Raghu Raman‘s career profile is a unique one: after serving in the Armed Forces for 11 years, he entered the corporate sector for another 11 years before joining the government as CEO of the National Intelligence Grid. Author of Everyman’s War: Strategy, Security and Terrorism in India, we asked him to list out his 5 picks for books on war:
Choosing just five books on any subject is a difficult task, but it becomes especially daunting when it comes to war, an activity that humans have engaged in from primordial times. Most people despise war and wish for a peaceful world. Ironically, that’s not just utopian, but also impossible. We wouldn’t be what we are today but for war. Tribes were forged into nations because of war. Great civilizations were made possible because of war. Paradoxically indeed, war is just as pivotal in the course of the human evolution as peace. And although I love reading, studying and, in some cases, constantly returning for answers to hundreds of books on war and conflict on issues as diverse as history, human psychology and national cultures, here are my top 5 recommendations:
The Art of War by Sun Tzu
The bible of them all, of course, has to be Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. This is not a book. It is a treatise, and a guide for the journey of life. It’s a bit like the ‘Handbook for the Messiah’ — a term referred by Richard Bach in his seminal work Illusions. You dive into The Art of War when faced with any dilemma, whether professional or personal, and chances are, you will find a solution that you never thought of.
Like most treatises however, The Art of War ought to be studied or, better still, learnt under guidance of a teacher to appreciate its nuances. Here’s an example: The cornerstone of Sun Tzu’s teaching is his seminal observation on knowing oneself and the enemy. Sun Tzu writes, “If you don’t know yourself or your enemy, you will suffer defeat in every battle. If you know yourself, but not your enemy, every victory will be at a heavy price. But if you know yourself and you know your enemy—you need not fear the results of a thousand battles.”
Casual readers will grasp the importance of knowing themselves and their enemy and might even infer that if they do it well, they would win every battle. But that is not what the master is saying. While he points out the advantages of knowing oneself and the enemy, what Sun Tzu promises is the ability to foretell the result of every battle—even if that is defeat! Which leads to another lesson, about when to fight and when not to. It’s a brilliant book that must be studied and not simply read.
The Longest Day by Cornelius Ryan
Seven decades ago, the largest invasion armada ever assembled was arrayed against the strongest defences ever constructed. The D-Day assault of allied troops against the bastion of ‘Fortress Europe’ would be the turning point of history. Many nations’ destinies, and indeed our own lives to this day, were influenced by that one battle. More than a hundred thousand troops from scores of countries fought and lost their lives on the beaches of Normandy, led by some of the greatest military leaders like Eisenhower, Montgomery and Rommel, in some of the bloodiest battles of World War II. Many died without firing a shot, and many miraculously survived multiple encounters to make their way to Paris for the allied victory parade, then died of silly accidents before they could go home. The full range of human emotion, despair, pathos, hope and the sheer scale of this longest day in history is captured in visceral detail by Ryan. This is a book that has inspired several films and accounts including the Oscar-winning Saving Private Ryan, based on a true story recounted in this book. This is a must read book, to understand the complexity of war and what soldiers refer to as ‘the fog of war’; the precursor to a more contemporary term — the ‘VUCA’ World (a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous world, an acronym coined by the US Military).
India’s Wars —A Military History 1947-1971 by Arjun Subramaniam & India’s War—The Making of Modern South Asia 1939-1945 by Srinath Raghavan
The Indian landscape had been devoid of accounts of Indian wars by indigenous authors. Few Indians know that the Indian Army fielded more soldiers in each of the two World Wars than twice the size of its army today. Our troops fought in far-flung regions, displaying a professionalism not just in fighting but also in post-victory conduct which is quoted to this day. Their sacrifices, numbering in the thousands, has never got its rightful dues. Many pivotal allied victories were in fact victories delivered by Indian troops, who were often given the toughest operations. Barely had these troops returned home than they were plunged into the trauma of Partition and ensuing regional wars with Pakistan and China.
Between them, these two books cover India’s campaigns from the Second World War until the liberation of Bangladesh. As an added treat, both authors have been soldiers who possess the gift of storytelling, and these books can be read by civilians who are often confounded with the technical jargon used in many war books. These two books should be read not just to understand India’s wars but also to appreciate the role of the army in shaping modern Indian history.
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
This is a personal favourite. Not just a book, this is a bayonet that plunges straight into your heart and twists and turns with every word. O’Brien’s has based his masterpiece on the Vietnam War and what soldiers carry when they go to war. That’s it. With a premise that simple, he takes readers on forced speed marches, makes them feel the pain of lost comrades, the terror of facing death and secretly suspecting that deep down, they are cowards. He makes the reader feel every load that soldiers carry—physical, psychological and emotional. This line from the book says it more powerfully than any review can: ‘[The soldiers] carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing–these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight. They carried shameful memories. They carried the common secret of cowardice…. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to.’
Raghu Raman is the founding CEO of NATGRID and president in the Reliance Group. He is also the author of Everyman’s War, all proceeds of which go to the families of soldiers who died protecting us.