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“War books just aren’t for me.”



Amazon Book Review: YoungbloodMaybe you've been hearing about it – we certainly have. Matt Gallagher's Youngblood is a much admired novel by the author/vet who wrote the amazing blog from the trenches: Kaboom: A Soldier's War Journal. Here he lists the best books he knows about living through war.

Youngblood is a February 2016 selection for Amazon's Best Books of the Month in Literature & Fiction.

10 War Novels for Every Reader
by Matt Gallagher

"War books just aren't for me."

I can't tell you how many times I've heard some version of this line from readers, booksellers, work colleagues, and even friends after a drink or two. I understand the sentiment – in the age of American Sniper, war stories carry a certain implication. Bombs. Bullets. Grunting and brooding and death, sometimes in that order, sometimes not. A lot of explosions but little character development. Who wants to read a giant tome of blood and destruction when there's so much good literature out there about life, and love, and hope?

Here's the thing, though: the best war books aren't about war. The best war books are about life, and love, and hope, too. Oh, war is there, pervasive and ruinous in the way that only war can be. But it's the backdrop, not the story in and of itself. What separates a good story of war is the same thing that separates a good story of anything else: interesting characters, a full, vibrant world, and writing and storytelling that pops. A good book about war is far more interested in the human beings in its pages than it is with something as deeply stupid and awful as war.

I kept that in mind every day as I wrote my Iraq novel Youngblood, because I wanted it to be a book readers picked up whatever their background, whatever their politics, whatever their reading preferences. War books are for everyone, I believe. At least the good ones are. They defy labels in the pursuit of fullness and dimensionality.

Here are ten war novels that do exactly that.

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The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West
Eleven months into my unit's fifteen-month tour to Iraq, I asked my mom to send some books. "Surprise me," I said. When her package arrived, West's masterpiece was on top, with a note written in Momma Gallagher's immaculate script: "Start with this," it said. I followed her instruction, and I'm forever glad I did. West's writing resonated with me in ways I'm still trying to figure out, and it was this book that made me realize the effects and consequences of war impact us all, not just combatants.
 

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One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Not a war novel, you say? A war novel, I say! One of literature's most supreme offerings, One Hundred Years of Solitude captures all of which life has to offer, to include the ravages and dark thrills of armed conflict. And as anyone who's read this book will attest, the opening scene with Colonel Aureliano Buendia facing the firing squad is simply unforgettable.
 

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Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter
For three years now, I've taught a writing workshop for the literary nonprofit Words After War. The organization's goal is straightforward: to bring together veterans and civilians to discuss and critique conflict literature, together. It's one small but important way to bridge the vaunted military-civilian divide, which matters a lot in today's America.
 
Anyhow, with every new semester and every new group, I give them the novella Pale Horse, Pale Rider for the first meeting. Porter's classic is at once about a stateside influenza outbreak and the trench warfare of World War I. It shows each student, whatever his or her background, that writing well about war can have little or nothing to do with combat.
 

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Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
War is a giant, industrial force that has no regard for the physical world we inhabit. Yet it's men – men who inhabit that very same physical world – who allow war to perpetuate. Frazier does a masterful job in his Civil War epic of exploring that perverse incongruity, and the scenes detailing the devastated Southern landscape will linger within you for long after you've finished the book.
 

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The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli
An absolute gem of a novel. While Saigon prepares to fall, a love triangle involving three photojournalists who have given their youths (and much more) to Vietnam comes to the fore. three photojournalists who have given their youths (and much more) to Vietnam comes to the fore.
 
I know I'm supposed to be a macho vet who doesn't show emotions or something, but I teared up a few times reading through this one. There. I came clean about it. Let's move on!
 

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A Bell for Adano by John Hersey
As atypical a war novel as can be found. Set in occupied Sicily during World War II, there's very little violence in A Bell for Adano. It's more interested in the aftereffects of violence, and what moral courage looks like in a village desperate for such a thing. Oh, and there's a scandalous romance, too...
 
I wrote a recent essay for The Millions about this book, if you're interested in reading more about it. Spoiler alert: I think it's very fine.
 

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Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih
This probably qualifies as another unorthodox selection, but the impact of war and occupation and colonialism can be felt on every page of this novel. The narrator of Season of Migration to the North returns home to his Sudanese village after years in Britain pursuing a higher education, and finds it's not as he left it – or perhaps he's not as he was when he left.
 
The first time I read this book I was in college, over a decade ago now. The mysterious character Mustafa Sa'eed still pulsates every time I pass it on my bookshelf, and the character Sergeant Chambers in Youngblood owes much to Mustafa.
 

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Don Quixote by Cervantes
The granddaddy of them all, well, has it all. Lost idealism and defiant hope in the midst of a world intent on crushing the individual spirit? Yeah, that's a war story, and I haven't even gotten to the windmills yet.
 

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Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Every time I put together a war book recommendation list Half of a Yellow Sun is on it, and it will be until I go meet my maker. It's that excellent. A tour de force about the Nigerian Civil War in the late 1960s, Half of a Yellow Sun communicated things about the human condition I'd felt before but could never articulate before reading Adichie's work. What higher aspiration could any writer ever seek?
 

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The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
A Great American Novel, this book has nothing to do with the trenches of World War I, and yet everything to do with the war and its after-effects.
 
Both Gatsby and Nick Carraway are vets, and Jay at least believes in that as part of their bond. It contributes to their shared not-quite-belonging status in the wealthy circles they run around in. It's one more thing that separates them from that world – because that world never had to deal with the war, even when it was going on. Both Jay and Nick want to fake that kind of disregard, but both end up failing at it, in their own ways.
 

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