The best war books about turning PTSD into post-traumatic growth

Who am I?

As an equipment operator for the Army Corps of Engineers, I didn’t serve in a “combat” role, per se, but the engineers go wherever the military needs things built, so we were often repairing IED damage, hauling supplies outside the wire, or fortifying bases so the infantry, cavalry, etc. could do their job effectively. Coming home, I owe a lot of my successful reintegration to my writing and the many people who encouraged me to share it with the world. Now with my Master of Arts in English, I’ve taught college courses on military culture, and I present for veteran art groups, writing workshops, and high schools and colleges around the country.


I wrote...

Ghosts of War: The True Story of a 19-Year-Old GI

By Ryan Smithson,

Book cover of Ghosts of War: The True Story of a 19-Year-Old GI

What is my book about?

Like most teenagers, Ryan Smithson was unsure of where life would lead after high school. Inspired by the patriotism following 9/11, he joined the Army Reserve and was deployed to Iraq in 2004. Returning home to a new bride and a college campus, he began writing about his combat experiences. What began as an essay for an English class turned into much more when Smithson compiled his writings into an unflinchingly honest memoir: Ghosts of War: The True Story of a 19-Year-Old GI. Since its publication by HarperCollins in 2009, he has traveled the country to talk about his experiences and continues to benefit from the therapeutic aspects of writing, storytelling, and the arts.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of War

Ryan Smithson Why did I love this book?

Junger has worked as an imbedded journalist for decades, and he’s one of those rare nonfiction storytellers whose keen observations collide with simple, elegant prose to illuminate truths in a profound way. War is his account of his many months spent with a leading infantry unit in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom immediately following 9/11. It is essential reading for anyone interested in the current conflicts in the Middle East and the effects of combat on soldiers and civilians alike. His perspective truly humanizes the combat experience and helped me understand that I was far from alone in my own struggles with post-traumatic stress.

By Sebastian Junger,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the author of The Perfect Storm, a gripping book about Sebastian Junger's almost fatal year with the 2nd battalion of the American Army.

For 15 months, Sebastian Junger accompanied a single platoon of thirty men from the celebrated 2nd battalion of the U.S. Army, as they fought their way through a remote valley in Eastern Afghanistan. Over the course of five trips, Junger was in more firefights than he could count, men he knew were killed or wounded, and he himself was almost killed. His relationship with these soldiers grew so close that they considered him part of the…


Book cover of The Things They Carried

Ryan Smithson Why did I love this book?

This novel, based in large part on O’Brien’s personal service in the Vietnam War, is as much about writing as it is about war. While I was writing my book, I purposely did not read any other war literature, because I didn't want someone else's interpretation to influence my own account. I didn't read much of that genre growing up anyway, so I was sure that my own observations were just that: my own. Then, after my book was published, I went through and read some of the classics, including The Things They Carried. Even though our wars were decades apart with different weapons and different politics, some of his passages were nearly verbatim to some of the same conclusions I drew, which speaks to the universality of the impact of war on the individual.

By Tim O'Brien,

Why should I read it?

19 authors picked The Things They Carried as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 14, 15, 16, and 17.

What is this book about?

The million-copy bestseller, which is a ground-breaking meditation on war, memory, imagination, and the redemptive power of storytelling.

'The Things They Carried' is, on its surface, a sequence of award-winning stories about the madness of the Vietnam War; at the same time it has the cumulative power and unity of a novel, with recurring characters and interwoven strands of plot and theme.

But while Vietnam is central to 'The Things They Carried', it is not simply a book about war. It is also a book about the human heart - about the terrible weight of those things we carry through…


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

Ryan Smithson Why did I love this book?

Grossman is a former Army Ranger who digs deep into the psychological impact of taking human life through countless interviews with fellow soldiers of all kinds. Combining these accounts with thorough psychological research, Grossman comments on society's collective aversion to killing while helping us understand its complicated acceptance—and even encouragement—of wartime killing. What was most surprising to me was that historically, only about 4% of soldiers even fire their weapon during war, and how obviously that skews from the “norm” of combat portrayed in popular media. It’s an honest, eye-opening, and important piece of work that should be required reading for every service member, police officer, or anyone tasked with carrying society’s heaviest burden.

By Lt. Col. Dave Grossman,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked On Killing as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The good news is that the vast majority of soldiers are loath to kill in battle. Unfortunately, modern armies, using Pavlovian and operant conditioning have developed sophisticated ways of overcoming this instinctive aversion. The psychological cost for soldiers, as witnessed by the increase in post-traumatic stress, is devastating. The psychological cost for the rest of us is even more so: contemporary civilian society, particularly the media, replicates the army's conditioning techniques and, according to Lt. Col. Dave Grossman's thesis, is responsible for our rising rate of murder among the young. Upon its first publication, ON KILLING was hailed as a…


Book cover of War and the Soul: Healing Our Nation's Veterans from Post-Tramatic Stress Disorder

Ryan Smithson Why did I love this book?

As a young psychologist during the Vietnam War, Edward Tick served his country not by enlisting himself but through tireless efforts to help those who returned from war traumatized. This was the first book that helped me understand that posttraumatic stress is not just some “disorder” that I’d suffer from forever. Rather, it is simply the human mind’s normal—probably unavoidable—response to combat, and, Tick argues, there is also such a thing as posttraumatic growth. He examines how ancient and modern societies train their warrior classes, noting that the ritualistic civilian-to-soldier process (we’d call it “boot camp” or “basic training”) often lacks a necessary counterpart today: that is, a formal soldier-to-civilian process, and this only compounds the issues of PTSD and the American military-civilian divide.

By Edward Tick,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked War and the Soul as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

War and PTSD are on the public's mind as news stories regularly describe insurgency attacks in Iraq and paint grim portraits of the lives of returning soldiers afflicted with PTSD. These vets have recurrent nightmares and problems with intimacy, can’t sustain jobs or relationships, and won’t leave home, imagining “the enemy” is everywhere. Dr. Edward Tick has spent decades developing healing techniques so effective that clinicians, clergy, spiritual leaders, and veterans’ organizations all over the country are studying them. This book, presented here in an audio version, shows that healing depends on our understanding of PTSD not as a mere…


Book cover of The Yellow Birds

Ryan Smithson Why did I love this book?

Himself an Iraq War veteran, Powers writes with the same detachment that many soldiers feel upon returning home—that you’re a different version of yourself, in the same skin as before, and no one quite recognizes you, even yourself. It’s a haunting, weird place to be, and Powers’ lyrical cadence and clear-cut, minimalist narration paint each paragraph with this dualistic feeling. The Army trains soldiers to be automatic, to not have to think, which is necessary in war. However, most soldiers are not properly de-processed out of this mindset, and Powers’ powerful novel shows us that. By bouncing back and forth in time, we see a broken man navigating his inner demons, confused by reality, and circling the truth in a harrowing effort to face it…eventually.

By Kevin Powers,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Yellow Birds as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An unforgettable depiction of the psychological impact of war, by a young Iraq veteran and poet, THE YELLOW BIRDS is already being hailed as a modern classic. It is also a story of love, of great courage, and of extraordinary human survival.

WINNER OF THE GUARDIAN FIRST BOOK AWARD

NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FINALIST

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER and BOOK OF THE YEAR

A TLS, GUARDIAN, EVENING STANDARD and SUNDAY HERALD BOOK OF THE YEAR

Everywhere John looks, he sees Murph.

He flinches when cars drive past. His fingers clasp around the rifle he hasn't held for months. Wide-eyed strangers praise…


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Book cover of Currently Away: How Two Disenchanted People Traveled the Great Loop for Nine Months and Returned to the Start, Energized and Optimistic

Bruce Tate

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What is my book about?

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Currently Away: How Two Disenchanted People Traveled the Great Loop for Nine Months and Returned to the Start, Energized and Optimistic

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