What are the best war books?
War has a lasting and often devastating impact. Wars affect not just nations but also the very fabric of human life. Against the backdrop of this same calamity, writers who lived through the experiences used their pen to write about the heroism, tragedy, and complicated morality of armed conflict.
There’s no better way to know about the consequences, disaster, and trauma of the war than by reading war books from the very writers of the war-afflicted countries.
These tragic experiences of war, whether written in fiction or nonfiction, provide better insights into people’s lives. More so than those books written by elite academic authors who have never experienced war.
Our selection of the eight best war books aims to honor the narratives of those who have lived through these trying times, providing readers with an invaluable opportunity to explore the human aspects of war.
Bảo Ninh, whose real name is Hoàng Ấu Phương, was a soldier in the Glorious 27th Youth Brigade for the North Vietnamese Army. He joined the army at the mere age of 17 when American jets bombed his village and destroyed his school. He served in the military for six years and, after the war, started writing short stories. Bảo Ninh later published one of the best war novels, The Sorrow of War.
The Sorrow of War is a lived experience of the Vietnam War through the eyes of a North Vietnamese soldier. Its narrative delves deep into war’s emotional and psychological wounds as Bảo Ninh doesn’t just recount the battles and ambushes. He also delves into the scars left behind by loss, love, and longing.
The oscillating story between the protagonist Kien’s wartime experiences and his post-war life runs through the novel in a non-linear structure, much like what happened during and after the war. A deep look into the battle through the eyes of a native soldier struggling with the ghosts that haunt him makes The Sorrow of War one of the best Vietnam War books.
Half of a Yellow Sun, written by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, is one of the best war novels to have come out in recent years. When Adichie was growing up, her father was a professor, and her mother was a registrar at the University of Nigeria. The family lost all the privileges and their house on campus during the Nigerian Civil War. These experiences defined her education journey when she left Nigeria for the United States.
Half of a Yellow Sun is her second war novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, published in 2007, about the Nigerian Civil War between 1967 and 1970. The novel has multiple characters, including intellectuals, servants, expatriates, and revolutionaries. Naturally, these diverse characters have different political views, races, and identities, and the novel explores how war impacts all of these traits of humans belonging to various social classes.
What makes Half of a Yellow Sun one of the best war novels is its intimacy and the day-to-day experiences of its characters as they navigate love, ambition, and survival during a time of violent upheaval. The novel is a historical account and explores the human condition, making it one of the best war books. For more Nigerian books, check out the best Nigerian authors to start with.
Hala Alyan is a Palestinian-American writer and poet. She’s published multiple poetry collections before her first war novel, Salt Houses, in 2017.
Salt Houses is a multigenerational family saga that centers around the experiences of a Palestinian family displaced by the Six-Day War of 1967, also known as the June War.
The novel spans multiple decades and locations, from Nablus to Kuwait City and Boston. It follows a family torn apart by the war and yet bound together by history, culture, and individual aspirations. As the backdrop of war and displacement defines characters and their identity, the narrative also focuses on the domestic spaces and intimate relationships that define each character’s life.
Identity and belonging are some of the most discussed themes by the writers. Naturally, the writers who have experienced displacement, directly or indirectly, are best able to portray how geopolitical upheaval trickles down to impact individual lives, identities, and family roots. This novel should make the cut if you are looking for the best war books to include in your holiday must-read list.
Fergal Keane is an Irish journalist, author, and broadcaster. He has covered many war conflicts, such as the Gulf War, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Balkans conflict. However, the Troubles in Northern Ireland hit home.
Wounds: A Memoir of War and Love is an insider’s look at the Irish War of Independence and the Civil War that followed, making this one of the best war books nonfiction.
Keane has written about the Irish War of Independence as a historian and a descendant who’s deeply connected to the events and people he writes about. The book serves as both a personal pilgrimage and a journalistic exploration. The journalist details how the wars tore families apart and left enduring scars on the Irish psyche.
Keane weaves stories ranging from his own family’s experiences to broader historical narratives. These stories delve into the complexities of loyalty, love, and identity in war. If you want to understand the human toll of conflict, this memoir reminds you that many families carry battle scars through generations.
Ishmael Beah was just 13 years old when the Sierra Leonean army forcefully recruited him as a child soldier. The circumstances couldn’t have been worse as the Civil War broke out in Sierra Leone. At this time, adults, and even children, had no choice but to take sides or get killed. A Long Way Gone is one of the best war books you can include in your must-read list.
Beah, unlike many other child soldiers, was fortunate that UNICEF rescued him. He then went into a rehab center for therapy and education. Beah published A Long Way Gone in 2007. The book became an instant hit, making it one of the best war books nonfiction to have come out in past decades.
One of the best nonfiction war books where Beah details the atrocities he witnessed and participated in. However, it also shows the redemptive power of human connection and rehabilitation. The book is a story of redemption from his journey from a child soldier to a human rights activist. Beah also sheds light on a dark and often overlooked aspect of modern warfare. I.e. the recruitment and exploitation of child soldiers.
Gaël Faye is a Franco-Rwandan musician and author who has significantly contributed to literature and music. He was born in Burundi, moved to Rwanda, and relocated to France due to the outbreak of the Rwandan Civil War. In France, he pursued music as a rapper. Faye later published Small Country, one of the best war novels of the past two decades.
Small Country is a coming-of-age novel set against the backdrop of the Burundi civil war and the genocide in Rwanda. The young protagonist, Gabriel, explores the disintegration of a family and a nation. It also speaks to the loss of innocence that extreme violence and political upheaval bring to a country. Gabriel’s idyllic childhood, filled with friendship and youthful escapades, becomes overshadowed by growing tensions within his mixed-race family and the broader ethnic conflicts that eventually lead to tragedy.
Small Country is one of the best books on civil war. Especially, due to its ability to intricate geopolitical events through the lens of personal experiences. The novel is intimate and universal, illuminating the impact of ethnic conflict on individual lives and communities. The tragic experiences of Gabriel and his family and emotional perspective on a dark period in African history. This personal aspect makes it one of the best war novels to read.
Assia Djebar, whose real name was Fatima-Zohra Imalayène, was an Algerian author, filmmaker, and academic. She was known for her novels, essays, and poetry, and her works explore themes of identity, colonialism, and the cultural complexities of Algeria. Children of the New World is one of the best war books among her works, which is unknown to many readers of literature.
Children of the New World is a collection of stories that discusses the lives of various characters during and after the Algerian War for independence from France. Djebar, through her characters, talks about the often-ignored voices of women and their manifold experiences in a time of revolution and change. The stories explore emancipation, identity, and the complex interplay between personal and political struggles.
However, this war book doesn’t portray women as victims or bystanders but as active participants and observers in the liberation movement. The writer explores the ambiguities and contradictions of fighting for freedom while navigating societal expectations and traditional roles. It is one of the best war novels published in the 20th century that you can include in your Goodreads reading wish list.
Chang-Rae Lee is a Korean-American author known for his novels and literary contributions that explore themes of identity, immigration, and the immigrant experience. He has written four books so far, with The Surrendered being the latest and one of the best war novels about Korea.
The novel revolves around three main characters—June, Hector, and Sylvie, and the long-lasting impacts of the Korean War. Because of its non-linear narrative, the book journeys through various timelines and geographies, from the battlefields and refugee camps of Korea to the streets of America and Europe. While the story is rooted in the tragedy and violence of war, it also delves into the psychological and emotional states of individuals.
Three characters cope with the scars of war in their way, seeking redemption, drowning in guilt, or pursuing a semblance of peace amid haunting memories. The narrative not only takes the reader through the struggles of its characters in a post-war world but also deep into the horrors of the war itself. The novel is considered one of the best war books about the Korean Wars and is worthy of a long reading session in the evenings.
Power struggles, greed, lust, and money are behind every war. War is fodder for realpolitik politicians and arms-making corporations. There’s nothing one can individually do to stop the war except feel sorry and angry for living in a world where even basics become luxury in war-inflicted zones and countries.
However, literature is a remedy to learn about past horrors, traumas, and every other tragedy that war brings. Literature, especially some of the best war novels discussed above, can make us feel the pain and suffering of people from the past.
When there’s enough conscience about what’s evil and good, we can hope the world will be a better place. There’s a reason that we see more and more people joining protests and renouncing war for a just society. If you have war books that you would like to mention, please leave a comment!
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