While a terrible, wretched thing war is — the very worst breakdown of society, in fact — but it is nonetheless compelling. From battle come stories of bravery and heroism, of cowardice and pain, of friendships that run deeper than blood, and of hatred so visceral it almost belies human emotion. Thus it’s little surprise that some of the best novels are set during times of military conflict.
Whether inspired by the firsthand experience of the author or imagined by a fertile mind, great wartime novels plunge their reader into the action and into the era, sharing with us not only plot and character but also giving us a better sense of what it must have been like to live through such trying times. And when successful, good war books should inspire its reader toward a love of peace, not belligerence.
Here are 10 works of fiction set in all-too-real wars that any lover of literature should attack with alacrity.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Much of this epic tome is not set in conflict at all, but don’t worry, even the “peace” parts of War and Peace are plenty enjoyable. The scenes Tolstoy sets during Russia’s epic struggles against Napoleon’s forces in the early 19th century have some of the finest moments ever wrought on paper. You see in this novel heroism but also have myriad examples of the utter stupidity of warfare, and often Tolstoy manages to entwine these two aspects masterfully, such as when Prince Andrey Bolkonsky rises up after an injury and charges back into battle with a mighty “Hurrah!” At first, your heart surges and you charge alongside him, but in seconds you’re thinking: “Actually … what the hell are you doing?”
The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane
Crane was born half a decade after the Civil War ended and died without quite making it to age 40, but you’d never know either of those things from reading The Red Badge of Courage. Crane creates scenes of battle so realistic you would think them drawn from experience, and in his protagonist, Henry Fleming, Crane creates a character so real and nuanced you’d think the author had lived many more years to so fully experience the complexity that comes with being human. Fleming considers himself a coward for having fled a battlefield, but in him, we see a man who reflects much of ourselves.
All Quiet On the Western Front by Erich Remarque
If you didn’t read this book in high school, read it now. Though about 300 pages in its paperback edition, you can charge through the book in just a few sessions. While not a hard read, it’s not an easy ready, either. The fear, senselessness, and dislocation from reality established here feel real because they are; Remarque was a German soldier who did indeed fight on the Western Front during World War I, and who would later go on, during a decidedly interesting life, to renounce war. He fled Germany in the run-up to WWII and would even have his German citizenship revoked by the Nazis.
Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
If you don’t get enough WWI action from All Quiet on the Western Front, crack open Birdsong next. Much of the book is about love and its many complications, but WWI is at the heart of the novel and its many unflinching scenes of death and suffering will stay with you well after you’ve turned the last page. Much as with Stephen Crane’s Civil War writing, you will be impressed that Faulks was born after WWI and had no firsthand experience therein. (In fact, he was born after WWII.)
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway saw action in the First World War and during the Spanish Civil War, the setting for his masterpiece, and that experience shows in one way above all else: The fighting here, as in his other many novels and short stories, is not pretty. It’s not glorious. It’s muddy and erratic and usually useless, with neither side gaining much ground but with men (and women) dying nonetheless. At its heart, For Whom the Bell Tolls is as much love story as war story, but so essential to this book is the immensity of the Spanish Civil War that the two aspects are inseparable.
The Time in Between by Maria Duenas
This novel is 600-plus pages long but manages to be a fast read nonetheless thanks to how quickly the story moves. That story centers on a girl named Sira whom we meet at 12 and follow as she briskly reaches adulthood just at the outset of the Spanish Civil War, which prompts her to leave her native Iberia and embark on a journey that winds through the rest of the 1930s and right into WWII, a conflict during which she takes on a potentiality deadly role as double agent for the Allies. As much period piece as war novel, the story does a fine job of painting the scenery of two of the 20th century’s worst conflicts.
A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro
Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and you can rest assured that his writing is superlative. This novel is actually set in London after World War II, but the main character’s many recollections of the war as it ravaged Japan plunge us back into that carnage again and again, and with a decidedly new point of view for most readers: The protagonist here is a Japanese woman, a far cry from the American fighting man through which we usually seeWWII in the Pacific.
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
Before he was creating celebrated literature largely about the Vietnam War, Tim O’Brien was a soldier fighting in the Vietnam War, and his experience shows. This book, a collection of interwoven short stories that tell a larger cohesive narrative, features writing that’s at times stripped down to the basics, at times lyrical. O’Brien can convey the complexities of a soldier’s emotions in describing a simple white pebble and can tell us all we need to know about a certain character based on the things in his pockets and pack — literally the things carried.
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
This at times touching, at times searing novel reminds us that the real victims in warfare are the people who never took up arms in the first place: The civilians. And among the noncombatants, it is the children who are usually affected the most. This recent classic tells of the woes wrought in Afghanistan by the Soviet invasion in 1979, the fallout of which is still with us today. It is a coming of age story with a backdrop of a country falling apart amidst what would prove to be a forever war.
The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
Kevin Powers served in the United States Army in Iraq in 2004 and 2005, and if you remember your recent history, those were about the worst and most challenging years you could serve. His experience manning a machine gun in and around towns like Mosul provided him ample source material for this powerful modern war novel, in which we see several soldiers ground down by the stress, fatigue, death, and constant fear that plagued them.
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