“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
7. Slaughterhouse 5
8. Gates of Fire
9. The Things They Carried
10. The Killer Angels
11. A Farewell to Arms