Why We Fight

Thomas E. Ricks’s U.S. Military Book Bag

The author of The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today and The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006–2008 picks his favorite books on recent U.S. military history.

World War II

This is almost impossible. Where to start? There are so many good histories, so many powerful memoirs, starting with Winston Churchill’s and Field Marshal Slim’s. Also, Rick Atkinson’s trilogy on the Army’s war in Europe—the last volume will come out next year—is a must read. But when I think of my single favorite, I think it has to be Eugene Sledge’s With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa.


I’m tempted to pick Martin Russ’s The Last Parallel, a memoir of being a Marine near the end of the war. But the centerpiece of the war really for me is the Chosin Reservoir campaign. For that, I think I’d have to pick Roy Appleman’s East of Chosin, a painful history of the forgotten fight of an Army regiment that was wiped out on the east side of the reservoir.

The Vietnam War

An odd war—thousands of volumes written, but no one great book. Right now I am in the middle of Karl Marlantes’s novel Matterhorn, which is terrific. But I won’t know if it is my favorite until I finish it. Until then, I think I will have to choose James McDonough’s Platoon Leader.

The 1991 Gulf War

For this one, I think I’d have to go with The Generals’ War, by Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor. It covered the war but also provided some prescient doubts about the quality of U.S. military leadership.

The War in Iraq

Putting aside my own works on this war (Fiasco and The Gamble), I think my favorite so far is The Long Walk, a memoir by a bomb disposal technical, Brian Castner.

The War in Afghanistan

The overall book hasn’t been written yet. But I think the ones that capture the feel of how this war went are the many memoirs about how Osama bin Laden escaped at Tora Bora. The place to begin is probably Gary Berntsen’s Jawbreaker.