There are thousands of war novels and obviously I haven’t read them all but this is a selection of books that stand the test of time.
I have stuck for the most part to novels that are about the experience of war or in which war plays a major part. This lets out a lot of good books which use the war as a backdrop – Len Deighton’s SS-GB, Ken Follett’s The Eye of the Needle and Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain for example.
There is nothing really obscure here so if you plan to use this list for gift-buying you will want to check whether your intended recipient already has a copy.
Fields of Fire – James H Webb
The Vietnam war spawned a number of fine novels, but for my money this the best of the lot. The action is specific to the time and place but the depiction of small groups of men in combat is timeless.
The Killer Angels
The classic novel of the American Civil War. This is not really about interior drama and character development: instead it covers the Battle of Gettysburg and, while telling the story with verve and pace, provides a potential narrative for why and how things went so badly for the South. Real Civil War anoraks have quibbled about the pivotal role it gives to Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine, and apologists for Robert E. Lee don’t much like it, but for the rest of us this is historical fiction at its best.
Three Day Road – Joseph Boyden
A superb story which follows two native Canadian brothers through World War I and upon return. Be warned that if enjoy this (and you will) you will need to get Boyden’s subsequent book Through Black Spruce as well. A tip of the hat to Chris White for pointing me towards this book.
Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
The best exponent of the view that war is inherently crazy. This book follows the adventures of B-25 navigator Capt Yossarian and his fellow crewmen as they try to beat the odds and survive their tour. Dark and satirical, but very funny as well, this book appears regularly in lists of the best novels of the 20th Century.(1)
In the Lake of the Woods – Tim O’Brien
Not as well known as it deserves to be, this bleak and unflinching novel tells the story of a soldier who participated in the My Lai massacre, and the impact it has on his life, his career and his family.
The Cruel Sea – Nicholas Monsarrat
This classic novel of war at sea tells the story of a group of Royal Navy personnel on convoy duty in the Atlantic during World War II, mostly aboard the corvette Compass Rose. Monsarrat depicts with great clarity the deadly cat-and-mouse game of U-boat hunting, as well as the fear and the boredom that characterize the lives of the crew. It was a bestseller when it came out in 1951 and remains in print to this day.
Bomber – Len Deighton
This book covers a 24 hour period when an RAF bombing raid goes wrong, from the perspective of the pathfinders, the bomber crews and the people of the German town that is destroyed. A tour-de-force of historical fiction, fascinating both for the technical details of the air war and the emotional power of his writing.
Slaughterhouse Five – Kurt Vonnegut
Many critics rate this as Vonnegut’s finest work. It tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, an American POW who survives the fire-bombing of Dresden. Not strictly a war novel but a great book in which the war plays a major role.
The Hunt for Red October – Tom Clancy
No list would be complete without a classic page-turner, and this is one of the best. Tom Clancy’s first novel launched a successful career and introduced the world to CIA analyst and reluctant action hero Jack Ryan. The plot involves the powerful new Soviet submarine Red October and her dissident commander. The US Navy is desperate to help Capt Ramius and his crew defect (and to thus get hold of Red October); the Soviet Navy is equally keen to recover the boat or sink it if necessary. The 1990 film version was decent but could only gloss over the best bits of a long and complex story. I finished this book at 0530 on a work morning because I literally couldn’t put it down.
The Naked and the Dead – Norman Mailer
Mailer tells the story of a US Army platoon as it fights the Japanese in the jungles of the South Pacific. It was considered ground-breaking (and shocking) for accurately depicting the language of soldiers, though the publishers insisted that he replace the most common word in the book with “fug”. Equally disturbing to the sensibilities of the time was the inglorious and sudden way in which many of the characters die. Ultimately this is a book about individual soldiers caught up in machine-age war, and covers the pathos, the stupidity and the brotherhood of soldiers as well as anything that has been written.
The Thirteenth Valley – John M. Del Vecchio
The Caine Mutiny – Herman Wouk
The Red Badge of Courage – Stephen Crane
HMS Ulysses – Alistair MacLean
The Sword of Honour Trilogy – Evelyn Waugh
Confederates – Thomas Kenneally
The Things They Carried – Tim O’Brien
There are doubtless lots of other candidates, including whole series (Flashman, Sharpe, Bandy) that I have not yet delved into. If your favourite book has been callously left off my list lest me know using the Comments box.
Note (1): Random House Modern Library – #7 of 100. The Telegraph lists is as #77 in the top 100 novels of all time in all languages.