I spent Memorial Day on holiday with the extended family, touristing around Chania, the old Venetian stronghold on the western side of Crete* — which meant that the holiday mostly passed me by until reading Adam’s post.
As it happens, though, my book for the day was Pat Barker’s Regeneration, the first of a trilogy. The work uses the historical encounter between anthropologist and psychologist William Rivers and the poet-officer Siegfried Sassoon to explore (among much else) the impact of realizing that a war limned in the language and cant of glory or duty or courage is, instead, a meaningless meat grinder.
It’s very good…I’d heard of it for years but it took a stop at the Tank Museum in Dorset, with a discount paperback in the gift shop and a sun-and-sand vacation in prospect to get me to read it. I’m sorry to have waited so long, though given how much the Battle of Crete still comes up in local historical memory, maybe I got to it in just the right time and place.
But all this meandering ambles to this point (I do have one!): I’ve never served. I do not presume to speak for or at those who have. I try to think and feel like a citizen who must give consent to the government that orders others to fight for the polity as a whole. My minimum responsibility is to try to understand what war costs before giving even tacit assent to conflicts entered into notionally on my behalf.
So, over the last six decades, my sense of war began as one of XY kid fascination — with my dad’s and my uncles’ service, and with all the minutiae of World War II naval warfare in an obsession that lasted to a couple of years past puberty — and opposition to the Vietnam War picked up as local and family culture growing up in Berkeley.
But then came the books. In my teens I began to read books on war that weren’t straightforward military history or kids’ versions of Jane’s Fighting Ships and its ilk. There were two that had a decisive impact on my thinking about war: Robert Graves’s Goodbye to all That and Sassoon’s George Sherston trilogy, Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man; Memoirs of an Infantry Officer; and Sherston’s Progress. Graves’s book was memoir; Sassoon fig-leafed with a pseudonym, but his is similarly an account of a pre-war life spent as an unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible, transformed by what came after August 1914. Both, appear in Barker’s novel, where she made good use of the way Sassoon in particular tried to express the daily intolerable, and, more awfully, the mundane inhumanity of the war in ways even the most complete home-front hero could grasp.
He and Graves failed in that, of course; the war drumming about Iran from men and a political party that won’t for a moment put themselves or their own kids at risk is only the latest case in point. For me, though those books had a profound impact on my 16 or 17 year old brain. I can’t claim to be a complete pacifist; wars always represent failures to achieve ends by other means, but when such failures occur…
But the message I drew from the “Great War” remembrances, and then later from works like Herr’s Dispatches; and still later, O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, read pretty recently to keep company with my son’s high school reading list; and novels like Catch 22, which even at 17 I realized wasn’t actually a comedy, hilarious as it was, and so on…is that asking folks to fight for any reason but the most utterly compelling is the ur-war crime. That’s how I see it still.
All of which is prelude to the question for all of y’all. “Favorite” isn’t quite the right word, but perhaps this will do: what is the book that makes war most real to you? What work or works of literature or remembrance or history has moved you or altered views or simply made a difference to you? What would you have me read to understand how you think and feel and reason morally around violence and conflict?
And with that: over to the Jackalteriat!
*Dirty job and all that, but someone’s got to do it.°
°Well, in fact, no one has to do it. But I’m happy enough to volunteer.
Image: John Singer Sergent, Gassed, 1919.
Good story, Tom.
But, no doubt, unintentionally, you bigfooted a Cat Bleg.
Old Dan and Little Ann
I volunteer Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes. It shook me to the core. I’ve never read a book that thick so quickly.
@Old Dan and Little Ann: inadvertent, yes. I’m hoping that the crowd can multitask.
The subset of Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories that are set in wartime, in particular “A Way You’ll Never Be”
J.D. Salinger, “For Esme With Love And Squalor”
Four houses down from my parents’ place, the father of the family came back from WWII a shattered, palsied wreck, and was never able to work again. He sat in the back yard in fine weather, and trembled continually. I never heard him speak.
And then, later, I got to know men who served in Viet Nam.
After I got drafted myself, I got to know some of them quite well.
May I compliment you on the title of the OP ?
IMHO that poem is one of the most powerful statements on war in existence.
@Tom Levenson: sorry. That was intended as a reply to MazeDancer
They Marched Into Sunlight: War and Peace Vietnam and America October 1967 Paperback – October 4, 2004
by David Maraniss
Powerful post, thank you! Very much tracks with my own (somewhat younger, born 1968) lived experience fascinated with Arthurian knights and the WW2 stories of (never from) my grandfathers and their memorabilia.
My iconic book on the horrors of war that shifted my understanding at 17: All Quiet On The Western Front, along with The Red Badge of Courage. And in film, Bridge Over the River Kwai.
My high school English teachers shaped me in so many ways through the tales they chose.
Tales of the South Pacific and Return to Paradise…
Yes to each and every one of these. It’s as if you were reading my mind.
Mom Says I*m Handsome
Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes does an excellent job of highlighting the futility and absurdity of the common infantryman’s experience in that war — and probably all wars, if they are all, in fact, just meat-grinders in period costume. I would also strongly recommend Dan Carlin’s “Blueprint For Armaggedon” podcast series, six episodes each weighing in at 3-4 hours, covering World War I. On certain days during WWI there were over 20,000 people killed PER DAY — a staggering number in a time before WMD’s.
War, what is it good for…
The book that had the most lasting effect on me was my grandfather’s memoir of his WWII service. He tried not to make it the kind of horror story the actual experience must have been, but he served in the Battle of Falaise Gap, and the horror of that battle can’t be completely erased from any work that discusses it and its aftermath.
Related, and the book that inspired him to write his own memoir, is War From the Ground Up*, a history of his division during WWII. As the title implies, the book was written from the memories of the grunts and lower ranking officers, and gets into the details of what fighting was like at the pointy end of the spear.
*A later, better known book shares the title; this one is now out of print.
Remembering Heaven’s Face: A Moral Witness in Vietnam
by John Balaban
_The_Forever_War_, Joe Haldeman
_The_Word_For_World_Is_Forest_, novelette, Ursula LeGuin, first published in Harlan Ellison’s seminal anthology _Dangerous_Visions_
Bert Stiles, ‘Serenade to the Big Bird’
In Pharaoh’s Army: Memories of the Lost War –Tobias Wolff
One of the reasons war is looked at so lightly by chickenshit brigade is that the military has invested a lot of time and money to reduce the risk of casualties to our troops from an enemy in a conventional war. The ugliness of the battlefield has been removed in favor of statistics and marketing via spy in the sky video.
And with the increasingly insane talk about autonomous combat drones and land bots, it will probably get a lot worse.
THE GOOD WAR (Studs Terkel)
Oral history from a variety of voices. Reminded me of some of the stories my father shared about his time in WWII. (It wasn’t like the John Wayne movies)
My father witnessed a lot of deaths from friendly fire. American GIs being killed by their own bombers.
Gin & Tonic
Far more people in the world fight (and die) in wars that are imposed on them. The position stated above is almost uniquely privileged, as America has, for the last 150 years or so, largely had a choice as to whether to engage in war.
Adam L Silverman
I have three non-fiction for you and one fiction.
The three non-fiction are Bernard Fall’s Hell in a Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu and Street of Joy; The French Debacle in Indochina. Fall is a professional forebear of mine and a great deal of my work and my understanding of how to do it is informed by his.
The third non-fiction book is Robert Gerwarth’s The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End, which I’m slowly making my way through as it is working on my professional post mental drip.
The fiction book is Michael Shaara’s novel The Killer Angels: A Novel of the Civil War. There are personal reasons for this choice we can discuss offline if you like.
I also highly recommend Fall’s memoir, published posthumously by his wife:
Catton’s centennial history of the Civil War. I have a print version of this and for some reason, mine is five volumes, not the three of the other print releases. Its in storage, but I think what has happened is that it is a special edition that includes two of his other volumes on the Civil War. Regardless, these are the most meticulously researched, factually dense books on the Civil War. One of the people who trained me for my work with the Army, who is also a Civil War author, told me that he once heard Catton lecture and he talked just like he wrote: factually dense. These take a lot of work to get through, but they are worth. Basically: Catton = hard to read because jammed full of facts that are fully cited and annotated; Shelby Foote: easy to read, often fact free Confederate apologia.
I have a number of recent military histories in the queue on Korea, Vietnam, and World War II, but haven’t gotten to them yet.
I will recommend one more, though: Vo Nguyen Giap’s People’s War People’s Army” The VietCong’s Insurrection Manual for Underdeveloped Countries. You can skip the anti-Communist agitprop introduction written by a retired US Army officer if you like, though it is a fascinating historical window into US thinking at the time. But if you want to have a good understanding of how and why the US doesn’t do very well in low intensity wars, this is the book to read.
And in counterpoint, I recommend both the USMC’s Small Wars Manual:
And the US Army’s Special Operations Forces Unconventional Warfare Manual and Unconventional Warfare Handbook
Now go and overthrow a small country somewhere!
Mrs. D. Ranged in AZ
It was a combination of things: my g-g-g-grandfather’s personal letters before and after the Civil War (he fought for the 9th Miss Infantry) and my research into the battles he fought in when I was a teenager. The contrast between his reasoning and the propaganda that he bought into (hook, line and sinker) to the reality and the consequences of that war is tragic. And he was an educated, intelligent man. Oh the rousing speeches about states rights and a far off government telling them how to live their lives certainly roused his emotions. Enough so that he ended up ankle deep in blood at Shiloh and many other battles besides. He died young, a literal husk of man, from TB he caught during the war. In the end, he couldn’t see the bigger picture–that he was a pawn, used and thrown away. Because to do so would mean admitting that he had been duped. The only good things to come out of it? He wasn’t even a citizen during the war having come over illegally and was made one by Pres. Lincoln afterward. And my existence–he was able to marry and have kids before dying.
On this topic, I can’t recommend Peter Jackson’s documentary made up of WWI newsreel, “They shall not grow old.” The quality of digital reconstruction is amazing, and the imagery is overwhelming. Just a horrible, horrible war.
Adam L Silverman
One more, for professional reasons:
Alan Nolan’s The Iron Brigade: A Military History
My father served in the Navy in the Pacific in World War II. His ship, the Orestes, was struck by a Japanese plane (that had been shot down by another US ship) at the end of December, 1944. Quite a few of the crew were killed on the ship, and more were killed when the survivors were strafed by the Japanese. He never talked about his service at all until there began to be PT boat and other boat reunions in the 1980s, but it was a formative experience in his life. The book he gave all of us when we were adults was “They Were Expendable” (also made into a movie). What my dad said when he gave it to us was “This is what it was really like,”
@germy: Studs Terkel was a hero to me, and that oral history is one of the best I’ve read.
Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun was another book that had a huge effect on me. As did the book Babi Yar by Kuznetsov, which was written by a civilian witness to the massacre.
Not a genre I’ve read a great deal.
My must-reads are Paul Fussell: The Great War and Modern Memory, of course, but also Doing Battle: The Making of a Skeptic.
@germy: Eugene “Sledgehammer” Sledge is in that, his With the Old Breed at Pelilu and Okinawa is the basis for the second half of “The Pacific”. The audio interviews for Stud’s book are here.
Things I haven’t seen mentioned yet
Movies: Gallipoli. Das Boot, Fury (actually just the speech by the driver where he describes driving through the Falaise gap.)
TV: Band of Brothers (it doesn’t matter if you liked a particular person, if they die, it’s because that man actually got killed.)
Books: The Bandy Papers by Donald Jack ( a series about a Canadian pilot in WWI. Another funny but not funny treatment of warfare). Paul Fussel’s essay (probably opening a can of worms here) Thank God For The Atomic Bomb (he discusses his feelings about being a platoon commander on his way to invade Japan.)
JFC somebody fix this fucking site (insert rant about how hard it is to type in a post) and in order of exposure, which I think makes a huge difference in the way one thought leads to another:
Goodbye Darkness by William Manchester. It’s about his experiences as a WW II marine in the Pacific. Gripping and personal.
@dnfree: It took me a minute to get it since PT Boats were just that, boats and they didn’t have official names. I see that the Orestes was a reclassified LST and a PT Boat Tender. Your pop and mine were in McArthur’s Jungle Navy as they were called. My old man hated McArthur and loved Halsey but that was long ago and far away.
New Deal democrat
“Testament of Youth”, by Vera Brittain. Brings home in wrenching personal terms the surreal waste that was World War I. Perhaps best juxtaposed by the utter banality of “George, Nicholas, and Wilhelm,” the biography of the three cousins who reigned during the war. “Willy” trying to get back into the good graces of his English cousins after the little unpleasantness of the war is the icing on the cake.
I’ve read several of the books mentioned in this thread, but for me, my grandfather’s and uncle’s personal accounts of soldiering in WW2 and Vietnam, respectively, made the biggest impression. Also my mom’s and grandmother’s reaction to my uncle’s return from Vietnam. I was too young to realize it at the time, but he came back a very troubled person, which grieved them in different ways for several years, and I overheard their anxiety and pain over that.
@dnfree: BTW Pt 305 was rebuilt and is housed on the lakefront in New Orleans, if you get a chance it’s worth a deck tour.
@Betty Cracker: Did he work through it?
Something involving steam
The Dolphin Crossing by Jill Paton Walsh. Two teenage boys help with the Dunkirk evacuation. Boy’s Adventure Tale meets War Is Hell. Well-written and accessible.
Naturally, though, because it’s about an event somewhere else, Yanks won’t get it.
The Thin Red Line is excellent. Maybe the best of all.
And since nobody’s mentioned it yet, A Bright Shining Lie.
The Execution of Private Slovik.
It should go without saying but say it I will: Trump should stay the fuck away from ship design and catapults, specifically. This occurred on dad’s ship less than ten years after he mustered out of the Navy.
When I was a kid, probably too young for it, I read a translation of the Iliad which, just briefly, mentioned the penetration of a spear into a warrior’s neck, and what it did to him, and described the life going out of his eyes. It was one of those moments that sticks with you forever, and for some reason, the combination of words and whatever was going on in my head at the time made that scene vivid to me and has haunted me ever since. I always think about that when I hear about a soldier dying – the life going out of his/her eyes – and for what? for some good reason sometimes; but usually not. I think of war as mostly being: I’m requiring you to die for some reason I am imposing. Thanks for your service.
@Honus: Of course it is the middle of the trilogy bracketed by “From Here to Eternity” and “Whistle” which is about wounded vets in the Army hospital in Memphis and the newly liberated women who are not going back. Her didn’t live to finish Whistler and it’s not very popular but I liked it.
Homer’s Iliad, Caesar’s commentaries, The Rape of Europa, Nichols, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Rhodes, Genocide, Lemkin, Survival in Auschwitz, Levi, Catch-22, Heller, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, de Bernieres, The Liberators: America’s Witnesses to the Holocaust, Hirsh, Surrender on Demand, Varian Fry. And a host of others, but these come to mind.
Steve in the ATL
@Adam L Silverman: I hadn’t thought about Shelby Foote in a long time—thanks for ruining the streak! Got a few stories….
I’ve never read any Ernie Pyle. He’s on my to-do list.
@Steve in th ATL: Man he lifted straight from “Company Aytch” by SDam Watkins when writing about the “Dead Angle” at Kennesaw Mountain. Sam was long dead but he could have given him credit.
With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa (1981), by E.B. Sledge. Paperback, $13.58. Kindle, $8.99.
A plain-spoken, brutally honest memoir of combat in the Pacific in World War II.
I have read Graves’s Goodbye to all That, Herr’s Dispatches; O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. All are good, each in their own way. Two other’s that stand out for me are With the Old Breed by Eugene Sledge and Company Aytch by Sam Watkins.
With the Old Breed:
While in the military, I never got even close to the remote possibility of combat. Ironically, as a civilian scientist, I was nearly put into an active combat zone as part of a flight crew doing …well, something that would have gotten me shot by the enemy if caught.
What changed the world (relative to war/combat) for me was when I read “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” when I was twelve. That opened my eyes to real, all out war – nothing like the Eastern Front and death camps to make one understand real christian thinking.
@boatboy_srq: You need to wind your neck in.
I would point to “Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War”, by Paul Fussell. He also wrote the essay, “Thank God for the Atom Bomb”.
Fussell was a junior officier in Europe in WW II, was injured in combat. After recovering, he was considered fit for duty and his unit would have been part of Operation Coronet (the second planned invasion of Japan).
His Wikipedia page includes:
You might know of his work, “The Great War and Modern Memory”.
Let me second OzarkHillbilly’s and Stepplejack’s recommendation of “With the Old Breed”!
(I know of “Company Aytch”, but haven’t read it)
Adam L Silverman
@Steve in the ATL: Deserter.
Two of the first ‘grown up’ novels I read — when I was 9 or 10: Mister Roberts and Teahouse of the August Moon. (The paperbacks were on my dad’s bookshelves, and the covers made them look like light entertainment.) I don’t claim I understood much of what was going on in either book, but they did imbue me with the suspicion that The Glory of Armed Combat was not nearly as “fun” as my brothers’ Sargent Rock / Rat Patrol comic books.
@raven: He did, but it took many years of struggle to find a measure of peace. That’s what made such an impression on me, one that even the most gripping histories and novels couldn’t: seeing how that war shattered my uncle’s life and caused such a ripple of pain and heartache, then thinking about the millions of others dealing with the same shit. It’s overwhelming to contemplate.
@OzarkHillbilly: My ancestor was in the 11th Tennessee and was at everything Sam describes including the “Dead Angle”. He was killed at the Battle of Atlanta which reminds me to recommend” War Like the Thunderbolt: The Battle and Burning of Atlanta”
by Russell S. Bonds.
Adam L Silverman
I keep meaning to post this on the front page, and I still do intend to do so one day, but I suppose it fits here too despite it being a very old film of a speech. I give you Field Marshal Viscount William Slim on leadership at the US Army Command & Staff College in 1952.
I found The Illiad deeply disturbing. There are great, long sections of gory details of exactly how all these men died. It’s not so much that they mention the details, but that it positively revels in them. It’s clear that the audience is not supposed to be repelled by the endless descriptions of people’s guts being torn open and their brains bashed out; they’re supposed to revel in it. It’s clear there’s a deep disconnect between Homer’s worldview and ours.
@Adam L Silverman: I read Cattons books years before The ken burns thing. When I saw Foote on there I thought compared to Catton, this guys a clown.
@Betty Cracker: I think that is why Eugene Sledge hold such a place for me. It doesn’t get any uglier than Peleliu and Okinawa, absolute savagery on all sides but he became a biology professor (PhD at UF) and a genuine contributor. It took time but he did it.
Eta I’m glad your uncle hung in there.
Enhanced Voting Techniques
“The Killer Angels” because I grew up wide eyed about the ACW and that book showed the heart ach of that war.
Though I think “The Pacific” as far as TV/Movies does it best about the way war grinds people down
They Were Expendable is an incredible film.
What is the book that makes war most real to you?
I have a “yearbook” from basic training at Ft Campbell in 1966, does that count?
It’s not really different from the gore in much current cinema, e.g., John Wick. We—the collective we—revel in that just as Homer’s audience reveled in the battle scenes in the Iliad.
The Moar You Know
@Another Scott: Don’t see too much of Huie’s work cited for anything these days. He was a relative of mine, not distant.
That’s a great book, by the way.
I guess nobody is going to mention Tolstoy’s War and Peace, so I have to. It has many scenes that present a believable picture of chaos, bewilderment, savage violence, and also day-to-day slogging.
@The Moar You Know:
Martin Sheen was really good in the (TV?) film version.
Adam L Silverman
@Honus: It’s why I wouldn’t, and didn’t, watch Burns’ documentary on the Civil War and why I refuse to watch any documentary or any other project that Burns is involved in. He’s a hack who cannot be bothered to do proper due diligence of his sources and his output cons his audience into thinking they’re getting a documentary based on properly conducted archival research that relies on appropriate subject matter experts. You might as well be watching Oliver Stone’s docudramas of various historical events.
@raven: With the Old Breed by Sledge really brought home the brutality of the fighting in the Pacific, which seems to have been much worse than what the US encountered on the Western Front in Europe.
Contrary to @Roger Moore: one of the first books which brought home the terribleness of war for me was The Iliad, precisely for the descriptions of how everyone dies. I did not get the impression that Homer reveled in these details. (Simone Weil has an essay about this, The Poem of Force.) Given the overall impression that the war which they are fighting is more or less senseless, and, by the end, for Achilles, even the glory which they all fight for is hollow, I think it’s hard to see it as a “pro war” book. But then, as the guy who wrote Jarhead wrote, every anti-war movie is ultimately pro-war, because they are all exciting, perhaps the same is true for some readers of the Iliad. Certainly Alexander found a role-model in Achilles.
The other book which made a deep impression on me about the destructiveness of war is Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War, particularly the sections on civil wars, the plague in Athens and breakdown of civic order, and the slaughter and drowning of Athenian soldiers at the Asinarus in Sicily.
@The Moar You Know:
Wow, interesting guy. The Americanization of Emily is a great film, I haven’t read the book.
@Adam L Silverman:
Hey, you’re making me feel okay for never watching that!
Pretty sure you’re recommending it, as am I; it is truly an insight into the hearts and minds of the young men who were fighting WWI. And also, watch the after documentary about how they digitized the footage, it’s fascinating.
Adam L Silverman
@zhena gogolia: You’re welcome.
@raven: of those three I thought Thin Red Line was the best depiction of soldiers. And the movie is really good but only after you’ve read the book.
@germy: AJ Liebling wrote stuff very similar to Ernie Pyle about North Africa.
James E Powell
Adding to the excellent selection in these comments:
A Rumor of War, Phil Caputo; Chickenhawk, Robert Mason; Company Commander, Charles MacDonald; A Narrative of a Revolutionary Soldier, Joseph Plumb Martin
James E Powell
I watched They Shall Not Grow Old twice over the weekend. I very much recommend it.
@Honus: Liebling is another one I’ve never read. I’ve just read about him.
My list of books I want to read reaches to the ceiling.
The Making of the Atomic Bomb – Richard Rhodes
I’m a retired engineer, so I read it initially out of technical curiosity. I’ve read it 3 or 4 times since, and I am still impressed by the sheer scale of the project. Also by the warnings many of the scientists tried to impart to the politicians, which were roundly ignored. So many human and economic resources devoted to a weapon designed to exterminate as many people as possible in one fell swoop. I have always tried to imagine what a better world we would live in if even a fraction of those resources were devoted to improving the lot of our fellow beings. Still too idealistic even in my dotage.
World war 1 poetry was covered a lot when I was in school (in New Zealand it literally decimated the young male population so it’s had a rippling impact) so Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et decorum est” and Sassoon’s “Does it Matter”? Also the final episode of Blackadder..
Fiction-wise Terry Pratchett’s books Monsterous Regiment, Jingo and his Johnny trilogy are all about war in some way and they heavily shaped the way I thought about it (a godawful waste of people and lives).
@New Deal democrat wrote:
Yes. There was an excellent version shown on Masterpiece Theater decades ago (1979) with Cheryl Campbell. It really captured the incredible waste of WW1. Mind-numbingly sad.
@flyingwatertanker: A second for “Bert Stiles, ‘Serenade to the Big Bird’”
Same war, different viewpoint (of course): Antione St. Exupery: ‘Flight to Arras’
And, as with many others here, ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’
Could simply repeat many of the titles already mentioned above, instead will express agreement en masse and add three more thus far unmentioned:
Leo Rosten, Captain Newman, M.D.
Walter Lowenfels (editor), Where is Vietnam? American Poets Respond.
I lived on Okinawa in high school in the late ’60s, when Vietnam was going full blast and people were still finding unexploded WWII ordnance all over the place. A kid up the street mangled his hand when an old grenade he was drilling into blew up (premature Darwin Award candidate). My journalism class took a day trip out to the small island Iejima to see Ernie Pyle’s memorial on the site where he was killed. (His remains were moved to Hawaii after the war.)
When I found Sledge’s book later I read it because of the Okinawa connection—a book about a place I knew somewhat. It was that, but it was so much more. The thing that stuck with me is what Ozark referred at #48 above—the overwhelming but quotidian filth and fear. Sledge makes you realize how much every war book, no matter how “realistic,” leaves out. It gives you a standard of comparison for everything you read afterwards.
@Honus: I agree and the film did not get the notice it deserved, bad timing to come out the same time as flag waving Private Ryan.
I didn’t love Fury, especially the last 20 minutes but Michael Pena’s monologue on the aftermath of the battle of the Falaise Pocket was riveting.
@Steeplejack: My old man was on a tin can on the outer ring protecting the big ships. It was nothing like the ground fighting but almost 5,000 sailors died.
I’ve read a lot of war books. I’ve listened to a lot of marines with PTSD in a psych ward discuss a war they were just in, and listened to a marine sarge relate his real version of Hamburger Hill, 10 yrs before the movie came out. I have talked to a number of vets who want to forget but can not.
The books are too removed to be totally realistic, the stories too realistic to hear, but what I heard tells me that between war and hell, take hell if given a choice.
@Roger Moore: Deep disconnect? Ever watch a Showtime series, Game of Thrones, any of the Saw series, I could keep going for hours….
@Ruckus: My cousin was in the Hill Fights and hasn’t had a decent night sleep since 1966.
@Steeplejack: The absolute horror of him sliding down that hill and arriving at the bottom covered head to toe in feces, body parts, and maggots.
One more (isn’t there always one which pops into the head almost immediately after punching the submit button?):
Francis Parkman, Montcalm and Wolfe.
Enhanced Voting Techniques
The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936–1945, by John Toland.
Straight history, I found the accounts of the willful stupidity on the part of the Japanese leadership that lead their disaster at the hands of the US just stunning.
@Enhanced Voting Techniques:
I found the accounts of the willful stupidity on the part of the Japanese leadership
_The_March_Of_Folly_, by Barbara Tuchman, explores this phenomenon across history.
Or you could just read the papers : Trump is nothing if not folly personified and made vulgar.
@Omnes Omnibus: SPOILER ALERT: I thought Game of Thrones, in the later seasons (when they had the budget for it), did a pretty good job of showing how horrible war can be, particularly the Battle of the Bastards (Season 6, Ep. 9) and the sack of King’s Landing (Season 8, Ep. 5). It’s obviously not as “realistic” as, say, The Pacific, but, if I remember correctly, even that didn’t show all of the horrible stuff in Sledge’s book. (Or perhaps it is that in reading it, my imagination conjured up the horror much more than film can, because it lacks the sense of smell and touch and because of that, gives the viewer a sense of safety.)
It’s clear there’s a deep disconnect between Homer’s worldview and ours.
I’m told that there’s a deep disconnect between the language and diction in _The_Iliad_ and that in _The_Odysssey_, as well as a disconnect in narrative and worldview.
I owe this idea to the fascinating discussion that opens Julian Jaynes’s much-scoffed-at book
which IMHO asks many important questions. Others who know more than I are not impressed with Jaynes’s answers, but his evidence is … unlike anything else you’ll read.
Related : In _God:_A_Biography_, Jack Miles notes that in the earlier books of the Old Testament, YWH speaks directly to many people, and a recurrent theme of the later books is a prolonged lament for His absence after He apparently retreats into ineffability.
“The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War” by Peter Englund is a remarkable look at WWI. Englund structures it like a novel, but all the material comes from letters and diaries, so it’s all non-fiction, at its finest. And the reader doesn’t know who lives or dies while the “story” unfolds. Really good at describing the chaos of war — armies blundering into each other almost by chance on the Eastern Front.
“Crossing the Line: A Bluejacket’s Odyssey in World War II” by Alvin Kernan is a beautifully written account of the Pacific War. Kernan was everywhere in that war — sailing into Pearl Harbor a day or two after the attack, completing a sortie in a dive bomber just days before the war ended. Vivid, colorful characters and incidents on every page.
BC in Illinois
@Adam L Silverman:
This is, for me, right next to the History of the 24th Michigan of the Iron Brigade, with an intro by Alan Nolan.
Why do I have these two books? Because my g’g’grandfather is listed as a member of Company “D” of the Michigan 24th. I never knew him (he died in the 1880s), but my g’father, whom I did know, is listed on the printout of my g’g’mother’s widow’s pension.
What makes these books so vivid for me is that I have stood at Gettysburg where these men fought, and imagined the face-to-face, hand-to-hand fighting that determined the outcome of the first day of battle (and, arguably, determined the course of the battle). For me, Gettysburg (Day One) focuses on McPherson’s Ridge and Seminary Ridge. That’s where the Iron Brigade was. That is my image of war.
Putting the focus on the fighting there, and then, is a constant reminder that the victory is not only in one or two places or moments. It comes from everybody, in every place, doing what they are called on to do.
No Iron Brigade, Day One . . . no Little Round Top, Day Two.
No Little Round Top, Day Two . . . no defeat of Pickett’s Charge, Day Three.
Not everybody is in the climactic position on the final day. Some are holding a position, buying time, falling back, retreating, and holding another position on the first day.
Full disclosure — my g’g’father did not join the Michigan 24th until after Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg. The history of the regiment includes his name, nonetheless, and graciously notes that the history wouldn’t be complete without including the late comers:
I also appreciate the history of the Michigan 24th for its first chapter (1891):
The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors
Inorite. And I can still remember how fetid the boonies on Okinawa smelled after long stretches of hot, rain-drenched days with 110% humidity. Throw in dead bodies and maggots, and the mind boggles.
Adam L Silverman
@BC in Illinois: Sending you an email about this.
Adam L Silverman
@BC in Illinois:
The last stand of the Iron Brigade. It was, effectively, a ghost brigade after Gettysburg. But they proved Reynolds last command decision, to bring them up first as shock troops, on that first moment the right one. Already nearing half strength as a result of combat losses going back to their fight at Antietam the year before, they held the line Buford established when it mattered.
I don’t think anyone has mentioned it, so I’ll throw in John Keegan’s The Face of Battle (1976). It was groundbreaking when it came out because it eschewed the “grand narrative” tradition of battle history and concentrated on the experience and tactics of the ordinary footsoldier in three battles that took place in the same geographic area: Agincourt (1415), Waterloo (1815) and the Somme (1916).
Kindle, $13.99. Paperback, $13.44.
Slightly O/T but I was in Chania a couple of weeks ago. It’s a beautiful place with oodles of history and some excellent Minoan finds in the local museum.
A couple of people mentioned Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes, but for me it’s his memoir, What it is Like to go to War.
The Jungle Is Neutral by F. Spencer Chapman.
Slaughterhouse-Five. by Kurt Vonnegut
A TV show: The ‘Nam: Tour of Duty was a grunt’s eye view depiction of the American war in Vetnam.
ETA: Schindler’s List, book and movie.
The Omaha Beach scene from Saving Private Ryan
All Quiet on the Western Front.
Gone with the Wind, despite its troubling Lost Cause sympathies, is one of the rare films that doesn’t actually make war seem exciting.
Some of Pratchett’s novels for sure. Jingo especially.
Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series.
I’m probably forgetting a few.
I could write a lot about many of these, and perhaps I will later – need to head back to work. Will bookmark this as there’s a lot of potential reading material here to sink my teeth into.
@Sloane Ranger: I visited and, due to a strike by orange growers, had an extended stay in Chania many years ago. I loved the crumbling Venetian buildings, which made it easy to imagine what it might have been like 500 years ago.
Your last two sentences ring true to my comments of the other day, on being thanked for my service.
Being thanked sounds to me of people being grateful that they didn’t have to go.
BC in Illinois
I try to imagine a patch with an image of President Nixon.
I just can’t do it.
BC in Illinois
USN HM2 1969-1973
(mostly Bethesda, Maryland)
See my comment @#89
I wrote the other day of sitting in a group at the VA with a man my age, 2 years ago who is still unable to get close to normal. Not everyone gets back to a level place.
Sleep is overrated. Unless you can’t find the peace to get any.
Film: Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paths_of_Glory
Print: William Styron’s story “Rat Beach” https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/07/20/rat-beach
I see that The Vanquished was mentioned above; a good companion to that is Ottoman Endgame by Sean McMeekin, not least for its depictions of the Caucasian and Persian fronts, as well as the hand-to-hand path the British fought up the Tigris and Euphrates.
But for making war vivid, it’s hard to beat Ivan’s War by Catherine Merridale. Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939–1945. Mostly death. Anytime there’s a discussion of World War II in Europe, it should be remembered that the Red Army inflicted three-quarters of the Wehmacht’s casualties. For all that it covers a brutal part of history, it’s not a hopeless book at all. The Ivans were as full of life as young people anywhere, and the survivors that Merridale interviewed and wrote about also recalled why they thought they were fighting, and the hopes that they had for their society in the war’s aftermath. An amazing work of history.
Pale Horse, Pale Rider
War is a Racket
Family stories of their war experiences.
Dad died last year of brain cancer -likely from melanoma that he believes was caused due to exposure at the above ground testing in Nevada.
Uncle Frank survived the Bataan Death March and imprisonment in Corregidor. Death was freedom from the suffering.
Agree with a lot of the books and movies mentioned above. I’ll add a couple I don’t see:
— Other Paths to Glory by Anthony Price, a 1960’s spy novel where the story hinges on what happened in the trenches in France during 1917
— Tolkien and the Great War, I forget the author, about what J.R.R.T. experienced in WWI.
As a couple of others have said, Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain, and the BBC dramatisation starring Cheryl Campbell.
J R in WV
No one with any insomnia thinks sleep is over-rated.
William Manchester’s book is the one mentioned that hit me the hardest. It just was so well written. Telling of being left for dead, hard to beat that in a war memoir. Red Badge of Courage is another. I can’t re-read some of these books for the emotional impact they had on me.
ETA: Thanks for this post, Tom. Hard reading, but this time of year worth while. Everyone’s comments, I learned a lot!
Idealists who want better – we need all of those we can get. The problem with humans is that the people that only give a shit about power and money are willing to do things that idealists are not, and that gets them, power and money. Have no idea how to change that but I imagine that if idealists tried, they’d no longer be idealists and we’d be right back where we started.
Lyn MacDonald’s books on British soldiers in WW 1 were amazing, gripping, and horrifying. The books are almost exclusively on the experiences of the soldiers doing the fighting, and are largely based on letters they wrote and interviews with soldiers who survived.
A recent book that moved me greatly was The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich. It is a collection of her interviews with women who served in the Red Army during the Great Patriotic War. She interviewed the women in the doldrums of the Brezhnev era USSR, and only recently was her book translated into English. The women were everything from officers and pilots to medics and snipers, and many of the accounts of brutal combat and the horrors of war ring as loudly as I have ever read. It suddenly hit home how skewed my reading on the fighting on the Eastern Front has been towards German and Wermacht accounts. Highly recommended.
Hearing it isn’t experiencing it but hearing a matter of fact rendition of trying to fight, going up hill in the mud, and blood and guts of your fallen fellow marines while being cut down by machine gun fire and having to do this time after time, body after body while sitting just you and the speaker is as close as I need to be. I got bits and pieces day after day from a man who could no longer send those men to die, to make the choice on who goes and doesn’t come back, on who stays for another day and another charge to the death. And then to go into a room with 40-50 guys who were unable to be in society because of war and what it did to them, what it took away from them and find that the story of the marines on that hill wasn’t really the bad part.
In Flanders Fields by Leon Wolff, which is about the 1917 Western Front campaign.
Both of my grandfathers fought in the British army in WW1, and in fact I am here today because my paternal grandfather met his wife while convalescing. (He was gassed in the trenches.)
Neither of them spoke directly about their experiences, but I remember to this day my other grandfather getting absolutely enraged while watching some war film on TV while he was visiting us in the early 1960’s. His face was purple as he told my brother and myself there was nothing glorious about war over and over again . . .
@Ruckus: That would be close enough for me, too.
I know it sounds Pollyannaish, but I still think that if only the politicians who sent young men to die and kill and come home permanently damaged actually read some of these books, and spent some real time down at the VA hospital listening to their stories, maybe they would hesitate when deciding to invade the “existential threat” of the day. But then they would have to care about the consequences of their actions.
Thanks for posting the Sargent “Gassed” painting! I saw it in the Imperial War Museum in London, and it’s overwhelming. We think of Sargent as the ultimate society portraitist, where plutocrats totally got their money’s worth in paintings of their wives and daughters, but he could handle anything.
The Great war And Modern Memory, by Paul Fussell.
A combination of straightforward history and an examination of the literature and poetry that came out of WW1. Fussell was a literature professor who earlier fought as an infantryman in WW2, and that perspective informed his work on this book. He later wrote a very good memoir about his experiences in war, but The Great War and Modern Memory was a revelation (my interest in WW1 dated back decades, but this was the first time I had examined it from this rich perspective).
@Steeplejack: I’ll second Keegan’s The Face Of Battle. Tremendous work.
Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks — a novel about a British soldier who was part of the group (IIRC) that dug tunnels for mines on the Western Front in World War I, and how the war affected him, and his family, for the rest of his life.
I second the recommendation for Peter Englund’s book.
I have to say that despite the many issues I have with Shelby Foote’s books, he was the first author I ever read who was able to really make it clear to me what happened both in battles, and in the maneuvering that preceded them.
And although it’s not about the experience of battle, Modris Ekstine’s “Rites of Spring” is wonderful about the mind-sets of soldiers on both sides of World War I.
I don’t comment very often, mostly because there are so many commenters here much smarter and more well-read than me. But I learn a lot by reading the comments from the very smart folks here, and I appreciate them all, even the ones I disagree with.
I appreciate this post more than most because of the wonderful list of books recommended. So thanks to everyone who commented, and also thanks to Tom for his original post. I’ll never have time to read all of the suggested works (too old and busy playing pickleball), but if I even get through a few of them, I’ll be better off.