The best books about soldiers

12 authors have picked their favorite books about soldiers and why they recommend each book.

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For Cause and Comrade

By James M. McPherson,

Book cover of For Cause and Comrade: Why Men Fought in the Civil War

James McPherson, the dean of Civil War scholars, is known to most readers as the author of Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, far and away the best single-volume history of the conflict. But this volume, which came out roughly a decade later in 1997, was one of the first military histories to move beyond generals and commanders and examine why common soldiers enlisted and remained loyal to their fellows even as the bloody conflict dragged on.

After reading tens of thousands of letters and diaries of more than one thousand U.S. and C.S.A. soldiers, McPherson opens previously shuttered windows into their hearts and minds. Their letters home reveal both the tedium and terror of numerous campaigns, and most of all, show how common soldiers were forced to wrestle with the issue of slavery, with northern soldiers, rather like their commander-in-chief, increasingly committed to ending the South’s…


Who am I?

My father’s ancestors had deep ties to the South, owning slaves in North Carolina and fighting for the Confederacy. Raised in a household that was also home to a paternal grandmother born in Nashville in 1885, I grew up fascinated by the troubled, complicated world of the Old South. Over the years I have written nine books, all of which chronicle the intersections of race and politics in the nineteenth century. Since 1987 I have had the pleasure of teaching about the Civil War era to students in my home institution of Le Moyne College, but also at Colgate University, Cornell University, and the University College Dublin. Those classes never witnessed a dull moment.


I wrote...

Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America

By Douglas R. Egerton,

Book cover of Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America

What is my book about?

Many Americans are familiar with the fabled Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry, the first African American regiment to be raised in the North during the Civil War, thanks to the 1989 film Glory. Because that movie ended with the July 18, 1863, attack on Battery Wagner, filmgoers mistakenly believed that was the end of the regiment’s story, or that all of its soldiers perished during that battle.

My book, which was the co-recipient of the 2017 Gilder-Lehrman Lincoln Prize, told the story of fourteen soldiers, including two sons of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who served in the three pioneering Massachusetts regiments. Although few of them were flawless individuals, their heroism both in the face of battle and, in some cases, during the Reconstruction battles, humbled me as I sought to recover their lives.

A Bright Shining Lie

By Neil Sheehan,

Book cover of A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam

As both a military officer and a civilian leader of the pacification program, John Vann personified American involvement – and failure – in Vietnam. In my view, this is the definitive book on the War. If you only are going to read one book on Vietnam, this is the one I would choose.


Who am I?

John Marks is co-author of The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence, a New York Times best-seller in hard-cover and paperback. He has written for the Washington Post, New York Times, Playboy, Foreign Policy, and Rolling Stone. He was the founder and long-time President of Search for Common Ground, the world’s largest peacebuilding organization that was nominated for the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize.


I wrote...

The Search for the Manchurian Candidate: The CIA and Mind Control: The Secret History of the Behavioral Sciences

By John D. Marks,

Book cover of The Search for the Manchurian Candidate: The CIA and Mind Control: The Secret History of the Behavioral Sciences

What is my book about?

A "Manchurian Candidate" would be an unwitting assassin brainwashed and programmed to kill. In this award-winning book, I document in highly readable terms the explosive story of MKULTRA, the CIA's highly secret program of experiments in mind control.  I worked from thousands of pages of CIA documents as well as extensive interviews and research in the behavioral science to produce a book that, in the words of the late Senator Edward Kennedy "accomplished what two Senate committees could not."

A Rumor of War

By Philip Caputo,

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

Caputo’s 1977 Vietnam War memoir is important because it transcends the typical battlefield diary and fulfills the author’s literary intentions of portraying this soldier’s spiritual and psychological changes. In our 2005 interview, Caputo noted that he wanted to “recreate the war as concretely as possible,” which he certainly does through the eyes of a Marine infantry officer. But for me and many Vietnam veterans, Caputo, through his own story, also traces our soldier evolution through stages of innocence about war, disturbing war experiences, and choices between good and evil. Caputo’s narrative voice and detailed descriptions reflect his journalistic background, and the book’s moral underpinnings emerge from his “Catholic imagination.” On another level, the memoir also subtly reveals America’s own loss of innocence and growing cynicism about the nature and goals of the Vietnam War.  


Who am I?

From an early age, I have made a life out of listening to, telling, teaching, and writing about war stories. I am intrigued by their widespread personal and public importance. My changing associations with these stories and their tellers have paralleled evolving stages in my life—son, soldier, father, and college professor. Each stage has spawned different questions and insights about the tales and their narrators. At various moments in my own life, these war stories have also given rise to fantasized adventure, catharsis, emotional highs and lows, insights about human nature tested within the crucible of war, and intriguing relationships with the storytellers—their lives and minds.


I wrote...

Writing Vietnam, Writing Life: Caputo, Heinemann, O'Brien, Butler

By Tobey C. Herzog,

Book cover of Writing Vietnam, Writing Life: Caputo, Heinemann, O'Brien, Butler

What is my book about?

My book includes extended conversations with four prominent American soldier-authors (Philip Caputo, Larry Heinemann, Tim O’Brien, and Robert Olen Butler) who fought in the Vietnam War. These individuals tell their life stories, discuss their writing process, and advise on the teaching of writing. In addition, the authors share their war stories, specifically what they did in war, what the war did to them, and how and why they wrote about their war experiences. These conversations, along with richly annotated life chronologies, reveal that these four prizewinning authors have diverse upbringings, values, war experiences, life experiences, writing careers, and literary voices. Together, their four life and war stories also present a mini-tableaux of the fascinating and troubling time of 1960s and 1970s America. 

The Yellow Birds

By Kevin Powers,

Book cover of The Yellow Birds

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. 


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 Sympathizer

By Viet Thanh Nguyen,

Book cover of The Sympathizer: A Novel

The narrator of this novel is a North Vietnamese spy embedded in a South Vietnamese refugee community in California. Full of treachery, duplicity, and betrayal, it is also hilariously funny. More than any other novel I’ve read, it captures the milieu of exile perfectly. Waiters, taxi drivers, and corner-store owners plotting murder in California and counter-revolution back home; wars from across the ocean fought all over again on the streets of Los Angeles. Every modern tale of exile resonates in this novel.


Who am I?

In 2010, I met a Somali refugee in Cape Town. His name was Asad Abdullahi. He told the tale of his life with a richness bordering on genius and I was hooked. I spent the next two years tracing his childhood footsteps through the Horn of Africa, looking for anyone and everyone he had encountered. In the course of writing a book about him, I read countless other books about exile, migration, and human beings on the move. My five recommendations are among the books that helped me imagine the experience of exile best. 


I wrote...

A Man of Good Hope

By Jonny Steinberg,

Book cover of A Man of Good Hope

What is my book about?

This book tells the story of a young Somali man, Asad Abdullahi. Separated from his family at the age of seven at the onset of civil war, he spent his childhood roaming the streets of East Africa.

Aged 19, Asad put $1,200 in his pocket and headed down the length of the African continent to Johannesburg to make his fortune. So began an adventure in a country richer and more violent than he could have imagined. A Man of Good Hope is the story of a person shorn of the things we have come to believe make us human – personal possessions, parents, siblings. And yet Asad is an intensely human life, one suffused with desires and a need to leave something of permanence on this earth.

March

By Geraldine Brooks,

Book cover of March

Brooks’ novel won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 2006. But it’s not the award that first attracted my attention to this Civil War novel. It was the strong connection to Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. March tells the story of the March sisters’ absent father, who the reader meets only briefly in Alcott’s novel. What most drew me into the book was the character of Marmee, the beloved wife and mother in Alcott’s tale. Brooks’ backstory presents her as a passionate and sensual woman with a fiery temper. At times she must be restrained physically when her ire is raised! She is strong and forthright with progressive views, and it is she who holds the March family together while Mr. March is away. 


Who am I?

My passion is for writing stories about strong women. Most of my favourite characters in literature are strong women—Jo March, Elizabeth Bennet, Jane Eyre. It's their intelligence, and spirit that hooks me. Even when they're misguided or confronting overwhelming odds, they pull themselves back from the brink to begin on a slightly altered path to achieve their purpose. It's the heroine’s journey that draws me into a novel, and it's her journey I wish to describe in my own books. Unfortunately, studying history has shown me there's still a long way women need to travel in the journey towards gender equity. Let’s hope these characters can teach us all something.


I wrote...

The Hummingbird and the Sea

By Jenny Bond,

Book cover of The Hummingbird and the Sea

What is my book about?

Set in 1717, Book 1 of The Dawnland Chronicles tells the story of four people whose lives are inexorably linked when an enigmatic Englishman seeks shelter in the small, Puritan enclave of Eastham, Massachusetts. His brief presence upsets the balance of the close-knit town and sets in motion a series of events that overturns lives and forces even the most constant and devout to rebel against everything they hold sacred. Loyalties are tested and families are divided as individuals battle to deliver themselves from hardship, prejudice, and injustice.

Based on a true story of Puritans and pirates, The Hummingbird and the Sea is a powerful tale of love, faith, hidden passions, and the eternal search for freedom.

Marine Sniper

By Charles Henderson,

Book cover of Marine Sniper: 93 Confirmed Kills

This isn’t actually a memoir, but it reads like one. In the Vietnam War, Marine Gunnery Sergeant Carlos Hathcock hunts and is hunted. With him, the reader stalks a Viet Cong general, a sniper, and others through the jungles and mountains of Southeast Asia. The North Vietnamese People’s Army of Vietnam put a bounty on Hathcock, calling him the “White Feather.” It’s difficult to imagine today’s American snipers or black ops without the influence of this man. His story is legendary.


Who am I?

I’m a NYT and international bestselling author, with the movie rights to one of my books purchased by Vin Diesel. My books have been translated into 13 languages, and I’ve published with three of the Big Five publishers: Simon and Schuster, Macmillan, and Hachette UK. My writing has been called “action packed…harrowing…adrenaline laced” by The New York Times. I wasn’t a SEAL, but I completed Hell Week, qualified as a pistol and rifle expert, blew up stuff, and practiced small-unit tactics during Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training. Secretly, I’m a dark chocolate thief.


I wrote...

Seal Team Six: Memoirs of an Elite Navy Seal Sniper

By Stephen Templin, Howard E. Wasdin,

Book cover of Seal Team Six: Memoirs of an Elite Navy Seal Sniper

What is my book about?

When the Navy sends their elite, they send the SEALs. When the SEALs send their elite, they send SEAL Team Six—a secret unit tasked with counterterrorism, hostage rescue, and counterinsurgency.

In this dramatic, behind-the-scenes chronicle, Howard Wasdin takes listeners deep inside the world of Navy SEALs and Special Forces snipers, beginning with the grueling selection process of Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL - the toughest and longest military training in the world.

Land of Aching Hearts

By Leila Tarazi Fawaz,

Book cover of Land of Aching Hearts: The Middle East in the Great War

Understanding the First World War is fundamental to understanding today’s Middle East. The book offers us an impressive account of the Greater Syria at war, the region that encompasses Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, and Southern Turkey. Viewing the war from a social history perspective, we read various experiences of the fishermen, peasants, deserters, migrants, entrepreneurs, profiteers, and foreign soldiers from the colonial army of Britain against the backdrop of a “changing Middle East.”

Who am I?

Studying unexplored topics has always fascinated me as a historian. Some overlooked aspects in history might shed a new light on many things that we consider obvious. I studied the Ottoman home front during the First World War from an unusual perspective by taking up the concept of moral crisis. Until very recently, talking about the First World War in the Middle East meant talking about only the European side of the story such as the famous “Lawrence of Arabia” and/or only political events that were attached to the Anglo-British rivalry. Instead, we need a “new” history of this watershed event that takes the local aspects into consideration. After all, the Great War was the most remarkable moment in the history of the Middle East which shaped its modern dynamics.


I wrote...

Moral Crisis in the Ottoman Empire: Society, Politics, and Gender During WWI

By Cigdem Oguz,

Book cover of Moral Crisis in the Ottoman Empire: Society, Politics, and Gender During WWI

What is my book about?

To what extent did a perceived morality crisis play a role in the dramatic events of the last years of the Ottoman Empire? Beginning in the late nineteenth century when some of the Ottoman elites began to question the moral climate as evidence for the losses facing the empire, this book shows that during the course of World War I many social, economic, and political problems were translated into a discourse of moral decline, ultimately making morality a contested space between rival ideologies, identities, and intellectual currents.

Examining the primary journals and printed sources that represented the various constituencies of the period, it fills important gaps in the scholarship of the Ottoman experience of World War I and the origins of Islamism and secularism in Turkey, and is essential reading for social and intellectual historians of the late Ottoman Empire.

Onward Southern Soldiers

By Traci Nichols-Belt,

Book cover of Onward Southern Soldiers: Religion and the Army of Tennessee in the Civil War

Although many (even most) historians relegate religion to the periphery of the history of the war, Nichols-Belt shows it to be a critical ingredient of that history. Moreover, although historians who admit the importance of religion to the South’s conduct of the war, most of them focus primarily on the armies in the East. Nichols-Belt shines a light on the just-as-important influence of religion in the armies of the Western theater, specifically the Army of Tennessee.


Who am I?

I am an author, editor, and former history teacher and curriculum writer with a special interest in Southern history, particularly the Confederate era. I have written and published two books on lesser-known aspects of the Confederacy, the civilian government (Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries), and religious work in the Confederate armies (Christ in Camp and Combat: Religious Work in the Confederate Armies). I taught on various levels, from junior high through college, and have B.S. and M.S. degrees with post-graduate work in Southern history and religion.


I wrote...

Christ in Camp and Combat: Religious Work in the Confederate Armies

By Dennis L. Peterson,

Book cover of Christ in Camp and Combat: Religious Work in the Confederate Armies

What is my book about?

Christ in Camp and Combat addresses the role that chaplains, missionaries, and colporteurs played in the armies of the Confederacy, moving religion from the periphery of Confederate history to the core. It reveals the burden of the Southern people for the spiritual wellbeing of their soldiers and their need to be prepared to suffer gruesome wounds, to die, and to face eternity. It surveys the work of each major denomination and presents biographical sketches of a representative sampling of such ministers from each denomination discussed. It is the story of Christian minister-heroes, spiritual soldiers in a spiritual conflict amidst the raging winds of earthly warfare.

Finding Winnie

By Lindsay Mattick, Sophie Blackall (illustrator),

Book cover of Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World's Most Famous Bear

You’ve probably read Winnie the Pooh, either as a child or to a child. But I bet you don’t know about the real bear who inspired one of the most famous characters in children’s literature. Told as an origin story within a bedtime story, this bestselling and award-winning illustrated biography ends with wonderful photos of all the characters: the real Winnie (a girl!), the vet who rescued her, the soldiers who cared for her, the boy who famously befriended her, and the author who immortalized the beloved bear. Best of all, Finding Winnie is a success at proving one of the book’s themes—sometimes the very best stories are true stories.


Who am I?

I write picture-book biographies and my latest book focuses on the first giraffologist, Dr. Anne Innis Dagg. While researching this book, I learned about so many people who have dedicated their lives to studying and protecting animals. Almost always, their love of wildlife began in childhood. So why not inspire young animal lovers today with true stories about people who share their passion for wildlife?


I wrote...

Anne and Her Tower of Giraffes

By Karlin Gray,

Book cover of Anne and Her Tower of Giraffes

What is my book about?

At four years old, Anne saw her first giraffe and never stopped thinking about it. Her desire to study the world's tallest animal followed her from preschool to graduate school, from Canada to South Africa. And often, people laughed at her quest. But by following her love of giraffes, Dr. Anne Innis Dagg became a pioneer—the first scientist to study animal behavior in Africa.

Illustrated by Aparna Varma, Anne and Her Tower of Giraffes is a picture-book biography that celebrates the adventures of Dr. Dagg, the beauty of giraffes, and the power of persistence. 

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