The greats have been writing about war – its heroes, its victims, its causes, its effects – since the beginning of the written text. Some of the most powerful literature is either profoundly influenced by war or overtly about it. From Homer to Hemingway, war, and literature, seem to have been a great pairing for many prolific authors.
As Virgil said in The Aeneid – “The sword decides all”. We must learn how: the motivation, the strategy, the defences. We must respect and understand the darkness and the consequences of what that line, and war, entails – death, pain, greed, and evil.
Books about war have been written in both genres of fiction and non-fiction throughout history. Non-fiction is usually content created by an author who genuinely believes in the truth and accuracy of the characters, information, and events presented in the story. This contrasts with fictional books where characters and events are partly or largely imaginary.
We all need a little escapism sometimes and nothing provides that better than the pages of a good book. Some great books deal with military fiction and non-fiction. Note that the books below are numbered but not in rank order.
1. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
The Spanish Civil War has entranced a generation of writers, artists, and activists all of whom recognise that what was being played out in the plains of Andalusia and the streets of Barcelona was an indication of what was coming globally. Ernest Hemingway was one such writer and he reported for the North American newspaper alliance.
For whom the bell tolls tell the story of Robert Jordan, an American soldier in the international brigades and is a fascinating account of heroism, patriotism, sacrifice, and considered by many to be Hemingway‘s crowning achievement.
2. All Quiet on the Western Front by Eric Maria Remarque
This is probably the definitive anti-war book – written by a veteran of the First World War. It recounts in spellbinding and horrific detail the real-life experience of war in which the book’s main character, Paul Bäumer, is, like many in Germany and Britain, enthusiastic about his forthcoming adventure. The reality that he encounters though is somewhat different than as Remarque describes a generation “destroyed by war”.
3. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Slaughterhouse-five has been selected by the Modern Library as one of the 100 best novels of all time and is one of the world’s great anti-war books. It centers on the infamous fire-bombing of Dresden. Billy Pilgrim’s journey through time reflects the mythic journey of our own fragmented lives as we search for meaning in what we fear the most.
If you need similar reading suggestions, check out Cool Things Chicago as they have more excellent military science fiction recommendations.
4. Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
Joseph Heller’s sparkling satirical novel about the 256th squadron in World War II held such potency that its title has passed over into common usage for a paradoxical situation. Heller again is someone who writes from a unique vantage point as he flew 60 missions during 1944.
The novel narrates the experiences of the main character Yossarian and other airmen in the camp, who attempt to maintain their sanity while fulfilling their civic duty so that they may return home.
5. Black Hawk Down by Mark Bowden
While most people have seen the movie, this is one of those times when you should read the book. Black Hawk down is a brilliant account by journalist Mark Bowden which tells the story of the 03 October 1993 battle of Mogadishu, Somalia, where hundreds of elite US army soldiers fought back against thousands of militants when a routine mission went awry. Bowden captures the brutality of the fight and the heroism of those who fought and died there.
6. The Art of War by Sun Tzu
The art of war is more than 2000 years old and is a classic which holds maxims that are very applicable to this day. It is a must-read book on military theory and strategy and offers relevant advice to anyone from army generals to CEOs.
7. Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo
Dalton Trumbo‘s novel illustrates the folly of war and is a novel laced with comedy and pathos. The protagonist, Joe Bonham, loses his legs, arms, and, unexpectedly, his face in World War I. He is kept alive in a glass box – a prisoner in his own body – and communicates by banging his head against his pillow in Morse code.
8. Flyboys by James Bradley
There are many contemporary accounts written of World War II, but Flyboys manages to bring to light something that had remained hidden for almost 60 years. It tells the story of nine Americans who were shot down in the Pacific of the island of Chi-Chi Jima where one of them, George H.W. Bush, was rescued. But what happened to the eight others was kept secret and covered up from the families by both the US and Japanese governments.
9. The Pentagon Wars by James Burton
Author James Burton, a former Air Force colonel, gives an inside account of what it is like when the Pentagon wants to develop a new weapons system. He spent 14 years in weapons testing and acquisition and goes on to detail his struggle during the development of the Bradley fighting vehicle with those above him who were often more interested in supporting defence contractors instead of the troops in the field.
10. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
War and Peace is considered by many to be one of the greatest books of all time – it also happens to be about war, conflict, and its impact it has upon all those who are involved. Set during the 1812 invasion of Russia by Napoleon’s forces, war and peace displays a meticulous historical approach to writing and is heralded as incredibly authentic, which is unsurprising, given that Tolstoy served in the Crimean war.
War and Peace is an affirmation of life itself and shows a complete picture of everything in which people find their greatness and happiness, their humiliation, and their grief.
There are many famous works of both fiction and non-fiction for those interested in military subject matter and each book is about a different civilisation, a different cause and a different set of tactics, regardless of which genre it belongs to.
Timeless themes always emerge and the lessons are always there. What matters is what we can take from them and apply to our own lives and society and what we believe in.