Since the Civil War, Americans have observed Memorial Day by remembering soldiers of all branches killed while serving their country. The following are just a few of the most memorable war novels written by American authors.
Since the Civil War, Americans have observed Memorial Day by remembering soldiers of all branches killed while serving their country.
In more complex ways, the nation’s most enduring war novels honor the fallen while exploring deeper –– sometimes at a painful depth –– ideas about patriotism, courage and war’s grip on society.
The following are just a few of the most memorable war novels written by American authors.
Just 24 years old, Stephen Crane wrote “The Red Badge of Courage” in 1894, almost 30 years after the end of the Civil War, without ever having seen combat. Using vivid, naturalistic prose, Crane created Henry Fleming, an “everyman” recruit who matured through cowardice, courage and a deeper appreciation of war’s human costs to come to epitomize generations of young men who came of age in combat. Crane’s “Red Badge” remains one of America’s greatest novels, not just of the Civil War but of all wars.
A writer of science and sports fiction, Michael Shaara wrote his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1974 Civil War novel, “The Killer Angels,” after visiting Gettysburg on a family vacation. Writing short, lyrical chapters peppered with realistic descriptions of death and heroism, he imbued the three-day battle with the moral force of Greek drama. Shaara gave human voices to generals, mid-level officers, Irish conscripts and barefoot rebels, creating an American tragedy of Biblical gravity.
Two very different novels by veterans and first-time authors, James Jones’ “From Here to Eternity” and Norman Mailer’s “The Naked and the Dead,” captured the vast panorama of World War II in decidedly personal ways. Set in Hawaii before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Jones’ 1951 novel captured the complex military culture with all its virtues and flaws, heroes and villains as very few have. Based on his own Army service, Mailer wrote his 1948 novel as both a character study of ordinary men swept into the Pacific war and an unsentimental analysis of the necessity for a ruthless war machine to conquer a fanatical enemy.
Published in 1961 before the escalation of the Vietnam War, Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” ostensibly recounted the author’s World War II experiences in a bomber group based in Italy. Yet Heller’s black humor satire of military bureaucracy, zany characters and Captain Yossarian’s struggle to remain sane in an insane situation was soon applied to the growing opposition to the Vietnam War. The paradox of “Catch-22,” which kept Yossarian in combat because he was sane enough to worry about his survival, became a catchphrase for all absurd wars.
As in other wars, of the hundreds of novels about Vietnam, many of the best were written by combat veterans who wanted the public to understand the traumas that tormented those who served.
After serving as a Marine rifle platoon commander, James Webb wrote in 1978 “Fields of Fire,” a gritty study of the impact of Vietnam combat on men from different walks of life. A highly decorated Marine, Webb depicted combat and the conflicts between loyalty and survival through a cross section of ordinary men required to face extraordinary challenges.
Though Karl Malantes published his epic “Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War” in 2010, 35 years after the U.S. left, it is as vivid and visceral as if written yesterday. A decorated Marine Corps officer, he fictionalized an event from his own experience in which a company of Marines were ordered to capture a remote hilltop of questionable value. Very few writers, civilian or military, have ever described the exhaustion, racial conflicts and military incompetence of war with such searing honesty.