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From the Trojan War to Afghanistan

War novels have endured the test of time

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May 19th, 2017
A platoon in Vietnam.

A platoon in Vietnam.

Consider the world’s earliest literature. Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad. Virgil’s The Aeneid. Beowulf and the legend of King Arthur.

All of these tales, mainstays of the Western cannon, are also war stories. As a genre, the war novel is one of the most enduring literary forms. For every warrior, there is a war story. Here are some of the best. 

The modern war novel

The modern war novel emerged in the early nineteenth century with the publication of two very different works—both worlds apart.

The first, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, weighs in at 1,300 pages and involves 559 characters. It is about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, told by interweaving the stories of five aristocratic Russian families. When it was published in 1869, the literary world embraced War and Peace, and time has not diminished its stature. It continues to appear atop lists of the most important novels of all time.

The other significant modern war novel of the nineteenth century couldn’t be more different. At just over 100 pages, Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, published in 1895, is actually more of a novella. Set during the Civil War, the battles fought on the fields become secondary to the internal struggle faced by Union private Henry Fleming, who longs for a wound or a “red badge” to prove his bravery.

Up until this time, war novels were straight descriptions of military maneuvers. The authors of these two disparate novels redefined the genre by emphasizing the moral and ethical issues that arise when people take up arms.   

The twentieth century

World War I inspired a wealth of war novels, including Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and Jon Dos Passos’s Three Soldiers.  

The first WWI novel written by a woman, Rebecca West’s Return of the Soldier, follows a shell-shocked WWI soldier as he returns home. It examines the ugly psychological aftermath of war and its impact on both the soldier and his family as he attempts to resume civilian life. 

The definitive WWI novel is German author Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. Voted the best war novel of all time on Goodreads, it describes the misery of trench warfare and the physical and mental stress soldiers endured. 

Drawing on his own experience in the war, Remarque prefaces his story with these words: “This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped (its) shells, were destroyed by the war.”

An international bestseller, the book was also made into an Academy Award-winning film. 

The book was not popular in Remarque’s native Germany, however. His countrymen felt the novel cast Germany in a bad light. When the Nazis took over, All Quiet on the Western Front was the first book they declared “degenerate.” To make their point well known, they held book burnings and organized protests outside of theaters showing the film. 

WWII

James Jones’ From Here to Eternity and Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny were born from those authors’ experiences in WWII. Both were critical and popular successes.

As is often the case, some of the most thought-provoking stories of that war were written long after VE day. The post-war period ushered in some of America’s most important writers. Irwin Shaw’s The Young Lions, Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five redefined the war novel. These authors infused their stories with irony and presented varied perspectives in a single novel.

Korea

For a book about the Korean Conflict, look no further than James Salter’s excellent The Hunters. It is the story of U.S. air pilots trying to get “five kills” in order to qualify as “aces.” For aviators, Salter’s soaring prose about flying is not to be missed.

Vietnam

Graham Greene’s The Quiet American brilliantly explores the origins of the Vietnam War, but for many, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is the definitive novel of that conflict. A series of vignettes about a platoon of soldiers, it is based on O’Brien’s own experience.  

One of its most thoughtful vignettes, “How to Tell a True War Story,” addresses the relative truth inherent in any soldier’s tale of war. For O’Brien, accuracy is beside the point. All that matters is what the soldier is trying to communicate by sharing that story. 

Over two million copies of The Things They Carried have been sold since it was first published in 1990. What’s more, this is the go-to book that high schools now routinely use when covering the Vietnam War. 

Iraq and Afghanistan

The literature of America’s most recent wars is still emerging, but there is every indication that these campaigns will generate yet another iteration of the genre. Two good starts are Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds and Michael Pitre’s Fives and Twenty-Fives


What is your favorite war novel? Tell us in comments below.

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