War, lit, What is it good for?
April 23, 2007 1:28 PM   Subscribe

What is some classic or essential war literature?

Books I've already read that fit this description:
The Iliad
Under Fire (Barbusse)
Red Badge of Courage
Homage to Catalonia
The Sun Also Rises
Henry V
The Things They Carried
Slaughterhouse Five

I'm particularly interested in unusual and non-western perspectives, but I'll take anything you've got.
posted by Packy_1962 to Media & Arts (74 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
All Quiet On The Western Front
Johnny Got His Gun
posted by bondcliff at 1:31 PM on April 23, 2007

All Quiet on the Western Front
posted by vacapinta at 1:33 PM on April 23, 2007

Seconding Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo. Terrifying.
posted by Ohdemah at 1:35 PM on April 23, 2007

posted by kjars at 1:35 PM on April 23, 2007

The Naked and the Dead - Norman Mailer
posted by meerkatty at 1:39 PM on April 23, 2007

Goodbye To All That, by Robert Graves. That's WWI from a British perspective. It's harrowing stuff, containing incidents you'll never forget, but I felt it was more neutral than some have suggested. It's more a case of presenting the facts and letting you make up your own mind, rather than ramming an anti-war message down your throat.

And there's tonnes of WWI poetry available, again by British authors. Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen...

Take a look at the books of Woodbine Willy.

A nice book I read recently was Forgotten Voices of the Great War (ISBN: 0091888875). Lots of brief snippets from those alive in Britain during WWI—soldiers, lovers of soldiers, people working in munitions factories... It's a documentary representation of the war, rather than an emotional one (although some of the stories are very sad).
posted by humblepigeon at 1:43 PM on April 23, 2007

Seconding Goodbye To All That. I just finished it and was totally blown away. His pre-war stuff dragged a little, but it was a nice set up for how inhumane WWI was.
posted by kendrak at 1:50 PM on April 23, 2007

For Whom the Bell Tolls
A Farewell to Arms
Cold Mountain
Gone With The Wind
A Town Like Alice
Heart Of Darkness
posted by emd3737 at 1:51 PM on April 23, 2007

Regeneration is one of my favorite books.
posted by jckll at 1:53 PM on April 23, 2007

How about the Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series? Covers the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812, as well as numerous skirmishes and small foreign missions along the way. Also incredibly addictive reading.
posted by ga$money at 1:55 PM on April 23, 2007

The Good Soldier Svejk.
posted by saladin at 1:55 PM on April 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

Forever War, it's Sci Fic but pretty good and addresses war-in-general.
The Good Soldier Svejk
Memoirs of an Infantry Officer - Siegfried Sassoon
A Farewell To Arms
posted by edgeways at 1:55 PM on April 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

Goodbye, Darkness - William Manchester. Memoir of his service in the Pacific during WWII.
Berlin Diaries - Ruth Andreas-Friedrich. Memoir about the underground resistance movement in Berlin, WWII.

I've got a bunch more at home, but can't think of any titles (coming down with a cold, hence, brainless). Do you want fiction? Memoir? Straight-up history? All?
posted by rtha at 1:58 PM on April 23, 2007

Thirding "Goodbye To All That."

The Regeneration Trilogy, "Regeneration," "The Eye In the Door," and "The Ghost Road." Pat Barker is the author.

I've got a shelf full at home, but the titles are elusive at the moment.
posted by Medieval Maven at 1:59 PM on April 23, 2007

Kipling - Epitaphs of the War, Tommy, and The Young British Soldier. There's a lot more in War Stories and Poems.
posted by vorfeed at 2:02 PM on April 23, 2007

Oh, and of course, The Guns of August.
posted by saladin at 2:02 PM on April 23, 2007

Mother Courage by Bertolt Brecht.
posted by boots77 at 2:04 PM on April 23, 2007

Response by poster: I love your suggestions so far (some I've read).

Do you want fiction? Memoir? Straight-up history? All?
I'm interested in anything except straight-up history.
posted by Packy_1962 at 2:06 PM on April 23, 2007

John Ringo's books, especially the Polseen War Series, are absolutely captivating. The Council of War series even more so.
posted by lysdexic at 2:12 PM on April 23, 2007

I should mention that those are fiction.
posted by lysdexic at 2:12 PM on April 23, 2007

Here's a list of works of literary criticism about the literature of World War I. I strongly recommend Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory, a stirring, nontechnical, and very readable analysis of what the war did to British writing and British writers. Description from the linked page:

A landmark book, still "the classic modern interpretation" (Judd 15). Fussell surveys Great War poetry, drama, fiction, memoirs, and even letters and general culture, finding in them earlier influences, and also tracing their influence on subsequent twentieth-century writing, culture, and thought. This is the book with which all subsequent critics have had to deal -- a knowledge of it is essential to the study of Great War literature.
posted by escabeche at 2:23 PM on April 23, 2007

Curzio Malaparte's Kaputt and Blood.
posted by parmanparman at 2:27 PM on April 23, 2007

Timothy Findley's The Wars
posted by acoutu at 2:31 PM on April 23, 2007

Actually, that was a terrible link for The Wars. See the Wikipedia entry for The Wars instead.
posted by acoutu at 2:35 PM on April 23, 2007

It's non-fiction, but "On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society" will do a great deal to round out an understanding of the horrors of war.
posted by Brian James at 2:41 PM on April 23, 2007

Joe Haldeman's The Forever War, for the science fiction take.
posted by zippy at 2:48 PM on April 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

Dog Soldiers--Robert Stone

And depending on how pure your definition of "war literature" is:

Gravity's Rainbow--Thomas Pynchon
posted by thivaia at 2:49 PM on April 23, 2007

Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry stories.
posted by felix betachat at 2:50 PM on April 23, 2007

Oh and

A Fable--William Faulkner
posted by thivaia at 2:51 PM on April 23, 2007

Caesar's Commentaries by Gaius Julius Caesar. (Perhaps you've heard of him?) It's a history of the Gallic war and Roman Civil war.

The translation of it I read said that the writing style of each of the three books is different, and it's thought to be the work of three different writers. Whether one of them actually was Caesar is unknown and probably can never be determined. (The translation I read claimed that Caesar did write the first one, but I didn't find the argument convincing.) History has credited him with all three books, and they're fascinating to read. I was particularly interested in the description of a siege Caesar laid in Gaul (i.e. France).

The Art of War, by Sun Tsu. This is the first known technical treatise written about war, and what's amazing is just how relevant it is to this day, considering that it was written 2500 years ago. If any book about war is to be described as "essential", this is the one.

The Five Rings, by Miyamoto Musashi. He lived at the time of the founding of the Tokugawa Shogunate, and his book (which is more about philosophy than about history or tactics as such) is one of the most influential in the history of Japan. He is probably the most famous swordsman in Japanese history, and is legendary in part because he fought using both blades of the daisho, as opposed to the more standard fighting style which used the katana two-handed.

If you're looking for something less technical and more fun, I strongly recommend the Hornblower series by C.S. Forester. They're fiction, but they're a technically accurate description of naval war in the Napoleonic era.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 2:52 PM on April 23, 2007

I hear "The Killer Angels" Michael Shaara is good. It won a Pulitzer Prize and the movie "Gettysburg" is based off it. I also recall back in my JROTC days how our instructor, an Air Force Colonel, spoke highly of it.
posted by champthom at 2:53 PM on April 23, 2007

The Bible (or maybe just the juicy bits)
posted by HE Amb. T. S. L. DuVal at 2:54 PM on April 23, 2007

Novel Without a Name by Duong Thu Hong, a Vietnamese writer who was originally a member of the Communist party but later was expelled for her criticisms of it.
posted by tentacle at 2:56 PM on April 23, 2007

Seconding "On Killing". Well worth the read, but even if you decide not to read it, just pick it up and skim in the book store.
posted by 517 at 3:05 PM on April 23, 2007

The Emperor's Tomb by Joseph Roth -- WWI from the point of view of an Austrian officer. It's a sequel (of sorts) to The Radetzky March, which deals with a military family in the Austro-Hungarian Empire between the Battle of Solferino (in 1859) and the run-up to WWI.
posted by scody at 3:06 PM on April 23, 2007

(drat, that first link should be this.)
posted by scody at 3:08 PM on April 23, 2007

To any reader of the Iliad I can not recommend Simone Weil's essay, 'The Poem of Force', highly enough. It is one of the finest pieces I have read.

The Iliad has certainly received its share of critical attention, but no one has really gotten at its heart like she has. Despite being a somewhat recent take it is respected by classicists.

It was written in France at the start of WWII shortly after Simone Weil abandoned her pacifism. It is not directly about war like some of the other listed books but there is no great distance.

I recommend the edition, 'War and the Iliad'. In the introduction it is pointed out how she slightly misrepresents the Iliad and that small overstatement in her argument is worth acknowledging.

If you can handle his style, Thucydides wrote the classic on war. It was heavily studied by the British during their years of empire and was also consulted as a template during the Cold War.
posted by BigSky at 3:10 PM on April 23, 2007

An Arrow's Flight - Mark Merliss. A retelling of the Iliad. It's sort of a modern-day retelling - it still takes place during the original's time period, but Pyrrhus is a go-go boy and hustler who doesn't want to go to war. Wonderful novel.
posted by rtha at 3:19 PM on April 23, 2007

Primo Levi's If Not Now, When?
posted by Abiezer at 3:28 PM on April 23, 2007

Solzhenitsyn's Red Wheel cycle (unfortunately, only August 1914 and November 1916 available in English, a shocking state of affairs): the romance interludes are a little embarrassing, but the integration of war, politics, and everyday life is masterly, a worthy successor to Tolstoy.

David Jones, In Parenthesis—not easy reading, but this book-length poem-with-prose gives a sense of what it was like for the soldier in the trenches that I haven't found elsewhere. (Lots of Arthurian parallels, which may entice you or put you off, depending.)

Christopher Logue's versions of Homer (start with War Music) are flagrantly modernized, unfaithful-but-faithful in the way Pound's versions of Chinese poetry and Propertius were. Incredible evocations of the horror and poetry of war.
posted by languagehat at 3:40 PM on April 23, 2007

Second strongly the Christopher Logue.

The trilogy by Pat Barker set in WWI is superbly conceived: review of The Ghost Road; Amazon
posted by Rumple at 4:17 PM on April 23, 2007

Storm of Steel by Ernst Junger
posted by lovejones at 4:18 PM on April 23, 2007

Flags of Our Fathers. A Bridge Too Far. The Aubrey/Maturin books by Patrick O'Brian. The Sorrow of War.
posted by paulsc at 4:22 PM on April 23, 2007

The Forgotten Soldier by Guy Sajer
posted by Dr.Pill at 4:39 PM on April 23, 2007

John Keegan's The Face of Battle does a good job of showing how the battlefield experience has changed as warfare has become industrialized. He describes the battles of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme.
posted by russilwvong at 4:39 PM on April 23, 2007

posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 4:54 PM on April 23, 2007

Crap, just heard David Halberstam died. The Best and the Brightest is one of the greatest war books ever written from th political angle.
posted by vito90 at 5:00 PM on April 23, 2007

The Enormous Room - E.E. Cummings
posted by quentiniii at 5:24 PM on April 23, 2007

The Willing Flesh, aka Cross of Iron, Willi Heinrich.
posted by zamboni at 5:37 PM on April 23, 2007

_Gravity's Rainbow_
posted by Joseph Gurl at 5:51 PM on April 23, 2007

Parades End by Ford Madox Ford
posted by OmieWise at 6:36 PM on April 23, 2007

One more: We Band of Angels, by Elizabeth Norman. She uses interviews, letters & diaries, and official records to tell the "story of American nurses trapped on Bataan by the Japanese." It's riveting.
posted by rtha at 6:52 PM on April 23, 2007

Second Storm of Steel.

The Forgotten Soldier by Guy Sajer turned out to be a hoax.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:14 PM on April 23, 2007

Nobody mentioned Tolstoy's Voyna y Mir? Pozhaloosta!

Uh, that's War and Peace.
posted by JJ86 at 7:36 PM on April 23, 2007

Seconding Killer Angels. Aside from Catch-22 it's the only war book that's kept me interested for longer than a chapter.
posted by tuffbunny at 8:17 PM on April 23, 2007

Response by poster: The responses so far are awesome! I have indeed read "The Poem of Force", The Naked and the Dead, and Farewell to Arms; all of which are exactly the type of thing I'm thinking of so keep them coming!
posted by Packy_1962 at 8:30 PM on April 23, 2007

Ah, home now.

In line with the Illiad -- Cassandra. Also, Seamus Heaney's Beowulf - it's not 100% about war, but it fits and it's beautiful. If you like audio books, hearing Seamus Heaney read it is a-frikkin-mazing.

Cat and Mouse (clearly, get this one used . . .)

Everyone else has covered everything else I would have said.
posted by Medieval Maven at 8:36 PM on April 23, 2007

Response by poster: Also, has anyone read Jarhead? It got tons of press when the movie came out, but is the book good?
posted by Packy_1962 at 8:52 PM on April 23, 2007

I've read Jarhead. I liked it. The part where he describes going to a buddy's funeral has stayed with me.
posted by rtha at 8:58 PM on April 23, 2007

If you want nautical warfare, I'd suggest C.S. Forrester's Hornblower series. IMHO, much better than O'Brien. (Please no flaming - it's just my opinion.) He also wrote the non-fiction "Sink the Bismark", the best account of that climatic engagement. Forrester's best work, though, is "The Good Shepherd", a fictionalized account of a destroyer escorting a convoy across the Atlantic against the Nazi wolf packs. I don't think it's still in print - an Amazon search didn't turn up anything - but it's worth the search. On a similar vein is "The Cruel Sea" by Nicholas Monsarrat, one of the very best books I've ever read.

You might also check out the collected works of John Masters. He was a British officer in the Ghurkas in India during WWII, and wrote a series of fictionalized accounts of the British in India and their many battles there, but not to be missed are his two autobiographies, "Bugles and a Tiger" and "Road Past Mandalay", both accounts of the actions in WWII in the Middle East and south-east Asia, some of the forgotten theaters of the war.

On the non-fiction side, I'd suggest "In Harm's Way" by Douglas Stanton, about the USS Indianapolis and her survivors, "Pegasus Bridge" by Stephen Ambrose, recalling the first action by the paratroopers on D-Day, "Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler's Eagle's Nest", also by Stephen E. Ambrose, the book upon which the HBO mini-series was based, and finally "We Were Soldiers Once .. and Young", by Lt Gen Hal Moore, which was the source material for the Mel Gibson film.

Oh, and you totally need to check out "Face of Battle", which has already been suggested a few times.
posted by robhuddles at 9:31 PM on April 23, 2007

As a companion to Goodbye to All That, try Vera Brittain's autobiographical Testament of Youth, one of the few women's-eye views of WWI. The opening chapters describing her "provincial young-ladyhood" drag a bit but set the context for her wrenching experiences in the war and after. Keep a few lace-trimmed hankies on hand for this one.
posted by Quietgal at 9:45 PM on April 23, 2007

Storm of Steel by Ernst Junger

A military history buff pal strongly recommended this one to me a few months ago as an excellent look at both WWI and war in general. And Junger was a strange case - apparently a strongly nationalistic anti-Nazi conservative German who went on to take LSD a couple of times with Albert Hoffman, the guy who discovered it. No shit. The book went through a couple of revisions as he toned the nationalistic fervor up and down over the years, but the recent Hoffman translation is supposed to be really good.
posted by mediareport at 10:04 PM on April 23, 2007

Parachute Infantry by David Kenyon Webster (he shows up in Band of Brothers) is a great read. They are his memoirs from boot camp to Austria.

Not on par with Graves or other great writers but I have enjoyed David L. Robbins' WW2 novels (War of the Rats, Last Citadel etc) and also Steven Pressfields' recent book The Afghan Campaign, which gives a grunts view of Alexander's army.
posted by Razzle Bathbone at 10:23 PM on April 23, 2007

Blackhawk Down by Mark Bowden
Band of Brothers by Stephen Ambrose
posted by Manjusri at 12:18 AM on April 24, 2007

Here are two essential poems: Anthem for Doomed Youth and Dulce et Decorum est (both by Wilfred Owen).

Also, how about Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl?
posted by Amy NM at 4:46 AM on April 24, 2007

Vera Brittain: Letters from a Lost Generation
posted by boogieboy at 5:23 AM on April 24, 2007

War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges
posted by canine epigram at 7:02 AM on April 24, 2007

I'm surprised to get here this late and discover that nobody has mentioned James Jones' The Thin Red Line about the battle for Guadalcanal. It's one of the best books I ever read. Although it's neither unusual nor non-western, it's still a great book.
posted by dseaton at 7:51 AM on April 24, 2007

Second War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning—a superb book.

Nobody mentioned Tolstoy's Voyna y Mir? Pozhaloosta!

Hey, I mentioned Tolstoy, and I wasn't thinking of Anna Karenina!

posted by languagehat at 8:58 AM on April 24, 2007

If you liked The Things They Carried, then you should also read Tim O'Brien's other great Vietnam novel, Going After Cacciato.
posted by steadystate at 9:47 AM on April 24, 2007

A lamb to the slaughter, Montyn & Kooiman
The story of a dutch boy who at the age of 17 foolishly joins the Wehrmacht to escape an oppressive calvinist upbringing, joins the Kriegsmarine, fights on the eastern front, witnesses the bombing of Dresden etc.
posted by jouke at 10:23 AM on April 24, 2007

Henry Reed's Naming of Parts. The poem's on steef's Reed site.
posted by paduasoy at 3:19 PM on April 24, 2007

Gates of Fire - Steven Pressfield. A serious treatment of the Spartan's stand at Thermopylae.
posted by Manjusri at 12:39 AM on April 25, 2007

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