Military History for the Modern Strategist


Military History for the Modern Strategist

America's Major Wars Since 1861

Michael E. O’Hanlon
Release Date: January 24, 2023

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.

Praise for Military History for the Modern Strategist

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.— Melanie Sisson, Fellow, Strobe Talbott Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology, Brookings Institution

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.— Stanley McChrystal, former commander, International Security Assistance Force (Afghanistan), U.S. Joint Special Operations Command

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.— Lawrence Freedman, Emeritus Professor of War Studies, King’s College London

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.— Kenneth Pollack, Senior Fellow, American Enterprise InstituteMichael 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.

— Conrad Crane, research historian, Army War College, author of Cassandra in Oz: Counterinsurgency and Future War and American Airpower Strategy in World War II

For Michael O’Hanlon, prolific author and strategy expert at the Brookings Institution, it is beyond time that policymakers and leaders addressed these intellectual shortfalls by studying the military history of the U.S. and assessing the role of the military element of power in grand strategy.

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.
Proceedings, July 2023, Vol. 149/7/1,445

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).