A little while ago, while reading Jarhead, I started a list of books that “say something about the experience of war and its aftermath.” It’s not a subject area in which I’m well read, but I received some helpful suggestions both in the comments to that post and via e-mail.
Brad Hooper, who studied history before becoming a librarian and then an editor, offered the following:
I also got an e-mail from another historian, Steve Carey, a good friend of mine who also happens to be an Army captain who commanded an infantry company in Baghdad. He prefaced his comments by saying that he thought Jarhead was “more historical fiction than memoir,” but allowed that maybe he was only envious for “not cashing in on my own made-up combat experiences.”
Here is a lightly edited version of Steve’s annotated list (I took out some of the friends-only banter and reordered it according to the way my list was ordered):
Here’s my list of “best” books, all memoirs or nonfiction, that I believe most accurately relay the experience of soldiers in combat. All touch upon, in one way or other, the struggle you addressed in your Booklist article to remain focused on the larger task of fighting and winning a war in an environment which is (mostly) mind numbingly mundane and boring.
Baghdad Express: A Gulf War Memoir, by Joel Turnipseed
WAY better than Jarhead, it deals with Marine truck drivers instead of “I’m too sexy for my shirt” Marine snipers. Very accurate, though the author is at times intolerable – failed but well-read philosophy major serving in one of the least-respected jobs (opposite of Marine sniper) in the Marine Corps reserve (which actually helps me buy his memoir shtick more readily).
First In: An Insider’s Account of How the CIA Spearheaded the War on Terror in Afghanistan, by Gary Schroen
There are a couple of other memoirs from Afghanistan – Jawbreaker and Not a Good Day to Die come to mind – but First In is the only one that I have actually read. It concludes with a good damning critique on the manner in which the Iraq war diverted resources from the effort to destroy Al Qaeda, resulting in the current situation.
Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War, by Mark Bowden
…is right on the mark.
Platoon Leader: A Memoir of Command in Combat, by James McDonough
A little self-aggrandizing, but good. Larry Heinemann’s Close Quarters is better (as is O’Brien, as you note), but is an informed novel rather than a no-shit memoir. At least Heinemann has the decency to call it a novel…
I have not read anything except what Hackworth wrote, which I can not recommend for a best list. His stuff, while good, carries with it too much of his personal agenda (however noble) of making himself look good while poking the Pentagon in the eye – he used his memoirs too much as a soapbox.
World War II
(Pacific – UK)
Quartered Safe Out Here, by George MacDonald Fraser
One of the best war books ever – great writing. It’s about the British in Burma.
(Pacific – US)
Goodbye Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War, by William Manchester
This is very good, too.
(Europe – US)
Company Commander: The Classic Infantry Memoir of WWII, by Charles MacDonald
Talks about how little control officers really had over their men, and that by the last few months of the war the soldiers’ only real motivation was to stay alive by any means possible.
I would have to give more careful thought to anything prior to WWII.
In my original post I considered the idea of a making this a “best” list, then decided that was too daunting. But with so many good suggestions, I think I’ll have enough for something pretty useful anyway.
Anyone have any more? Remember, I’m most interested in books that treat the experience of war, and to keep things from getting out of hand, I’m limiting it to wars with U.S. involvement (but within that, it makes sense to include some non-U.S. perspectives).