Book search: Personal accounts of war
May 14, 2014 12:51 PM   Subscribe

I am looking for books about war or other bad experiences, that are as evocative as Noonday Demon is about depression.

I'm looking for first-hand accounts by people who have such a mindblowing ability with written language that they change your perspective, and understanding, of what it is like to be in those situations.

One of the best books I've seen like this, on another topic, is Noonday Demon. That book is about depression. I am looking for similar first-hand accounts of war.

I'm looking for an evocative first-hand description of war, violence, or another similar experience... the thoughts and feelings of the experience. I am not looking for a chronology or factual narrative. Any recommendations?

posted by htid to Writing & Language (26 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
All Quiet on the Western Front by Remarque.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 12:59 PM on May 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

I won't link to it because I know the author, but "Camera Boy: An Army Journalist's War in Iraq" would fit your descriptions. First-hand account by an Army photographer.
posted by jbickers at 1:01 PM on May 14, 2014

Love Thy Neighbor by Peter Maass is an account of the war in the Balkans in the early '90s. Maass was there as a journalist rather than a participant, but he writes from a very personal and philosophical viewpoint. The book's description notes "...this book is not traditional war reportage. Maass examines how an ordinary Serb could wake up one morning and shoot his neighbor, once a friend--then rape that neighbor's wife. He conveys the desperation that makes a Muslim beg the United States to bomb his own city in order to end the misery. And Maass does not falter at the spectacle of U.N. soldiers shining searchlights on fleeing refugees--who are promptly gunned down by snipers waiting in the darkness."

It can be hard to read but it is really well done.
posted by AgentRocket at 1:02 PM on May 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

My War Gone By, I Miss It So by Andrew Loyd
posted by jammy at 1:02 PM on May 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes. The first third was slow going for me but after that it is breathtaking.
posted by something something at 1:03 PM on May 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Palestine, by Joe Sacco--extra evocative with the art.
posted by ActionPopulated at 1:20 PM on May 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

At the Mind's Limits by Jean Amery is an autobiography about surviving the being tortured and the Holocaust. It's not an easy book to read but its stuck with me ever since I read it.
posted by SpaceWarp13 at 1:24 PM on May 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien.
posted by dawkins_7 at 1:24 PM on May 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain is an account of how she came to be a nurse first in England and then at the front during WWI. You may find that it starts slowly, but its cumulative effect is tremendous.

Goodbye To All That, by Robert Graves, is a memoir that starts out about his youth and becomes about his experience at the front, also during WWI. The beginning is amazing in its bitterness - I wish I could find a good quote that would do it justice.

Also, if you want fucking harrowing, read Japan At War: An Oral History - it's a collection of accounts by different people, school girls who made these bomb-carrying balloons, soldiers, pacifists....You will not forget certain accounts from this book. It's very terrible and shocking.

Also, have you read Barefoot Gen? Though it's a manga, it's also exceedingly harrowing. I don't recommend it if you need to stay focused the day you read it.
posted by Frowner at 1:41 PM on May 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Pity The Nation: Lebanon at War, Robert Fisk. wiki:
[...] a book by award winning English journalist Robert Fisk. The book is an account of the Lebanese civil war 1975–1990 which Fisk lived through and reported on. It gives an insight into the machinations of the war and has many eyewitness accounts from the people Fisk interviewed and interacted with at the time. The book also deals with the history of the foundation of Lebanon and its colonial past.

It goes into detail of the 1982 Lebanon war which was an invasion by the Israeli military and also the Sabra and Shatila massacre which Fisk was present at a day after it happened. The book covers the American, British, French and Italian intervention as Multinational Force in Lebanon and the evacuation of the PLO.
The Great War for Civilization: The Conquest of the Middle East, Robert Fisk. wiki:
The book is a compilation of many of the articles Fisk wrote when he was serving as a correspondent in the Middle East for The Times and The Independent. The book revolves around several key themes regarding the history of the modern Middle East: the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf War as well as the 2003 Iraq War (United States invasion of Iraq) as well as other regional conflicts such as the Armenian Genocide and the Algerian Civil War.

Fisk's book details his travels to many of the hotspots of the Middle East, such as Iraq and Iran during the Iran–Iraq War, and his numerous interviews with both the country's leaders and its people. Along with these interviews, Fisk also provides much of the historical context to these conflicts.
Safe Area Goražde, Joe Sacco. wiki:
The book describes the author's experiences during four months spent in Bosnia in 1994–95,[1] and is based on conversations with Bosniaks trapped within the enclave of Goražde.

Sacco combines the oral histories of his interviewees with his own observations on conditions in the enclave as well as his feelings about being in a danger zone. He keeps his primary focus on roughly half a dozen people, which helps to structure the collection of vignettes into something of a narrative, while also including interviews with a number of other people. Sacco stands back and lets the interviewees tell their stories, keeping his editorializing and personal reflections to interludes.
Palestine, Joe Sacco. wiki:
Palestine is a graphic novel written and drawn by Joe Sacco about his experiences in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in December 1991 and January 1992. Sacco gives a portrayal which emphasizes the history and plight of the Palestinian people, as a group and as individuals
Sacco has another great one but I'm not sure it qualifies since it isn't a first-hand account, but if you like his style in the other two then I highly recommend it too:

Footnotes in Gaza, Joe Sacco. wiki:
The book describes the author's quest to get to the bottom of what happened in Khan Younis and in Rafah in the Gaza Strip in November 1956. According to United Nations figures quoted in the book, Israeli forces killed 275 Palestinians in Khan Younis on 3 November 1956 and 111 in Rafah on 12 November 1956.

Sacco bases his book on conversations with Palestinians in Rafah and the neighbouring town of Khan Younis, and interweaves the events of 1956 with the events in Rafah at the time of the interviews—the bulldozing of homes, the death of Rachel Corrie and the reactions to the outbreak of the Iraq War.
If you're interested in works of fiction that portray life in [protracted] war zones you might be interested in these two:

A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Hosseini. wiki:
The book, which spans a period of over 50 years, from the 1960s to 2003, focuses on the tumultuous lives and relationship of Mariam and Laila, two Afghan women. Mariam, an illegitimate child, suffers from the stigma surrounding her birth and the abuse she faces throughout her marriage. Laila, born a generation later, is comparatively privileged during her youth until their lives intersect and she is also forced to accept a marriage proposal from Rasheed, Mariam's husband.
De Niro's Game, Rawi Hage. wiki:
The novel's primary characters are Bassam and George, lifelong friends living in wartorn Beirut. The novel traces the different paths that the two follow as they face the difficult choice of whether to stay in Beirut and get involved in organized crime, or to leave Lebanon and build a new life in another country.
posted by xqwzts at 2:08 PM on May 14, 2014

AB Facey's A Fortunate Life includes evocative descriptions of experiences at Gallipoli in WW1, and the repercussions for the remainder of his life.
posted by goo at 2:13 PM on May 14, 2014

Philip Caputo, A Rumor of War.

Seconding The Things They Carried.
posted by kirkaracha at 2:31 PM on May 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Scar literature from China
posted by Ideefixe at 2:31 PM on May 14, 2014

Seconding "A Rumor of War," a seriously disturbing memoir. You really feel how war can change a man and then set him on the path toward changing again. Caputo has written a half-dozen fine novels since it was published.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 2:47 PM on May 14, 2014

"Johnny Got His Gun" by Dalton Trumbo would be a must read.
Won many awards and was highly controversial.

"The Killer Angels" by Michael Shaara was the best war book I ever read.
Technically it is part of a trilogy, but the first and third books are quite different. JEFF Shaara (Michael's son) wrote volumes 1 & 3. Jeff is a very fine writer as well, but different too.
I think you should read The Killer Angels first, and if you love it, read the other two...
posted by jcworth at 3:23 PM on May 14, 2014

Dispatches, by Michael Herr
posted by newmoistness at 3:41 PM on May 14, 2014 [4 favorites]

Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers.
If Not Now, When by Primo Levi
posted by brookeb at 3:50 PM on May 14, 2014

Here's a few World War II books that make you feel like you're there:
With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa by E.B. Sledge
China to Me by Emily Hahn
Without Vodka: Adventures in Wartime Russia by Aleksander Topolski
Outwitting the Gestapo by Lucie Aubrac
posted by Margalo Epps at 4:27 PM on May 14, 2014

I have not read it but I believe We were soldiers once ...and young would fit the bill. I have seen the movie adaptation. My ex husband and dad were both career soldiers. Parts of the movie were filmed on Fort Benning, Georgia and I recognized the places in it. I grew up in Fort Benning/Columbus. The movie is very intense. I nearly hit my husband because of that movie and had to just leave the house. My dad fought in the front lines of two wars (including Vietnam). The book was written by an officer who was really there and it seems to resonate with the kinds of things my dad said.
posted by Michele in California at 5:14 PM on May 14, 2014

"Nella's Last War: The Second World War Diaries of Housewife, 49." Nella Last, a British housewife who lived north of Liverpool, kept a diary as part of the Mass Observation project (a few hundred volunteers who kept diaries about their everyday lives and thoughts) for 30 years, starting in 1937. She wrote about rationing, nightly bombing raids, how society was changing, etc. I wrote about this book in my book blog.
posted by bentley at 5:41 PM on May 14, 2014

Homage to Catalonia is George Orwell's personal account of the Spanish Civil War. Highly recommended.
posted by beanie at 5:58 PM on May 14, 2014 [4 favorites]

Night, by Elie Wiesel.

Night is a work by Elie Wiesel about his experience with his father in the Nazi German concentration camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald in 1944–1945, at the height of the Holocaust and toward the end of the Second World War.

That book haunted me for a long, long time after I read it.

Angela's Ashes, by Frank McCourt.

Angela's Ashes is a 1996 memoir by the Irish author Frank McCourt. The memoir consists of various anecdotes and stories of Frank McCourt's impoverished childhood and early adulthood in Brooklyn, New York, and in Limerick, Ireland. It also includes McCourt's struggles with poverty, his father's drinking, and his mother's attempts to keep the family alive.

It's not entirely about bad experiences, but god, what a crappy, crappy childhood he had.
posted by MexicanYenta at 11:01 PM on May 14, 2014

A Woman in Berlin is the first-hand account of life in Berlin during the Soviet occupation immediately after the Battle of Berlin in 1945 during World War II. It's quite easy to demonize Germans during World War II, and this book, for me anyway, was incredibly compelling in part because it's well-written and in part because I had never before considered that perspective.
posted by bluedaisy at 11:22 PM on May 14, 2014

The Good War: an oral history of World War Two by Studs Terkel.
posted by Flexagon at 10:38 AM on May 15, 2014

Under A Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 1941-1968

"I carry the past inside me folded up like an accordion, like a book of picture postcards that peple bring home as souvenirs from foreign cities, small and neat. But all it takes is to lift one corner of the top card for an endless snake to escape, zizag joined to zigzag, the sign of the viper, and instantly all the pictures line up before my eyes. They linger, sharpen, and a moment of that distant past gets wedged into the works of my inner time clock. It stops, skips a beat, and loses part of the irreplaceable, irretrievable present."

She was a Czech Jew who survived a ghetto and several camps, Stalin's purges, and the Prague Spring. It's an incredible story.
posted by rtha at 7:37 PM on May 26, 2014

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