Every year on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, we commemorate the 1918 armistice with Germany that marked the end of World War I. Ninety-seven years later, Veterans Day in the United States is an occasion to celebrate the dedicated service of U.S. military veterans from all conflicts. In honor of the day, Bas Bleu has compiled a list of eleven celebrated works of fiction that capture the experience of war from the perspective of the men (and in one instance, a woman) on the front lines. And to all of our veterans out there: We thank you.
The Iliad, Homer
This 2,700-year-old poem from ancient Greece is set during the final year of the decade-long Trojan War, when infighting between King Agamemnon and the famed warrior Achilles threatens to splinter the powerful Greek coalition. The gods intervene, stirring up chaos and drama per usual. Bloodshed, betrayal, and tragedy follow, as The Iliad explores the concepts of glory in battle, honor and dishonor, fate, and man’s innate warrior instinct. In a word: Epic.
April Morning, Howard Fast
Some may argue this 1984 novel about the first shots of the Revolutionary War is about civilians, not soldiers. But in reality, many of the combatants in America’s war for independence were civilians, called to arms to fight the British “invasion” of the colonies. Howard Fast’s tale centers around fifteen-year-old Adam Cooper, a boy forced to become a man the day the first shots of what will become a brutal war for freedom are fired in Lexington, Massachusetts. Adam’s struggle to reconcile his fear and grief with the sudden demands of adulthood has made this slender novel a modern classic.
The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane
Stephen Crane was born after the Civil War, but penned his now-famous wartime novel when he became frustrated by written accounts of the conflict that focused only on dry fact and tales of glory instead of the personal experiences of individual soldiers. Published in 1895, The Red Badge of Courage is the story of Union private Henry Fleming, who is driven from the battlefield by fear and longs for a wound (the titular “red badge of courage”) to redeem him. The novel’s realistic battle scenes and Fleming’s psychological struggle—torn between a natural fear of death and society’s expectations of bravery, even in the face of annihilation—helped to make Crane’s novel an American classic.
Neverhome, Laird Hunt
Our regular readers will recognize this novel from our 2015 Book a Month series (and October 7’s blog post), but if it’s new to you we strongly urge you to get your hands on a copy. This Civil War tale revolves around a Union soldier called “Gallant” Ash Thompson, who is actually an Indiana farm wife in disguise. Harrowing battle scenes, friendships with brothers-in-arms, hunger, exhaustion, crises of faith and loyalty, the ghosts carried home from war…all are rendered in Laird Hunt’s spellbinding prose to create an unforgettably personal account of war.
For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway
Robert Jordan, the protagonist of Hemingway’s novel, is an American fighting in the Spanish Civil War, working with guerilla forces to defeat Franco’s fascist regime. A dynamiter ordered behind enemy lines to destroy a key bridge, Jordan is, for all intents and purposes, embarking upon a suicide mission. But his actions in the face of certain death—his loyalty to his comrades and his willingness to sacrifice himself for the cause he is fighting for—have cemented the novel as one of war literature’s most significant.
All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque
Originally serialized in a German magazine in 1928, Remarque’s haunting novel about the physical and mental ravages of war on German soldier Paul Bäumer was a runaway success soon after its publication. Hailed by many for its realistic take on how wartime experiences can leave soldiers detached from civilian society, the novel also emphasized World War I’s sheer waste of life, as hordes of men were sent to their deaths for minimal strategic gain. Still, some Germans lambasted what they considered to be a disparaging take on their country’s war effort and German Army personnel, and All Quiet on the Western Front was condemned as “degenerate” by the Nazis and publicly burned. Remarque charged his novel’s goal was “simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.”
Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut
Well, Vonnegut’s genre-bending war novel is certainly a trip! It revolves around chaplain’s assistant Billy Pilgrim who, after being imprisoned by the Germans in a defunct slaughterhouse in Dresden, narrowly survives the Allied bombing of the city. Though he lives through the war, his “normal” life—marriage, fatherhood, professional success—is marred by the conflict’s lingering effect on his psyche. Pilgrim is institutionalized for PTSD and (believes himself to be) abducted by aliens, a time traveler moving back and forth to different moments of his life as he attempts to escape the inevitability of death. So it goes.
Catch-22, Joseph Heller
This 1961 satirical novel is the story of Captain John Yossarian and his fellow airmen in the U.S. 256th Squadron, stationed on an island in the Mediterranean during World War II. Desperate to stay alive, the men attempt a series of increasingly absurd tactics to avoid being sent on dangerous air missions, eventually running afoul of the now-iconic “Catch-22,” a (fictional) military regulation
which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he were sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to.
As the novel progresses, Yossarian—haunted by battle and the deaths of his friends—decides his real enemy is not the Germans but rather the commanders who hold his life in their hands and seek to administrate the horror and chaos of war.
The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien
The short stories in this cohesive collection are presented as fiction…yet are narrated by an American draftee named Tim O’Brien, blurring the lines between reality and make-believe as the young man grapples with the horrors of the Vietnam War and his role as a participant. By turns brutal, haunting, and suspenseful—in “On the Rainy River,” our narrator grapples with fear, shame, and pride as he waffles between answering his draft notice or fleeing to Canada—The Things They Carried is a standout of Vietnam War literature.
Matterhorn, Karl Marlantes
Highly decorated Marine and Vietnam veteran Karl Marlantes spent thirty years writing his opus about the war in southeast Asia, and all that time and effort shows in this vividly visceral novel about recent college graduate Waino Mellos and his fellow Marines in Bravo Company. The young men—boys, really—learn quickly that they’re facing more than just an enemy army; they’re fighting Mother Nature (rain, heat, mud, leeches, animal predators); hunger, illness, and exhaustion; distrust, racial tension, and clashing personalities within their own ranks; and the loneliness, rage, doubt, and paralyzing terror inside their own heads. And nothing in their lives before the war could prepare them for any of it. It’s not unusual to hear the word “masterpiece” used to reference this stunningly brutal novel about a war our nation still struggles to understand forty years later.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ben Fountain
The most recent entry to our list was published in 2012 and offers a thought-provoking examination of America’s ambivalence toward the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the novel’s heart is Billy Lynn, a young American serviceman who, along with seven others, survives an intense battle in Iraq and embarks upon a highly publicized “victory tour” back home. (Says Billy, “It is sort of weird being honored for the worst day of your life.”) But for all the accolades showered on Lynn and his comrades, they are expected to return to the battlefield and will likely be quickly forgotten by their fellow countrymen, most of whom have sacrificed nothing and no one for the war. It forces the question: What does it really mean to “support our troops”?