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Even if you’ve never been to war, you likely know someone who has. But understanding a soldier’s experience isn’t as easy as listening to tales told over a few beers (assuming s/he is even willing to talk). Aside from enlisting, the next best way to get inside the mind of a military man is to read books by, and about, those who have been on the front lines. The following list includes both fiction and non-fiction tomes that propel the reader into action-packed war scenes with visceral descriptions. The authors are veterans, journalists, and modern-day heroes who spared no detail, no matter how heinous. In a time when World War III feels like it might not be that far off, these must-read books remind us what battle really looks–and feels–like, and the ways it affects those who fight for the rest of their lives.
6 Must-Read Books About War:
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1990)
If you only read one book about war, this should be it. Based in part on Tim O’Brien’s own experiences in Vietnam, these interconnected but non-chronological stories expose the gruesome acts, moral dilemmas, and psychological wounds of war. “I sit at this typewriter and stare through my words and watch Kiowa sinking into the deep muck of a shit field, or Curt Lemon hanging in pieces from a tree, and as I write about these things, the remembering is turned into a kind of rehappening,” he writes. But war isn’t all awful. Friendships are formed, jokes are shared, and pleasure is had, despite the incessant destruction. O’Brien’s stories will eviscerate you, in a necessary if unsettling way, and the images in them will haunt you (three words: necklace of tongues). Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
Dispatches by Michael Herr (Alfred A. Knopf, 1977)
“I must be out of my fucking mind,” Michael Herr recalls thinking in his early days as a war correspondent in Vietnam. Nothing could have prepared the young man for the horror he was about to witness while being choppered in and out of different pockets of battle. “I didn’t know, it took the war to teach it, that you were as responsible for everything you saw as you were for everything you did,” Herr writes. “The problem was that you didn’t always know what you were seeing until later…” Herr sees plenty, comparing the carnage to the sickest kind of porn, and documents it all in an emotional and opinionated way, foregoing the typical detached journalist’s tone. His narrative isn’t without humor, either; soldiers nicknamed Swinging Dick and Pray For War show Herr the ropes, and the constant cherry-popping triggers a laugh even in those whose lives are stake, like when Herr remarks on the beauty of Vietnam’s sunsets. This book will disturb you, but that’s what the best art is supposed to do.
Redeployment by Phil Klay (Penguin Books, 2014)
“We shot dogs. Not by accident. We did it on purpose, and we called it Operation Scooby.” Thus begins U.S. Marine Corps veteran Phil Klay’s short story collection about the Iraq war. Channeling voices as diverse as a lance corporal, a mortuary services Marine, a chaplain, and a Foreign Services officer, Klay brings to light both the brutality and banality of war as well the psychological costs that servicemen pay when they come home. Klay’s characters navigate everything from helping the Iraqis form baseball teams to negotiating prices and services in a whorehouse. They drink to forget, run to cope, and obsessively watch war videos. This National Book Award-winner is unflinching and bittersweet. Ooh-rah.
Jarhead by Anthony Swofford (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2003)
Gulf War veteran Anthony Swofford takes readers on a harrowing journey leading up to, and through, his time in the U.S. Marine Corps. From growing up with a Vietnam veteran father to the trials of boot camp to falling in love with a Japanese woman while on-base in Okinawa to “the suck” (a.k.a. the 112-degree desert), Swofford describes his inner state and outer circumstances with equal parts poetry and obscenity. “Our days consist of sand and water and sweat and piss,” he writes of Operation Desert Storm. Readers are introduced to concepts like the “field-fuck” (“an act wherein marines violate one member of the unit”) and The Wall of Shame (where photos of unfaithful wives and girlfriends are posted). You’ll soon know more than you ever wanted to about the day-to-day drudgery of war, from the “shitters” to rifle care and cleaning. Spoiler alert: the story ends on a despairing (and perhaps prescient) note: “More bombs are coming. Dig your holes with the hands God gave you.”
The Good Soldiers by David Finkel (Sarah Crichton Books, 2009)
For 15 months, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Finkel embedded with the 2-16 Infantry Battalion as they implemented a strategy known as “the surge” in Iraq. Under a constant assault by IEDs and EFPs and mortar attacks, the so-called Rangers must deal with logistical nightmares like implementing a trash removal program and traumatizing terrors like removing a putrid corpse from a septic tank. Those in charge (ahem, George W. Bush) don’t seem to know what this war is about, and therefore have no indication when it’s actually going to be over. You can feel the frustration as the repetitive, stressful nature of these soldiers’ days begins to wear them down. “The heat. The smell. The language. There’s nothing sweet about it. It’s all sour,” one says. Among the chaos, the troops manage to find small swatches of normalcy: eating pizza, celebrating a birthday. By the time these soldiers get to go home, few remain unscathed.
Thank You For Your Service by David Finkel (Sarah Crichton Books, 2013)
David Finkel is back with the soldiers of the 2-16 Infantry Battalion–but this time, the war they’re fighting is on the home front. The group of veterans is beginning to exhibit symptoms of PTSD: anxiety, depression, nightmares, angry outbursts, flashbacks. Physical ailments, especially Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), abound. Many of the former army men rely on complicated cocktails of drugs to get through the day. Relationships suffer, finances are tight, and tensions are high. Finding appropriate treatment is a struggle. “It’s such a lonely life, this life afterward,” Finkel writes. Through interviews, journals, emails, and text messages, readers get inside access to the debilitating after-effects of battle. If you’ve considered joining up, this book is bound to change your mind.