Nothing says more about the human condition than how we behave in extreme circumstances, and circumstances don’t come much more extreme than war…
Writers, while not disavowing the sentiment, might suggest otherwise. Wars, battles and struggles have provided novelists with a cavalcade of inspiration for grand works. Some focus on the fighting and the treacherous conditions experienced by the soldiers; others examine how wars change people and society.
What follows is the 30 greatest war novels (ok, 29, one is an account of a writer’s direct experience of war) (hang on, 28, one is a play) (and a few of them are semi-autobiographical – do we knock half off the total for each of them?) ever penned.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk - Ben Fountain
Ben Fountain’s mesmeric debut novel concerns the fortunes of Bravo Company, and in particular one of its members, the titular Billy Lynn, after its engaged in a bloody battle with Iraqi insurgents. The skirmish is caught on camera, ensuring that Billy and his buddies become overnight heroes in America. Can Bravo Company live up to their star billing when they embark on a tour back home? A brave, compelling book that doesn’t flinch from portraying the uncomfortable realities of war. It was made into a film by Ang Lee, which flopped mainly due to its experimental 120fps framerate rather than its faithful adaptation of the source material.
War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy
War and Peace is inarguably one of the greatest books of all time – it also happens to be about war, conflict and its impact upon all involved. Set during the 1812 invasion of Russia by Napoleon’s forces, War and Peace demonstrates a rigorous historical approach to writing and is hailed as incredibly authentic – unsurprising given that Tolstoy served in the Crimean War. Just don’t expect to read it in one – or seven sittings: when first published it ran to 1,225 pages.
All Quiet on the Western Front - Erich Maria Remarque
The definitive anti-war book. Written by a veteran of the First World War, it recounts in horrific and spellbinding detail the real life experience of war. The book’s central character, Paul Bäumer, is, like many in Germany and likewise in Britain, enthusiastic about his forthcoming adventure. The reality he encounters is somewhat different as Remarque describes a generation ‘destroyed by war’.
Austerlitz - W.G. Sebald
Austerlitz isn’t about the nitty gritty of war – the fighting, the bombings, the violent deaths – but its aftermath. Jacques Austerlitz is a successful architect in the Sixties who managed to flee Czechoslovakia before the outbreak of war in 1939. As Austerlitz attempts to come to terms with the fate of his parents, the book deals in themes of loss, memory and hope. Emotions that war deals explicitly in.
Catch-22 - Joseph Heller
Such was the potency of Joseph Heller’s sparkling satirical novel about the 256th squadron in World War II that its title has passed over into common usage for a no-win situation. Again, Heller writes from a unique vantage point – he flew 60 missions during 1944. This results in a comical tour-de-force that upon publication in 1961 was quickly embraced by the burgeoning counterculture.
Henry VI - William Shakespeare
Shakespeare’s three plays that make up his Henry VI trilogy – known as Harry the Sixth, The Houses of York and Lancaster and The True Tragedy of the Duke of York – cover the period of the War of the Roses. Shakespeare was perceptive enough to see the tragedy and revulsion of war early on (a theme that is particularly acute in part three); a shame that we haven’t learned much in the intervening centuries.
Slaughterhouse-Five - Kurt Vonnegut
If Edwin Starr’s powerful War has a literary corollary it’s probably Kurt Vonnegut’s iconic Slaughterhouse-Five. A bewitching and maddening text, it takes the Dresden bombings of 1945 as its starting point and in the subsequent pages and through the eyes of its time-travelling protagonist Billy Pilgrim, eloquently demonstrates the ridiculousness of war. So it goes. So it goes…
For Whom The Bell Tolls - Ernest Hemingway
The Spanish Civil War entranced a generation of artists, writers and activists, all of whom recognised that what was being played out in the plains of Andalucía and the streets of Barcelona, was a portent for what was coming globally. Ernest Hemingway was one such writer - he reported upon the war for the North American Newspaper Alliance. For Whom The Bell Tolls tells the story of Robert Jordan, an American solider in the International Brigades. The book is a fascinating account of sacrifice, heroism and patriotism, and quite possibly Hemingway’s crowning achievement.
Birdsong - Sebastian Faulks
Such is the irrefutable power of Sebastian Faulks’s 1993 novel – not least its moving and brutal depictions of life in the trenches – that many have compared it to the writing of the aforementioned Erich Maria Remarque and Ernest Hemingway. Birdsong tells the story of Stephen Wraysford before, during and after World War I. It’s the pages that focus on Wraysford’s stout determination to survive the war that linger most in the memory.
Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell
Like the film it gave birth to, Margaret Mitchell’s novel is an epic. Like Austerlitz, it doesn’t deal in the grim minutiae of conflict, rather the sweeping effect it has. In this case, the American South, that in the wake of the American Civil War is gone with the wind.
Johnny Got His Gun - Dalton Trumbo
Although not as heralded as All Quiet on the Western Front, Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun is no less authoritative in illustrating the folly of war. In a novel laced with pathos and comedy, protagonist Joe Bonham loses his arms, legs and, improbably, his face in World War I. He’s kept alive in a glass box, a prisoner in his own body and communicates by banging his head against a pillow in Morse code. Trumbo’s novel was a key text of the anti-war movement that sprung up in America in the 1960s.
The Naked And The Dead - Norman Mailer
Some of the finest war writing focuses not on the bloody battles that punctuate a life in the trenches, but the friendships that are formed in such heightened circumstances. Norman Mailer’s iconic The Naked and the Dead, published just three years after the end of World War II, tells the story of a platoon of ordinary young Americans fighting the Japanese. The success of the book catapulted Mailer to a fame we embraced with gusto.
The Quiet American - Graham Greene
Like Hemingway, Graham Greene observed war (in this case the First Indochina War) from the vantage point of a foreign journalist. His book has been perceived as anti-American in some quarters, but in truth, it’s really anti-war. A novel that many soldiers who fought in the second Vietnam War read with (in some cases) doomed recognition.
Restless - William Boyd
William Boyd has an artist’s eye for detail and a historian’s grasp of the past – it’s a trick that has enabled him to conjure up momentous events in many of his novels, not least the brilliant Any Human Heart. Restless is equally superb. It focuses on a Russian woman who is recruited to work for the British Secret Service during World War II and who falls for her boss, who ultimately betrays her. War is the backdrop, but the misery that unfolds can be traced back to the conflict of ideologies and fighting.
Doctor Zhivago - Boris Pasternak
Of course, Doctor Zhivago – much like War and Peace and Gone With The Wind – is not just a war novel. It’s a dizzying and spellbinding narrative whose epic scope takes in one of most turbulent spells in Russian history, the period from the revolution of 1905 to the outbreak of World War II. Within that there are manifold stories to be told, primarily of course the titular protagonist, but the threat and reality of war is always close to the surface.
Empire Of The Sun - J.G. Ballard
Ballard’s semi-autobiographical novel captures children’s innocence (and the loss thereof) during wartime magically. Stranded in Shanghai after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, James Graham is held in an internment camp. As the war progresses, and James becomes more cognizant of the reality of war, his feelings develop, and life becomes a struggle for survival. The confusion inherent in war is never far from the surface in this compelling book.
The Hunt For Red October - Tom Clancy
The Cold War was a metaphorical battle in which the combatants never met directly, instead engaging in phoney wars; conflicts of propaganda and taking sides in other wars like Vietnam. This is the backdrop to Tom Clancy’s hugely successful slice of literary cant and the introduction to his enduring All-American Jack Ryan character. Can Ryan safely deliver a defecting Soviet submarine captain to American waters? What do you think?
Gravity's Rainbow - Thomas Pynchon
This much we can say; Thomas Pynchon’s postmodern masterpiece takes place in Europe as World War II is drawing to a close. It takes in the development of deadly V-2 rockets in Nazi Germany and a hunt to find a ‘black device’ that is located in the weapons of mass destruction. From there, you’re on your own. Pynchon flaunts his bewildering intellect unashamedly, but that’s not to say it’s not an enjoyable – and provocative – novel either.
Regeneration - Pat Barker
Pat Barker’s triptych of World War I novels (which also includes The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road) was inspired by her grandfather’s experiences in the trenches. Terrifyingly, the majority of the ‘action’ takes place not in the miserable fields of Europe, but rather a psychiatric hospital in Edinburgh where patients are supposedly cured of the trauma they witnessed before, incredibly, being sent back to the front line. An inflammatory set of novels that strike at the heart of the callous nature of war.
When The Wind Blows - Raymond briggs
If any book caught the imagination of the anti-nuclear sentiment of the 1980s it was Raymond Brigg’s graphic novel, When The Wind Blows. Jim and Hilda Bloggs (based on Briggs’ own parents) place their faith in their government to look after them in the face of an imminent enemy attack. However, this isn’t World War II (a conflict the ageing couple can vividly recall), and the stakes have been raised considerably. Briggs deals in acute gallows humour, not shying away from the consequences of nuclear fallout and public misinformation.
The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas
Ok, The Three Musketeers isn’t about war as such, but all the elements that best make up a war novel are there – conflict, friendship, nobility, heroism… Dumas recognised that while the glamour supposedly inherent in armed struggle is mostly a fallacy, the attributes of friendship, loyalty and the ties that bind comrades are not.
Homage To Catalonia - George Orwell
Not a novel, but a vital account of the Spanish Civil War; a struggle that Orwell engaged in first-hand. For seven months from December 1936, Orwell served in the socialist POUM militia fighting Franco and fascism. Or so he thought: his account of this fight also demonstrates the internecine conflict that so ravaged the left, and enabled Franco to gain an upper hand.
The Hunters - James Salter
James Salter is one of the unsung heroes of American literature – writers like Saul Bellow, Joseph Heller and Philip Roth have all waxed lyrical about his literary chops, and yet he remains an enigmatic figure. The Hunters draws upon his time as a fighter pilot in the Korean War and focuses on Captain Cleve Connell and his doomed mission to become an ace pilot – after all, there’s no glory like that achieved in battle.
The Debacle - Émile Zola
Part of Zola’s colossal Les Rougon-Macquart series of novels, The Debacle unapologetically highlights the brutality of war on ordinary soldiers and the civilians left behind. The backdrop is the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the Paris Commune of the following year, but the universal nature of Zola’s work means the themes are applicable in almost every war imaginable. A harrowing book that expertly pricks the pomposity of those that send innocent people to die for their causes.
Men At Arms - Evelyn Waugh
Men at Arms is the first novel in Evelyn Waugh’s lauded Sword of Honour trilogy. It examines the lot of Guy Crouchback, a 35-year-old divorced Catholic who, as World War II, commences is clearly unhappy with his lot in life. War, he believes, can give meaning to his life once more. What transpires is a glimpse into the foolhardy consequences of leaving idiots, fools and the graduates of England’s public schools in charge. The noted critic Cyril Connolly proclaimed Waugh’s series to be the ‘finest novels to have come out of the war’. And if that wasn’t enough, think about how Waugh’s surname is pronounced…
Covenant With Death - John Harris
World War I, or the Great War, was meant to be the war that ended all wars. It wasn’t, it was the biggest bloodbath of its time – more than one million men perished at the Battle of the Somme, with no clear victor. John Harris’s book tells the story of one voluntary battalion from its inception during the naïve jingoism 1914 to its eventual destruction on the first day of the Somme’s hostilities. An anti-war book right up there with Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.
Parade's End - Ford Madox Ford
Parade’s End is the name given to Ford Madox Ford’s four novels about the cataclysmic events of World War I – both on the individuals characterised in the books, but society as a whole. The central figure is Christopher Tietjens, an old school chap attached to a code about to be blown to smithereens. The war tears everything he thought stable asunder. Ford’s depiction of life in the trenches has been said to be unerringly realistic.
Cold Mountain - Charles Frazier
What gets individuals through war? What sustains them? Love. Or the promise of love at least. When W. P. Inman sees through the illusory concept of the Confederacy in the American Civil War and deserts, he heads back to the woman – and the home – he loves. There are traces of Homer’s epic The Odyssey in Inman’s quest, and Frazier excels in painting a desolate picture of war and its consequences.
From Here To Eternity - James Jones
James Jones was a master of the war novel – we could have easily plumped for The Thin Red Line here instead. From Here To Eternity gets our vote though because it was Jones’s first book and captures him at his dramatic best. The conflict apparent in Jones’s book is both literal – World War II – and metaphorical – the struggle between individual choice (as exemplified by Private Robert E Lee Prewitt) and authority. As Jones realises, being an ex-soldier himself, sometimes the biggest adversary in wartime is on your own side.
The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini
Taking in everything from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 – and the resultant decade-long conflict and flight of refugees to Pakistan, Iran and the US – to the subsequent rise of the Taliban, The Kite Runner is a thoroughly modern examination of warfare on individuals, societies and nations. Told through the eyes of two friends Amir and Hassan, the book demonstrates that while wars and conflicts change through time, the resultant carnage and destruction doesn’t.