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Four Books About War

Like a lot of men I know, men who have never served in the military and who haven’t had much experience with violence, I’ve done a ton of reading about war and military history. I just don’t know how to stay away from it. And while I don’t claim to know anything about the grim realities of combat or warfare or valor or military sacrifice, I don’t know that I am ever moved or edified more consistently than I am when I read books about these subjects.

Here are four brief reviews about the war-related books that have haunted me the longest and deepened my sincere (but almost certainly inadequate) appreciation of all who serve to protect the things that I hold dear.

1. The War Prayer by Mark Twain

During a church service in which a town is preparing to send its young men to war, a stranger enters the chapel and addresses the congregation. His sincere prayer is brief, brutal, and sincere as he goes about praying for the destruction of the enemy and paints a horrific picture of what that destruction will mean. Much of Twain’s most vicious criticism was reserved for hypocrites. This might be the pinnacle of his venom, but it is also a masterpiece of “show, don’t tell” that all writers would do well to heed.

2. On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning To Kill In War And Society by Dave Grossman

Killing does not only effect those who lose their lives. What about those who do the killing? What toll does it take on them? Grossman’s book is academics-heavy but fascinating reading. If studies and data are what you want, you’ll beg for mercy when you start scanning the bibliography. If you are interested in anecdotal evidence, there’s plenty of that as well.

3. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

A book of short stories about O’Brien’s own experiences in the Vietnam War. Saying that I “enjoyed” this book is not quite right, but that didn’t make it less of a gut-wrenching, page-turning experience. And I believe The Things They Carried is an experience more than it is a book. Never have characters seemed so real. Never have horrors sounded more horrific. One of my favorite books, but one that I’m only emotionally capable of reading about every five years.

4. Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People: The Dynamics Of Torture by John Conroy

How does someone become a torturer? How do they live with it? Does torture work? Is it ever justified? This is a book of big, big questions. This isn’t a grisly book of sensationalism, but a well-reported study of how “normal” people could become part of the machinery of coercion. Conroy draws from many interviews, experiments such as the Milgram shock-studies at Yale, and a whole lot of reading. He comes as close as I’ve seen to investigating this beyond-controversial issue while remaining (in the book, at least) objective. It doesn’t really unearth new information, but for me it was a very readable treatment of a subject that I’ve not been able to access as well with other authors.

If any of this interests you, check out my reviews of O Jerusalem! and What Is The What?, two wonderful books about, respectively, the origins of the Israel/Palestine conflict and the Sudan calamities.


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  • Boris Bachmann March 1, 2010, 5:58 am

    I read ‘On Killing’ a few months ago. Dan John mentioned it as an influential book to him personally. It definitely changed the way I see war.’The Things They Carried’ has been on my to-read list for a long time – I’ll get to it now. Thanks.

    • Josh Hanagarne March 1, 2010, 11:08 am

      Boris, let me know what you think when you’re done.

  • Julianne Fuchs-Musgrave March 1, 2010, 6:12 am

    In 1971, when America was at war both within and without, I was turning 18 and actively protesting. My father, a truly gentle soul, could not reconcile his willing participation in WWII–a “good war.” Vietnam was the only thing my father and I ever argued about. Somewhere in that, we both read the Twain. It didn’t change either of our stances–but allowed us to have a shared view of the hell war creates.
    I noticed the latest reprint is 1984, and do have to wonder if perhaps it needs a new printing to put it on the front burner.
    Of course like other Twain–it will win a “banned” designation in most schools.
    Thanks again–thinking is a good way to start the month!

  • Heather March 1, 2010, 8:29 am


    Thanks again for great reading suggestions! As the daughter of a pair of hippies who also had an uncle serve off the Bering Strait during Viet Nam, war is a touchy subject at our house. I’ll definitely have to give a couple of these a look-see. I keep thinking I’ve read that Twain piece at some point! I’ll be hittin’ up my LPL to dig on the coolness. . . I just hope they can provide it. My soon-to-be-ex has read the Tim O’Brien one. For the longest time, I had troubel being in the same room with him when he would watch movies like “Saving Private Ryan” and “Blackhawk Down!” He reads “All Quiet on the Western Front” around Veterans’ Day every year. Though he has never served in the military, he comes from a long line of military men. War affects him very deeply on a frighteningly personal emotional level. Sorry if I shared too much. . . .thanks again, though!

    • Josh Hanagarne March 1, 2010, 11:07 am

      Heather, I think you apologize every time you make a comment:)

  • Hillary March 1, 2010, 8:37 am

    I read “The Things They Carried” years ago, but just hearing it mentions evokes strong emotions. I think I was still in school when I read it and it definitely had a profound influence on my young mind. Very well written.

    • Josh Hanagarne March 1, 2010, 11:06 am

      I’d read it again, HIllary. I’m trying to read anything that is worth reading every five years or so. It’s been really interesting to see how books change as my experience changes.

  • Larry March 1, 2010, 8:47 am

    Hey Josh, good stuff. “Band of Brothers” was one of my favorite books ever, and it launched me toward an appreciatiion of this valuable genre.

    Glad to see Tim O’Brien on your list. His first novel, “Going After Cacciato” (National Book Award) was a huge influence on me, made me want to be a writer. It was the quintessential Vietnam novel, still is for many, and I highly recommend it, along with your four stellar selections here.

  • Chester March 1, 2010, 8:57 am

    I’ve used a few of O’Brein’s stories from TTTC in my classroom, most gut wrenchingly was “On Rainy River”. Awesome stuff – a good reminder of what happens when we send people off to war and expect them to be normal when they get back. Recently saw and would recommend “The way we get by”, a movie about the Troop Greeters at the Bangor, Maine airport.

  • Fallen Monkey March 1, 2010, 11:01 am

    Thank you for the list, as I’ve only covered 1 of the 4 so far– The Things They Carried, and I agree that it’s impact was haunting. I read it for a grad school course in which my professor was first reading it along with us–she had such verve, so to experience her raw emotional reactions in conjunction with the rest of ours made for memorable discussions. I had the opportunity to meet Tim O’Brien with that class at the Chicago Public Library–the book had been selected for the “One Book, One Chicago” initiative at the time, so he read selections aloud and compared his written word to his actual experience, explaining how if any facts were altered from the literal truth, it was only to better convey the essence of capital-T “Truth.” I was sitting too far away to see his tears, but I could hear them in his voice as he recited one of his own chapters by heart—and when I say “by heart,” I truly mean it came from his very heart and soul. As much impact as his tales had already had on me, I was not prepared for the earth-moving effect his reality had on every person in that room. I’ve gone on to use excerpts from it in teaching narrative voice to my high school students in hoping they’ll learn other life lessons from it as well.

    • Josh Hanagarne March 1, 2010, 11:05 am

      Wow. I’m not a bit surprised, and I’m glad to see they’re letting you have books in the zoo.

  • Aaron March 1, 2010, 11:08 am

    where’s The Art of War by Sun Tzu?

    • Josh Hanagarne March 1, 2010, 11:09 am

      It’s on my shelf. I didn’t say “The only 4 book about war,” just “4 books about war.” There are quite a few.

  • ami March 1, 2010, 11:57 am

    Thanks for the suggestions Josh – this is the second recommendation of The Things They Carried I’ve heard, and the Twain book sounds like it’s got a similar angle. I read All Quiet on the Western Front a long time ago, and it started a whole line of questioning in my little brain about how wars are waged and who suffers (and who doesnt suffer) during war.

    I believe that too many of the people who send young people to war have too little skin in the game. War has become a sterile, “clean” and “modern” event observed occasionally on television. And heaven help the TV station that broadcasts pics of young soldiers’ bodies in caskets – that would be disrespectful to the soldiers’ families. Please.

    If we are a country that decides that certain causes merit the death and destruction caused by war – then that decision and its *consequences* should apply to everyone. Impose a draft, include women, older people, people of all races and (especially) classes and education. If we aren’t willing to send all of those groups to war – why are we willing to go to war in the first place? Ok, putting away the soapbox (for now)

  • albert camus March 1, 2010, 12:50 pm

    May I add two more suggestions: “18 Platton” by Sydney Jary, which is the true account of a young Officers’ exeperiance from WW2 and “Chickenhawk” by Robert Mason who was a chopper pilot in Vietnam.

    • Josh Hanagarne March 1, 2010, 3:07 pm

      Albert! Thanks for coming back from the grave to recommend books:) Your taste is as impeccable as ever.

  • Jeffrey Tang March 1, 2010, 5:13 pm

    I read “The Things They Carried” in high school, which tends to take a lot of fun out of the reading. But despite the best efforts of stilted class discussions and 4-page papers, I still remember Tim O’Brien’s wonderful prose … or should I say terrible, given the subject matter?

    A great book by a great writer.

  • Daisy March 1, 2010, 6:42 pm

    I’ll expect a run on these titles on paperbackswap!

  • Bamboo Forest - PunIntended March 1, 2010, 11:01 pm

    War is one of those realities of humanity. As long as humanity is a warring people, war will flourish. As long as someone’s willing to inflict violence, others are willing to defend themselves. It’s a vicious cycle that will never end unless all parties decide that war is not an option. I don’t know when that will happen, but I have to believe it will be part of human evolution. Let’s hope sooner rather than later.

    All that said, I agree… war is absolutely fascinating and I give those who defend my freedom the highest level of respect possible.