I’m switching gears from science fiction to read and review a war novel for Coffee or Die Magazine. I pitched it to their Senior Editor who handles the entertainment section. After a few emails and spitballing ideas over the phone, I have concluded that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan produced few war novels. Sure, vets and journalists have written loads of books, loads of memoirs, biographies, and investigative long-form. But as far as I can tell, the majority of literary work coming from the last 20 years at war is non-fiction. I’m curious to review what other generations at war had produced. Was it mostly fiction? Mostly biography? Whatever it is, what each generation chooses to write must say something about, something.
And on that note, here are 6 war novel picks.
The Civil War
The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane
I remember reading this book in grade school. It’s considered a significant accomplishment in American literature that depicts the style and attitudes of the Civil War era. I mainly remember the tone and feel of this novel, the experience of it was like viewing an old photograph from the mid-19th century.
Interestingly, Stephen Crane was not a veteran of the Civil War. He was born in 1871 after the war during the Reconstruction era. Coffee or Die has an entertaining article highlighting this point here.
World War I
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
This is another one I remember reading during grade school. What strikes me now as I compile this list is that it’s not written by an American but by a German. I suppose I had always thought it part of the canon of American literature because of A. I read it in English (of course), and B. because it had a massive impact in the United States.
Remarque was a veteran of World War I and published his book with Little, Brown, and Co some 11 years after his service on the German front lines. This book became an international bestseller with translations in several languages and an Oscar-winning movie adaptation. With another war in Europe looming on the horizon, the movie adaptation, released in 1930, shot straight into the existential cultural angst of that time.
A Farewell to Arms by Earnest Hemingway
I’m reluctant to put this book on my list of war novels. There seems to be a (subtle) difference between a novel about a war and a novel where a war features mainly in the backdrop.
This is one where a war features mainly in the backdrop, but it’s a story about love and loss. Without World War I, however, there would be no plot and no story. For this reason, I think it rates to be on some list of significant literary accomplishments.
World War II
The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk
As a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, it’s hard for me to escape Herman Wouk. It’s a landmark novel about a U.S. naval ship and subsequent court-martial that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1951. For naval officers and students of leadership, The Caine Mutiny is a must-read because Wouk hits themes related to courage and duty in a highly nuanced way.
The Vietnam War
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
There is some debate over whether The Things They Carried is a short story collection or a novel. I read it years ago in college and got the sense that the chapters are loosely connected. Writing this now, I imagine that maybe it’s like the movie Love Actually, but I don’t remember if the chapters ever converge upon one event or one character. At any rate, this book has risen in prominence and has found its way onto the shortlist of war novels about Vietnam.
Fields of Fire by Jim Webb
Here is another book that’s hard to escape as a naval officer, especially since Jim Webb is a U.S. Naval Academy graduate. While I’ll take nothing away from Jim Webb as a writer, this novel is known more because of Jim Webb’s status as a great American patriot. He has a long list of accomplishments to include the Navy Cross for heroic actions while serving in Vietnam and he’s led a storied career of public service. Oh, and he’s got this book and a stack of other literary accomplishments, both novels and non-fiction books, to boot.
That’s my list so far. Putting this together, I’m starting to see some patterns and some aberrations from the the expected. The war novel is a lot of things, it seems. Time will tell which one stands out from the American adventures and missteps in Iraq and Afghanistan. Maybe it hasn’t been written yet.