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12 War Novels Through the Centuries

Warfare has always been a popular subject for books. In fact, stories about battles are as old as writing itself. The Iliad, an epic poem by Homer, is one of the oldest examples of western literature. Composed c. 750 BCE, it dramatizes events from the Trojan War. The Art of War by Sun Tzu is a work of military strategy composed during the 5th century BCE. Thucydides wrote History of the Peloponnesian War in the same era. Even The Panchatantra, a collection of animal fables published 100 years later, recounts battles among the various species.

As the novel developed over the second millennium, war continued to be a significant part of story-telling. We’ve come to rely on fiction writers to make sense of the carnage, loss and brutality. To describe and explain warfare is, in many respects, to understand who we are as individuals and societies.

There have been too many conflicts, and too many books about them, to cover the topic in anything smaller than an encyclopaedia. However, we’ll explore seven modern wars and the novels that best represent them from the Napoleonic wars up until the war in Vietnam. Not all of these books are set on the battlefield. Writers such as Naguib Mahfouz and Pat Barker remind us that the most poignant and terrible effects of war can arrive later, on our doorsteps. The invasion of Iraq began in March 2003 and ended in Dec. 2011. The war in Afghanistan started in September 2001 and was officially over 13 years later. But as Graham Greene and Haruki Murakami reveal, these facts are slippery and uncertain. The fighting and troops are still out there. The wars haven’t really ended and aren’t likely to for some time.

    The Red Badge of Courage

    The Civil War was the bloodiest event in American history. Stephen Crane wrote his vibrant, intense novella The Red Badge of Courage (1895) 30 years after the conflict and two years before he saw war up-close—he’d become a correspondent during the Greco-Turkish and Spanish-American wars. Badge is about Henry Fielding, a frightened young soldier. Crane places the battles off-screen, for the most part, focusing instead on Fleming’s interior combat. Crane portrays humans as animals, closely tied to nature but having no power over it. The novel isn’t a meditation on bravery, sacrifice, loyalty, nationalism or patriotic defense but rather an intimate portrait of how one man experiences war and how it affects him.

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    The Return of the Soldier

    The Return of the Soldier (1918) by Rebecca West is the first World War I novel written by a woman—and the only one published while the war was ongoing. Although it was West’s first book, Return is one of the greatest books about the conflict. The plot concerns a well-to-do soldier, Chris Baldry, returning home after the war. He’s shell-shocked, suffers from amnesia, and is trapped 15 years in the past. He’s also preoccupied with his first love, though she was only a fling. West examines the struggle of a veteran returning to his old life. What’s innovative about Return is the style. It’s a modernist novel told from the unreliable point-of-view of the main character’s female cousin, Jenny. The story jumps between times, places and scenes. A sense of uncertainty, fragmentation and ambiguity pervades the text—the reader undertakes the story in the same way that Baldry experiences postwar life.

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    Mahfouz Trilogy Three Novels of Ancient Egypt

    Palace Walk (1956) by Naguib Mahfouz is the first volume of his Cairo Trilogy. The story of the war is told by recounting the drama of one family. Most of this takes place in their home, on the margins of the conflict yet in the center of their own struggles. British and Australian forces hold the city, as they did before the war, but the true threat is social change. The main character, al-Sayyid, is a merchant who hasn’t allowed his wife to leave the house for 25 years. He soon learns, however, that he can’t keep such a tight grip on his family. Egyptian society is changing and so must he. Palace Walk is a war novel but it’s also about the skirmishes between conservative and progressive ideals. The novel concludes with the Egyptian Revolution of 1919—al-Sayyid’s people rise up against foreign occupation to gain independence.

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    The Regeneration Trilogy

    Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy (1991, 1993, 1995)—like the preceding two works—examines the periphery of war. In particular she writes about the trauma and pain that come later. Most of her characters are based on historical figures yet the impetus to address World War I came from her step-grandfather, who was wounded with a bayonet but refused to speak about it. Barker uses the past as a means of exploring and commenting on contemporary social problems. She’s won many awards, including the Booker Prize for The Ghost Road, the last volume of the trilogy.

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    For Whom the Bell Tolls

    For Whom The Bell Tolls (1940) was a critical and commercial success for Hemingway. Writing about war—like boxing, hunting big game and watching bullfights—made him feel macho, but let’s not forget that he was a bona fide hero. Hemingway, an ambulance driver in the first world war, was hit by a mortar and knocked unconscious, but he got up and carried an Italian soldier to safety. For this, he earned the Italian Silver Medal for Valor. He was also a correspondent during the Spanish Civil War, where he was inspired to write For Whom The Bell Tolls. The novel features Robert Jordan, an American professor who fights for the loyalists against the fascists. His mission is to blow up a strategic bridge. As usual for Hemingway, this is a novel of Big Ideas: love, honor, courage, loyalty. His devotion to Spain, evident in so much of his work, is prominently displayed here.

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    Mother Night

    There are probably more great novels about World War II than any other conflict. The Naked and the Dead, The English Patient, Atonement, Catch-22, Maus, Gravity’s Rainbow, Empire of the Sun, Williwaw. Kurt Vonnegut wrote two of the best, Mother Night (1961) and Slaughterhouse-Five (1969). Although the latter—anti-war, absurdist, structurally fractured, genre-bending—is more well known, the former is perhaps the better book. Mother Night examines the complexities of guilt and morality, doing so with wit, subtlety and astuteness. The main character is an American living in Germany who becomes a celebrated Nazi propagandist. Afterward, he stands trial for war crimes, but he was actually a double-agent working for the US. Like many Vonnegut titles, Mother Night lies in an oblique space between terrifying comedy and lighthearted tragedy.

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    If Not Now, When?

    If Not Now, When? (1969) was written by Italian author Primo Levi about his experience as a resistance fighter and Auschwitz survivor. The novel follows a group of Jewish partisans who sabotage the German Army. They cross Europe, from Russia to Italy, blowing up trains and rescuing camp prisoners. Levi’s novel is a high-minded thriller, a novel of risk, courage and terror. 

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    The Wind-up Bird Chronicle

    With The Wind-up Bird Chronicle (1994-95) Haruki Murakami both established himself as a serious novelist and gained a wider international audience. Like many of his books, it’s a mix of pop culture and history, Kafka and Chandler, fantasy and ordinary life. Toru goes outside to look for his cat, gets mixed up with a death-obsessed teen and two sibling psychics, discovers his wife is missing, becomes trapped in a well, finds a magic hotel room, and that doesn’t even scratch the surface of this convoluted, bizarre, gripping tale. Toru also meets a troubled veteran, Lt. Mamiya, who tells a story, in a series of letters and conversations. On a secret mission in Manchuria, which Japan occupied during the war, Mamiya watched his superior officer get skinned alive. Like Toru, Mamiya was trapped in a well at the time. His story becomes a separate counter-narrative of Wind-up Bird; the action fluctuates between past and present. This is a novel about a man whose life is going nowhere until it starts going everywhere all at once. It’s also the story of Japan and how the past isn’t really over because so many things, especially the horrors of war, are still alive.

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    The Quiet American

    Graham Greene, like several of our writers, drew upon personal experience for The Quiet American (1955). He served as a war correspondent for three years in the 50’s, before anyone liked to admit there was a war going on in what was then called French Indo-China. Greene’s novel isn’t about battles, atrocities or the traumatic consequences of war. His story is both larger and smaller. At the individual level, it’s a love triangle between an ageing British journalist, a young Vietnamese woman, and an American intelligence agent. The bigger story is geopolitics—the bumbling, misguided and self-interested attempts of Western democracies to interfere in the struggles of ostensibly autonomous countries. Greene’s novel is wonderfully murky and ambiguous, which accurately reflects not only the war itself but the intentions and ideologies of the nations involved. 

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    Tree of Smoke

    Tree of Smoke (2007) by Denis Johnson is the greatest novel about this conflict. Tim O’Brien is better known as a Vietnam War Writer, but Johnson’s book is extraordinary in scope and ambition, insight and complexity, in its impeccable prose—it makes O’Brien’s work seem like a pamphlet. The plot revolves around Francis X. Sands, a retired Air Force Colonel and certified war hero who’s become a CIA agent. The story is narrated from various perspectives: Skip Sands, Francis’s nephew, a fledging intelligence officer; a North Vietnamese soldier; a South Vietnamese soldier; the Houston brothers, two GI’s who’ve seen too much and bring the war back home, miserably; an aid worker; a German assassin. In Johnson’s hands the war isn’t one thing or another. Not a grand folly, an act of aggression, or a tragic cautionary tale. It’s a puzzle that can never be worked out, something infinite and unknowable, like a library or maze in Borges.

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    Freelance writer (food, drinks, travel, culture) and former professor (creative writing, literature, Islamic studies, US history) and magazine editor who's lived in the UK, New York, Dubai, ... Show More

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