No, it is not the ongoing situation worldwide that provoked me to create such a list – a list of books about war or books in the war literature genre. I am trying to list a few books that might warn and advise readers why war is bad. Today, tomorrow or any other day. However, if wars are fought just as proxies to the whims of leaders across the world, like the one between Ukraine and Russia, we can seldom understand what lies behind the curtain. Nevertheless, let us understand what War Literature stands for. War literature is a genre that explores the human experience during times of conflict, providing readers with profound insights into the impact of war on individuals, societies, and the world. It delves into the emotions, struggles, and complexities of war, making it both a compelling and enlightening genre to explore. And so, as you can gather from the caveat before the definition and also by the definition itself, war literature is not about war. It’s rather about the devastation – mental and physical – that war might bring upon individuals. In this list, we present 20 of the best novels in the war literature genre, each offering unique perspectives and powerful narratives on the subject. So, let’s go!
1. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (1928)
The first World War should ideally have been more than enough to propel the civic thinking in the right direction, aware of and far away from the wars. However, it did not happen. Events in this work, celebrated and famous, takes place during World War I and follow the journey of German soldier Paul Bäumer. It offers a brutally honest portrayal of the futility and horror of war, showcasing the physical and emotional toll on soldiers. The narrative explores themes of camaraderie, disillusionment, and the loss of innocence as young men are thrust into the maelstrom of battle.
2. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (1869)
I generally refrain from making blunt statements. However, it is one of those novels that often sits at the top of the piles of ‘great works of literature’. I seldom could gather much of it until I took the pain to sail across and finish this novel. It indeed covers a wide-spread span of time and various emotions. Often considered one of the greatest novels ever written, War and Peace is a sprawling epic that spans the Napoleonic Wars. This magnum opus delves into the lives of its characters, exploring their personal and social struggles in the context of war. Tolstoy’s work not only provides historical insight but also offers a profound examination of human nature and the consequences of conflict. Though it might seem a little painful to read the novel, you should give it a try. It is worth!
3. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961)
Comic takes on serious issues often bring two distinct sets of reactions. However, most of the time, if done sensibly and artistically, comic works of literature convey more than you may expect them to. And this one, a darkly comic and satirical novel set during World War II, Catch-22 introduces readers to the absurdity and bureaucracy of military life through the eyes of Captain John Yossarian. The title refers to the paradoxical and absurd regulations governing the soldiers’ lives, making it impossible to escape the insanity of war. Heller’s work is both humorous and thought-provoking. Always worth your hours if you are looking for something serious and yet tolerable!
4. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (1990)
Well, now come to this short story genre. At times, a story is all that we need to open our inner eyes. And what could be better than a collection of such insightful stories? This collection of interrelated short stories provides a deeply personal and emotional exploration of the experiences of American soldiers during the Vietnam War. O’Brien delves into the emotional baggage carried by these soldiers, highlighting the weight of memory, fear, and loss. The narrative blurs the line between fact and fiction, emphasizing the subjective nature of war storytelling.
5. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway (1929)
A celebrated and widely appreciated work, set during World War I, Hemingway’s classic novel focuses on the love story between Lieutenant Frederic Henry and Catherine Barkley. The novel explores themes of love, disillusionment, and the impact of war on individuals. Hemingway’s sparse and economical prose style accentuates the emotional depth of his characters and the stark realities of war.
6. The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer (1948)
World War II brought many memorable experiences that we are somehow sustaining by not entering into another phase of horror and gore. However, how long? This work, set in the Pacific Theater during World War II, this novel offers a raw and gritty portrayal of the lives of American soldiers. Through the experiences of soldiers in a platoon, Mailer examines the dehumanizing effects of war and the moral dilemmas faced by those in combat.
7. The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara (1974)
A historical novel centered on the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War, “The Killer Angels” presents a vivid portrayal of this pivotal conflict. The book delves into the perspectives of key figures on both sides of the battlefield, offering a balanced and compelling account of the battle and its consequences.
8. Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane (1895)
A seminal work in American literature, this novel follows the psychological journey of Henry Fleming, a young soldier during the Civil War. Crane’s narrative explores the internal struggles, fears, and growth of the protagonist as he grapples with the realities of war. It’s a powerful coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of battle. It will be interesting for teenagers and youths especially. Give it a try!
9. Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks (1993)
“Birdsong” is a novel that combines romance and brutality, set against the backdrop of World War I. It follows the experience of Stephen Wraysford, a British soldier who serves in the trenches. Faulks skillfully weaves together the horrors of war and the redemptive power of love, creating a poignant narrative that captures the essence of the era.
10. The Thin Red Line by James Jones (1962)
This novel offers a gripping and realistic portrayal of the Battle of Guadalcanal during World War II. It delves into the minds of the soldiers as they face the brutalities of war. Jones’ work provides an unflinching look at the physical and psychological challenges of combat, as well as the bonds that form among men in such dire circumstances.
11. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)
This one must be a surprising treat for lovers of experimental fiction! A blend of science fiction, satire, and dark humor, this novel explores the firebombing of Dresden during World War II. The protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, becomes “unstuck in time,” experiencing his life’s events out of order. Through this unconventional narrative, Vonnegut examines the absurdity and trauma of war, making a powerful anti-war statement.
12. The Long Walk by Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman) (1979)
King is known for the worlds he creates in his fiction. And rightly standing up to the standards, in this work, in a dystopian future America, the novel presents a brutal walking competition where participants must walk until they can no longer continue. While not a traditional war story, it serves as an allegory for the dehumanizing aspects of war and explores themes of survival, endurance, and the psychological toll of conflict.
13. The Red and the Black by Stendhal (1830)
Set in post-Napoleonic France, this classic novel is not a traditional war story, but it delves into the consequences of war on individuals and society. Through the life of Julien Sorel, a poor young man who aspires to rise in society, Stendhal explores the impact of military conquests and political upheaval on the social fabric of the time. I admire the author’s craft in detailing what might go wrong if we are adamant to admit that only we are right. A must-read one!
14. Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes (2010)
This novel is a gritty portrayal of the Vietnam War, focusing on a Marine Corps platoon in the jungles of Vietnam. Marlantes draws on his own experiences to create a realistic depiction of combat, the challenges faced by soldiers, and the political complexities of the era. The novel offers a raw and unfiltered view of the Vietnam War and its impact on those who served.
15. The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah (2015)
This gripping novel explores the experiences of two sisters in Nazi-occupied France during World War II. It sheds light on the heroism of women in wartime, as they navigate the dangers and sacrifices required to resist the occupation. Hannah’s work is a powerful testament to the strength and resilience of individuals in the face of oppression.
16. The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andrić (1945)
A historical novel set in Bosnia, “The Bridge on the Drina” examines the impact of war on the region and its people over several centuries. The novel is framed around the Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge, which stands as a silent witness to the changing fortunes of the region and the people who live there. Through vivid storytelling, Andrić explores the complexities of history, culture, and identity in the face of war.
17. Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield (1998)
This novel centers on the Battle of Thermopylae in ancient Greece, where 300 Spartans and their allies faced overwhelming odds against the Persian Empire. “Gates of Fire” delves into themes of heroism, sacrifice, and the enduring legacy of the Spartan warriors. Pressfield’s vivid storytelling and meticulous research bring the historical battle to life.
18. The Caine Mutiny” by Herman Wouk (1951)
Set during World War II, this novel provides a detailed examination of the complex relationships and moral dilemmas faced by the crew of the USS Caine. The story is framed by the mutiny aboard the ship, and Wouk explores the intricacies of leadership, duty, and the blurred lines between loyalty and disobedience in a time of war.
19. The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (1992)
This lyrical novel set during World War II explores the lives and secrets of four individuals in an Italian villa. The eponymous “English Patient” is a badly burned man whose identity is shrouded in mystery. Ondaatje’s poetic prose weaves together the characters’ stories, reflecting on the impact of war on their lives, identities, and relationships.
20. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” by Ben Fountain (2012)
In a satirical take on the Iraq War, this novel follows a group of soldiers on a victory tour in the United States. As they are celebrated during a halftime show at a football game, the novel exposes the disparity between the harsh realities of war on the front lines and the often superficial support they receive back home. Fountain’s work provides a critical examination of the homefront’s disconnect from the experiences of soldiers in combat.
In the end, let me have the moment to reiterate that War literature, as exemplified by these exceptional novels, offers readers a profound understanding of the human condition during times of conflict. The extended details provided for each book in this list reveal the depth and complexity of the narratives, characters, and themes they explore. These books not only tell stories of war but also provide readers with insights into the emotional, psychological, and social impact of conflict. By engaging with these works, readers can gain a deeper appreciation for the diverse aspects of the human experience in the face of adversity, making war literature both compelling and enlightening. Hope we learn our lessons and let these experiences be confined in the pages of these great works of literature! Enjoy reading!
Written by Ashish for ReadByCritics