Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. — George Santayana (1863-1952), philosopher, essayist, poet and novelist.
World War II. Korean War. Vietnam. Afghanistan. Iraq. Each war and generation of soldiers shared common kinship but experienced different landscapes – geographical, political and cultural. We are losing the warriors of the earlier wars as the history of more recent combat is still being written.
The ending of the U.S. military draft on Jan. 27, 1973 resulted in most Americans today having no direct link to a fallen soldier or a Gold Star family. News stories and Hollywood movies depict experiences and aftereffects of war. We watch from a distance and are moved. Then we return to the business of our everyday lives. Soldiers who experience war, however, bring it home in memory, an unseen wound. Rarely do they share their stories; when they do, self-editing usually softens the narrative for the rest of us. Important details and insights are lost.
Books do more than movies and news reports. They engage us and we absorb them. They become part of our thinking, consciously or not. They remind us that beyond observing Veterans Day and Memorial Day, thanking veterans for their service or the families of fallen soldiers for their sacrifice on the rare occasion we might cross their paths, we owe it to the heroes among us to never forget how they’ve made it possible for us to live day to day without war at our door.
Here’s a diverse selection of the best non-fiction and fiction books of military experiences in WWII, the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan:
We Band of Angels – Elizabeth Norman (non-fiction)
Willie and Joe: The WWII Years – Bill Mauldin (graphics)
The Coldest Winter – David Halberstam (non-fiction)
The Hunters – James Salter (fiction)
In Pharoah’s Army – Tobias Wolff (memoir)
The Things They Carried – Tim O’Brien (metafiction)
Matterhorn – Karl Marlantes (fiction)
House to House – David Bellavia (memoir)
The Snake Eaters – Owen West (non-fiction)
The Yellow Birds – Kevin Powers (fiction)
War – Sebastian Junger (non-fiction)
Soldier Girls – Helen Thorpe (non-fiction)
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk – Ben Fountain (fiction)