all-time best accounts of conflict. It tells of the battles between Athens and Sparta that ravaged the Greek world for nearly three decades.
  • essential for ancient history buffs
  • very accessible translation
  • not suitable for novices
Publisher imusti
Model n/a
Weight 9.9 ounces
Rating 4.4 / 5.0

5. A History of Warfare

Historian John Keegan's celebrated book A History of Warfare moves beyond simply discussing what happened and when to delve down into the very psychology of why we fight. It is an original and challenging perspective that will have you reevaluating your beliefs.
  • insight from multiple cultures
  • written with style and humor
  • author tends to go off on tangents
Publisher Vintage
Model n/a
Weight 16 ounces
Rating 4.3 / 5.0

4. The Civil War: A Visual History

The Civil War: A Visual History was produced in conjunction with the Smithsonian to ensure the highest level of accuracy. It includes comprehensive timelines and intimate first-person accounts from soldiers and civilians, as well as key political and military leaders.
  • examines treatment of the wounded
  • illustrations bring the war to life
  • vivid and revealing photos
Publisher Dunne, Jemima (EDT)
Model n/a
Weight 4.4 pounds
Rating 4.1 / 5.0

3. 1776 by David McCullough

If you're curious about the struggle that marked the bloody birth of the United States, 1776 by David McCullough takes you behind the scenes for an intimate look at the primary actors on both sides of the war, and ultimately reminds you that all wars are personal things.
  • looks at common soldiers as well
  • includes battle maps
  • in-depth look at single year of war
Model n/a
Weight 1.4 pounds
Rating 4.1 / 5.0

2. The Guns of August

For what was once called "The Great War," World War I doesn't get nearly as much attention as its successor. For the definitive look at the origins of this horrible conflict, try The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman, which takes you deep into the first month of combat.
  • pulitzer prize winner
  • lively prose creates gripping action
  • reveals personalities behind the war
Publisher Tuchman, Barbara Werthe
Model n/a
Weight 1.1 pounds
Rating 4.7 / 5.0

1. WWII: The Definitive Visual History

No war history book collection would be complete without a dedicated tome on WWII, the war that helped to shape the modern world. WWII: The Definitive Visual History is a comprehensive and authoritative manual to the politics, events, and lasting effects of the conflict.
  • includes info about rise of hitler
  • guide to battlefields
  • covers key military strategies
Publisher DK
Model n/a
Weight 5 pounds
Rating 4.7 / 5.0

On Reading On War

Few if any subjects garner the same level of interest as warfare. Battle draws out the most vivid emotions known to mankind -- both the lowest savagery and most gallant heroics -- and makes for undeniably compelling stories on the personal level. War also shapes the course of history in less time and with more profound results than any other human endeavor, with every great conflict forever changing the people, landscape, and destiny of all evenly remotely involved in the fighting. Warfare has been the catalyst for many of the greatest inventions, the inspiration for countless works of art, and the proving ground for some of history's most famous and influential figures.

It is little wonder, then, that so many thousands of books have been written about human beings in conflict with one another. Indeed some the very foundational books of human literature, such as Homer's Illiad, have at their center people engaged in epic warfare. From Sun Tzu's The Art of War, written more than 400 years before the Common Era, to Carl von Clausewitz's On War, written shortly after the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century, authors have sought to set down on paper their deepest insights into the nature of war and to help make sense of its place in life.

The modern reader has at his or her disposal a wealth of books on war history, theory, and tactics that ancient and classical scholars would be thrilled to see. Today, reading up on war can easily take the shape of deep scholarship or casual recreation, and few conflicts or notable soldiers have failed to receive at least some coverage in a book or two. In short, no matter how obscure and specific or broad and general your interest in subjects martial may be, you will readily find a war history book that suits your preferences.

Broadly speaking, there are three categories of war history book. First, there is the survey-style of book that might focus on a number of battles related to one another by geography, chronology, or common attributes. Second, there is the book (or series of books) about a given conflict -- a definitive account of the battle of Agincourt or a study of the whole of the Boer War, for two examples. Finally, there is the biographical approach to military history, wherein an author focuses on a person (or a group) and tells the tale of a conflict through the lens of key players.

The newcomer to war history books may do best to start with the latter type of book, as a personal history can often make a relatively unknown topic more compelling and easier to penetrate. The casual military history enthusiast will enjoy picking at a book with a bit of information on lots of topics. The true scholar of warfare will be more than ready to delve deeply into a tome focused on a given battle or wider war, undaunted by detail and able to bring their own prior knowledge along as context.

War History Books for General Interest Reading

Even warfare, that most vivid, gripping subject, can prove dull when it is written of by an author who fails to create compelling prose, or when a book is in the hands of someone who simply lacks an innate interest in the topic. But as understanding certain aspects of war history can at time be critical -- interest in and acumen for the subject notwithstanding -- it's important to find books that make military history easily accessible.

The student plodding his way through an American history class and in desperate need of a resource to bolster his insipid textbook might wisely treat himself to a book packed with pictures that can help bring the Civil War to life, for example. A scholar trying to make sense the political climate of the post-9/11 world might be well-served by a book covering the decades of the Cold War that set the tenor for international relations in the current era. Looking for books that take a broad perspective on a major topic (the Civil War or Cold War, e.g.) can help provide context beyond the battlefield without the need for bogging down in details like troop movements and supply line issues.

And anyone who just needs to know a little more about a certain period of history can read a few pages on the major battles of the era for added context and clarity. One need not become a military historian to appreciate that military matters impact everything else about the politics and culture of a time and place.

The War History Book for Deeper Learning

Even the best-written account of a war or battle can only do so much to provide greater context for the events that directly contributed to the conflict, those that were affected by it in its own time, and of the ramifications left by the fighting. A deep understanding of and appreciation for military history writ large, therefore, requires years of reading and study to develop.

But few of us have the time to start our martial studies with the ancient writings of Thucydides, to read next the works of Livy, to eventually move on to William of Tyre, and so forth. Rather the scholar of war history with a realistic appreciation of how much free time and energy she really has would be wise to select a distinct period of history and then study the conflicts within it in chronological order.

For example, a person fascinated with World War I would do herself a great service by first reading up on the warfare of the 19th century. The wars of the post-Napoleonic era, including the Crimean War and the Franco-Prussian War, perhaps most notably, did so much to shape the course of European history in the 1800s that their impact on the war that would shape the 1900s cannot be denied.

Scholars of American military history should start not with the Revolutionary War, but rather with the Seven Years' War (a.k.a. the French and Indian War), as that conflict had direct and profound repercussions on the coming revolution. So too can the student of American Civil War learn much about the tactics used and the men who served in that wretched conflagration learn much from studying the Mexican American War that preceded it by less than two decades and that was a proving ground for many of its major players.

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Last updated on April 03, 2018 by Quincy Miller

Quincy is a writer who was born in Texas, but moved to Los Angeles to pursue his life-long dream of someday writing a second page to one of his screenplays.

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