The best books on war that leave you shattered (from a Purple Heart recipient’s perspective)

Benjamin Sledge Author Of Where Cowards Go to Die
By Benjamin Sledge

Who am I?

I’m a Bronze Star and Purple Heart recipient who fought in both Afghanistan and Iraq. As I explored the ramifications of combat and struggled to reintegrate when I returned home, I often felt veterans’ memoirs teetered on the brink of “war porn” as opposed to the crushing devastation and fear men and women face on the battlefield. Seeking to rectify the misconceptions about the longest-running wars in U.S. history, I began writing about my experiences on medium.com and amassed over 40,000 followers (which turned into a book deal). This list of books below directly influenced my work and—I believe—are the gold standards for true war stories.


I wrote...

Where Cowards Go to Die

By Benjamin Sledge,

Book cover of Where Cowards Go to Die

What is my book about?

Stationed on a small base near Pakistan in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, Benjamin Sledge returns home shattered after embracing the barbarity he witnessed around him. Haunted by his experiences, he begins an odyssey wrestling with mental health and purpose that drives him to volunteer for another tour in the deadliest city of the Iraq War—Ramadi.

In his memoir, Sledge vividly captures the reality of the men and women who learn to fight without remorse, love each other without restraint, and suffer the high cost of returning to a country that no longer feels like home.

The books I picked & why

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What It Is Like to Go to War

By Karl Marlantes,

Book cover of What It Is Like to Go to War

Why this book?

The sheer number of times I cried in this book is absurd. Marlantes is a Vietnam veteran and Navy Cross recipient who chronicles his journey leaving Yale University to serve as a Marine lieutenant in Vietnam. Throughout, he chronicles the struggle to readjust to civilian society and intermingles religion, philosophy, and psychology while recounting some of his most harrowing tales of combat. If you’ve ever had a loved one or friend serve who came home different and wondered why or how you can help, this is the book to read. 

What It Is Like to Go to War

By Karl Marlantes,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked What It Is Like to Go to War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Matterhorn" author Karl Marlantes' nonfiction debut is a powerful book about the experience of combat and how inadequately we prepare our young men and women for the psychological and spiritual stresses of war. One of the most important and highly-praised books of 2011, Karl Marlantes' "What It Is Like to Go to War" is set to become just as much of a classic as his epic novel "Matterhorn". In 1968, at the age of twenty-two, Karl Marlantes was dropped into the highland jungle of Vietnam, an inexperienced lieutenant in command of a platoon of forty Marines who would live or…

The Yellow Birds

By Kevin Powers,

Book cover of The Yellow Birds

Why this book?

I read this book shortly after returning home from Iraq and remained haunted for months. Despite the novel being a work of fiction, it details the modern veteran's struggle to find his place in society and his unadulterated embrace of violence and camaraderie that permeates each corner of his life. Powers’ explanation of combat is similar to the suspended moment before a car crash is told in prose that sings, and probably why he won the PEN/Hemingway Award for this work of art. 

The Yellow Birds

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…


With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa

By E.B. Sledge,

Book cover of With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa

Why this book?

A question I’m often asked is if I’m related to Eugene Bondurant Sledge, whose classic work from World War II became the basis for the HBO miniseries, The Pacific. Though I don’t know, when reading Sledge’s work, I found the way he described the horrors of combat in manners that pricked at the edges of my own war experience. (“His intestines were strung out among the branches like garland decorations on a Christmas tree.”) Sledge has been one of the few who explains the moral injury soldiers face on the battlefield long before the term became common in the Iraq and Afghan Wars. His novel impacted me so deeply, I quote him in my book.

With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa

By E.B. Sledge,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked With the Old Breed as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The inspiration behind the HBO series THE PACIFIC

This was a brutish, primitive hatred, as characteristic of the horror of war in the Pacific as the palm trees and the islands...

Landing on the beach at Peleliu in 1944 as a twenty-year-old new recruit to the US Marines, Eugene Sledge can only try desperately to survive. At Peleliu and Okinawa - two of the fiercest and filthiest Pacific battles of WWII - he witnesses the dehumanising brutality displayed by both sides and the animal hatred that each soldier has for his enemy.

During temporary lapses in the fighting, conditions on…


The Things They Carried

By Tim O'Brien,

Book cover of The Things They Carried

Why this book?

When I returned to college in the spring of 2004, my creative writing professor found most of my essays revolved around combat or personal demons from Afghanistan, so she suggested I read O’Brien’s groundbreaking meditation on war. In both conflicts I served in, I carried several items, jewelry, and keepsakes that almost became wards or lucky rabbit’s feet. O’Brien takes the veterans of Vietnam through a fictitious account based on his experience overseas, to create a haunting combination of both memoir and fiction while detailing some of the most intimate moments of a soldier’s life (and keepsakes) on the battlefield. There’s a reason this book is considered a top American classic.

The Things They Carried

By Tim O'Brien,

Why should I read it?

13 authors picked The Things They Carried as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

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…


Dark Age

By Pierce Brown,

Book cover of Dark Age

Why this book?

Brown is the author of the New York Times bestselling Red Rising saga, and Dark Age is his fifth novel in the series. Set in a dystopian world where humans have been genetically enhanced and conquered the solar system, the fifth book takes you through the joys of battle to the crushing agony of losing friends on the battlefield. To punctuate just how little time there is to grieve while in battle, he kills beloved characters with a stroke of the pen and almost an afterthought, focusing more on the effort than people. Many veterans found the devastation of losing a friend in combat only to have to return to battle moments later within the pages of this book, and Brown specifically interviewed combat veterans to ensure his depiction was accurate. The result? A gripping page-turner that has you riding high on adrenaline, only to be crushed under the weight of anguish. 

Dark Age

By Pierce Brown,

Why should I read it?

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


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