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.

The books I picked & why

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By Sebastian Junger,

Book cover of War

Why 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.

The Things They Carried

By Tim O'Brien,

Book cover of The Things They Carried

Why 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.

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?

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.

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

By Edward Tick,

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

Why 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.

The Yellow Birds

By Kevin Powers,

Book cover of The Yellow Birds

Why 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.

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