Top Five Books on War

(photo by James Nachtwey)

I read lots of books on war, inspired by a freshman writing seminar that I took with James Tatum at Dartmouth many years ago. (He turned that seminar into a book.) Here are, in my estimation, the top five books on war:

1. The Illiad by Homer

2. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

3. The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane

4. Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes

5. A Rumor of War by Philip Caputo

I acknowledge the emphasis on Vietnam, but it seems that war generated some of the greatest writing of any war.

What books do you think I’m missing?

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  • JW

    All Queit on the Western Front
    The Great War and Modern Memory (Fussell)

  • Trupedo_Glastic
  • Kenton

    The Art of War by Sun Tzu

    • LoneWolf

      Especially the most overlooked parts of it, aka “don’t go to war,” and “if you have to go to war, end it as quickly as possible.”

    • abb3w

      OhSoMuch THIS.

      There’s also von Clausewitz, but he was wordier in the fashion of German philosophy. Similarly, some SF writers have done good knock-offs, but few have managed more than a handful of useful aphorisms per volume. Bujold still makes illuminating reading despite.

  • terry shoemaker

    The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced By War by Andrew Bacevich for a more contemporary perspective of how Americans are enamored with the military and war (because of Vietnam initially, but exacerbated by the events of 9/11)

    Here’s the amazon link:

  • Three out of five are about Vietnam. Does that just reflect your own personal interests, or do you think that Vietnam has produced the best war writing?

    My top books on war would be:

    Homer, The Iliad (I think you definitely got that one right)
    Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls
    Michael Shaara, The Killer Angels
    Väinö Linna, Tuntematon sotilas/The Unknown Soldier

    But I would toss in the Judge’s monologue on war from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian for good measure.

  • It’s not a book, but it is based on about 4 books and that’s HBO’s “The Pacific”. Using Robert Leckie’s “Helmet for my Pillow”, Eugene Sledge’s “With the Old Breed at Pelileu and Okinawa” and “China Marine” and Chuck Tatum’s “Red Blood, Black Sand”, it shows how brutal the Pacific war was and what it did to the young men who fought in that theater.

  • Jeff

    The Thirty Years War by C.V. Wedgwood.

    The Things They Carried is definitely a great one.

  • Ben

    Dispatches by micheal herr

  • phil_style

    “on war” by Clausewitz, or alternatively (and my preference in fact) this discussion on that volume(s):
    Battling to the End – Rene Girard. (Achever Clausewitz)

  • Nate Custer

    War is the Force that Gives Us Meaning – Chris Hedges is a favorite of mine:

  • Jarhead

  • The Things They Carried is one of my all time favorite books. I love it not only for the reflections on war, but on the philosophical/hermeneutical reflections on what makes a story “true.” I think it should be required reading for all seminarians—or any Christian interested in questions of truth.

    • I’m assigning it to my Fuller students!

  • Carl Gregg

    Your list reminds me of a book review I just read in The New York Times. The opening paragraph: “Kevin Powers joined the Army when he was 17 and served as a machine-gunner in Iraq in 2004 and 2005. Drawing upon those experiences, he has written a remarkable first novel, one that stands with Tim O’Brien’s enduring Vietnam book, ‘The Things They Carried,’ as a classic of contemporary war fiction.” A bold claim. (For more:

  • Dispatches : Herr’s classic
    Chickenhawk / Hellfire / Apache : three best pilots’ eye books on helicopters at war
    Sea Harrier Over The Falklands : Pilot story of technical & political challenges of fighting in the Sth Atlantic

  • Patrick S

    “Across Five Aprils” about the Civil War. And “Johnny Tremain?”

    A man can stand up.

    • Patrick S

      And the war poetry of Wilfred Owen.

  • Tony, first and foremost The Warriors, John Glenn Gray… this in grad school in the early 70’s….Gray was prof of Philosophy at Colorado State. Received his draft notice and his Phd in the mail on the same day….
    Second, On Killing, Grossman

  • Paul Raski

    Being a Dartmouth guy, I’m surprised “One Bullet Away” by Nathaniel Fick isn’t on your list. It’s a most compelling story of a Dartmouth classics student becoming a Marine Officer, his part in the invasion of Afghanistan, joining an elite Recon unit, and then his participation in the invasion of Iraq. A parallel story of the invasion of Iraq is told by Evan Wright, an embedded reporter with Rolling Stone magazine, in “Generation Kill”. HBO made a mini-series of that book that includes some of the actual Recon Marines.

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