I read war books before I started writing The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor, but I dove into them during that project. (The paperback version came out last week.) I am as in awe of Dispatches, Matterhorn, and The Things They Carried as the next person, and I assume those interested in reading about war have libraries containing Hemingway and Heller. Blackhawk Down, We Were Soldiers Once…, A Rumor of War, Where Men Win Glory, War —I will assume you have those. But here are some war books that may have slipped by you that you should consider for your library if they’re not there already.
Deeds of WarBy James Nachtwey
Nachtwey, one of the world’s most skilled and sensitive photojournalists, travels from Sudan to El Salvador, Northern Ireland to Haiti, to chronicle the madness of what we do to each other. “I have been a witness, and these pictures are my testimony,” he says. “The events I have recorded should not be forgotten and must not be repeated.” And yet they have been, over and over, from torture to the senseless slaughter of children. The pictures, taken in the 1980s, have aged well and become even more complex; I’m thinking of one in particular from 1986 of Afghan mujahedin praying during a break from fighting the USSR.
Civil War StoriesBy Ambrose Bierce
You’ve probably heard of one of the stories, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”—or at least you may have seen the 1964 Twilight Zone airing of the French film version of the story, La rivière du hibou. Nearly every story in the collection is as good; sad and dark and biting accounts of that savage war by a writer who was there for some of the bloodiest battles and was wounded at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. The recollections are gruesome and impactful in their matter-of-factness (combined with Bierce’s trademark twists).
In “What I Saw In Shiloh,” for instance, Bierce writes of a wounded sergeant “who had been a fine giant in his time. He lay face upward, taking in his breath in convulsive, rattling snorts, and blowing it out in sputters of froth which crawled creamily down his cheeks, piling itself alongside his neck and ears. A bullet had clipped a groove in his skull, above the temple; from this the brain protruded in bosses, dropping off in flakes and strings. I had not previously known one could get on, even in this unsatisfactory fashion, with so little brain. One of my men whom I knew for a womanish fellow, asked if he should put his bayonet through him. Inexpressibly shocked by the cold-blooded proposal, I told him I thought not; it was unusual, and too many were looking.”
Pretty BirdsBy Scott Simon
Simon, the affable host of NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday, tells the story of a fictionalized teenage Bosnian sniper based on his actual time in the 1990s covering the war in Sarajevo. His is a beautifully rendered novel of modern urban warfare. Irena, a half-Muslim former high school basketball star, is both a refugee struggling in near-impossible circumstances, and a guerilla.
The contemplation of the rules of war—its situational morality—is made all the more cruel in the mind of a teenager: her chief Tedic “had told her not to shoot at children. The morals were dubious and the publicity devastating. On her own, Irena had determined that she would not shoot at pets. Tedic had instructed her not to shoot at grandmothers, and when she’d wondered if grandfathers were included by the same logic, he had reminded her that Milosevic and Karadzic could have grandchildren…Irena decided that she would not shoot at someone who looked like Sting, the Princess of Wales, or Katarina Witt. She wanted to be able to enjoy looking at their pictures without seeing ghosts. She would not shoot at someone who was already wounded, though she would judge if someone limped because he had truly been wounded or because he had jammed his toe kicking a plugged-up toilet. Irena knew that Tedic would have a score of sensible objections to each of her rules. What if Serb snipers started tucking puppies under their arms? What if a Serb mortar team carried a little ginger cat as their mascot? Would she shrink from firing at a Serb setting off an artillery piece if he had eyebrows like Katarina Witt? Irena kept her rules in confidence so that she could not be reasoned out of them.”
This Kind of War: the Classic Korean War HistoryBy T.R. Fehrenback
Fehrenback’s look at the Korean War was recommended to me by former McCain aide Mark Salter, whose dad fought in Korea and who knows a bit about war books; its original title when it was first published in 1963 was This Kind of War: A Study in Unpreparedness. The author notes that “Americans in 1950 rediscovered something that since Hiroshima they had forgotten: you may fly over a land forever; you may bomb it, atomize it, pulverize it and wipe it clean of life—but if you desire to defend it, protect it and keep it for civilization, you must do this on the ground, the way the Roman legions did, by putting your young men in the mud.” He does this by telling the stories of those young men in the mud, place by place.
London to Ladysmith via PretoriaBy Winston Spencer Churchill
My grandparents, from Canada, were great Churchill-philes, and left me with a great library of books about and by the former Prime Minister. (Theirs was the personal admiration of a soldier for a commander: my grandfather Everett Palmatier fought in World War II as a Lt. Commander in the Royal Canadian Navy, his little brother Warrant Office David Edwin Palmatier, a tail gunner in the Royal Canadian Air Force, was shot down and killed over France in 1943. My grandmother Helen worked as a confidential secretary for the Canadian government.)
London to Ladysmith, first published in 1900, is a book of its era—and class—written with stiff upper lip and free of the sentiment and graphic detail one can find in today’s war books (mine included). Churchill recounts his experience as a war correspondent covering the Second Boer War between the British Empire and Dutch settlers in southern Africa (spoiler alert: the British won), being captured, and his compelling escape. But what I found most interesting was the spirit in which he recorded his time there (“Corpses lay here and there. Many of the wounds were of a horrible nature… I passed about two hundred while I was climbing up… Others were utterly exhausted…Others again seemed drunk… Scores were sleeping…We were so profoundly impressed by the spectacle and situation…”). It all makes his determination during the darkest days of World War II all the more understandable.