Texts and Reading Assignments

If you want to incorporate lessons about war into your class, you’ll probably be looking for some undergraduate level texts to assign to your students. Below are citations and reviews for some texts that I have found useful in the classroom.

My reviews are focused on how these readings might be used in a course, how students have reacted to the readings, and the topics with which they deal, not on the quality of the text itself. I consider all of the texts listed here to be high quality and suitable for classroom assignments, although at varying degrees of difficulty for the students.

♦♦♦♦ The diamonds next to the titles indicate the degree of reading-level difficulty; one-diamond texts can be easily read by most upper-level high school and college freshman students, those with two or three diamonds are suitable for students who have a few years of college experience, and four diamond texts indicate an advanced level reading suitable for upper-level or honors students. These ratings are based on my own experiences of assigning these texts to students, and not on any external criteria.

♦ Malešević, Siniša. 2010. The Sociology of War and Violence. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

There are very few textbook-style works centered on the study of war, and Malesevic’s work is a rare exception. It covers the major topics in the field with historical breadth and substantive depth. This is an especially good text if you want to familiarize your students with the major foundational theories in the field, for example Clausewitz and Weber, without having to assign the original 19th century texts that are difficult for less experienced students. One particularly useful feature is a section on 21st century warfare situated within global patterns of nationalism and economic globalization.

♦♦ Grossman, Dave (Lt. Col.) 1995. On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. New York: Back Bay Books.

This is an excellent, highly readable, and engaging text on the subject of the social psychology of war and combat. It connects well to commonly-covered topics in sociology and psychology, for example Milgrim’s work on authority and Pavlov’s work on conditioning. It is broad enough that it could be used as the main text around which a whole course is built, but has short and relatively self-contained chapters that can be assigned on their own. Despite being nearly two decades old, students have reacted very positively to its current relevance – in particular its discussions of violent video games and the media.

♦♦♦ Walzer, Michael. 1977. Just and Unjust Wars: A moral argument with historical illustrations. New York: Basic Books.


♦♦ Walzer, Michael. 2004. Arguing about War. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Michael Walzer brought the just war tradition into the modern age, first with Just and Unjust Wars (1977) which took the debates over the Vietnam war as its point of departure, and more recently in Arguing about War (2004) in which he applies the just war perspective to non-conventional wars of the 1990s and early 2000s, with a particular focus on the Middle East. Walzer is a philosopher, so these texts connect well with any lesson related to political philosophy or ethics.

♦♦♦ Dower, John W. 1986. War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War. New York: Pantheon.

Offers a comparison of the dynamics of brutality between the Pacific and European theaters of WWII, with a focus on how racial othering, through racist rhetoric and propaganda, leads to increased brutality in war. Contains an excellent set of images of political cartoons and propaganda that illustrate how racial stereotypes were used in WWII to dehumanize the enemy. An excellent real-life historical example of the processes and consequences of racial othering.

♦♦♦♦ Keegan, John. 1976. The Face of Battle. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.

Offers a comparative historical analysis of the experience of three major battles—Agincourt (1415), Waterloo (1815), and the Somme (1916)—to develop a theory of the nature, trend, and abolition of battle. A highly influential work in the field of military and war sociology, and a must-read among military officers; however, my students complained it was too long winded and boring (e.g. written in the style of a British historian). In terms of discussing how the dynamics of warfare have changed over time, however, this is the seminal text.

♦♦♦♦ Bartov, Omer. 1996. Murder in our Midst: The Holocaust, Industrial Killing, and Representation. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

A fascinating examination of mass killing through the lens of modernity and rational bureaucracy. Very similar to the argument made by Bauman (1989), however Bartov deals more extensively with themes of representation and how mass killing becomes imaginable in society. An excellent accompaniment to any discussion on modernity and/or industrialization and its impact on society. However, this is a theoretically dense read that will take some time for even advanced students to absorb.

♦♦♦♦ Bauman, Zygmunt. 1989. Modernity and the Holocaust. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press

A study of the causes of the Holocaust that situates it within modernity and rational bureaucracy. Very similar to the argument made by Bartov (1996), however Bauman focuses more extensively on the interaction between modern rationality and civil society.  An excellent accompaniment to any discussion on modernity and/or industrialization and its impact on society. However, this is a theoretically dense read that will take some time for even advanced students to absorb.

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