The best books about what it is like to go to war… and to come home

Why am I passionate about this?

I'm an award-winning and bestselling author who teaches creative writing to veterans as part of a collaboration between the Department of Defense and the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m also an Air Force brat who grew up around military folk. After traumatic events gave me personal experience with post-traumatic stress disorder, I better understood why veterans don’t talk about their time in war. The books on this list are some of my favorites for capturing the terror of battle and the difficulty of reintegrating into a society that gives little thought to the human cost of war. 

I wrote...

Book cover of Blood on the Tracks

What is my book about?

“Part mystery, part antiwar story, Nickless’s engrossing first novel... skillfully explores the dehumanizing effects resulting from the unspeakable cruelties of wartime as well as the part played by the loyalty soldiers owe to family and each other under stressful circumstances.” - Publishers Weekly

When a woman is murdered, the lead suspect is a scarred Iraq War vet known as the Burned Man. Suffering from blackouts due to post-traumatic stress, the Burned Man worries he might be guilty. But railroad police Special Agent Sydney Rose Parnell can't shake the feeling that larger forces are behind this apparent crime of passion. As she dives into the investigation, Parnell battles her own trauma from her time in war and faces a terrible question: Can she fight monsters without becoming one herself?

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Here, Bullet

Barbara Nickless Why did I love this book?

This collection of poems by an Iraq war veteran opens a door into the crazy, horrifying world of America’s time in Iraq. I used this book while teaching a section on poetry to combat veterans at the local university. For some of these men and women, the poems offered their first glimpse into the power of verse. Turner showed my students how, through the searing beauty of words made into images, it was possible to capture—and thus contain—the horrors of war. As Turner writes:

This is a language made of blood.
It is made of sand and time.
To be spoken, it must be earned.

By Brian Turner,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A first-person account of the Iraq War by a solider-poet, winner of the 2005 Beatrice Hawley Award.

Adding his voice to the current debate about the US occupation of Iraq, in poems written in the tradition of such poets as Wilfred Owen, Yusef Komunyakaa (Dien Cai Dau), Bruce Weigl (Song of Napalm) and Alice James’ own Doug Anderson (The Moon Reflected Fire), Iraqi war veteran Brian Turner writes power-fully affecting poetry of witness, exceptional for its beauty, honesty, and skill. Based on Turner’s yearlong tour in Iraq as an infantry team leader, the poems offer gracefully rendered, unflinching description but,…

Book cover of What It Is Like to Go to War

Barbara Nickless Why did I love this book?

Marlantes, a second lieutenant in the Marines during the Vietnam War, makes a compelling argument for why American troops—from Vietnam through our current deployments—have struggled to reintegrate into a society that shows little interest in their travails and offers only a banal, “Thank you for your service,” to returning veterans. Whereas in the past—from the time of the Greeks through World War II—warriors were ritually cleansed and restored to society as a band of brothers, our modern methods drop men and women back into society with little time for transition. As a character says in my book: “Can you let war split a man in two and then expect the pieces to fit back together?”

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…

Book cover of Shade It Black: Death and After in Iraq

Barbara Nickless Why did I love this book?

During America’s recent wars, Americans who felt they had few career prospects enlisted. Some were looking for a steady paycheck. Others for adventure and a chance to see the world. Many signed up out of a sense of patriotic duty after the events of 9/11. Goodell volunteered for Mortuary Affairs. She and her peers processed the bodies of those killed in combat. The title comes from instructions given by her commanding officer to members of his unit who are sketching the bodies as they arrive: when a body part is missing, “shade it black.” Harrowing and poignant, Shade it Black reminds us of the innocence of those we send to war.

By Jessica Goodell, John Hearn,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In 2008, CBS' Chief Foreign Correspondent, Lara Logan, candidly speculated about the human side of the war in Iraq: "Tell me the last time you saw the body of a dead American soldier. What does that look like? Who in America knows what that looks like? Because I know what that looks like, and I feel responsible for the fact that no one else does..." Logan's query raised some important yet ignored questions: How do the remains of service men and women get from the dusty roads of Fallujah to the flag-covered coffins at Dover Air Force Base? And what…

Book cover of Consequence: A Memoir

Barbara Nickless Why did I love this book?

Our recent wars, waged under the spotlight of journalists’ cameras and highlighted on social media, exposed American audiences to the dark underbelly of what it means to wage war. We saw not only the horrors of combat, but also the fallout from our treatment of the enemy. Eric Fair worked as an interrogator in Iraq, where Abu Ghraib became synonymous with everything America did wrong in a foreign country. His memoir reveals the ethical consequence of our quest for intelligence, and how those who participated in “enhanced interrogation” against foreign soldiers and civilians will forever carry the dark memories of their actions.

By Eric Fair,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Named one of "8 Books You Need to Read" by Vulture

A man questions everything--his faith, his morality, his country--as he recounts his experience as an interrogator in Iraq; an unprecedented memoir and "an act of incredible bravery" (Phil Klay, author of Redeployment).

In 2004, after several months as an interrogator, Eric Fair’s call to serve his country has led him to a dark and frightening place. By the time he leaves Iraq after that first deployment, Fair will have participated in or witnessed a variety of aggressive interrogation techniques including sleep deprivation, stress positions, diet manipulation, exposure, and isolation.…

Book cover of The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Barbara Nickless Why did I love this book?

For Morris, war was a siren call, “exalting” work that allowed him to “challenge death.” But once redeployed to the safety of America, he realized that months and years of waiting for the next bomb to explode had taught his body to react to potential threats in the environment that his mind rightfully ignored. A sack of trash at the side of the road. A car backfiring. A restless crowd. For the combat veteran, these everyday triggers can generate a crippling flashback or a spiraling panic, the body shooting up flares of alarm before the mind has time to recognize that in America, a bag of trash is just trash. The Evil Hours is a brilliant, evocative, and often poetic portrayal of one man’s quest to leave the war behind.

By David J. Morris,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

“An essential book” on PTSD, an all-too-common condition in both military veterans and civilians (The New York Times Book Review).
Post-traumatic stress disorder afflicts as many as 30 percent of those who have experienced twenty-first-century combat—but it is not confined to soldiers. Countless ordinary Americans also suffer from PTSD, following incidences of abuse, crime, natural disasters, accidents, or other trauma—yet in many cases their symptoms are still shrouded in mystery, secrecy, and shame.
This “compulsively readable” study takes an in-depth look at the subject (Los Angeles Times). Written by a war correspondent and former Marine with firsthand experience of this…

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By Rebecca Hartt,

Book cover of Returning to Eden

Rebecca Hartt Author Of Rising From Ashes

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Idealistic Storyteller Teacher Mother Seeker

Rebecca's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Looking for clean romantic suspense with spiritual undertones?

Look no further than the Acts of Valor series by Rebecca Hartt. With thousands of reviews and 4.7-5.0 stars per book, this 6-book series is a must-read for readers searching for memorable, well-told stories by an award-winning author.

A dead man stands on her doorstep.

When the Navy wrote off her MIA husband as dead, Eden came to terms with being a widow. But now, her Navy SEAL husband is staring her in the face. Eden knows she should be over-the-moon, but she isn’t.

Diagnosed with PTSD and amnesia, Navy SEAL Jonah Mills has no recollection of their fractured marriage, no memory of Eden nor her fourteen-year-old daughter. Still, he feels a connection to both.

Unfit for active duty and assigned to therapy, Jonah knows he has work to do and relies on God, who sustained him during captivity, to heal his mind, body, and hopefully his family.

But as the memories lurking in his wife's haunted eyes and behind his daughter's uncertain smile begin to return to him, Jonah makes another discovery. There is treachery in the highest ranks of his Team, treachery that not only threatens him but places his new-found family in its crosshairs.

Returning to Eden

By Rebecca Hartt,

What is this book about?

Presumed Dead, Navy SEAL Returns Without Memory of His Ordeal in the Christian Romantic Suspense, Returning to Eden, by Rebecca Hartt

-- Present Day, Virginia Beach, Virginia --

A dead man stands at Eden Mills' door.

Declared MIA a year prior, the Navy wrote him off as dead. Now, Eden's husband, Navy SEAL Jonah Mills has returned after three years to disrupt her tranquility. Diagnosed with PTSD and amnesia, he has no recollection of their marriage or their fourteen-year-old step-daughter. Still, Eden accepts her obligation to nurse Jonah back to health while secretly longing to regain her freedom, despite the…

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