Not (Just) Another Reading List

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My Battleland colleague Nate Rawlings has done excellent work at keeping us all aware of trends in official Army reading lists. Like many veterans, I suppose, I have a shelf of books I own solely because some previous commander put it on his mandatory reading list. These lists are handed down as part of the boilerplate leadership model every commander (in the Army at least) learns early on. Not that they aren’t important, but they are ubiquitous.

What strikes me about many of these lists is that they lack a literary component. Clearly they’re not designed to help rising leaders hone their ability to discern post-modernist themes in the American novel. But, I thought it might be interesting to put together a list of literary works that soldiers and others would find helpful or at least interesting and worthwhile. I teach writing in a number of venues both as an academic exercise and as therapy, and I use these works in my seminars and workshops. I won’t make this a top-ten list, but rather just a list of a couple handfuls of books and why I think they’re worth including on soldiers’ reading lists.

The Iliad. Simply put, the best book about the human element of war I know. In the ninth year of the Trojan War, Achilles decides to sit out a while after King Agamemnon dishonors him. Things go poorly for the Greeks. Achilles’s best friend Patroclus is killed and Achilles returns to the fray in a berserk state. Things go poorly for the Trojans—Hector particularly. In between we learn about the warrior’s identity, special operations, how family relations change in nine years of war, the political level of war, and so much more. Additional reading: Christopher Logue’s interpretations of The Iliad and Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam.

For Esme–With Love and Squalor. J.D. Salinger’s short story about an Army sergeant’s evolution from a charming, erudite writer-draftee to a shaky, chain smoking, quick-to-anger, combat veteran is likely a description of Salinger’s own experience. Like Salinger’s other works, it includes beautifully crafted characters.  If the dozens of briefings junior leaders receive about PTSD haven’t given them sufficient insight on what to watch for in their troops, this should do it. Additional readings: The other eight stories contained in the collection Nine Stories.

Catch-22. Joseph Heller flew 60+ missions as a bombardier in B-25s over Italy. In his masterpiece, protagonist John Yossarian, a B-25 bombardier, cracks the code on the bureaucracy and madness that are the core of any big organization. More importantly, Heller shows us the nexus between fear, courage and motivation when Yossarian time and again climbs into the nose of the Liberator for a mission: Arriving on target in heavy flak, waiting for the crosshairs on the bombsight to align, watching the indicator arm as the bombs plummet towards their target, and only then shrieking at his pilot McWatt to take evasive action to avoid certain death.

All Quiet on the Western Front and The Road Back Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet is probably on everyone’s best war novels list. But its effect is deepened exponentially if read in conjunction with its sequel, The Road Back. Some of the most valuable and insightful writing in All Quiet is Ernst’s focus on home while at the front and on the front while at home. The Road Back shows us what life is like for a returning combat veteran. A good read for everyone who goes but, perhaps more importantly, for everyone who doesn’t.

From Here to Eternity, The Thin Red Line, Whistle. As long as we’re on sequels, James Jones’s tre-quel follows a group of soldiers (each re-made ever so slightly throughout the course of the works) from pre-WWII Hawaii through Guadalcanal and home to San Francisco. These books depict the Army at its best and worst— prepare yourself for a big dose of reality including sadism, homosexuality, and careerism. But the theme’s the thing here. The characters’ struggles take center stage throughout, but the problems of men are puny bantams in the face of global war and its aftermath. Whistle was finished posthumously for Jones by his editor and it shows, but it’s still an important read. And don’t just see the movies, read the books.

War Poetry. OK, this is lame, I know, but I don’t want to list one or two poets to the exclusion of so many others. The “war poets” we all read in High School or maybe in undergraduate literature classes remain among the greats, but beyond Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Isaac Rosenberg, you should be reading Vera Brittain, Yusef Komunyakaa, Richard Wilbur, James Dickey, and dozens more. Why? Because poetry is language used at its highest level and in its most powerful form. Mere mortal writers can laze about their sentences and paragraphs just getting the idea across and moving on. Poets work their phrases and word choices until only the purest distillation possible of the idea or theme remains.

Henry V. “Prince Hal grows up” could be the sub-title for this treatise on leadership. Some of the Bard’s greatest writing is here and, undoubtedly a couple of his greatest speeches. “Once more into the breach…” is here, as is “we few, we merry few, we band of brothers…..” But there’s so much more. We’ve watched Hal grow from the party prince into a mature leader through Henry IV parts I and II. At the denouement of Henry IV part II, Hal says to Sir John Falstaff, “I know thee not, old man,” cementing the evolution from prince to king. In Henry V, Hal overcomes treason, defeats a superior force, gives some boffo speeches, and is forced to sentence another old party friend, Bardolph, to hang for looting a church. Hal is a leader and Shakespeare shows him leading. Additional readings: Henry IV, parts I and II.

Red Cavalry. Isaac Babel survived the Revolution and riding with the Red Cavalry reporting back to newspapers in Moscow and St Petersburg. But he didn’t survive Stalin’s purges. It’s tragic because his writing is pure and sweet; he uses utterly amazing metaphors. Babel says of the division commander, Savitsky, “his legs looked like two girls wedged to their shoulders in riding boots,” and “he rose—splitting the hut in two like a banner splitting the sky.” Further, Babel’s eye for the telling detail was as precise as anyone’s and he watched everything, from the generals, commissars and Cossacks to the women in the fields and households, to the horses and dogs and geese. Additional reading: Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate.

Some Vietnam books. Again, this might be lame, but it’s hard to pick one. Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is the go-to Vietnam book for literature survey classes, and rightly so. But Graham Greene’s The Quiet American; Tobias Wolff’s memoir, In Pharaoh’s Army; and Michael Herr’s Dispatches are just as important. Additional reading: Watch Apocalypse Now Redux a few times.

Some OEF and OIF books.  OK, three in particular. David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers, Kelly Kennedy’s They Fought for Each Other, and Sebastian Junger’s War. Junger and Finkel have seen a whole bunch of war between them and their views of what happens in these wars is worth reading. Kennedy was a soldier in the Gulf War and in Somalia and then became a journalist. She wrote They Fought after embedding in an infantry unit in Iraq; she brings a keen eye and and soldier’s sensibility to the story. Additional Reading: My War: Killing Time in Iraq, by Colby Buzzell.

Finally, war affects more than just the soldiers. Take a minute to read some stories by civilians and by journalists about their wartime experiences. You might start with Anthony Loyd’s My War Gone By; I Miss It So, Margurite Duras’s The War: A Memoir, or We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families by Phillip Gourevitch. Add anything by the amazing Martha Gellhorn and you’re good to go.

I’d love to hear about other great literary works on the wartime experience.  What else should we be reading? What should or shouldn’t be on this list?