Book Review: How to Make War by James F. Dunnigan

While it has a somewhat bombastic title, James F. Dunnigan’s How to Make War won’t actually teach you how to start, fight, or win a war. In reality, it’s a broad survey of the application of military forces for the layperson. The book covers the basics related to how nations use land, naval, air, and electronic/cyber/information forces as parts of their overall military/defense policies.

The author’s background is important to understand how this book examines military affairs. For those who don’t know, James Dunnigan is the founder of Simulations Publications, Inc. (SPI), a publisher of tabletop board war games. He’s also published some seminal works on wargame design, such as The Complete Wargames Handbook. This is what he’s mostly known for. Although he did do a short stint in the U.S. Army during the 1960s working with ballistic missiles and artillery, to my knowledge, he wasn’t a career soldier or an officer. Despite that, his experience with wargaming and military analysis meant he is much sought after as a consultant. Indeed, much has been said of his accurate predictions on the U.S. strategy during the Gulf War in 1991. Therefore, it’s fair to say that Dunnigan approaches the subject matter of this book from a wargaming perspective.

Who should read this book?

The majority of the book discusses common land, naval, and air units used by many of the world’s military forces. It could be boiled down to, “this is what (insert ground/naval/air) forces do, how they’re used, and here are some common weapons/vehicles that are used throughout the world.” As mentioned, this book is mostly for the edification of the layperson whenever they hear some decontextualized “analysis” (or whatever passes for analysis these days) on political-military affairs by the talking heads on the evening news. That being said, if you’re a reader who’s already familiar with military topics, military history, and/or are a military/defense professional, then this book probably won’t teach you anything new.

With that in mind, as previously mentioned, this book doesn’t tell the reader how to fight a war. That is to say, it doesn’t discuss the specific applications of strategies and tactics. It’s more along the lines of, “countries with ____ military capabilities could possibly fight this type of war, but….” At one point, Dunnigan emphasizes that nobody really “wins” in a war. This is to say that nobody comes out clean in the end since wars cause untold amounts of suffering to all involved, and even the “victors” end up paying a massive bill for all the time, blood, and material it took to achieve their end state. The best chapters, in my opinion, discuss logistics and weapons development. As they say, “amateurs talk strategy (or tactics). Professionals talk logistics.” Dunnigan gives some good insights into what would be required to actually move all of this stuff into a combat zone AND sustain it in operations. So you’ve got a zillion of the world’s most advanced ____? Great! How are you going to move it across an ocean, get it into battle, and keep it running? Don’t forget things like fuel, ammo, food, shelter, medical supplies, spare parts, and so on.

Another section deals with weapons development and procurement. This discusses things like political pressures, budgets, technological limitations, etc. It can probably be best summed up as, “you can’t have your cake and eat it, too.” There are always tradeoffs to be made, and just because you developed this piece of wonder-gear, doesn’t mean it’ll perform as advertised once the shooting starts. Then you’ve got to consider upgrading some of your forces (or all of them) to the latest standard. It doesn’t just magically happen. Not every fighter jet is gonna get the brand new radar system, and there are only so many of those fantastic new missiles to go around. You’re also gonna have to allocate some of the budgets for more of that expensive stealth stuff.

This book is also well-suited for wargame developers since Dunnigan includes many data tables on the “capabilities” of various armed forces of the world. He assigns numerical values to various military forces and notes a variety of factors that would influence their war-making potential. It’s probably fair to say that there are two types of numbers used in this book. The “wargaming numbers” are derived from historical data and are to be used when evaluating the potential “capabilities” of armed forces. In contrast, there are “historical numbers” that purport the performance of various weapons, vehicles, etc. in past wars and battles. This is where I start to have problems with the book.

My critiques of this book

This book does leave some people on the fence. Since Dunnigan has fairly limited military experience, many doubt his ability to accurately commentate on military matters. On the other hand, one can say that his extensive background in wargaming means that he brings an outsider’s perspective to the table. Whatever your opinion, this book does come off as very analytical and somewhat reliant on sterile numbers to evaluate things.

Personally, I tend to view Dunnigan as just another person with an opinion. He has some valid points and provides some interesting data, but in other cases, I’d consult different sources. This is true in many fields. Even experts can get things wrong and provide false interpretations. Additionally, no doubt many of us have encountered keyboard warriors and other so-called “experts” who seem to commentate on things that are completely outside of their wheelhouse.

My first issue with this book is related to the aforementioned numerical values (the “wargaming numbers”) that Dunnigan assigns various military forces or weapons. While Dunnigan explains that these numbers are derived from historical experience, and how different factors affect the overall values, he doesn’t go into any real depth on exactly how he came up with such numbers. (i.e. what math or metrics did he use to come up with such values?)

My second issue with the book deals with Dunnigan’s use of historical data (the “historical numbers”) and sources. To support his claims, he includes a variety of statistics about the performance of various weapons and military forces throughout history (roughly WWII and onward). The problem is that he provides no citations (footnotes or endnotes) as to where he got these numbers. He’ll say something along the lines of, “(insert weapon) was accurate ___% of the time in (insert conflict). Upgrades over the decades have increased its accuracy.” OK, but where exactly did that number come from? I’m not questioning the accuracy/inaccuracy of his historical statistics because I can probably corroborate them from other sources. However, I am questioning what sources he used to get those numbers because his bibliography is a complete joke. It boils down to a few paragraphs (not even a list of sources!) on where readers can find more information on the topics in the book. While he realistically notes that any “current” information will rapidly go out of date, he doesn’t provide any sources for his historical numbers and analyses. His bibliography can be summed up as, “check the internet (including his website,, read notable military history books/authors, consult official government sources, and ask military professionals in the industry.” Wow…how incredibly underwhelming, Dunnigan! Even his website appears to be in desperate need of a new webmaster. It looks like it hasn’t been redesigned since the late-2000s. (Having since read some of Dunnigan’s other work on the field of wargaming, they don’t contain much in the way of scholarly annotations either, so it’s clear that he’s writing more for the popular market. Still, some better annotations and a fleshed-out bibliography would be appreciated for those who want to do further research.)

Related to the above issues, I (along with other reviewers) definitely get the impression that Dunnigan is heavily biased towards the West and is still thinking in terms of a major Cold War (NATO vs. Warsaw Pact) clash. His essential evaluation of the former Soviet Union and the current Russian military is that it’s old, outdated, underfunded, and wasting away. Their only real advantage is that they have a lot of surplus stuff. Virtually every table and list in the book ranks the United States as the premier military power in the world for any number of reasons and in virtually all areas. Often the U.S. far outclasses even the next strongest military powers. While there is some degree of truth to this, it seems a bit too simplistic of an evaluation. What’s more ironic is that Dunnigan warns against diluting evaluations down to impersonal statistics and he urges readers to consider the effects of any number of other factors, intangible or otherwise.

This book does cover a lot of ground in 600+ pages, and Dunnigan seems to be more comfortable with the hardware side of the military. Once he gets into topics such as electronic/cyber/information warfare, then he tends to speak far more in generalizations. Some of the topics in this book are given more in-depth coverage, while others are completely glossed over with little further explanation.

The final issue I have with the book is that it’s now out-of-date. Given that this fourth (and latest) edition was published in 2003, it’s very much in need of an update now that we’ve moved into the 2020s. However, Dunnigan does provide a few pages on his predictions for this decade (at the time of publication). The book claims to be a primer for warfare in the 21st century, but it really only discusses terrorism and the war on terror in a very cursory manner. Numerous references are made to the U.S. military’s performance in the 1991 Gulf War, as well as some coverage of the Balkans conflict in the late-1990s. Beyond that, you won’t learn anything new or substantive about the current situation in the Middle East. Perhaps that’s what Dunnigan’s A Quick & Dirty Guide to War is for.

Overall thoughts

Despite my aforementioned problems with this book, it’s not a bad read. Just take some of the data presented therein with a grain of salt and consult other references. Even so, Dunnigan makes a lot of very good points and it’s clear that he does know what he’s talking about. Overall, this book contains some interesting bits of information and collates the ideas into an easily accessible general reference on military matters. Far better than your latest news media talking head analysis, James Dunnigan’s How to Make War provides the reader with greater context and some good starting questions for making more educated evaluations when the next military crisis kicks off in some far-off corner of the world. The book is logically organized and gives a broad overview of how military forces work and integrate into the national policy (sometimes better than others). This is a good book for the uninformed person and a decent starting point for those looking for basic data as they’re designing wargames. However, if you’re experienced in studying military organizations or in building wargames/simulations, then this book will likely just be a rehash for you.

Rating: 4 out of 5


  1. Given these critical points, which alternative sources (similar in scope or developing selected topics further) would you recommend?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s