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Wargame_[space] Reading List

I love reading military history. So much that I’ve accumulated close to a thousand volumes of the stuff. I get enough requests for recommendations that I decided it made sense to keep them all in one place. There will be constant additions to the page, so keep checking back. Once there are enough entries, I’ll split this into separate pages by time period. There are a lot of books I have to recommend that haven’t made it to the list yet. But there’s work to do on that yet.

There will be much more than just books about World War II, but it just worked out that the first ones are all about that war. I have things to write about the Napoleonic Wars, Vietnam, the American Civil War, and even the northern crusades (in the Baltic). Stay tuned.

EASTERN FRONT 1941-45

My first interest in military history was the Eastern Front, and I’ve been fascinated by it ever since. I’ve accumulated a large library on the subject and am always looking for more. I’ll develop this into its own separate page (and eventually into pages for each phase of the campaign) but for now, I’ve chosen just a few books to start.

Barbarossa: The Russian-German Conflict 1941-45 by Alan Clark

I get asked a lot about “what book should I read about the Eastern Front?” and I keep coming back to the same one. Alan Clark’s book was written in 1965, and despite all the archival data that has surfaced since the 1990s, it still remains a pretty good account of the campaign, and certainly the best single-volume work I can think of. It swallows much less of the German generals’ excuses than subsequent accounts did, and comes to some of the same conclusions that historians like David Glantz did thirty years later. If you want to learn about the Eastern Front – from the beginning of the war to end – from scratch and do it with just one book, this is it.

 

Barbarossa Derailed by David Glantz

This was one of two military histories I’ve read in the past ten years that fundamentally changed my understanding of an event I previously thought I understood. Up until that point, I thought the Germans had frittered away their advantage in early August by just sitting around in front of Smolensk, due to the order to split the next effort between Leningrad and Kiev. David Glantz has done much to show that the battle for Smolensk was so fierce, and the losses so devastating to the Germans, that the delay in the drive for Moscow can be largely attributed to the Russian defense. It’s not an easy read for the layman, but it is a treasure trove for those looking for a better understanding of a complex situation, as well as those wanting to design games or scenarios.

 

The Retreat by Michael Jones

The Soviet winter counteroffensive in 1941-42 is less well documented in English that either Barbarossa or Stalingrad, but to me it’s one of the most interesting times in the war because while the Germans are initially routed tactically, they aren’t routed strategically. How the Wehrmacht didn’t fall apart in front of Moscow (and the ways in which it did) are documented in Michael Jones book, which is full of eyewitness accounts but which he leavens with good historiographic analysis. It’s a tremendously compelling read.

 

Besieged: The Epic Battle for Cholm by Jason Mark

Jason Mark is an Australian author who is not, to my knowledge, a historian. Instead, he is part archivist and part private investigator, and his specialty is reconstructing the experiences of individual units through the correspondence, diaries, and photographs of participants. His book about the siege of Cholm has the advantage of telling a story about a battle that was small in scope, instead of a small part of a larger battle like his books about Stalingrad. I’ll have reviews of those up at some point as well, but if you want to read individual soldier experiences in a copiously illustrated (with photos) account, this is the one to get. I have a piece on the website that explains why I find this particular book so unique.

 

NORTH AFRICA 1940-43

The Desert Generals by Correlli Barnett.

I first read this book over twenty years ago. It was first published over fifty years ago. It still reads like a brand new book. It appeared in 1960, right around the time that the so-called “Montgomery myth” was at its height, and started the rehabilitation of the reputation of Gen. Auchinleck, who until then had been seen mostly as the man who tried to lose North Africa to Rommel until Monty came along and won it. It examines all the British desert generals, from O’Connor to Montgomery, and Rommel is of course ever-present. It has some magnificent insights, especially about events like the famed “dash to the wire,” but more than any military history I’ve read, it’s both erudite and stylish without being superficial. I’d compare Barnett to Anthony Beevor, but there’s a bit of old school in his style (Barnett was born in 1927) that is reminiscent of the late John Keegan, but with a bit of cheek that, for better or worse, his more famous contemporary lacked. I’ve chosen one small excerpt as an example.

Moreover there is no doubt about German superiority in two crucial things — telescopic sights and anti-tank artillery, in particular the 88 mm. gun, though subsequent research has shown that its relative importance was exaggerated in wartime. This magnificent German weapon had been designed as an anti-aircraft gun, but the Germans had found that it was far superior in hitting tanks to their own new 50 mm. anti-tank gun, which was arriving just before Crusader, and itself more powerful than the two-pounder. The 88 mm. was so dangerous that four of them could stop an armoured brigade. General Messervy considered the surprise of their first appearance in Battleaxe was a major cause of the failure of that operation. Yet its possible influence on Crusader does not seem to have been appreciated or countered. The tragedy however lay in that the British also had a magnificent anti-aircraft gun, the 3.7-inch, no more of a conspicuous target than the 88 mm., and of even greater penetrative power. In November 1941 there were in North Africa more 3.7’s than 88’s. But the British never used them in an anti-tank role, either in Crusader or in later desert battles. It was a depressing example of a streak of conservatism, rigidity and departmentalism in the twentieth-century British mind. The 3.7 was an anti-aircraft gun. It was to be used therefore to shoot at aircraft. The two-pounder was supplied to shoot tanks. And that was that.

And that was that, indeed. Read the book. It just gets better.

 

Rommel’s Desert War by Martin Kitchen.

While relatively recent (2009), Kitchen’s book is the only English-language study I have found of the Axis war in North Africa from the Axis point of view. In fact, while the book is called “Rommel’s Desert War,” it almost reads like an account of the Italian conduct of the campaign, or at least from the Italian political perspective. It is pretty harsh on Rommel, but the insight into the driving factors behind the campaign (supply, and the incredible obstacles to acquiring it, as well as the political machinations that hamstrung German-Italian joint operations) is extremely enlightening.

 

PACIFIC THEATER 1941-45

Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway by Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully.

This is the second of two military history books I’ve read in the past ten years or so that have truly changed my understanding of events I previously thought I understood. Truly an amazing book. You can read my full review in essay format here.

 

THE WARS IN VIETNAM AND SOUTHEAST ASIA

I see this as one long, continuous historical category, rather than a series of discrete moments. In this way, France and colonialism are inseparable from US Cold War concerns or Vietnamese nationalism. For that reason, I’ve lumped a lot of books with disparate topics into one space. You can chose to focus on one element or another, but it’s all part of the same story.

Embers of War by Fredrik Logevall.

It’s hard to follow the course of events between America’s entrance into Vietnam and its exit without trying to understand the entire history of the region from 1945 on. It’s like reading a history of the American Revolution without really knowing what Great Britain is. Logevall, in one volume, presents a coherent, well-researched history of Vietnam from the end of World War II through the beginnings of American involvement. It’s probably going to be the definitive book in English on this period for a while. It’s a little too willing to engage in the sort of pining after lost opportunities that is only possible by taking Ho Chi Minh at face value, but the skill with which Logevall merges the political, social, and military aspects of history is impressive.

 

Hell in a Very Small Place by Bernard Fall.

This is the definitive story of the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, written by the definitive storyteller. Fall’s access to French records just ten years after the battle made his account (published in 1966) essential, and he superlative writing has kept it that way as numerous new histories surfaced. It’s gripping, knowledgeable, heartbreaking, opinionated, unputdownable.

 

The Last Valley by Martin Windrow.

If Bernard Fall’s Hell in a Very Small Place is the Dien Bien Phu story for those familiar with military history, Windrow’s book is the one for those who aren’t. It spends a lot of time explaining the hows and whys of military operations that make it easy to follow events, even explaining why certain parachutes were used and not others. He’s an excellent storyteller as well (although nothing really rivals Bernard Fall).

 

Decision Against War by Melanie Billings-Yun.

This is a short, to-the-point argument that Eisenhower never really intended to commit American military forces to aid the French at Dien Bien Phu, and that his diplomatic maneuverings actually preserved his political clout and the US-French relationship in the absence of the US riding to the rescue in Indochina. This is the part of the Dien Bien Phu story that sometimes gets obfuscated in accounts of the battle. It’s easy to follow and, at 160 pages, easy to finish.

 

Street Without Joy by Bernard Fall.

Fall tells the rest of the French Indochina story in this book, with the same verve evident in Hell in a Very Small Place. Everything about that book applies to this one. It’s a tragedy that Fall was killed in 1967 without giving us a book like this about the American war.

 

Replacing France: The Origins of American Intervention in Vietnam by Kathryn Statler.

The transition between the French defeat in Indochina and the American involvement in Vietnam isn’t well documented in popular history, and Statler’s history is academic in the extreme, but it’s tremendously informative. It’s almost exclusively a diplomatic history, but it documents this so thoroughly you only ask political and economic questions in hindsight. I haven’t read Mark Lawrence’s Assuming the Burden (2007), but I now feel less uninformed for not having done so.

 

America in Vietnam by Guenter Lewy.

Written in 1980, I think this is still the best overall history of the Vietnam War. It’s balanced, logical, consistent, and is extremely well written. It is sometimes wrongly considered a “revisionist” history, which is ridiculous because it was the first complete history of the war. Revisionist in this case comes to mean “anything other than the no-win scenario.” Anyone starting out reading about the American part of the war should start here.

 

Fire in the Lake by Frances FitzGerald.

As classic a work as there is on the Vietnam War — partly because it was among the first — FitzGerald’s book is unique in that it’s written in English from the Vietnamese point of view. More of a cultural history of the country in the context of the war rather than a military history of the war itself, it is only hampered by being published in 1972, before the fall of South Vietnam.

 

Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War 1954-65 by Mark Moyar.

There are a bunch of good so-called “revisionist” histories of the Vietnam War (including Michael Lind’s Vietnam, The Necessary War and James Robbins’ “This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive”), but I like Moyar’s book best because of its depth, focus, quality of research, and excellent military sense. Unfortunately, we’re still waiting for the sequel.

 

Big Story by Peter Braestrup

An exhaustive analysis of the media reaction to the Tet Offensive of 1968, Braestrup’s book is as essential reading on the war as FitzGerald’s book is. Braestrup was the chief of the Washington Post’s Saigon bureau during the offensive, and makes a convincing case the the press made tremendous errors of fact and inference in its coverage, and that this misreporting was an important factor in the discordance between the military and political effects of Tet. Furthermore, Braestrup attributes this not to some kind of mendacious leftism, but, well … simple incompetence. The book can be dense at times, but Braestrup’s writing keeps it together, and the references are more than worth the price of admission. There are two versions: the two-volume original published in 1977, and a later “abridged” version from 1983.

 

Vietnam: History of an Unwinnable War by John Prados.

Prados designed the classic boardgame¬†Rise and Decline of the Third Reich or just “Third Reich” in 1974, around the time the Vietnam War was ending. Thirty-five years later, he wrote a lengthy history of the war, at the beginning of which he admits to being involved in anti-war protests throughout the 1960s. That’s not a criticism, but a warning, because Prados doesn’t do a very good job keeping his anger at the war out of the book. Heck, he couldn’t even keep it out of the title. But his research is extensive, even if he doesn’t necessarily apply it as methodically and judiciously as Lewy does. It’s an important book to read, though, because it’s an articulate case for the “no-win scenario” theory, that shouldn’t be ignored just because the reader is on the opposite end of the political spectrum (just as the revisionist histories shouldn’t be, either).