An unfortunate truth is that war has existed since the dawn of mankind. For all the destruction it inevitably causes, war has revealed some truly brilliant minds and larger-than-life figures in the history of the world. This list of military leader biographies provides a brief look at some of the greatest and most terrible generals, emperors, and conquerors in recorded history.
Some of these works discuss the specifics of war strategy, while others focus instead on the effect war has had on political career paths. Most of them seek to break away from the legend, dispel myths, and reveal the human behind these historic commanders. Whether your interests lie in politics, psychology, or the history of warfare, these military leader biographies will be immensely enlightening reads.
The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War by H. W. Brands
The first on our list of military leader biographies is a bit unusual, as it actually covers the lives of two men—President Harry S. Truman and General Douglas MacArthur—during a defining moment in each of their lives. Set against a backdrop of the Korean War in the aftermath of World War II, this biography discusses public perception of nuclear warfare in the United States during the early 1950s.
These biography reads like a novel as prolific historian H. W. Brands portrays the tension between two monumental military leaders in a nation on the brink of nuclear war. Even after the Cold War, the issue of nuclear weapons is still at the forefront of military conflicts across the globe. The best way to understand these issues today is to understand where these issues began, and The General vs. the President is an excellent place to start.
Napoleon: A Life by Andrew Roberts
Undoubtedly one of the best military strategists of all time, Napoleon Bonaparte's life and career have somehow outgrown the man himself. Award-winning biographer Andrew Roberts looks past the legend to uncover the truth in Napoleon: A Life.
Among countless other resources, Roberts's biography makes use of the many thousands of letters Napoleon wrote throughout his life, providing a more personal and first-hand account of the French general-turned-dictator. Napoleon Bonaparte is one of the most written-about military leaders, but Roberts's biography is the clear winner: a definitive and exhaustive account, and one of the best military leader biographies of all time.
Alexander the Great by Ulrich Wilcken
One of the first great military leader biographies was Alexander der Grosse, written by German historian Ulrich Wilcken in 1931. It was soon translated into English by G. C. Richards and published as Alexander the Great. This edition retains Wilcken's original viewpoint while providing modern interpretations and updated facts based on recent research.
Reading Alexander the Great is quite a unique experience, as it provides an historiographical glimpse into an early biography and how Wilcken's research influenced subsequent generations of biographers and historians.
Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford
Genghis Khan is perhaps the most successful conqueror in all of recorded history. Often portrayed as a heartless warrior, he nonetheless arose as a progressive leader, promoting freedom and equality among his people. Jack Weatherford's biography Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World delves not only into Genghis Khan's life and accomplishments, but the long-lasting legacy he left behind.
This revisionist historical work provides new insight into Genghis Khan's leadership style, painting him in a much more forgiving light than many previous works. Unique among military leader biographies, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World actually spends more time talking about Genghis Khan's successors than the man himself. In particular, Genghis Khan's influential grandson Kublai Khan features heavily in the second half of the biography. Thankfully, Kublai Khan is a military leader just as worthy of study as his grandfather.
Lives of the Caesars by Suetonius
Lives of the Caesars is far and away the oldest of the military leader biographies on this list. Written in the 2nd Century by Roman historian Suetonius, this biography was put together when the actions of the Caesars were still fresh in the minds of the Roman Empire, chronicling twelve consecutive Roman rulers from Julius Caesar through Caligula (Vol. I) and from Claudius through Domitian (Vol. II).
The more you read about military history, the more you come to understand that very little has actually changed since the earliest days of warfare, and Suetonius's Lives of the Caesars is prime evidence toward that understanding.
Soldier: The Life of Colin Powell by Karen DeYoung
Of the military leader biographies on this list, this is the only one to depict a military leader from the 21st century. Soldier: The Life of Colin Powell covers the former general's entire life and career from his upbringing in New York City through to his life after retiring as Secretary of State in 2005.
Colin Powell was an important figure in one of the United States' largest and most controversial military engagements in modern history, serving as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Gulf War and as Secretary of State during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which led to the Iraq War. Karen DeYoung's biography of Powell is an important step toward understanding the man behind many of the decisions that shaped this conflict.
Grant by Ron Chernow
This thoroughly-researched biography from Pulitzer Prize winner Ron Chernow provides a humanizing view of Ulysses S. Grant's tumultuous life and career. Also one of the best military history books every veteran should read, Grant follows the beginnings of Grant's short-lived business ventures and ill-fated military service during the Mexican-American War, which resulted in his resignation due to accusations of alcoholism.
Despite his many troubles, Grant somehow found immense success with the advent of the American Civil War, eventually becoming General under Abraham Lincoln and leading the Union army to victory over Robert E. Lee. In one of the most gripping military leader biographies ever written, Chernow chronicles the peaks and valleys of Grant's career, working to reveal the inner psyche of the unlikely president.
Hannibal by Patrick N. Hunt
Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca was one of the great generals of the ancient world, and his tactics have been studied for millennia by prominent military leaders of the modern world such as Napoleon Bonaparte and George Patton.
In the simply titled Hannibal, one of the most entertaining military leader biographies on this list, Patrick N. Hunt presents a thrilling narrative of Hannibal's life. The son of another successful general, Hamilcar Barca, Hannibal grew up to be an unparalleled military strategist, defending Carthage against the Roman Empire for decades. Like many great military leaders, Hannibal eventually transitioned into a career in politics before being betrayed to the Romans, committing suicide before he could be imprisoned.
Lafayette by Olivier Bernier
Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, known in the United States simply as "Lafayette," is a criminally overlooked military leader who played central roles in both the American and French Revolutions. Possibly the least-known figure out of all the military leader biographies on this list, Lafayette was once a profound celebrity among Americans in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
In this recent biography, Olivier Bernier discusses Lafayette's time fighting alongside George Washington, with whom he developed a father/son relationship (Lafayette was just twenty at the time). Bernier then follows Lafayette back to France, where he became embroiled in the French Revolution, butted heads with Napoleon, and turned down the opportunity to become ruler of France. For budding historians interested in learning more about the American Revolution's impact on France, Lafayette is a definite must-read.
The First Soldier: Hitler as Military Leader by Stephen Fritz
Not all great military leaders are to be celebrated. Among military leader biographies and military writing in general, the Third Reich is terrain that unfortunately cannot be avoided. There has been disagreement among historians as to whether Adolf Hitler, one of the most infamous leaders of World War II, was a competent military strategist or an erratic military leader who drove his forces into the ground at the behest of his generals. Stephen Fritz's new biography The First Soldier: Hitler as Military Leader argues that, despite their ultimate failure, Hitler's military strategies were not ill-informed and in fact took inspiration from World War I techniques in his efforts to overcome the United States, Russia, and other Allied forces.