On this day in 1953, an armistice between the US, China, and the two Koreas officially ends the Korean War. Since we’re still stuck in a protracted conflict in the Middle East and South Asia, we figured it was as good a time as any to discuss the books in the past century that spoke frankly about the horrors of war on the battlefield and in the air. After WWI, novels about wars became best sellers, as veterans became writers and began to attempt to make sense of what happened through the written word. Though we’re now in the era of spy thrillers and identity theft cases, it’s important to look back at the novels and memoirs that moved generations to rethink their past assumptions about war and conflict at home and abroad. When will we receive the books from the veterans in Iraq and Afghanistan? And what were the war books that influenced you, readers?
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
Paul Bäumer, a young soldier, is the protagonist and narrator of this WWI-era novel that Remarque wrote in the late 1920s after he experienced the war firsthand while serving in Germany’s Reserve Guards. Supposedly there will be a film remake in 2013, with Daniel Radcliffe playing the German teenage soldier. In the introduction, Remarque wrote, “This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.”
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Kurt Vonnegut wrote his sci-fi masterpiece, Slaughterhouse Five, after experiencing firsthand the bombing of Dresden during World War II. This novel was released in 1969, during the worst days of the Vietnam War, which made its anti-war message all the more relevant. Billy Pilgrim travels back in time and into the future in the novel, and eventually gets shot by a laser beam (it’s the future, after all).
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Yossarian is a paranoid young bombardier whom everyone is trying to kill, from the Germans to his own reckless co-pilot. Joseph Heller’s anti-war novel, Catch-22 captures the insanity of war through the madcap adventures of the 256th squadron on a small island not far from Italy named Pianosa.
The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer
This weighty tome concerns an American recon platoon that tries to drive out Japanese troops on an island in the South Pacific during World War II and was based on Mailer’s experiences in the 112th Calvary in the Philippines. The Naked and the Dead was published in 1948 and continues to be mentioned in top 100 lists because it expertly describes the inner thoughts and fears of fourteen men in the platoon who have taken up arms and attempt to complete a bloody task for the good of their country. No soldier in the novel is able to emerge without scars.
A Farewell To Arms by Ernest Hemingway
This semi-autobiographical novel set in WWI was first published in 1929 and reflects on the experiences of an American volunteer with the Italian Army named Frederic Henry. In Harold Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations on this novel, Malcolm Cowley writes, “A Farewell To Arms is perhaps the only American war novel in which the hero drives an ambulance. I find this somewhat remarkable.” Hemingway is able to provide, as Cowley writes, a “spectatorial attitude toward the war” from a person losing interest in the conflict.
Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell
Homage to Catalonia is George Orwell’s humorous and disturbing memoir of his experience volunteering with revolutionaries during the Spanish Civil War. He delves into the history and discusses the differences between POUM, the anti-Stalinist Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification, versus the International Brigades, but the best parts are when Orwell describes his confusion with the situation and his disgust with the lack of weapons and training provided by the rebel groups before they enter into battle against the fascists. He writes, “Chiefly I remember the horsey smells, the quavering bugle-calls…the long morning parades in the wintry sunshine [and] the wild games of football.”
The Long March and In the Clap Shack by William Styron
These two works by the acclaimed author of Sophie’s Choice and founding member of the Paris Review were published as a set, and both describe the ridiculous and absurd characters who enroll in the military as well as the dangers of getting involved in “the suck.” Styron served in the Marine Corps during WWII and was discharged before he could serve in the Korean War.
The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane
This novel is set in the 1860s, and concerns a young private in the Union Army who is terrified of the American Civil War and escapes from the battlefield. Afterward, he is so ashamed of his actions that he signs up to carry the flag during the next battle in order to be the official symbol of the war. It’s a realistic tale of courage and of fear and was officially published in 1895, thirty years after the end of the war.
Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes
In this novel, Lieutenant Waino Mellas discovers that “because of his desire to look good coming home from a war, he might never come home at all.” Karl Marlantes, a veteran of the Vietnam War, describes the life of Lt. Mellas as he takes on a 13-month tour in Quang-Tri province and attempts to avoid killing himself or dying in battle. In his New York Times review, Sebastian Junger writes, “[Marlantes] seems like a man whose life was radically altered by war, and who now wants to pass along the favor.”
Jarhead by Anthony Swofford
This is Anthony Swofford’s first-person account of his experiences as a sniper in the first Gulf War. As opposed to novels and memoirs written about previous wars, Swofford does not see much combat. He is not in the trenches avoiding mustard gas, or charging toward the enemy with a bayonet or rifle raised. Instead, this memoir is about the time in between battles, when waiting seems interminable and frustration is abundant. In 2005, the novel was made into an alright movie starring Jake Gyllenhall, Jamie Foxx, and Peter Sarsgaard.