Reading WarBooks & Strategy: A Summary

Editor's Note: The Warbooks project has been taken over by the Modern War Institute.


Almost a year ago, the editors at WarCouncil.org announced an initiative seeking insight from military and civilian leaders, strategists, academics, and others. The topic? Their experiences in the study of war and accessing the three thousand year old mind. The result? WarBooks.  

Each contributor was asked to provide a list of their top five books (with no fixed criteria) and to identify the one book that shaped them most.

Each contributor was asked to provide a list of their top five books (with no fixed criteria) and to identify the one book that shaped them most.

Forty-seven contributors later — contributors ranging from cadets to general officers and encompassing multiple services and national communities — we find ourselves with a collection of over 200 titles and a question: What insights might those studying war glean from this list?

The first trend that emerges is that while nonfiction comprises the vast majority of entries, a significant number of fiction titles are found as well. Moreover, fiction is more prevalent among titles described as having shaped individuals the most. Even more interesting, if we look at the military respondents the rate at which fiction appears in an individual list more than quadruples as we move from the most junior to the most senior participants. The sample is small and likely not representative, so we want to be very careful in drawing too broad a conclusion, but what does this suggest for the value of fiction in the study of war and strategy? 

Perhaps…the most senior contributors, are onto something when it comes to fiction and a military education.

There are cogent arguments that the imperatives of fiction make it a problematic source for strategic education. Others, however, argue that strategy

…is protean, incessantly assuming different forms and presenting new predicaments beyond the ken of established methodologies … [and] some of the greatest classical texts — the Iliad, the Aeneid — deal with such challenges through their unboundedness, intertwining what would later be labeled as history, theology, psychology, literature, and philosophy.

Further, there is evidence to suggest significant benefits from fiction in combating cognitive closure, a pernicious bias that leaves us less able to deal with contingency and uncertainty. Perhaps the respondents, especially the most senior contributors, are onto something when it comes to fiction and a military education. And they are not alone.

What is the strategic cannon? This list is suggestive (but only suggestive). Each title shown was included by at least two WarBooks contributors (text size indicates the relative frequency). Titles in purple indicate cross service selection while titles in gray/black indicate selection by a single service or group, the titles rotated 90 degrees are fiction works, and finally the bright purple/black indicate a title selected as “most significant.”

What is the strategic cannon? This list is suggestive (but only suggestive). Each title shown was included by at least two WarBooks contributors (text size indicates the relative frequency). Titles in purple indicate cross service selection while titles in gray/black indicate selection by a single service or group, the titles rotated 90 degrees are fiction works, and finally the bright purple/black indicate a title selected as “most significant.”

…THE QUEST FOR WISDOM IN WAR…IS ONE TO PURSUE…“AS BEES SUCK NECTAR FROM MANY A FLOWER AND MAKE THEIR HONEY ONE.”

Possibly the most interesting observation in the list, though, is its breadth and the lack of overlap in individual responses. Of the 234 separate titles submitted — books, movies, essays, audio lectures, etc. — only twenty-seven were suggested by more than one participant. 

While these twenty-seven may suggest a core from which our educations might begin, the other 207 suggest that the search for a schoolbook solution to the books one should read may be fruitless. Perhaps the quest for wisdom in war and for a three thousand year old mind is one to pursue, as the Chandogya Upanishad advises, “as bees suck nectar from many a flower and make their honey one.” And while there may be a core cannon, diversity of thought, experience, and circumstance are important characteristics to consider in our own education and in the total value of our collective minds.

In the end, a static list cannot capture the depth and breadth of the WarBooks, not least because we hope to see the WarBooks continue to grow and evolve just as we and the other contributors to it will. But pausing periodically to reflect on the list and consider the wisdom in it is important…if only to help one to choose the next book destined for our shelf.


Eric M. Murphy is a mathematician, operations research analyst, and strategist for the United States Air Force; his WarBooks profile can be found here. Katherine Batterton is a statistician and operations research analyst for the United States Air Force. The conclusions and opinions expressed in this article are theirs alone and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


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