I was going to call this post the “best” war novels, but that sounded mighty pretentious. Besides, I can’t declare to know the best one because I haven’t read them all. So I went with my favorites. In no particular order (except for #1 and #2):
1. Once an Eagle (Anton Myrer). This epic war novel has been my favorite since the age of 15. The story covers a huge amount of American history — the pre-war 1900s to Vietnam. It’s the quintessential good guy vs. bad guy story, but it’s done so well and with characters so believable, it’s a completely engrossing read. Sam Damon is the decent, righteous soldier and leader of men — a Kansas farm boy who enlists in the Army prior to World War I (during which he is awarded the Medal of Honor) and ultimately rises to the rank of general, commanding a division in the Pacific in World War II. Courtney Massengale is his opposite — a son of privilege, arrogant, ambitious and amoral, always one rank ahead of Damon. Their eventual collision is both heartbreaking and infuriating. I first became aware of this story way back in the 70s when NBC ran a mini-series by the same name, starring Sam Elliott as Damon and Cliff Potts as Massengale. I was so pulled into the story that I found a copy of the novel at the local library. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve read it, but I actually keep two copies at home — one is my years-old, highlighted copy, and one is my spare (just in case). The leadership lessons in the story stayed with me for life, and the book should be mandatory reading for any military officer in the combat arms.
2. Fields of Fire (James Webb): In the seemingly endless catalogue of Vietnam literature — historical, fiction, nonfiction and every possible combination therein — Fields of Fire stands alone. Webb, one of the most highly decorated Marine officers of the Vietnam era, wrote this shortly after returning from a brutal tour that began in 1969 in the Arizona Valley, one of the most savage regions of South Vietnam during the war. Regardless of which side you come down in the war, this book is a must-read for anyone who wants to know the life of a Marine infantryman in Vietnam: the fear and thrill of a firefight, the misery, the heartache, the pain, the anger. It’s all here. Webb’s first novel, nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, was a searing, even rare, look at war on the individual level, and it’s the most realistic depiction there is.
3. Across the River and Into the Trees (Ernest Hemingway): This is an unusual pick, but still a favorite. Not one of Hemingway’s best-known novels, but a frank look at a man’s soul, as an American general, living his last days in Italy and recalling a lost love while pondering his own mortality and his past deeds.
4. The Five Fingers (Gayle Rivers): I found this book in the Lowndes County Public Library while I was in high school. It was a Vietnam novel — with the tagline, “A story that can only be told as fiction.” That hooked me. The premise is all testosterone: a band of five Super Ninja Ultra Badass Commandos — code-named “Five Fingers” — is formed for the mission of infiltrating into North Vietnam, trekking to China to assassinate North Vietnamese General Giap while he meets with his Chinese benefactors. The story is narrated by one of the commandos, a member of the New Zealand SAS. (One of several things that sticks out of this story is the narrator’s utter disdain for all American fighting units, the Marines in particular.) I can’t tell more without spoiling it, but it’s a hell of a ride. And in an odd postscript, years later, while I was on active duty, I saw another book by Gayle Rivers — a former New Zealand SAS commando who was now (then) an international counterterrorism expert. Hmmm….
5. The Naked and The Dead (Norman Mailer): Just fuggin’ brilliant. If you don’t get that reference, you’ll just have to read the book. I have to put this pretty close to Fields of Fire as one of the best depictions of the American combat infantryman there is. Mailer, whose prose is startling, honest and addictive, misses not a single detail about the life of an ordinary foot soldier in this story about a recon patrol on an island in the South Pacific (one of my favorite places on earth).
6. The Killer Angels (Michael Shaara): Nothing like a Civil War novel to start controversy. This is an eloquent novel, a fictionalized account of the battle of Gettysburg, told mostly from the Confederate side. It was controversial because Shaara, in the eyes of some Civil War history snobs, had the gall to animate Robert E. Lee and others and suggest what they were thinking and said at the time. It’s a novel, people. But a damn good one, because Shaara stayed true to the historical record. And, for the haters, it won the Pulitzer Prize. So there.
7. Catch-22 (Joseph Heller): You want to talk irony and the insanity of war, you start here. This still stands as one of the most outrageously funny — and bitter — accounts of men at war ever written. But then again, I love The Men Who Stare at Goats. That’s some catch, that Catch 22.
8. The Hunt for Red October (Tom Clancy): I almost didn’t include this one, but Clancy’s first still stands up. I still have a first edition somewhere in my library, and it’s still a crackling good story — so good that it drove the Navy nuts when it came out over fears that Clancy was giving away all the submarine community’s secrets. Clancy became a monster name and he was the king of techno-military thrillers that started with this small, smart novel. Underneath the technology and machines is a tense, intelligent story of one insignificant agent (Jack Ryan) trying to save the world.
9. The Pearl of Kuwait (Tom Paine): OK, I cheated on this one. I know the author, and that’s why I read it. That’s another story, but Paine takes the Gulf War and throws an element of Catch-22 and his own manic sense of humor into this take on life in “the Saudi” with hysterical results. I rarely laugh out loud while reading (and I don’t recommend that on a plane, by the way), but I had to put this one down a couple of times just to regain my composure.
10. War of the Rats (David L. Robbins): Ever start a book you don’t really want to read, then enjoy it immensely? That’s what happened with this one. I didn’t really want to read a novel about Stalingrad, especially one with only German and Soviet characters. But this is a story of two soldiers, one German, one Soviet, both snipers, and their hunt for each other. It’s certainly not great war literature, but I loved reading it.
Got your own favorite? Leave it in the Comments section below. I’ll have more favorites in a later post — the “also rans.”