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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