This is a short list of war novel picks for service members. They don’t all feature Americans, or American service members for that matter. But a little empathy goes a long way, and sometimes we’re not the best ones to tell our story.
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 8 war novel picks for service members.
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 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.
The Iraq War
The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
Kevin Powers’ book is one of the few fiction works to come out of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is a U.S. Army infantry veteran who served at the peak of the Iraq War and labored seven years to complete this work. This work feels something like a snapshot of a moment in time when military members serving at this time were beginning to understand the bizarre nature of the fight and the enemy they faced.
2034: A Novel Of the Next World War by Elliot Ackerman and James G. Stavridis
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.