The recent conclusion to the war in Afghanistan — America’s longest and one of its most frustrating — serves as a vivid reminder of the unpredictability and tragedy of war.
In this timely book, esteemed military expert Michael O’Hanlon examines America’s major conflicts since the mid-1800s: the Civil War, the two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. O’Hanlon addresses profound questions. How successful has the United States been when it waged these wars? Were the wars avoidable? Did America’s leaders know what they were getting into when they committed to war? And what lessons does history offer for future leaders contemplating war?—including the prospects for avoiding war in the first place. Certainly, Vladimir Putin should have thought harder about some of these questions before invading Ukraine.
O’Hanlon looks for overarching trends and themes, along with the lessons for the military strategists and political leaders of today and tomorrow. His main lessons include the observations that war is usually far more difficult than expected, and that its outcomes are rarely predictable.
O’Hanlon’s unique book — combining brevity and clarity with a broad conceptual approach —is an important for students of security studies at universities and war colleges as well as generalists.
Michael O’Hanlon holds the Phil Knight Chair in Defense and Strategy at Brookings, where he also is director of research and director of the Talbott Center in the Foreign Policy program. He teaches at Columbia and Georgetown universities and elsewhere. Earlier in his career, O’Hanlon worked for the Congressional Budget Office, the Peace Corps, the “gravity group” at Princeton University, and dairy farms in upstate New York. He is the author of some 20 books, most recently The Art of War in an Age of Peace: U.S. Grand Strategy and Resolute Restraint (Yale, 2021).
Preface to the Updated Edition
Preface and Acknowledgments
1 The American Civil War
2 World War I
3 World War II
4 Korea and Vietnam
5 America’s Wars in the Middle East since 1990
6 Three Lessons
As anyone who is interested in military history can attest, an early step is finding a suitable ‘survey’ book—a foundational text that provides both overview and analysis, leading to other works for further reading. This can be a difficult balance to strike, between the barebones entries in the encyclopedia and thousand-page paperweights that cover every troop movement and intercepted communiqué. Both have value; however, for most readers of history, both are likely less than desirable. In Military History for the Modern Strategist, Brookings Institution senior fellow Michael O’Hanlon packages crisp recaps of America’s major conflicts from 1861 to 2022 with analysis of grand strategy, offering an excellent starting point for aspiring strategists looking to apply lessons from past conflicts to today’s and tomorrow’s challenges….Military History for the Modern Strategist arrives at a critical transition point in U.S. military history. White papers abound from civilian think tanks and military red cells about what ‘could’ happen, but the lessons of history are equally important in strategy planning. O’Hanlon says it best as he concludes: ‘Military history is fundamentally sobering. For that reason its value is hard to exaggerate.’ This book is a necessary historical guide that will help inform the hard decisions that the next generation of planners and strategists will have to make, when the United States once again goes to war.
Military History for the Modern Strategist is heavily researched and documented and is an interesting reappraisal of the conduct and outcomes of America’s major wars since 1861. It is highly recommended to those with special interest in strategy, decision-making at high levels of authority[,] and unintended consequences.
Michael O’Hanlon has devoted his career to thinking and writing about the causes, courses, and consequences of war so that future such tragedies are less likely to occur, and less devastating when they do. With Military History for the Modern Strategist O’Hanlon has produced a focused, consumable volume full of lessons from America’s past wars – lessons that are more apt and urgent today than at any time since the Cold War’s end. The book is an insistent reminder that it is only the knowledge, perceptions, and choices of America’s leaders, expressed in strategy, that bind the destructive activities of war to the nation’s political purpose, and to its principles. Reading this book will help the country’s leaders design those strategies with humanity and humility.
A brilliant, yet sobering overview of modern war by a uniquely qualified and thoughtful expert. Michael O’Hanlon put conflicts from the Civil War to Afghanistan into strategic context with a concise clarity that is fascinating for veterans of past wars, and fundamental for strategists of the future. His final chapter’s ‘Three Lessons’ should be required reading for policymakers.
In this timely, intriguing and readable book, Michael O'Hanlon casts the eye of a contemporary strategist over America's past wars to consider their origins and conduct, and what they tell us about how to prepare for future wars, warning especially about the dangers of falling into the trap of overconfidence.
In Military History for the Modern Strategist, Michael O’Hanlon demonstrates once again why he is one of the outstanding defense analysts of our time. He has astutely recognized that at a time of profound strategic uncertainty and change, the smartest thing we can do is to go back to basics: start with the military history of our nation over the past century and a half and build upon its lessons to fashion a new grand strategy that can carry us through the coming era. It is a brilliant approach, and he has executed it marvelously well in these pages. Here he provides all of the key information and insights from America’s major conflicts since the Civil War in a way that is both elegant and concise—precisely right as the basis for new strategic thinking.
Michael O’Hanlon has created a unique American military history primer for policymakers that particularly emphasizes two great truths: wars never proceed along the path belligerents expect, and quick, cheap victories are extremely rare.
History humbles us—hence the reason we continue to ignore Clio’s lessons. Dr. O’Hanlon’s superb book, however, returns Clio to her indispensable role for the strategist and policymaker, whilst also reminding us that to prepare for future (and inevitable) conflict, we need to learn from our past. Dr. O’Hanlon’s book serves as a welcome primer to guide undergraduate and graduate classrooms alike in understanding that without history’s instruction we will fail.
O’Hanlon does not look to surprise; the book’s “just the facts” attitude aligns with his didactic mission. His intent, as he outlines in the book’s introduction, is to relay the key elements of each conflict and its outcomes “conceptually and succinctly,” tailor-made for the busy policymaker.
O’Hanlon’s book has much to offer those who are new to the subject and will benefit from an essentially clear read.
O’Hanlon focuses on the operational level of war, though he deftly interweaves discussion of tactics and technology, strategy and policy, and civil-military relations and politics as appropriate. His descriptions and analyses of these conflicts are clear and balanced. Though readers already familiar with these conflicts might gain little in terms of new factual knowledge, even experts will benefit from the analytical framing of key decisions by civilian and military leaders. O’Hanlon’s consistent focus throughout the book on contingency—at what point things might have gone differently—is a particular strength. In short, this book successfully delivers what the sub-title promises: a concise discussion of America’s major wars since 1861 through the eyes of an experienced analyst…. The modern strategist will indeed benefit from his overview of America’s major wars since 1861 and the warnings to remain humble and ready for the unexpected.
1/16/23, Washington Post: Michael O’Hanlon wrote an opinion piece about the Ukraine war.
1/27/23, Wall Street Journal: Michael O’Hanlon wrote an opinion piece about what is often underestimated during war.
2/16/23, Air & Space Forces magazine: Michael O’Hanlon provided his expertise on the topic of a U.S.-China conflict.
2/18/23, The News Courier: Michael O’Hanlon commented on the possibility of a World War III with China.
2/21/23, The Washington Post: Michael O’Hanlon analyzed the war in Ukraine in this insightful piece.
2/23/23, Firstpost: Michael O’Hanlon compared the strength of the U.S. Navy versus China’s in this article.
2/26/23, Politics and Prose: The recording for Michael O’Hanlon’s book event at Politics and Prose is now available.
April issue, Bethesda Magazine: This was included in a roundup of new titles.
3/26/2023, History News Network: James Thornton Harris interviews Michael O'Hanlon on the book and why policy makers need to understand history.
7/1/23, New Books Network / History: Michael O’Hanlon was interviewed by Sam Canter about the book.
8/21/23, The U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center: Author Michael O’Hanlon gives a talk on the book. Link https://youtu.be/cr3vHQHu9XI?si=BDfHYokMgn9dnpYS