For better or worse, conflict is an inherent part of human nature. So long as there have been people on this planet, we’ve been willing to kill and maim one another in order to get what we want. Over the centuries, however, society has managed to put up guards against the worst parts of ourselves by establishing and enforcing social norms. However, the few instances in which we allow ourselves to be as brutal and wicked as we truly are, is in war.
Much of the appeal of novels, essays, and reported stories on war is driven not by a morbid curiosity in conflict so much as a desire to better know who we are, what we’re capable of, and what the cost of indulging in the most base parts of ourselves truly is. There is a responsibility, in fact, for civilians to understand the cost of conflict if not personally, then at least in some broader intellectual sense. We believe that many if not all on our list of the best war books accomplishes this goal. Whether you’re interested in reading more about the strategies and battles of ancient Greece as told by Homer, or you want to get a more intimate understanding of the war that we’ve been engaged in for the past 16 years, you’ll find some great reads below.
David McCullough, one of the most respected American historians alive today, lays out in fine detail the human story behind the fight for independence from Great Britain. He gives equal time to examining the decisions made by George Washington, the Royal family, and their generals on the other side of the Atlantic.
A Rumor of War
Vietnam didn’t start with a bang. It crept up on the American people incrementally over a series of years until it was too big to ignore. Phillip Caputo was in the first ground combat unit to be deployed in the country back in 1965, and among the first to come home broken, confused, and wasted emotionally. His memoir about, “the things men do in war and the things war does to men” is one of the defining accounts of the United State’s defeat in Vietnam.
All Quiet on the Western Front
Many Americans cite the Vietnam war as the beginning of their disillusionment with military and federal leadership. For Germany, the same had happened more than thirty years earlier during WWI. Few novels better capture the sense of hopelessness and loss that inhabited the trenches of that first World War than Erich Maria Remarque’s novel.
The Art of War
Everyone from Mao Zedong to Colin Powell and Bill Belichick has sworn by this 2,500-year-old text composed by Sun Tzu. Less an insight into the experiences of war, it concerns itself more with how to win in conflict.
The Big Two-Hearted River
Every list of ‘best war books’ on the internet either features Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls or A Farwell to Arms. We are in agreement that both are fantastic, but we wanted to draw attention to a lesser-known short story instead. Hemingway’s A Big Two-Hearted River concerns itself not with battle or the experience of war, but with what comes afterward. The quiet, solemn story follows a man who comes home from WWI stricken with PTSD (though at the time there was no such term). All he knows to do is to go off on a fishing trip alone. It is a brief, sharp, and lasting story that shows Hemingway at his best.
The Campaigns of Alexander
Alexander the great was one of the best military minds that ever lived. Written four hundred years after he suddenly died at the young age of 32, this account from the commander Arrian not only describes how Alexander was able to suppress rebellions and conquer vast swaths of land but how he was able to inspire so many men to follow him.
More than just being a great war novel, Catch-22 may very well be one of the best books to ever be written. It follows Yossarian, a WWII bombardier who is caught in the bureaucratic insanity of his own army. His superiors continue to increase the number of missions a man has to fly in order to complete their service. Yet, as Yossarian and others try to claim insanity in order to be excused from their duty, the military deems them sane and able to fly the planes due to the very fact that they don’t want to. The book is sharp, hilarious, and an essential read for any lover of American literature.
The Civil War: A Narrative
The Civil War may have occurred well over a century ago, but its reverberations are still strongly felt. This account of America’s most costly conflict by historian Shelby Foote sheds light on both the specifics of how each battle was fought and the ideology and politics that drove our country to nearly rip itself in two.
The Diary of A Young Girl
War effects more than just soldiers. Innocent men and women, children, and entire families are often eaten whole by conflict. Anne Frank and her family were not immune to Nazi Germany’s genocidal violence, but the young girl’s writings about her own experience hiding in an office in Amsterdam have managed to endure. The humanity and intimacy of Frank’s writings give a more personal understanding of what was lost when Fascists systematically murdered over 6 million Jews during WWII.
The Face of War
Martha Gellhorn is one of the best war reporters to have ever lived. She covered the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, reported on the rise of Hitler in Germany, and was on scene during the American invasion of Europe despite the protestations of her then-husband Ernest Hemingway (and the fact that she did not have proper credentials). Later in her life, she reported on Vietnam, conflicts in the middle east, and civil war in South America before retiring in her 80s. This collection of her writings shows her at her best, penning prose that was both cutting and full of humanity.
The Forever War
This may be one of the most essential accounts of our nation’s fight against international terrorism. Written by Dexter Filkins, a reporter who covered the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and both conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, this book offers up intimate, heart-pounding accounts of all. The Forever War has a kaleidoscopic, and lyrical feel to it that forces the reader to consider not just our specific war – but war more generally.
Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World
This history by Jack Weatherford offers an alternative, more detailed look at who Genghis Khan was as a person and how it was that he was able to command so much power. Weatherford also looks at the strategies, tactics, and weaponry Khan utilized to control a larger swath of land than the Romans ever held – and how his empire reshaped the globe.
Goodbye to All That
WWI changed European politics in huge ways, but it also changed the way that English society functioned. Robert Graves’ autobiography tracks those changes from the ground level – following him from his rough upbringing and school life to his brutal time on the battlefront and ensuing unhappy marriage. It’s an unhappy story, but one told so clearly it is hard to put down.
A complex, literary novel set in Europe at the tail end of WWII. The book follows a GI whose erections mysteriously cause the launching of Nazi V-2 rockets, and the ensuing quest to find out why. Gravity’s Rainbow was high-minded enough to be selected by the Pulitzer Prize jury in 1974, but wasn’t awarded the distinguished mark because the board found it, among other things, ‘obscene’. Despite their vote of no confidence, the novel is considered by many to be among the best novels ever written.
The Guns of August
Along with being one of the most formative conflicts of the past 100 years, WWI is among the most complex. The Guns of August is a Pulitzer Prize-winning account that traces the tumultuous first month of the conflict starting with the funeral of Edward VII. An essential read for anyone looking to get a better grasp of one of the world’s most formative conflicts.
History of the Peloponnesian War
While it can be hard to know where facts end and myth begins in old Greek narratives, this one from Thucydides may, in fact, be one of the more accurate accounts of the Peloponnesian War ever told. The Athenian General (who some refer to as the ‘father of history’ as we now know it) took on the project of telling the history of this conflict in the most factual manner he could. As a result, contemporary readers get first-hand accounts of speeches, battles, and even the state of the Athenian economy.
Homage to Catalonia
One of the most formative experiences in George Orwell’s life was fighting as a private in the Spanish Civil War. He joined the anti-Stalinist communist party in order to fight fascism in Spain, but his idealism was quickly done away with as he faced both brutal violence from his enemies and betrayal by his allies. The book is a reflection on those experiences and a key to understanding Orwell’s politics.
There are loads of translations of The Iliad out there, but this one from Penguin Classics is among the best. The ancient Greek poem concerns itself with a few weeks during the ten-year siege of Troy as tensions rise between allies Achilles and King Agamemnon. The result of the conflict is far from pretty, but the lyrical language used to describe it is literally timeless.
Operation Redwing resulted in the largest loss of life in Navy SEAL history. Marcus Luttrell tells the story of this mission in a compelling blow by blow narrative that highlights the dedication of his fellow soldiers, the persistence of the human spirit, and the atrocity of war. A page-turner if we’ve ever seen one.
The Naked and the Dead
Island hopping was a brutal but necessary strategy spearheaded by Marines during WWII. The Japanese fought for control over those strategically important Pacific outposts tooth and nail, inflicting heavy casualties on Americans troops. Mailer was among those who fought for control of these islands, and this reportorial account of what the saw and endured stands out as one of the most compelling war novels ever written.
Not all that went to the Nazi death camps perished. Elie Wiesel was among those who survived the experience, and his book Night is an account of the horrors of Auschwitz and Buchenwald and a meditation on the nature of God, mortality, and guilt. A difficult read, but an essential one.
None of Us Were Like This Before
What happens when soldiers trained in conventional warfare are given the task of detaining prisoners and fighting using guerrilla tactics? Joshua Phillips explores ways in which American soldiers came to use abuse and torture against prisoners of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the emotional toll that experience had on them after it was all said and done.
Our Man in Havana
For those looking for Cold War action that hasn’t been penned by Tom Clancy, this novel from Graham Greene is a great pick. It follows a vacuum-cleaner salesman reluctantly turned spy for the M16. Part thriller, part satire, the book is a page-turner that’ll keep you engaged until the very last. And to top it all off, this edition has an introduction written by the late Christopher Hitchens.
The Red Badge of Courage
This book originally appeared in serialized form but was then edited for release as a novel. It follows Henry Fleming, a young man eager to show his courage on the Civil War battlefield. His experience of the war immediately drains him of his pep and puts into perspective the real cost of courage. A classic American tale.
Despite being one of his best-known works, Kurt Vonnegut wouldn’t write Slaughterhouse-Five until the late 1960s, after Cat’s Cradle and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. The semi-autobiographical tale is told in a nonlinear fashion (some say the form of the book mimics what it is like to suffer from PTSD – past events repeating themselves in perpetuity) as it follows POW Billy Pilgrim from a prison that survived the firebombing of Dresden to outer space, and beyond
Storm of Steel
Once a worldwide bestseller, this autobiographical tale gives readers a ground-level perspective of the war through the lens of a tough, patriotic German soldier who ran away from school to head to the front. During his time in battle, he was wounded 14 times and shot through the chest. His sharp, short prose lays out his experience in plain and unpretentious terms.
The Things They Carried
Events live on in our minds in curious ways. They get muddled, forgotten, and remembered so many times we don’t know what part of it is real and what is a fiction we’ve made up ourselves. Tim O’Brien’s stunning book on the men of Alpha Company who fought in Vietnam has become a part of the cannon because the way it manages to capture ways in which memory works, and how the violence of war stalks those who were brave enough to fight it.
Ulysses S. Grant: Memoirs and Selected Letters
Ulysses S. Grant may be one of the most under-appreciated American figures. The last in a long line of Generals for the Union Army in the Civil War, he was an essential figure in securing victory for the United States of America. After the end of the war, he was elected president for two terms during which time he implemented Reconstruction and fought to protect citizenship for Black Americans. He was flawed in many ways, but his writings show a man who was intelligent, compassionate and compelled by a set of strongly held values. An essential read for the American History buff.
War and Peace
In much the same way that long, sprawling television shows are in vogue today, the serialized novel was very much the style of storytelling in the Victorian Era. None were better at it than Leo Tolstoy. His most famous work, War and Peace, follows Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and how it impacted the lives of five different aristocratic families. The book has a baggy, hard to grasp quality about it (there are long, long passages that have nothing to do with the narrative) that defies literary convention enough to the point that Tolstoy himself didn’t regard it as a novel. If anything, that just makes the book all the more worth tackling.
With the Old Breed
Despite not being published until the early 1980s, many regard this account of the invasion of Peleliu and Okinawa as one of the most accurate accounts of the invasions of those islands ever written. This may be due to the fact that E.B. Sledge kept a secret journal in his bible while on the Pacific campaign of WWII.
50 Best Books For Men
Looking for more books to crack open? We also have a list of what we think are the 50 best books for men.