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C.E. Callwell, Small Wars: Their Principles and Practice (1896)

The roots of modern counterinsurgency strategy are deep. As far back as Roman times historians like Tacitus recorded accounts of regular forces battling local guerrillas, and from these origins a long tradition of studying these peculiar types of conflicts was born. One of the most historically significant efforts to encapsulate lessons from irregular wars, or “small wars,” comes from the pen of British officer C. E. Callwell. Caldwell’s exploration of this type of warfare that yielded what remains one of the most insightful treatments of insurgency and counterinsurgency. While his work is a far cry from modern population-centric visions of counterinsurgency, it represents an important starting point in the development of modern counterinsurgency strategy and tactics.

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Tacitus, Agricola (circa 98 AD)

The Agricola (On the Life and Character of Julius Agricola) is a riveting read. A classic work crafted by the Roman politician and historian Cornelius Tacitus at the very end of the first century AD, modern students of strategy and diplomacy continue to find the account of Roman general and politician Agricola’s exploits in Britain timely and relevant. Part eulogy, part history, part anthropological study, and part military analysis, among other things, the short work explores diverse topics while ostensibly being Tacitus’s way of honoring his father-in-law. Three topics stand out – Agricola as a study of leadership, politics, and counterinsurgency strategy.

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Christine de Pizan, The Book of Deeds of Arms and of Chivalry (circa 1410)

Pizan wrote The Book of Deeds around 1410 during the Hundred Years’ War, a time of conflict between France and England, as well as among various factions for control of France itself. In most of her writings related to politics, her purpose was “to advise the French royal family against the disastrous political infighting that brought the monarchy to the brink of civil war.” The work was written in “the plainest language possible” (Middle French) instead of Latin because she wanted to have an impact on the French military, nor just the court.  As a military manual it tells us a great deal about the strategy, tactics, and technology of medieval warfare and is one of our most important sources for early gunpowder weapon technology.

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B. H. Liddell Hart, Strategy (1954)

The origins of Liddell Hart’s indirect approach are twofold. From a theoretical perspective, he is writing in response to military and political leaders who he claims misread and misapplied the theory of 19th century Prussian military thinker Carl von Clausewitz. From an empirical perspective, he is digesting the experiences of the World Wars, especially the stalemated trench warfare of the Great War and the mechanized and aerial battles of the fight against Hitler. Liddell Hart argues vigorously that the application of poorly understood Clausewitizian strategy fueled the bloodbath that was World War I and the slow adaptation of alternatives during World War II, all of which called into question the validity of the old theory and demanded reformulating how military force might be applied to achieve political aims.

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Sun Tzu, The Art of War (c. 500-300 B.C.)

This classic of Eastern thought draws from Taoist philosophy and addresses the conduct of war and competition between states with poeticism unlike any classic of Western military theory. Thought to be the transcriptions of a general’s advice to his king, The Art of War emphasizes the use of the unorthodox and deception to overcome adversaries without jeopardizing the dynasty’s existence during a period of increase lethality of warfare.

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Geoffroi de Charny, The Book of Chivalry (circa 1350)

Unlike previous manuals of arms and warfare, such as Vegetius or Christine de Pizan, or those that would follow soon after like Machiavelli’s Art of Warfare, Charny does not spend much time discussing the theory of operations or strategy. For Charny, understanding war comes with understanding the knight’s way of life. Charny explains the chivalric ethos, the virtues and the education of the knight and how one can acquire the military prudence needed to be successful in warfare, rather than battlefield methods.

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David Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice (1964)

While great power war defined the first half of the twentieth century, insurgencies defined its latter half. Given present trends, these types of conflicts will rage for the foreseeable future, and students of strategy and diplomacy will want to consider classic counterinsurgency (COIN) writings as they face this future. Central among these is Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice by David Galula. This book written in 1964 was in many ways a forgotten work; however, it quickly grew in prominence as the United States and its allies found themselves facing insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan during the opening years of the twenty-first century.

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Plato, Laches (Fourth Century BC)

One might wonder what someone as supposedly “abstract” or “metaphysical” as Plato could offer by way of strategic insight. Why should practical men, not philosophers, read Plato? Although one could point to a number of examples showing both the speculative and practical worth of the Platonic corpus, the Laches stands out for two reasons. The first is that it is a dialogue on courage, or more literally “manliness,” which seems a quality above all necessary for the successful conduct of warfare.

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Giulio Douhet, The Command of The Air (1921/1927)

Giulio Douhet, an Italian army officer who never learnt to fly, first published one of military theory’s most recognized and controversial works on airpower, The Command of The Air, in 1921. Just three years after the end of the First World War and the first widespread use of airplanes in warfare, this new technology had yet to be fully integrated into military strategy. Douhet advocated a new strategic application for what he identified as the airplane’s superior capabilities in order to avoid the destructive stalemate of the First World War in future wars. Promising a quick and decisive end to war, The Command of The Air synthesized concepts, namely strategic bombing, an independent air force, the dominance of an offensive strategy, and breaking the will of the civilian population, among others, which contributed to the development of the modern air force.

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Julius Caesar, Commentarii de bello Gallico (mid-1st Century BC)

Great generals and statesmen are not always eminent men of letters, but the founder of monarchical Rome was such a man. He is so well regarded as a writer that for a time he was probably more known as a master of Latin prose, rather than the man who reshaped Western Civilization. Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44 BC), perhaps the most famous Roman of them all, was born a patrician. He rose to power by keenness of intellect as well as a healthy dose of democratic sympathies that made him one of the most popular politicians in Rome. Supposedly descended from Aeneas and Venus, as well as nephew to Gaius Marius, he did not lack an illustrious family. During Sulla’s ascendancy Caesar took the opportunity to gain military experience in Asia Minor, where he showed himself to be a conscientious officer. Caesar, like many Roman statesmen, used his military prowess and experience to his political advantage throughout his life, achieving the consulship in 59 BC. After his consulship he was chosen to be governor of Cisalpine Gaul, Illyricum, and Transalpine Gaul. Such extensive political responsibilities came with the command initially of four legions, probably between 15,000 and 20,000 heavy infantry. Caesar’s Commentarii de bello Gallico tells the story of how he used them.

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