Personal Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant (Modern Library, $16). In a race against throat cancer, Grant wrote what would become the paragon for a general's memoir. Reading it in the West Point library, I was drawn to his candor, plain leadership lessons, and humility. Grant's tenacity and a lifetime of writing clear orders are evident in his lean phrases, while his bedrock humanity produces rich portraits of a gruesome war.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain (Dover, $3.50). Twain's novel, about a Hartford engineer who after a crack on the head wakes in medieval England, is a fascinating story of an individual striving to change a society, checked at every turn by cultural inertia, entrenched interests, and petty politics.
August 1914 by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (out of print). August 1914 — which I first read as a young officer — follows a Russian colonel at the Battle of Tannenberg who comes to the nauseating conclusion, well before it's clear to his superiors, that Russian defeat is inevitable. And the loss emerges from the worst battlefield flaws: hubris and a failure to communicate.
Defeat Into Victory by William Slim (Cooper Square, $23). On the Burmese front during the Second World War, Slim commanded a multinational force that after an initial routing by the Japanese was physically spent and despairing. With utter humility, Slim recounts how his team gradually stitched together an army that believed it could win — and did.
Street Without Joy by Bernard Fall (Stackpole, $22). When my father deployed to Vietnam in 1965, I was hungry to know more about the land and war he'd been sent to and so turned to the books of Bernard Fall. This 1961 work shows how France consistently underestimated the insurgency — until they couldn't defeat it.
The Face of Battle by John Keegan (Penguin, $16). In The Face of Battle — published the year I graduated from West Point — Keegan writes that military academy cadets' knowledge of war is "theoretical, anticipatory, and secondhand." His book is an antidote to this, putting the reader amid the clang of armor and putrid trench mud.
— Stanley McChrystal's new memoir, My Share of the Task, details two campaigns — his efforts to transform a special-ops task force charged with defeating al Qaeda and his more recent bid to re-energize the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan.
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