Memorial Day: The Reason to Read about War

“In books I find the dead as if they were alive; in books I forsee things to come; in books warlike affairs are set forth; from books come forth laws of peace. All things are corrupted and decay in time; Saturn ceases not to devour the children that he generates; all the glory of the world would be buried in oblivion, unless God had provided mortals with the remedy of books.” Richard de Bury.

Men kill men. When we aren’t killing men for no reason we go to war, often for the wrong reasons. These books show us what going to war is like. To me, a good war book must either show us that the war was inevitable, for a justified purpose, or help us to understand war’s true effects on men. That way, books on war make us want to avoid war when possible.

In On War, Prussian military general and theoretician Carl Von Clausewitz defined war as follows: “War is thus an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.”At the heart of war is the imposition of one’s will on another by force and usually for political means. When I say political, I refer to the decision of who gets what, where, and how. From ancient raiding parties to modern tactical strikes the purpose is the same.

I’ve recently been reading The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall. The book explores the many uses and purposes of stories. In the context of war, though, this quote seems particularly relevant:

“Stories change our beliefs and maybe even our personalities. In one study, psychologists gave personality tests to people before and after reading Chekhov’s classic short story “The Lady with the Little Dog.” In contrast to a control group of nonfiction readers, the fiction readers experienced meaningful changes in their personality profiles directly after reading the story—perhaps because story forces us to enter the minds of characters, softening and confusing our sense of self. The personality changes were “modest” and possibly temporary, but the researchers asked an interesting question: might many little doses of fiction eventually add up to big personality changes?”

If this research holds up then reading books on war, particularly stories, may allow to us truly understand its effects. In the case of war, we would be looking for an understanding in order to avoid it unless no other option remains.

These great war works provide stories that might change our views on war:

1. The Iliad/The Odyssey
2. The Aeneid of Virgil
3. War and Peace
4. For Whom the Bell Tolls
5. The Red Badge of Courage
6. Catch-22
7. Slaughterhouse 5
8. Gates of Fire
9. The Things They Carried
10. The Killer Angels
11. A Farewell to Arms

As always, what did I miss? What fictional accounts of war seem particularly important for us to read?

Can reading stories about war make our personalities more peaceful?

Photo: Some rights reserved by Bernt Rostad.

10 Replies to “Memorial Day: The Reason to Read about War”

  1. Interesting post. I’ve only read one of the books on this list, but a couple other more recent novels did come to mind as I read this. Running the Rift, by Naomi Benaron, explores the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s and sheds light on a little talked-about hugely-tragic culture war. Another novel, The Baker’s Daughter by Sarah McCoy, shows a side to everyday life in Germany during WWII that I hadn’t read about before. It explores the lives of everyday Germans, those who supported the Nazi regime — some because of national pride or because they didn’t fully realize the depth of the atrocities, and some because they were too frightened not to. I recommend both novels for those interested in understanding the effects of war on everyday citizens.

  2. Wow. Great post. I loved “The Things They Carried”, even though I didn’t really want to read it (it was required reading for my AP English class in high school). I also enjoyed the Iliad….anyone else wonder if Homer was one blind poet, or like they sometimes also say about Shakespeare, many men writing under one name? Since I live in Barcelona most of the year, I would like to read George Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia” about his experience in the Spanish Civil War.

    1. Thanks! I recently took on The Iliad and The Odyssey for the first time and tend to think that Homer is a tool the story tellers used to their story. Kind of like they would use the muses. I think the story was told for centuries before it was ever written by anyone and evolved over time to the form it came to us in.

      “The Things They Carried” has come up here in comments a few times so it was long past time to offer it up in a list.

      I’m not familiar with the Orwell book at all, but I will check it out.

  3. I’ve read War and Peace. I do read to understand whether it is about war or any other topic that I want to explore. Excellent post for Memorial Day. Thank you.

    1. I read War and Peace at the start of the year last year, but I need to read it again.The book is about so much more than war and I hate that I waited until so late in life to read it, but better late than never. Thanks for the feedback!

  4. This is a great reading list. I can happily report I’ve read 9 out of 10. I also recommend The Long Gray Line. And A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin. Both are superb.

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