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The (Traditional) On Violence Reading List

If you run a military blog, there is only one requirement: make a reading list.

I kid. But there are more reading lists on milblogs than Navy Commanders fired for misconduct, so I’ve avoided making one. (The closest we came was this On Violence gift recommendations post.)

Nevertheless, a good friend from my ROTC days recently took command of a company, and he asked me for my suggestions on good books for his new lieutenants. He specified that his unit probably won’t deploy soon, so he wanted a more general military reading list than the hyper-COIN focused lists of a few years ago. And though the world has enough reading lists, I loved the idea of spouting off on my ideas for books to read. I decided to divide my list into three parts: Traditional, Non-Traditional and Management.

Today I’ll tackle the traditional military side; the books I fell in love with before I left to expand my mind at B-school. I tried (with great difficulty and much concentration) to limit my books about counter-insurgency,, whereas my management list covers the books every officer should read to learn about leading.

(Also, I ranked these books in order of priority.)

1. The Defense of Duffer’s Drift by Sir Ernest Dunlop Swinton. A 1904 novella about a British officer holding a drift during the Boer War, this book manages to explain the principles behind patrolling and small unit tactics better than any manual, while providing an unintended lesson on counter-insurgency.

2. The Accidental Guerrilla by David Kilcullen. Yes, I know this reading list isn’t supposed to be too counter-insurgency heavy, but if you’re going to read one book on irregular warfare/post-9/11 conflict, read this one. David Kilcullen captures the nuances of the motivations behind insurgents, terrorists and globalization.

3. The Art of Maneuver by Robert Leonhard. Shockingly, though this book wasn’t published in the 19th century, it brilliantly captures the principles of war, physics and maneuver warfare. The Art of Maneuver shows how most of the Pentagon’s leaders lacks true strategic and operational creativity. For instance, it describes how the U.S. Army still loves to attack an opponent at his strongest point, instead of his weakest. (That principle applies to regular and irregular warfare too.)

4. A History of Warfare by John Keegan. We should understand the phenomena we practice. A History of Warfare manages to combine a true history of warfare with brilliant asides on the cultural, technological and environmental ramifications of war.

5. Fiasco by Tom Ricks. The best history of the start of the disaster in Mesopotamia and a lesson on leadership in the military.

6. Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife by John Nagl. Yes, I know I said I was going light on counter-insurgency. However, Nagl’s text isn’t so much about counter-insurgency, but institutional learning. Specifically how a bureaucratic Army set-up to fight a conventional, maneuver war can learn to fight an irregular, counter-insurgency. I would argue the military never actually learned how to eat soup with a knife during the last ten years, but that’s partly what makes this a compelling read.

7. Once an Eagle by Anton Meyer. A book about an officer who fights in three different wars, it has lessons on bureaucracy, leadership and warfare. A very long, but very good encapsulation of what it means to succeed as an officer. (Oh, and it too has an ironic detour into irregular warfare too.)

Tune in Monday for our non-traditional reading list.

eleven comments

That’s a decent list for Army officers, I guess. However, Kilcullen’s “The Accidental Guerrilla” never did it for me. I’m a devout believer that religious ideology, evolutionary predispositions, and financial status do more to advance the explanation of modern Islamic terrorism than the components Kilcullen exemplifies.

You can never go wrong with Keegan, either. That dude has been dropping military bibles for years.


Evolutionary predispositions?! What the hell does that mean?

As for religious ideology and financial status, I suspect you may be grouping all Middle Eastern/Central Asian belligerent forces under one umbrella. There are the terrorists – those with the political grievances against governments like the House of Saud, the old Egyptian and Algerian governments, and their American backers, or against Israel and their American backers, or against Russia; and then there are the guerrillas who have a localised ‘don’t tread on me’ mentality and take up arms against anyone who stamps through their neighbourhood. The former occasionally export violence in order to make their point. The latter don’t.


Evolutionary prediposition for violent, psychopathic capability: men kill men for women and/or opportunities with women.

This basic principle truly “captures the nuances of the motivations behind insurgents, terrorists and globalization”. Have you been living under a fucking rock or something?


I have spent a fair chunk of time on every continent on this planet save Antarctica. The only place I’ve ever come across anything resembling a group of people following the principle of men killing for women is in Greek and Nordic mythology (you know – the foundations of Western, Anglo-Saxon culture), and on tv shows like “24.”

Further, “insurgents, [and] terrorists” covers an awfully broad range of groups, to include American-funded groups like the IRA, Alpha 66, Omega 7, and Commandos L (as an aside, there may be a decent professional development topic there). I suspect that each of those organizations would dispute your claim of their motivations – and many other groups are pretty anti-globalization, though I’m not sure I follow how it’s involved in your theory.


The principle of men killing men for women is not contained solely in primitive mythology. I strongly suggest you read “The Dark Side of Man: Tracing The Origins of Male Violence” by Ghiglieri to become familiar with the topic of evolutionary psychology correspondent to violence/terrorism.

Secondly, while I have not had the pleasure to become associated with members belonging to Omega 7 and the like, my direct experience with EPWs and enemy combatant detainees and coalition/NATO-ISAF interpreters have indefinitely substantiated my personal beliefs. Young, poor, and sexually frustrated-repressed males living in polygamist Islamic societies are more concerned with money and women than they are with occupying militaries.

As a general illustration, consider the illegitimate endeavors criminal organizations engage in to recruit street-level members. Custody interviews, pre-trial information, and FBI data confirm that such recruiters elicit the commitment of young men by promising them women. Men engage in criminality (ie terrorism) to secure respect, wealth, and resources in order to obtain opportunities of sexual reproduction with women to secure their footing in our gracious gene pool. Why do you think men vie so vigorously for structural power?


Also, you might want to consider the ratios of males to females in Indonesia (largest muslim population) to Syria, Libya, Iraq, and Egypt. Then consider the terrorism statistics associated with each country respectfully.


I haven’t read Ghiglieri, but from what I’ve seen from a casual web search it looks like his conclusions about violence cut across humanity and so are too broad to explain the motivations of all terror groups. We also have a problem with definitions. Evolution refers to genetic changes, and in the case of humans suggests a fork off of homo sapiens to something different (homo psychoticus?), which I suppose would make Homeland Security’s job easier. However, what you are referring to is actually social adaptation, and is a response to social situations. Afghanistan actually makes a decent case study, comparing social violence in the ‘60’s and early ‘70’s (when it was a stop on the hippy trail and mullahs were tolerated but generally ignored), and the post-Soviet invasion decades (when social structures were shattered, rule of law of any nature ceased to exist, and a gun was necessary for simple survival).

I won’t question your experiences with Afghans, but they are completely at odds with my encounters around Kandahar with various locals, both voluntary and involuntary (well before Killcullen published The Accidental Guerrilla, so unbiased by that reading). It’s also completely at odds with my encounters with Bosnian militants. But my experiences are purely anecdotal, lacking sample size or regional diversity to be valid for drawing broad conclusions.

As for Indonesia, Libya, Syria, Iraq and Egypt (why not throw in Pakistan and India too? Their Muslim populations are larger than some you mentioned) – I caution you that correlation does not equal causation. Those countries all have substantially different political and social structures and pressures, economic resources and opportunities, but they also have high rates of corruption, bureaucratic inertia, poor distribution of wealth, unequal access to services and opportunities, internal prejudices etc. It’s possible that some of those issues might influence people to take up arms as much, or even more so than challenges in getting laid. If that were the case, we’d see China dissolving into complete anarchy.

Heck, if it was as simple as that, we’d see a lot more Dungeons & Dragons groups messing around with fertilizer bombs and kidnap & ransom.


Except the dudes playing “Dungeons & Dragons” likely have a toilet with treated running water to defecate in. Do you see where this discussion is going?

And no, I am not, nor is Ghiglieri, referring to “social adaptation”. Human and animal males displaying the same instinctive characteristic traits are not “social adaptations”. A real man (or alpha male mammal), that is, a valid candidate for sexual reproduction, will resort to violence (ie terrorism) if access to potential female mates is infringed, restricted, or even blocked completely. German researcher publicist Peter Scholl-Latour, whom holds a master’s degree in Arab and Islamic Studies from Beirut, also affirms that sexual frustration and repression is ultra prevalent in Middle Eastern regions (and their inhabitant transplants). Like I said in my original post, sexual frustration, religious ideology, and socioeconomic status are the perfect facilitators for an irregular to begin wielding a Kalashnikov or emplacing an IED.

Further, aside from:

different political and social structures and pressures, economic resources and opportunities, […] high rates of corruption, bureaucratic inertia, poor distribution of wealth, unequal access to services and opportunities, internal prejudices etc

Indonesia possesses the most dense Muslim population in the world. However, their terrorism “rates” are far less than comparable Middle Eastern and Iranian-based Muslim regions. I think we both agree that Indonesia has a steady supply of poon where even the poorest demographic population has legitimate access to the opposite sex. I’m surprised that with all the supposed travelling you have achieved with Muslim countries, you have failed the notice that Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, and Palestine primarily offer women whom have fallen from the ugly tree and hit every branch falling down. And let’s not forget about the facial features of your average regional Arab either.

In Ukraine and the United States, you go out on a Saturday night, watch some football/soccer, drink some beer, and pork some blonde stunner. In Egypt and other dirt-poor Muslim countries, you player soccer with other males, go home after prayer, drink tea and choke chicken.


Well, you devoutly believe your theories, and I completely disagree with them (I find the theory simplistic for the Middle East and completely flawed for explaining violence elsewhere in the world, and so the whole thing strikes me as racism masquerading as junk science), and we aren’t going to change each other’s minds, so I’m stepping out of this discussion. But thank you for exposing me to Ghiglieri.


. . . though since you did me the benefit of introducing me to a school of thought I feel I should return the favour. You might enjoy V.S. Naipaul’s “Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions among the Converted Peoples.” To crudely summarize, his thesis is that Islam is a colonial force, not being the natural state for many of its adherents. It’s not a universally accepted theory, but offers another perspective on the differences of Indonesia (among others) and the region in the immediate vicinity of Mecca and Medina.


In actuality, the theory is simplistic to a complex problem. That’s the beauty of it. Do you know what Saudi Arabia’s most effective terrorist rehabilitation program is? Hooking violators up with women! How can the theory be flawed when applied to global violence and crime, though? Men rape women for the sole purpose of fornication. Step-parents abuse and kill step-children to eliminate their genes. Rampant intimate partner violence as a result of infidelity. We’re all a part of this animal kingdom. The competition for mates augmented by evolutionary psychology is anything but flawed.

Thanks for that recommendation. I’ll check out that book.