The best books on the personal impact of war

Karin Lowachee Author Of Warchild
By Karin Lowachee

Who am I?

Long before I wrote and published my first novel, Warchild, I possessed a deep interest in war, or more accurately, the experiences of those involved in it. I became most interested in first-hand accounts – particularly letters and journals by those on the frontlines. Perhaps it was because I was fortunate enough never to have war touch my life; perhaps it was because, as photojournalist Sebastian Junger says, “War is life multiplied by some number that no one has ever heard of.” As a young girl growing up in a safe suburb the complexities and high stakes of the experience of war became fertile ground for investigating and interrogating the deepest parts of our shared humanity.


I wrote...

Warchild

By Karin Lowachee,

Book cover of Warchild

What is my book about?

The personal account of a young boy's coming of age amid interstellar war, where both friends and enemies aren’t quite what they seem, and learning to trust is an act of courage.

The books I picked & why

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Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging

By Sebastian Junger,

Book cover of Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging

Why this book?

In my ongoing interest and research into the nuances and issues surrounding war throughout history and the modern age, it wasn’t long before I discovered Sebastian Junger’s work. His award-winning documentaries Restrepo and Korengal are honest, visceral forays into his time embedded with an American infantry unit in Afghanistan. He’s a well-respected journalist with a thoughtful, compassionate eye for the complexities of combat. I chose Tribe for its unique contemplation – supported by anthropological and sociological studies – about the problem many veterans face reintegrating into society after their deployments.

Rather than taking up the common point-of-view that there is something “wrong” with the vets, he posits that it is modern society that is the actual fundamental problem, that it is society’s broken systems and lack of community thinking, its separation from the lives of warriors that compound and exacerbate any sort of short-term trauma military veterans experience. This is a necessary read not just for people interested in war and its effects, but for anyone who desires a deeper understanding of the toll modernity has taken on humanity as a whole.


On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society

By Lt. Col. Dave Grossman,

Book cover of On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society

Why this book?

Because the focus in my writing is always on the psychological underpinnings of my characters, this book became an essential part of my desire to understand what happens to someone when they are required to act in ways that are often not inherent in their makeup. This book is exactly what the title espouses – an in-depth study of how and why soldiers and law enforcement officers must be trained to act against natural inclinations – that desire not to do harm to someone else. A person must be broken down to such a point that they no longer become resistant to killing – which of course enacts a toll on that person in any number of ways. Read in conjunction with Tribe offers a broader view of the culture of war and those who fight it.


My War Gone By, I Miss It So

By Anthony Loyd,

Book cover of My War Gone By, I Miss It So

Why this book?

The effects of war don’t only affect the soldiers on the battlefield. This memoir by British war correspondent Anthony Loyd, who covered the war in Bosnia and the conflict in Chechnya, and was himself a veteran of the Persian Gulf War, illuminates the mindset and the consequences felt by anyone involved or witness to acts of violence in war. By turns brutal and lyrical, it is not a narrative of distant analysis that one would expect from a journalist. Loyd states unequivocally that to be “neutral” no matter what actually undermines an honest accounting of conflict and the actors involved. He is also honest about his own attraction to war and delves into the reasons why. This book is an insightful first-person account of many of the issues Junger and Grossman examine in their more academic works.


A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier

By Ishmael Beah,

Book cover of A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier

Why this book?

When I began writing Warchild around 1999, there wasn’t much in the mass media about child soldiers. My ensuing research – from documentaries to articles – supported my desire to tell a story from the point-of-view of a child who did not know and didn’t care about the larger forces at play, these forces that exacted a cost on the most innocent. Though my novel was set in the future, I was adamant still not to make it a jingoistic narrative of easy triumph – but rather to honestly depict the experience of a boy compelled to survive sometimes despite himself. Whatever I wrote in fiction could not come close to the harrowing truth of those children who have fought – and continue to fight – in wars across the world. Ishmael Beah’s memoir of the civil war in 1990s Sierra Leone and his experience as a boy soldier caught up by larger, exploitative forces is a must-read for anyone who seeks to understand the breadth of damage enacted upon the most innocent of humanity who are forced into violent conflict.


The Things They Carried

By Tim O'Brien,

Book cover of The Things They Carried

Why this book?

The only fiction book on my list, but as O’Brien himself says, “That's what fiction is for. It's for getting at the truth when the truth isn't sufficient for the truth.” Though The Things They Carried is set during the Vietnam War era, it is a universal depiction of the personalities and tragedy and humor and eloquence of war while still not pulling punches or romanticizing what is ultimately a brutal experience. More episodic than a traditional novel narrative, the book covers before, during, and after the characters’ war experience with inimitable style, deftness, and clarity of thought that serves to illuminate all the maddening but sometimes enlightening aspects of humanity that can only be brought forth in war.


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