Share 12 Powerful War Novels that Transcend War

12 Powerful War Novels that Transcend War

Matt Gallagher is a former US Army captain and author of the acclaimed Iraq war memoir Kaboom, based on the popular and controversial blog he kept while he was deployed. His first novel, Youngblood, has recently been published by Atria Books. He holds an MFA in fiction from Columbia and has written for The New York TimesThe AtlanticThe Daily Beast, and Playboy, among others. He lives with his wife in Brooklyn.

Editor’s Note: Matt Gallagher’s first novel, Youngblood, about the Iraq War has recently been published by Atria Books. You can watch a video about the inspiration for Youngblood here. We asked him to reflect on what war novels move him.

 

That war stories must occur in strange lands far from home, filled with bullets and blood, remains a powerful fallacy. The consequences and effects of war can’t be contained so neatly. Stories of war are stories of love, stories of loss and longing, stories of hope. Stories of war are stories of before and after, of inheritance and memory. The best stories of war are so much more than stories of armed conflict. They are stories of humanity.

Here are twelve novels of war that explore exactly that.


Pale Horse, Pale Rider
by Katherine Anne Porter

While detailing the influenza outbreak of Denver in 1918, PALE HORSE, PALE RIDER also conveys the waste and horror of the World War I trenches half a world away. A young, skeptical journalist meets a lieutenant about to ship out overseas, and they decide to navigate the madness of home-front America together.

Pale Horse, Pale Rider
Katherine Anne Porter

While detailing the influenza outbreak of Denver in 1918, PALE HORSE, PALE RIDER also conveys the waste and horror of the World War I trenches half a world away. A young, skeptical journalist meets a lieutenant about to ship out overseas, and they decide to navigate the madness of home-front America together.

MENTIONED IN:

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Cold Mountain
by Charles Frazier

Winner of the National Book Award, this historical retelling of The Odyssey transplants the classic myth to the American South near the end of the Civil War. A perilous journey across a war-ravaged landscape explores the timeless theme of homecoming at the close of America’s most devastating war.

Cold Mountain
Charles Frazier

Winner of the National Book Award, this historical retelling of The Odyssey transplants the classic myth to the American South near the end of the Civil War. A perilous journey across a war-ravaged landscape explores the timeless theme of homecoming at the close of America’s most devastating war.

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Half of a Yellow Sun
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie deftly examines matters of identity and African politics through a wide variety of characters, such as the sophisticate Olanna, the village boy Ugwu, and the British expat Richard. All the while, the Republic of Biafra rises and falls.
Half of a Yellow Sun
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The Nigerian Civil War of the late 1960s is brought to life through the voices of five unforgettable characters. Among them is Ugwu, a houseboy who comes to his master a naive child and ends the novel a wary ex-soldier. As war drags on and the differences between Ugwu and the once-privileged family he serves shrink, their shared, raw humanity is all that remains.

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Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
by Ben Fountain

A luminous and savage depiction of post-9/11 America, as experienced by one young war hero attending a Dallas Cowboys game.

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
Ben Fountain

A luminous and savage depiction of post-9/11 America, as experienced by one young war hero attending a Dallas Cowboys game.

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Democracy
by Joan Didion

To call this a Vietnam novel would be both accurate and far too constraining. Set against the backdrop of the Fall of Saigon, DEMOCRACY chronicles an ill-fated romance and the beginning of the end of the American empire.

Democracy
Joan Didion

To call this a Vietnam novel would be both accurate and far too constraining. Set against the backdrop of the Fall of Saigon, DEMOCRACY chronicles an ill-fated romance and the beginning of the end of the American empire.

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The Kite Runner
by Khaled Hosseini
A contemporary classic. While the complex Afghan social structure and Soviet invasion give this novel its framework, its resonance derives from a lost friendship and a deeply personal quest for redemption.
The Kite Runner
Khaled Hosseini

Set against the backdrop of tumultuous, war-torn Afghanistan, THE KITE RUNNER is an unforgettable and heartbreaking story of friendship, family, and redemption.

 

Listen to clip of the audiobook:

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Girl at War
by Sara Nović

One young woman’s journey through the savageness and ruin of the Balkans in the 1990s, something that the West tried so hard for too long to ignore.

Girl at War
Sara Nović

One young woman’s journey through the savageness and ruin of the Balkans in the 1990s, something that the West tried so hard for too long to ignore.

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Paradise
by Toni Morrison

Beginning with one of literature’s most famous openings—“They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time.”—Morrison weaves layers and layers of macrohistory into the story of one small all-black town in Oklahoma—including the far-reaching legacy of the Vietnam War.

Paradise
Toni Morrison

Beginning with one of literature’s most famous openings—“They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time.”—Morrison weaves layers and layers of macrohistory into the story of one small all-black town in Oklahoma—including the far-reaching legacy of the Vietnam War.

MENTIONED IN:

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Revolutionary Road
by Richard Yates

An evocative portrayal of the opulent desolation of the American suburbs, Revolutionary Road is perhaps literature’s most penetrating portrait of the Mad Men era. The story of a couple who have lived on the assumption that greatness is only just around the corner, Richard Yates demonstrates with heartbreaking compassion and remorseless clarity how Frank and April betray not only each other, but their best selves.

Revolutionary Road
Richard Yates

An evocative portrayal of the opulent desolation of the American suburbs, Revolutionary Road is perhaps literature’s most penetrating portrait of the Mad Men era. The story of a couple who have lived on the assumption that greatness is only just around the corner, Richard Yates demonstrates with heartbreaking compassion and remorseless clarity how Frank and April betray not only each other, but their best selves.

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The Sun Also Rises
by Ernest Hemingway
A boy’s book about drinking and partying? Hardly. Narrator Jake Barnes, suffering from what we’d now call PTSD, grapples for purpose in a postwar world, while Lady Brett Ashley defies societal restrictions time and time again.
The Sun Also Rises
Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway's first bestselling novel, it is the story of a group of 'Lost Generation' Americans and Brits in the 1920's on a sojourn from Paris to Pamploma, Spain. The novel poignantly details their life as expatriates on Paris' Left Bank, and conveys the brutality of bullfighting in Spain. The novel established Hemingway as one of the great prose stylists of all time.

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Regeneration
by Pat Barker

The Booker Prize-winning first book in the brilliant trilogy that examines and skewers the madness of the war by telling as fiction the true story of poet and officer Siegfried Sassoon, who upon declaring he would not fight was sent to a mental hospital for "shell-shocked" soldiers where he was treated by noted psychiatrist Dr. William Rivers. Sassoon's complete sanity disturbs Dr. Rivers to such a point that he questions his own role in "curing" his patients only to send them back to the slaughter of the war. Read the first book and you will have to read the rest.

Regeneration
Pat Barker

The Booker Prize-winning first book in the brilliant trilogy that examines and skewers the madness of the war by telling as fiction the true story of poet and officer Siegfried Sassoon, who upon declaring he would not fight was sent to a mental hospital for "shell-shocked" soldiers where he was treated by noted psychiatrist Dr. William Rivers. Sassoon's complete sanity disturbs Dr. Rivers to such a point that he questions his own role in "curing" his patients only to send them back to the slaughter of the war. Read the first book and you will have to read the rest.

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In Country
by Bobbie Ann Mason

Set in rural Kentucky more than a decade after the end of the Vietnam War, Sam Hughes— the teenage daughter of a soldier who didn’t make it home—seeks out meaning and purpose from the war that took her father.

In Country
Bobbie Ann Mason

Set in rural Kentucky more than a decade after the end of the Vietnam War, Sam Hughes— the teenage daughter of a soldier who didn’t make it home—seeks out meaning and purpose from the war that took her father.

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