Indispensible

07.26.15 2:00 AM ET

15 Great Books About Iraq, Afghanistan

From the familiar to the obscure, novelist and military man Jesse Goolsby runs down the poetry, fiction, memoir and history you need to make sense of war in the 21st century.

While working on my novel I’d Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them I had the chance to reflect on the literature of our nation’s 21st-century wars, as well as their vital creative lineage. The titles brought forth when considering even a small sampling of America’s legacy of literary output centered on conflict are impressive: The Red Badge of Courage, A Farewell to Arms, The Naked and the Dead, Catch-22, Slaughterhouse 5, The Killer Angels, Ceremony, Dispatches, The Things They Carried, to name just a few. It’s clear that some of our most revered art has centered on America’s difficult and punishing relationship with war, and our most current and ongoing wars are no exception. Already we encounter an incredible amount of quality work navigating the emotional and physical spaces of the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the challenges back home.   

Any list of the literature of America’s contemporary wars should begin with the acknowledgement that this is a living and expanding—and exciting—collection of voices. One only has to consider the brilliance of Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes (40 years after Vietnam) or Mormon Boy by Seth Brady Tucker (20 years after the first Gulf War) to appreciate the duration of creative fermentation conflict may elicit. There is more fine writing and art about our nation’s two longest wars forthcoming, and this future work deserves our continued attention and introspection. While this list focuses on books, it’d be an oversight not to mention the wonderful playwrights like Quiara Alegria Hudes, Maurice Decaul, and others who are crafting amazing work for the stage.

The 15 fantastic books listed below include fiction, memoir, journalism, and poetry by a fascinating array of voices. All of these works, and many more, deserve to take their place alongside the venerable titles of our finest war literature. 

THE FOREVER WAR BY DEXTER FILKINS (2008)

Opening:

“The Marines were pressed flat on a rooftop when the dialogue began to unfold.”

Simply the finest collection of journalism to come from America’s 21st-century wars. Filkins has managed a nearly impossible task: to render a pulsing narrative that showcases both the expensiveness and specificity of the wars by investigating individuals and their particular, harrowing plights.

STATESIDE BY JEHANNE DUBROW (2010)

Opening:

“It means the moveable stays tied.

Lockers hold shut. The waves don’t slide

a metal box across the decks…”

A piercing collection, Dubrow summons Penelope from The Odyssey as muse, and the results showcase a spectacular study of the various and simultaneous selves we inhabit. A necessary and urgent invocation of strength, fear, longing, and love.

PHANTOM NOISE BY BRIAN TURNER (2010)

Opening:

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“Each night is different. Each night the same.

Sometimes I pull the trigger. Sometimes I don’t.”

In Turner’s second, brilliant book of war poetry, war follows the poet home. This book highlights a new chivalry: not protest, but clear-eyed compassion for those who suffer on both sides of the war.

YOU KNOW WHEN THE MEN ARE GONE BY SIOBHAN FALLON (2011)

Opening:

“In Fort Hood housing, like all Army housing, you get used to hearing through the walls.”

This impressive collection displays the striking influence of war and absence on military families. These are intense stories of love and longing, a clear-eyed reckoning of living in a Nation and a community at war. 

BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK BY BEN FOUNTAIN (2012)

Opening:

“The men of Bravo are not cold.”

Set over the span of a Dallas Cowboys’s football game, this novel serves up America’s consumer culture, foreign policy, and the media in a pitch-perfect and maddening trial of our collective values and attention span. See also Fountain’s incredible speech “Soldiers on the Fault Line: War, Rhetoric & Reality.”

FOBBIT BY DAVID ABRAMS (2012)

Opening:

“They were Fobbits because, at the core, they were nothing but marshmallow.”

Fobbit possesses the finest and most unique narrative voice of our recent war novels. Hilarious, heart-breaking, believable, and at its center, an innovative critique of what we’ve asked of our service members.

DUST TO DUST BY BENJAMIN BUSCH (2012)

Opening:

“I knew very early that I was a solitary being.”

This gorgeous memoir is a deeply moving meditation on purpose, dislocation, violence, youth, service, and connection. A diverse and gifted artist, Busch is equally adept behind the lens of a camera. Read Dust to Dust and pair with the photos in Busch’s series The Art in War.

FLASHES OF WAR BY KATEY SCHULTZ (2013)

Opening:

“It’s not quite sniper fire, but it isn’t random either.”

A kinetic and holistic look at the War on Terror, this powerhouse collection features flash fiction in its finest form. Ambitious and fearless, Shultz’s imaginative reach in Flashes of War is something to behold.

THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE BY DAVID FINKEL (2013)

Opening:

“Two years later: Adam drops the baby.”

Read alone or together with Finkel’s also excellent The Good Soldiers, Thank You for Your Service should be required reading and a wake-up call for America to drastically improve the care of our veterans and their families. A deeply moving account of the personal and long-lasting costs of war.

Opening:

“Before taking out his knife he said, ‘After studying the client’s file you must submit a brief note on how you propose to kill your first client and how you will display his body in the city.’”

This book is a stunning fiction collection from a supremely talented Iraqi writer, and a needed, alternate point of view. Moments of realism next to absurdity and dark humor—full of soldiers and assassins, hostages and car bombers, refugees and terrorists.

LOSING TIM BY JANET BURROWAY (2014)

Opening:

“Every suicide is a suicide bomber.”

A wrenching and beautiful look at love, memory, and loss from one of our finest authors. Notably, this memoir investigates ground very few have addressed: the role and plight of the thousands and thousands of contractors America uses to fight its wars.

THE BLIND MAN’S GARDEN BY NADEEM ASLAM (2014)

Opening:

“History is the third parent.”

Aslam’s haunting novel takes us deep into pre and post-9/11 Pakistan and Afghanistan, and offers equally searing takes on the Taliban’s fanaticism and America’s devastating War of Terror. An unflinching and potent look at a world where friend and enemy are often inseparable.

REDEPLOYMENT BY PHIL KLAY (2014)

Opening:

“We shot dogs. Not by accident. We called it Operation Scooby.”

This celebrated collection’s finest stories showcase service members struggling to retain their humanity and identity during—and after—the brutality of war. A study in lives led at the end axis of emotion and experience.

Opening:

“It happened partway through the first year of Operation Iraqi Freedom: October 17, 2003.”

In Williams’s follow-up to her well-received Love My Rifle More Than You, she tackles her and her husband’s heartbreaking story of injury, love, anger, and recovery. This is a story of courage and loyalty, a story of the physical and emotional consequences of war.

GREEN ON BLUE BY ELLIOT ACKERMAN (2015)

Opening:

“Many would call me a dishonest man, but I’ve always kept faith with myself.”

Ackerman’s Green on Blue is a fully realized accomplishment of radical empathy combined with brilliant storytelling. Not since Robert Olen Butler’s A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain have we encountered war literature that convincingly pulls off such an imaginative risk.

Jesse Goolsby is a U.S. Air Force officer and the author of the novel I’d Walk With My Friends if I Could Find Them (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). A recipient of the John Gardner Memorial Award in Fiction and a Holland & Knight Distinguished Fellowship from the Hambidge Center for Creative Arts and Sciences, he is currently a Ph.D. candidate in English at Florida State University.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States government, the Department of Defense, or the Department of the Air Force.