Death. That’s what we’re really talking about with war. The sacrifice of countless millions of men and women at the altar of war, as well as the death survivors experience as they try to live again after being shattered by incomprehensible violence. Often, it is the death of those who want nothing to do with the war or the conflict, that take the highest toll. As hatred, separatism, and religious differences continue to tear at the fabric of humanity, war shall continue.
For most of us, war is an idea. War is a far-off problem, an unfortunate circumstance somewhere else. While war may rage on in other parts of the world, much of humanity remains concerned with getting raises, entertainment news, and our beloved sports. This is a simple enough circumstance– out of sight, out of mind, after all. But so long as humanity exists, it is a virtual inevitability that war will one day find its way to your doorstep. Or your children’s doorstep, or your great grandchildren’s doorstep.
You owe it to those who have died before you, and your future generations who will one day die in war, to understand what war is, was and has become. That which we do not understand we can never solve; if war ever can truly be permanently extinguished. The shape of the world we now live in has been forever altered by war. The circumstances of your own life were almost completely dictated by some war in history. If war truly is an inevitability, it is our duty to avoid it at all costs; to use at as a last resort, when no other solutions are possible.
Nothing drives this entire idea home harder than these novels. They chronicle various wars, in various places and times in history– but they all share the same themes: insurmountable loss, hatred, devastation, confusion, hopelessness. These novels should not be read as some anchor to weigh us down; but as triumphs of written word, that allow us to understand our past mistakes without having to experience them. These stories will change your life– for the better.
10. Enemy at the Gates: The Battle For Stalingrad — William Craig
While the title immediately invokes thoughts of the 2001 war film by the same name, this book has a painstaking nature of recreating the horror and depravity of the battle for Stalingrad, during the Apex of Hitler’s campaign into Russia during World War II. Although this book is nonfiction, it is absolutely jarring in its depiction of this ‘battle’, which would really be better described as a genocide. In response to Hitler’s fierce and sometimes crazy tactics, the Russian military responded with equally insane strategies. Stalingrad falling to the Germans would be catastrophic for the Russians, and in their desperation they hurled what were basically unarmed civilians in waves at the German military surge simply to slow them down. This continued for just over five months. While the eventual Russian victory was the turning point in the war– had the Germans won the entire scope of history would have changed– the total casualties on both sides from this battle alone are estimated to be just under 2 million. Craig’s in depth recounting of the horrors of this battle is not to be missed.
9. The Thin Red Line — James Jones
In the realm of realism and the gritty truth of a soldier’s life, The Thin Red Line is a masterpiece. As a reader, you feel so vividly the experiences of various soldiers during World War II and the battle of Guadalcanal. Sights, sounds, smells, the true vulnerability and fragility of men in the face of such effective weaponry, this novel truly transports you to a place you’ll wish you could run from. Ultimately, the novel is about the unbridgeable disconnect between all people– whether it be enemies, friends, loved ones, strangers, the theme of how distant we all are from understanding both ourselves and others is pervasive. The war itself is a sort of macrocosm of the inability of people to connect. The unmitigated death and violence that is the embodiment of the war feels like an inevitability. First published in 1962, James Jones takes you through the world of war through his firsthand experiences of the battle of Guadalcanal, and the truth of his experiences shine through in the power of his story.
8. War and Peace — Leo Tolstoy
While this novel is most commonly used a sort of joke for incredibly long novels, (originally published as 1,225 pages long) it is in fact one of the most important novels in world history. Originally published in 1869, War and Peace is a chronicling of the French invasion of Russia in 1812, during the time of First French Empire under Napoleon Bonaparte. The novel is very philosophical in nature, as much of the content isn’t just referential to historical influences of the time, but the greater ideas of what that history meant to humanity, and how history should be remembered. Tolstoy himself was a veteran of the Crimean war, and was said to have done painstaking research before writing the novel. His attention to detail and writing skill combined to create what is undoubtedly one of the greatest war novels of all time, as well a veritable piece of history itself.
7. The Red Badge of Courage — Stephen Crane
An incredible story of a young man whose youth and romanticism leaves him unprepared for the brutality of war, The Red Badge of Courage stands as an all-time benchmark for powerful, emotional war novels. Set during the early stages of the American Civil War, Private Henry Fleming enlists to fight out of his own sentimentalism, but quickly flees from his first battle. Driven by shame, remorse, confusion, and a lack of self-understanding, Fleming’s journey takes him to see death firsthand, and how it is an experience that everyone faces alone. While the novel alternates from showing the absurdity to the glorification of war, it is a powerful, personal experience that makes the story one of the most iconic war novels in history.
6. Covenant with Death — John Harris
A powerful novel based on the unpreparedness of humanity to deal with the horrors of World War I, Covenant with Death follows a group of young British men from a small town in England as they enlist into the war effort, and are subsequently bombarded by the horror that is the battle of the Somme. Largely regarded as a testament to how unprepared the allies were in the future of warfare, the battle of the Somme was incredibly costly, but due to the industrial and military strength of the combined British and American forces, they were eventually able to overcome the great blunders. Harris’ novel depicts the cavalier nature with which human lives were thrown away due to the failings of the original war effort. Published in 1961, the novel has the perspective of knowing that despite the eventual costly victory in the Great War, the toll would lead to yet another horrific blight on human history that is World War II.
5. Johnny Got his Gun — Dalton Trumbo
A horrific view into the realm of maimed veterans that survive, in a manner of speaking, Johnny Got his Gun is a sobering read. Joe Bonham was serving in World War I when an artillery blast destroys every one of his limbs and his entire face, essentially leaving him without any senses other than hearing. The story chronicles how he is trapped in life, unable to exist in any other form than thoughts. He wishes for death but cannot even successfully commit suicide. The story is haunting, in that Joe is left alone with his memories of his former life, his girlfriend, and the war itself. He inevitably goes into a sort of insanity, unable to cope with the reality that is his life. If ever a novel would make one appreciate life, this is it. It also simultaneously serves as one of the most effective anti-war novels in history.
4. Catch-22 — Joseph Heller
A war-satire, Catch-22 took Heller 8 years from the time he began to write it until publication in 1961. The novel uses the phrase catch 22, or a no win situation, to describe the trouble from all sides that befalls soldiers in a war. Whether it be incompetency from one’s own military, or the oppressive violence of battle, the novel accentuates just how much of a failure of humanity war is on all sides. The novel isn’t chronological, as it jumps around between times and characters to create a disorienting array of war stories that help instill the feelings of futility soldiers feel as they desperately hope to make it home alive. The fictional 256th squadron depicted in the story are emblematic of the plight of all soldiers: disillusionment, fear, degradation, and loss. The novel blends dark humor with wartime reality fluidly, and the result is one of the most popular war novels ever created.
3. Slaughterhouse-Five — Kurt Vonnegut
Another incredibly famous satirical war novel, Slaughterhouse-Five is a gruesome depiction of the firebombing of the German city of Dresden during World War II. Vonnegut was inspired to write the book, as he was in fact in Dresden during the actual firebombings. Like Catch-22, this novel is non-linear, following a chronically pessimistic American soldier named Billy Pilgrim, who is neither capable or willing to fight in the war. Told by an unreliable narrator, the novel follows Billy from his capture by German forces in the Battle of the Bulge, and Billy’s experiences as a prisoner of war, and his eventual loss of sanity after being one of the few survivors of the Dresden bombings. The novel varies from reality to fantasy as Billy is abducted by aliens, among a number of other wild supposed-truths. A commentary on the destabilization of human life after wartime trauma, Slaughterhouse-Five remains not only a wildly entertaining novel, but one recounting the indiscriminant destruction of war.
2. For Whom The Bell Tolls — Ernest Hemingway
There are few war stories in any medium that can compare to the incredibly personal, unorthodox journey through war as experienced by Robert Jordan in Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls. A professor of Spanish language who travels to Spain to fight in the Spanish Civil War, Robert Jordan is a demolitionist charged with destroying a bridge at the exact right time during the battle for Segovia. An incredibly detailed, up-close look at the mind of a soldier in a very unorthodox war, Robert Jordan joins Republican Guerrillas as they fight for their vision of the future of Spain. The journey of Jordan in battle, negotiating the separation between native Spanish and himself, and falling in love with a Spanish national woman all are laid bare in graphic detail as the novel closely follows Jordan’s thoughts and emotions– which is the aspect of the novel that truly raises it to such heights. If you have not read this novel, it is absolutely a necessity, a sure fire bucket list story that will grip you until the last word of the last page. It is flawless in both its depiction of the grim reality of civil war, and the emotions of one man thrust into it. Easily Hemingway’s greatest work– do not let it pass you by.
1. All Quiet On The Western Front — Erich Maria Remarque
It’s simultaneously the best war novel of all time, and the best anti-war novel of all time, if that makes any sense. It follows a group of impressionable young men in Germany, including protagonist Paul Baumer, who are swayed into joining the military by their schoolteacher. Their romantic ideas of war and nationalism are obliterated by the unending siege of oppression from both their own superior officers and their enemies. Not only is this novel an incredible, touching, real, and vivid story, but it is incredibly well written. Despite being published in 1929, the diction and structure flows fluidly, such that it would be eminently readable even by today’s short-attention-span standards.
In short, it is emotionally moving like no other war novel, and Remarque’s writing prowess is a godsend that allowed this novel to take form and become the masterpiece the world deserves. Hardly has a novel of any sort been able to reach into the reader and truly grasp at his or her core more than this one– the reader watches helplessly as the beloved Baumer, Kat and their comrades struggle to survive in a war from all sides. If you are to read one war novel in your life, make it All Quiet On the Western Front. It is simultaneously a bildungsroman and an anti-war story which teaches that even survivors of war died somewhere out on the battlefield.