With all the devastating effects of war and the deep scars it leaves on the pages of our history, one can easily agree with the words of Edwin Starr: “war is the enemy of mankind.”
Although the horrors of war may never be perfectly recreated in words, writers all over the world have been known to draw a cavalcade of inspiration from such conflicts. Some writers focus on the bigger picture of a particular war, while others narrow it down to the struggles of a particular group or individual.
But what all of them have in common is a desire to recreate in words the horrifying experience of warfare and how it shapes people and societies.
There are millions of war novels in circulation all over the world, covering different events, times, and people. But here, spread across three articles, we highlight and briefly talk about the top 30 greatest war stories of all time – including a play, a graphic novel, a war memoir, and biographies.
Below, in no particular order, are the last ten of thirty books military fans should read at least once in their lives.
21. Testament of Youth
One of the most highly regarded autobiographies of World War I, Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth talks about how quickly war can change a society.
In 1914, Vera, aged 20, was preparing to go to Oxford, but the declaration of war brought unimaginable change not just to her but also to her whole generation.
Published in 1933, the book is also regarded as a piece of classic feminist literature showing the struggles of a woman who tries to hammer out an independent career in a society that’s barely tolerant of educated women.
22. Homage to Catalonia
In Homage to Catalonia, the famous novelist George Orwell lucidly recounts his personal experiences during the Spanish Civil War when he fought for the Republican Army.
Not a novel but a piece of political non-fiction, the book was published in 1938. It centers on the daily struggles of a soldier as well as Orwell’s disappointment with political infighting and Totalitarianism.
23. The Hunters
Authored by James Salter and originally published in 1956, The Hunters marked Salter’s entry into the world of novelists.
In his debut novel, Salter narrates the ambitions and experiences of United States Air Force (USAF) pilots in the years of the Korean War.
His clear, realistic depiction of events in this novel may have been influenced by his personal experiences as a captain in the USAF during the Korean War.
A highly engaging novel, The Hunter did not only mark the beginning of Salter’s life as a novelist but also the end of his career as a fighter pilot.
24. The Debacle
The second to last novel in Émile Zola’s Les Rougon-Macquart series, The Debacle is a fearless depiction of the gruesome effects of war on ordinary soldiers as well as those civilians who feel its impact far from the battlefields.
It is set against the backdrop of military and political events building up to the end of the reign of Napoleon III and the Second Empire, paying particular attention to the War of 1870 and the Paris Commune.
25. Men at Arms
Published in 1952, Men at Arms is the first of Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honor trilogy which loosely parallels his personal experiences in World War II.
Evelyn Waugh received the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1952 for this literary masterpiece.
26. Covenant with Death
Given the intense bloodshed seen in World War I, many hoped that the end of it would be the end of all wars. But much worse was lurking around the corner.
In John Harris’s Covenant with Death, the story of the colossal hostilities of the Battle of Somme gets retold in his own unique style. The book follows the trials of a group of three friends on the soils of Somme, having traveled from the shores of Britain to fight in the outbreak of WWI.
They find themselves fighting not just for their lives but also for love and brotherhood.
Covenant with Death has been widely described as one of the grandest war novels ever written.
27. Parade’s End
This title refers to a mesmeric tetralogy of novels authored by Ford Madox Ford. This quadruple shot of literary elegance chronicles the life of Christopher Tietjens, an English aristocrat, before, during, and after the Great War.
The first publication was in 1924, with Ford’s story being set primarily in England and the Western Front of WWI. Ford calls upon his own experiences as an officer in the Welch Regiment during the war to depict the nature of life in those days.
Making up the Parade’s End series are: Some Do Not … (1924), No More Parades (1925), A Man Could Stand Up — (1926), and The Last Post (1928).
In the words of Mary Gordon, Parade’s End is “quite simply, the best fictional treatment of war in the history of the novel.”
28. Cold Mountain
A recipient of the US National Book Award for Fiction in 1997, Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain is a tale about Inman, a wounded soldier who deserts the Confederate Army towards the end of the American Civil War and embarks on a long walk towards home — and Ada Monroe, the love of his life.
Interestingly, for a novel that enjoyed massive success all around the world, Cold Mountain, was Frazier’s first ever novel, published in 1997.
29. From Here to Eternity
Another debut novel from a different author, From Here to Eternity is a tale of the life of the Hawaii-based members of the US Army infantry company before the events at Pearl Harbor in World War II.
Written by James Jones and published in early 1951, the novel was a recipient of the National Book Award in 1952 and earned a place among Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels.
30. The Kite Runner
Authored by Afghan-American novelist Khaled Hosseini, this mesmeric debut novel tells a scintillating tale of wealthy Amir and poor Hassan whose father is a servant to Amir’s father.
The tale is told against a backdrop of a tumultuous yet crucial time of change in Afghanistan’s history — from the fall of the Kingdom of Afghanistan through the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to the rise of the Taliban.
The Kite Runner is a bold story of friendship, the price of betrayal, the possibility of redemption, and the ups and downs that exist in a father-son relationship.
Published in 2003, the novel became a major success, quickly becoming a New York Times bestseller for two years.