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Wednesday, July 12, 2006 3:07 pm
The Experience of War
Posted by: Keir Graff

I’m nearing the end of Jarhead. Operation Desert Storm has finally started but the men are still waiting to go into combat. The waiting reminds me, in a way, of the waiting in trench warfare, like All Quiet on the Western Front, except that, in today’s wars, the enemy is not waiting just a few hundred yards away. Armor and airplanes mean troops can deploy far and fast, and often will be deployed only after guided missiles and bombs have done the bulk of the killing. Today’s wars are both better documented – the missiles carry cameras on their way to the targets – and more abstract, because the soldiers have so little first-hand knowledge of their enemy.

Books about war have often depicted the soldiers as young, conflicted, and confused, but at times there’s almost an absurdist quality to Jarhead. Maybe no more absurd than All Quiet on the Western Front, but at least in trench warfare there’s a clearly defined objective, no matter how valueless (e.g., three hundred yards of mud and craters). There’s no sense of order and purpose in Jarhead. Even the soldiers’ routine, the busywork designed to keep them from losing focus or morale, is unable to keep them from floundering.

The modern soldier is trained to kill even more efficiently than his historic counterpart, yet is saddled with more rules and regulations about how to do so. The rules suggest that killing can be made moral or done right, and the constant training and exhortations keep the Marines keyed up and ready to kill on command. But the command rarely comes, if ever. It’s no wonder they’re confused and anxious.

Yesterday I wrote about my interest in nonfiction books that take me inside societies or groups to which I wouldn’t otherwise have access. Books about war are especially important because for every person who fights in or is victimized by war, there are many more who experience war third-hand, through the words of blow-dried anchorpeople. We need first-hand accounts to understand what it means to be there. Without meaningful data, our opinions on the subject don’t mean much.

I started thinking about books from particular wars and conflicts, wondering if I could make a list of the books that define particular wars. In a variation of Chicago’s citywide reading club (“One Book, One Chicago”), it could be called “One War, One Book.”

Reductive lists like this are always flawed, of course, as are any “best” lists. But – as the list-makers always cry in their own defense – it’s an interesting exercise. Of course, there have to be criteria: do the books represent “our” point of view, or “theirs”? The winners or the losers? Are the books overviews or personal views? Fiction or nonfiction?

Okay, I give up on this project already. Too explosive. But, in a general and non-definitive spirit, here are a few books that crossed my mind as being essential narratives (both fiction and nonfiction) of various wars, conflicts, police actions, etc. These aren’t necessarily histories with maps of troop movements, but books that say something about the experience of war and its aftermath.

This area isn’t my strong suit, so I need help. Anyone have any suggestions for more? (Just to draw the line somewhere, let’s keep the list limited to conflicts with U.S. involvement).

Iraq:
Jarhead, Anthony Swofford
Baghdad Burning, by Riverbend
The Pearl of Kuwait, by Tom Paine

Afghanistan:
??

Somalia:
Black Hawk Down, by Mark Bowden

Vietnam:
Dispatches, Michael Herr
The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien

Korea:
??

World War II:
Catch-22, by Joseph Heller
Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
The Naked and the Dead, by Norman Mailer
Night, by Elie Wiesel

World War I:
All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque

Civil War:
Andersonville, by MacKinlay Kantor

War of 1812:
??

Revolutionary War:
??

Apparently, there are a few essential books out there that I haven’t read! Let me know what they are.

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7 Responses to “The Experience of War”
  1. Bill Says:

    I think James Jones has to be on the World War II list. I wouldn’t nominate From Here to Eternity, which is really a pre-war novel (it ends with Pearl Harbor, but The Thin Red Line can hold its own with Mailer, Heller, and Vonnegut, and it just may be the best of them all at describing combat. Jones was something of an overwriter-especially in Eternity-but when he got it right, he really nailed it.

    The Korean War is toughter. Ward Just’s Unfinished Season gets the era on the nose, but it’s not really a war novel; James Michener’s Bridges at Toko-Ri is certainly a war novel and a very involving one at that(I read it in the eighth grade and thought it was high literature), but it doesn’t seem right somehow to include something by Michener on this kind of list, rubbing shoulders with Mailer, Heller, O’Brien, etc. He belongs instead on a war melodrama list that could include Herman Wouk, Irvin Shaw, etc.

    The best thing I’ve read lately about the Korean war is a short story in a collection by the vastly undervalued mystery writer Gary Phillips called “Through the Fog Softly.” It’s in a collection called Monkology, stories about Phillips series hero, L.A. detective Ivan Monk. The story, though, is about Monk’s father and his otherworldly combat experience in Korea. It’s an absolutely riveting story, gritty but with a hint of the supernatural.

  2. Donna Seaman Says:

    I can think of two outstanding Korean War novels: Ha Jin’s War Trash, and Nora Okja Keller’s Fox Girl. And Ward Just’s An Unfinished Season captures the troubling ambivalence and distractions on the American home front.

  3. Keir Says:

    Bill, I can’t believe I forgot The Thin Red Line (great movie, too, by the way). Ben, I can’t believe I forgot The March (I mean, I didn’t forget it, I was just testing my readers). Donna, yet another reminder why I should read War Trash. Thanks!

  4. Colleen Says:

    James Salter has an amazing book about flying in the Korean War – “The Hunters”. It’s an excellent book about air war, period, but particularly important as it applies to a war in which so little is known.

    “Kipling’s Choice” is a young adult book about WWI that I have been championing for over a year now. It is so impressive – so dead on well written – that I think it should be read by anyone interested in this war. It follows Rudyard Kipling’s son who died in the war and explains how and why going to fight was considered a rite of passage for so many young men in Britain at that time and how it all went so wrong in this case. Also really you can’t ignore Vera Brittain’s “Testament of Youth” for the homefront perspective of that war. She lost every young man who mattered to her in the war and worked as a nurse. The book is a heartbreaker on every level (and shows the making of a pacifist).

    And what about TE Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom? If nothing else it gives you a picture of the war in the Middle East that set up all modern conflicts to follow in the region. Plus the images of those men riding across the desert to bomb railway tracks is amazing. (It’s no picnic to read, but worth it I think.)

    I just read an ARC for “From Baghdad With Love” which seems to be a book about a Marine LTC getting a puppy out of Iraq (something that apparently a lot of soldiers try to do and it’s very hard), but is really a book about the war itself, and how insane it is. There’s also a lot in there about what you alluded to – how the Marines are supposed to shoot first and not think through their actions too much, but it all comes crashing down when they go home. Part of why the author thinks they should be allowed to save the dogs (regulations call for shooting stray animals and not befriending them – it keeps the troops more hardened to the enemy) is because as he writes, “at least I saved something over there”. From emailing with him I realize it matters more than we could ever understand that they come back with some feeling that it was worth it – even if it’s just for a dog. For that insight into the emotional well being of the Marines alone, I thought the book was very important. (And it’s a cool dog story!)

    Donna doesn’t send me war books to review but I do like them. I taught history to soldiers for five years and was always trying to stay ahead of their questions!

  5. Keir Says:

    Thanks for the great suggestions, Colleen. I may have to do another draft of the list!

  6. Likely Stories » Blog Archive » Back to War Says:

    [...] A little while ago, while reading Jarhead, I started a list of books that “say something about the experience of war and its aftermath.” It’s not a subject area in which I’m well read, but I received some helpful suggestions both in the comments to that post and via e-mail. [...]

  7. Likely Stories » Blog Archive » World War, Three Says:

    [...] World War, Three George Eberhart, a senior editor at American Libraries (and an author himself), e-mailed a contribution to the war books project before I went on vacation and, sluggard that I am, I let it sit in my in-box until now. A few of the titles stray from my “wars with American involvement” criterion, but rules were made to be broken. George is a good guy, and I know these must be good books (we have some corroboration from Booklist reviewers, too, you’ll note). Full disclosure: I haven’t read any of them. Some war books I have read recently and can whole-heartedly recommend: Lebanon’s Civil War Pity the Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon, Robert Fisk (Nation, 2002) Not hot, but Cold War Milt Bearden and James Risen, The Main Enemy: The Inside Story of the CIA’s Final Showdown with the KGB (Random House, 2003)  Vietnam We Were Soldiers Once and Young: Ia Drang, the Battle That Changed the War in Vietnam, Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway (Random House, 1992) Hungarian Revolution, 1956 A Testament of Revolution, Bela G. Liptak (Texas A&M, 2001) Korean War What’s a Commie Ever Done to Black People? Curtis Morrow (McFarland, 1997) Chinese Civil War Chasing the Dragon: A Veteran Journalist’s Firsthand Account of the 1949 Chinese Revolution, Roy Rowan (Lyons, 2004) World War II Enemy at the Gates: The Battle for Stalingrad, William Craig (Hodder & Stoughton, 1973) The Mask of Warriors: The Siege of Warsaw, September 1939, Marta Korwin-Rhodes (Libra, 1964) Spanish Civil War The Passionate War: The Narrative History of the Spanish Civil War, Peter Wyden (Simon & Schuster, 1983) American Civil War Michael Shaara, The Killer Angels (Ballantine, 1987) More full disclosure: I just added Enemy at the Gates to my Amazon shopping cart. [...]


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