The best books on the war within: the mental strain of modern warfare

The Books I Picked & Why

And No Birds Sang

By Farley Mowat

Book cover of And No Birds Sang

Why this book?

This book is a personal memoir of Canadian author Farley Mowat, who joined the Canadian Army and fought as part of the First Canadian Infantry Division throughout the Sicilian and Italian Campaigns in World War Two. It is a vivid testimonial to losing your innocence under fire, and it strongly personalizes the sort of history that sometimes seems impersonal when preserved in black-and-white documentaries and archived in massive coffee-table books compiled for curious dads. This book was a definite influence on me in the early stages of writing my book, helping me learn more about the day-to-day life of Canadian soldiers at the time–how they talked (and swore!), what they carried, and what they thought and felt after killing the enemy or seeing their friends killed. Highly recommended.

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And Where Were You, Adam?

By Heinrich Boll, Leila Vennewitz

Book cover of And Where Were You, Adam?

Why this book?

Boll, a Second World War veteran, tells this episodic story from the perspective of a German soldier during the last year of the war. Loosely episodic and propelled by a kind of grim, fatalistic absurdity, it follows the hapless infantryman Feinhals as he lurches from misadventure to misadventure on the Eastern Front. What really stuck with me is the awfulness of the predicaments Feinhals finds himself in, such as the moment when a soldier sets out to surrender a hospital full of wounded men, only to accidentally set off a dud shell beside the hospital’s cesspool. The Soviets, thinking they have been attacked, respond by levelling the place. "This war’s a load of shit," says one cynical character, and with a magnificent kaboom, that statement becomes literal. 

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By Kurt Vonnegut

Book cover of Slaughterhouse-Five

Why this book?

This book, by celebrated author and war veteran Kurt Vonnegut, tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, an unassuming young man who ends up in the US Army in World War Two and is promptly captured. He ends up surviving the horrific firebombing of Dresden as a POW, and he becomes “unstuck in time,” time travelling throughout his increasingly sad life courtesy of an alien race called the Tralfamadorians. There is enough mental dissociation in Pilgrim's life and in his mind to suggest that the whole time-travel-and-aliens device is an intricate delusion of Billy’s rather than something that is literally happening–and it works amazingly either way you interpret it. This book is proof that you don’t need to be completely factual in order to be completely true.

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Goodbye to All That

By Robert Graves

Book cover of Goodbye to All That

Why this book?

This book is poet Robert Graves’ personal memoir of his service with the British Army during and just after the First World War. This book really moved me. What you really get from it is a sense of how war can completely change someone's psyche. It is full of insight and pathos and unsettling imagery, as depicted when Graves sees the ghosts of dead soldiers that he recently fought with as he marches down the road. Later, after he is sent back to England, he looks at the peaceful landscape and his mind tries to work out where in this setting he would deploy his machine guns, the war and its demands having gotten to the bottom of his soul.

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All Quiet on the Western Front

By Erich Maria Remarque, Arthur Wesley Wheen

Book cover of All Quiet on the Western Front

Why this book?

I discovered this classic First World War novel in a bookcase in our crowded basement rec room when I was eleven. I read from it anytime I went down there, and it really impressed itself upon my consciousness and helped inspire me to (eventually) write my own modern war story. In it, Paul Baumer, a sensitive German high school student and patriot, joins the German Army at the behest of a patriotic teacher, and he soon finds himself embroiled in the chaos and carnage of the Western Front. There is no plot, really, just the story of a young man being hardened into a soldier in the worst possible conditions, losing friends on a daily basis, and in the end just trying to survive until the impending armistice. 

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