The best books to understand the experience of men in combat

Clark McCauley Author Of Radicalization to Terrorism: What Everyone Needs to Know
By Clark McCauley

Who am I?

Research Professor of Psychology at Bryn Mawr College. Since the 9/11 attacks I have tried to understand how normal individuals, people like you and me, can move to terrorism in particular and political violence more generally. I retired from teaching in 2015 to have more time to write. I’ve written about genocide (Why Not Kill Them All? The Logic and Prevention of Mass Political Murder), about self-sacrifice (The Marvel of Martyrdom: The Power of Self Sacrifice in a Selfish World), and about terrorism (Friction: How Conflict Radicalizes Them and Us). 


I wrote...

Radicalization to Terrorism: What Everyone Needs to Know

By Sophia Moskalenko, Clark McCauley,

Book cover of Radicalization to Terrorism: What Everyone Needs to Know

What is my book about?

Our book uses a question-and-answer format to tell everything we have learned about violence in intergroup conflict. Political violence requires individual motivations, small group dynamics, and a mass political base of sympathizers and supporters—all of these, and their interactions, contribute to the escalation of conflict to violent conflict. Individuals join a violent group for many reasons, including personal and political grievance, thrill and adventure, status, escape, and personal connection with individuals already fighting. Once engaged in a violent struggle, reasons for joining fade, and killing becomes an act of love, to save comrades now closer than brothers. This psychology of violent conflict can be found, not only in radicalization to terrorism, but in five classic books about soldiers in combat.

The books I picked & why

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The Face of Battle

By John Keegan,

Book cover of The Face of Battle

Why this book?

Keegan popularized a new kind of military history, history focused on the experience of those “at the sharp end” of battle. Generals may as individuals have the most influence on the course of battle, but Keegan argues that, taken together, the men doing the fighting have more influence than the generals. He describes the experiences of men in three famous battles, and shows how tactics evolved but the demands of facing death remained all too familiar. I love this book for using history to find the psychology of men in combat.


The Red Badge of Courage: An Episode of the American Civil War

By Stephen Crane,

Book cover of The Red Badge of Courage: An Episode of the American Civil War

Why this book?

Stephen Crane was born in 1871; his father was a minister; his mother-daughter of a minister. His Christian background prepared him to write about the Civil War, which was understood by soldiers on both sides as a moral test of manly status. Despite having no personal experience of battle, Crane wrote a classic novel that includes both battle scenes and the interior story of a young man’s fight against fear. His young protagonist, Henry Fleming, begins in cowardice and ends in heroism. I love this book for its insight into the constant stress of men in combat—facing the pain of wounds and the finality of death.


Good-Bye to All That: An Autobiography

By Robert Graves,

Book cover of Good-Bye to All That: An Autobiography

Why this book?

Best known as the author of I, Claudius, poet Robert Graves writes movingly about his experience in World War I. He began as a patriotic young officer of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, but life in the trenches, class conflict, bureaucracy, and loss of friends in combat made him a different man. A shell fragment pierced his lung at the Battle of the Somme; he was expected to die but somehow survived. His experience can be compared with Keegan’s account of the Somme. After the war he suffered from what today would be called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder—startled at loud noises and any smell that reminded him of poison gas in the trenches. I love this book because it brings poetic sensitivity to the experience and effect of combat.


And No Birds Sang

By Farley Mowat,

Book cover of And No Birds Sang

Why this book?

Mowat’s title is taken from John Keats’ poem La Belle Dame Sans Merci: “O what can ail thee, Knight in arms, Alone and palely loitering? The sedge has withered from the Lake, And no birds sing!” 

Best known for his books People of the Deer and Never Cry Wolf, Farley Mowat here turns his naturalist’s eye to the experience of war. His brief memoir describes joining, training, and fighting as part of Canadian forces in WWII. He led a rifle platoon in the invasion of Sicily and up the spine of Italy against fierce German resistance. From humorous to horrible, from youthful fervor to enormous weariness, Mowat takes us with him. He was relieved of combat duty after crying over the unconscious body of a friend brought in with an enemy bullet in his head. I love this book for its vivid observations of men before, during, and after combat.

A Rumor of War: The Classic Vietnam Memoir

By Philip Caputo,

Book cover of A Rumor of War: The Classic Vietnam Memoir

Why this book?

Caputo served sixteen months in Vietnam as a Marine Corps lieutenant, first as platoon leader fighting Viet Cong, then at a desk job counting dead, then back with his platoon. His experience of fear and courage, comradeship and loneliness, can be compared with the experience of Henry Fleming, Robert Graves, and Farley Mowat. I love this book because it shows how little has changed in the changes wrung out of men in the experience of combat.


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