The best books about veterans

30 authors have picked their favorite books about veterans and why they recommend each book.

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Neptune’s Inferno

By James D. Hornfischer,

Book cover of Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal

All of Hornfischer’s histories deserve to be on this list, but Neptune’s Inferno is my personal favorite. Guadalcanal is justifiably thought of as the heroic struggle of Marines to take and hold the island, but they could not have done so without the sacrifices of thousands of sailors in the surrounding waters. Hornfischer’s smooth style guides one through multiple battles over a four-month campaign, including two of the darkest moments in U.S. naval history: the fiery nighttime battle of Savo Island that initially saved the beachhead and the opening round of the climatic battles of mid-November 1942 that numbered two admirals among the American dead.

Who am I?

Walter R. Borneman is an American military and political historian. He won the Samuel Eliot Morison Prize in Naval Literature for The Admirals: Nimitz, Halsey, Leahy, and King, a national bestseller. Borneman's other titles include Brothers Down: Pearl Harbor and the Fate of the Many Brothers Aboard the USS Arizona; MacArthur at War: World War II in the Pacific; and 1812: The War That Forged a Nation.

I wrote...

The Admirals: Nimitz, Halsey, Leahy, and King--The Five-Star Admirals Who Won the War at Sea

By Walter R. Borneman,

Book cover of The Admirals: Nimitz, Halsey, Leahy, and King--The Five-Star Admirals Who Won the War at Sea

What is my book about?

Learn how history's only five-star admirals triumphed in World War II and made the United States the world's dominant sea power. Only four men in American history have been promoted to the five-star rank of Admiral of the Fleet: William Leahy, Ernest King, Chester Nimitz, and William Halsey. These four men were the best and the brightest the navy produced, and together they led the U.S. Navy to victory in World War II, establishing the United States as the world's greatest fleet.

The Razor's Edge

By W. Somerset Maugham,

Book cover of The Razor's Edge

The hero of Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, Larry Darrell, is a classic seeker. Crushed by his time in the war, he leaves his family and fiancé behind and heads to Paris—then Germany—and finally India. He’s not really sure what he’s looking for, but he knows that the answers lie down a path far different from the one he’s left behind. Larry’s friends back home feel sure that he’s lost his way; only when their own worlds begin to crumble do they start to realize what he’s attained. The Razor’s Edge makes it clear that the spiritual journey may lead you far from what’s familiar to you. But the journey is worth every sacrifice.

Who am I?

It took me awhile to understand that I was on a spiritual path. I started out as an actor, and working in the theater brought me joy. But as time passed, and I turned to writing novels, the same questions kept emerging: “Who am I?” “Why am I here?” I began to see that I was on a spiritual journey. With A Poet of the Invisible World, I finally felt ready to write about that journey. Nouri’s adventures chart the twists and turns—as well as the deep rewards—of the spiritual path. It’s a book that’s very close to my heart.

I wrote...

A Poet of the Invisible World

By Michael Golding,

Book cover of A Poet of the Invisible World

What is my book about?

A Poet of the Invisible World is the story of Nouri, a boy born in thirteenth century Persia with four ears instead of two.  Orphaned as an infant, he’s taken into a Sufi order, where he meets an assortment of dervishes and embarks on a path towards spiritual awakening. As he journeys to the lavish court of a Spanish sultan, the barren farm of a mountain shepherd, a bustling city on the north coast of Africa, and an ascetic monastery high in the mountains, he faces a series of trials that shatter his inner obstacles—and leads him on toward transcendence.

The Things They Carried

By Tim O'Brien,

Book cover of The Things They Carried

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.

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 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 Return of the Soldier

By Rebecca West,

Book cover of The Return of the Soldier

Chris, a shell-shocked soldier who suffers from amnesia, returns from the front expecting life to be as he remembered. But he’s lost fifteen years of his memory and doesn’t recognise his wife Kitty, is horrified by how his cousin Jenny has aged, and longs only for Margaret, the girl he loved all those years ago. Despairing for his sanity, Kitty and Jenny summon Margaret, sure he’ll come to his senses when he sees her, only to find that he still adores her, dowdy, careworn, and poor as she is. The war is only glancingly mentioned here but its loss and damage aches between the lines. Told by Jenny, who loves Chris but starts to see Kitty in a new light, the dreadful snobbishness of the times is laid clear. The Return of the Soldier is a brief novel, romantic and witty, moving and bitter – I devoured it in one…

Who am I?

I am the prize-winning author of sixteen novels, most recently Little Egypt, The Squeeze, and Blasted Things. I teach creative writing at the University of St Andrews. I live in Edinburgh and am a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. I’m a novelist and student of human nature. I love to work out what motivates people, how and why they make choices, their coping mechanisms, and how they act under pressure. Before I begin a novel set in the past, I read as much fiction written at the time as I can find, as well as autobiography and history. In this way, I attempt to truffle down into the actions and impulses of individuals, both performative and deeply interior, that characterise the spirit of the era that I’m writing.

I wrote...

Blasted Things

By Lesley Glaister,

Book cover of Blasted Things

What is my book about?

It’s 1920. The First World War is over and people, reeling from the shock, horror, and disruption, are trying to work out how to live in such changed times. Clementine, who volunteered as a nurse at the Front, tries to put her horrific experiences behind her. She settles for a life of conventional middle-class respectability as a doctor’s wife, and mother – until she meets Vincent. He’s an injured veteran also struggling to find himself in a war-shattered society. Clementine is drawn to Vincent by a dangerous and compelling kind of recognition, while opportunistic Vincent sees her as a chance of a better life. But the relationship that ensues cannot – and does not – end well. 

In Blasted Things, I’ve explored not only the obvious effects of war (both positive and negative): the horror and the excitement: the trauma and the new freedom; the loss and the widening of horizons; but more importantly the deeper ramifications: the subtle twisting of psyches, distortions of personality, of attitudes overturned and the confusing growth of new desires.

The Great Alone

By Kristin Hannah,

Book cover of The Great Alone

Wild has many definitions, and while the setting for this disturbing story, in a remote Alaskan village, might seem like this book’s main qualification, The Great Alone explores the wilderness of the mind as well — or rather, how a wild man can create a more terrifying reality than the most demanding landscape. That beautiful, harsh landscape shapes the story’s heroes as well, forcing them to find their strength, build that strength, and lend each other strength when the going gets rough … which it does, in a big Alaskan way.

Who am I?

I’ve always wanted to write, and I’ve always wanted to play outside. Bringing the two together started in childhood, climbing redwoods and scribbling fantasies, and grew from there, eventually morphing into a career as an award-winning writer of outdoor adventure guidebooks and essays about national parks. Of course, writing requires reading, and to hone my craft I’ve devoured a library of outdoor literature, journeying with John Muir in Yosemite, Mallory and Irvine on Everest, and Cheryl Strayed on the Pacific Crest Trail. If someone’s doing a wild thing in a wild place, I want to read all about it—and then I want to head outside and get a little wild myself.

I wrote...

Search and Rescue Alaska

By Tracy Salcedo,

Book cover of Search and Rescue Alaska

What is my book about?

In a place as vast and extreme as Alaska, no one takes safety for granted. Whether adventurer or homesteader, tourist or native, people look out for themselves and for each other. But sometimes it just goes bad, and no amount of resourcefulness or resiliency can make it right. That’s when search and rescue teams kick into gear, launching operations that have generated amazing tales of heroism, tenacity, and human kindness.

The essays collected in Search and Rescue Alaska describe rescues on Denali, North America’s highest peak, a World War II self-rescue that ended with a remarkable recovery more than half a century later, the travails of Klondike-bound gold-seekers caught in an avalanche on the infamous Chilkoot Trail, and more. These stories will both entertain and kindle a new appreciation for the skilled and selfless pilots, troopers, military personnel, and rangers on call for search and rescue in Alaska.

Bring the War Home

By Kathleen Belew,

Book cover of Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America

The white supremacist movement today has echoes in the past, but it is also dramatically transformed. Historian Kathleen Belew offers a gripping account of this shift, tracing how embittered Vietnam veterans and others disillusioned with a changing America merged with a burgeoning militia movement to take on the U.S. government. Her book is filled with fascinating anecdotes but never loses sight of how the movement after Vietnam came to embrace terrorist attacks like the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people. Many of the themes we see in the white supremacist movement today– hostility toward the U.S. government, an embrace of paramilitarism, and a sense that a wide range of foes are conspiring to supplant whites–emerge in this time period.

Who am I?

I first became interested in extremism and terrorism when I was young, following the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. As a student and then as an intelligence analyst, I became deeply immersed in terrorism emanating from the Middle East and later served with the 9/11 Commission. In the last decade, I focused on the white supremacist threat, motivated both by its growing lethality and its political impact during the Trump era and today. In this book, I share my insights on the movement’s modern history, global dimensions, presence on social media, and numerous vulnerabilities.

I wrote...

Spreading Hate: The Global Rise of White Supremacist Terrorism

By Daniel Byman,

Book cover of Spreading Hate: The Global Rise of White Supremacist Terrorism

What is my book about?

The modern white power movement is a global, transnational phenomenon. I trace the key moments in the movement's evolution in the United States and around the world, examining shocking episodes of violence from New Zealand to Norway to South Carolina. They are not a hide-bound movement seeking to turn back the clock, but are dynamic, exploiting the most cutting-edge technologies, especially social media. Because white power terrorists' grievances echo mainstream debates, their political impact can be inordinately high even if the body count is low. White power terrorists, however, are divided, with poor leadership, and often attract the incompetent and the criminal as well as the dangerous and deluded. I explain how governments can exploit these weaknesses and better protect their citizens from this deadly threat.

Fortunate Son

By Lewis B. Puller Jr.,

Book cover of Fortunate Son: The Healing of a Vietnam Vet

Fortunate Son won a Pulitzer shortly after its release, and rightfully so. Puller’s story is a moving one—a story that no doubt belongs to thousands of Vietnam vets. Serving their country to the best of their ability, following orders handed down to them the result of a misguided administration with a political agenda. Suffering wounds, some physical, most emotional (like my dad), from which they could never truly heal because there was no reconciliation.

Often poignant, at times humorous, Puller’s memoir is a moving one. His account of his alcoholism—the anger, the lost temper, the blackouts, the memory loss, a divorce, a failed political career, and how the realization that he could never take another drink again was like losing a loved one—takes the reader into hell.

Who am I?

My father retired from the Marines before he married my mother. Sadly, he was more drill instructor to me than father. He never shared with me his experience on Okinawa, yet he was proud of his service. He kept in touch with several marines and attended many reunions. It was only after Dad’s death that I discovered With the Old Breed. Eugene Sledge told me everything my father withheld from me, and why he was the way he was. Today, Dad would be diagnosed with PTSD. Thus began a quest to read other accounts of wartime experiences, as soldiers and civilians, which led me to write A World Without Music.

I wrote...

A World Without Music

By J. Conrad Guest,

Book cover of A World Without Music

What is my book about?

Can a Gulf War veteran suffering PTSD find the music to make his life worth living?

Reagan returns from the Gulf War haunted by horrific images of a dead marine he brought back from the desert. Seeking refuge from his nightmares in a jazz quartet in which he plays bass guitar, fifteen years elapse and he has a one-night fling with Rosary, a young woman he meets at a gig. When his ex-wife comes back into his life, Rosary’s obsession turns into a fatal attraction. With help from Tom Wallach’s ghost, the daughter Wallach never met, and a friend who is much more than he appears to be, Reagan discovers he must let go of his tortured past if he is to embrace the future.

Slippery Creatures

By KJ Charles,

Book cover of Slippery Creatures

I’m stretching this category because neither of the protagonists here are actually cops, but Kim Secretan does work for a shadowy government agency and there’s a real mystery in this three-book series, though there is also a lovely romance between Kim and World War I veteran and bookseller Will Darling. KJ Charles is one of my all-time favorite authors, and everything she publishes becomes a must-read for me.

Who am I?

My first published novel, Mahu, was about a gay cop coming out of the closet in Honolulu while investigating a dangerous case. I didn’t even realize there was a whole genre of gay mysteries until I’d finished it, but since then I have made it my business to read as much as I can of these books, both classics and new ones. My reading has deepened my understanding only of my protagonist’s life, but of my own.

I wrote...

Mahu: A Mahu Investigation

By Neil Plakcy,

Book cover of Mahu: A Mahu Investigation

What is my book about?

Kimo Kanapa'aka's world turns upside down in Mahu. At 32, he has reached the pinnacle of his profession, detective on the Honolulu Police Department's homicide squad, based at the Waikiki station. But a difficult murder case, as well as turmoil in his personal life, is about to threaten everything he has worked for.

A life-threatening drug bust in chapter 1 makes Kimo realize that it's time to stop lying to himself. He's drawn to the Rod and Reel Club, a gay bar in Waikiki, where he has a couple of beers and begins the long process of accepting his attraction to other men. Leaving the club, though, he stumbles onto two men dropping a dead body in an alley, and he launches himself into a nightmare where his private life becomes public news.

Battle Scars

By Jason Fox,

Book cover of Battle Scars: A Story of War and All That Follows

Another story about a mind broken by war. Jason Fox is former Special Forces, and it shows. Exploring the effects of war on the mind of a soldier who is trained to abhor weakness in all its forms is deeply moving. Also, reading about man’s life descending into chaos when it’s been so ordered is tough. The effect on family and friends, work colleagues. Again, not an easy read, because this is real life folks, but well worth the effort. It’s also very interesting to read about the conflicts from a warrior’s point of view.

Who am I?

I’ve written about war for years. To be honest, it all began in school when we studied the terrible events of The Great War. Hearing the hearts shatter of men on the frontline never left me. I wanted to understand. I needed to understand. PTSD is something I’m familiar with, even if I’ve never been on the front line in battle. I’m also obsessed with myths, legends, ghost stories, and mysteries. My Lorne Turner series combines my passions and the books shine a light, in fiction, on what happens to old soldiers when they come home.

I wrote...

Counting Crows: One For Murder

By Joe Talon,

Book cover of Counting Crows: One For Murder

What is my book about?

The moor is darkening. Lorne Turner feels it in his bones. His instincts, honed by years on the battlefields of the desert, scream in warning. Or is it the monster in his head? When Detective Inspector Tony Shaw tells him the obvious occult symbols on a dead man are nothing more than faked staging, Lorne knows his instincts are right, and the police are wrong. There is darkness and it’s spreading. An ancient spirit line is awoken. Its pain seeping down from Dunkery Beacon, the highest point on Exmoor, to the ancient woodland church of Culbone on the coast. Its whispering dead are seeking justice.

A Book of Tongues

By Gemma Files,

Book cover of A Book of Tongues

This book falls under the category “urban fiction” or “magical realism” or “western” or…something. At least, that’s what drew me to it in the first place. It takes place in America’s old west, features magic-using criminals leading a gang and draws on some Native American lore. The magic is terrifying, it’s a mix of environmental and mind-altering hoodoo. The most powerful antagonist is rugged, homosexual, unashamed, and a conflicted terror of a person. His partner in crime is simply terrifying. Together, they drive a trilogy that’s so well threaded through the old west you can taste the grit as you turn the page. Though the emphasis is on the pursuit of magic and the machinations it drives, the settings are a delight to experience. Files weaves a world in these novels that is equally fascinating and terrifying. Her prose and daring are an inspiration.

Who am I?

Errick Nunnally was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts, and served one tour in the Marine Corps before deciding art school was a safer pursuit. He enjoys art, comics, and genre novels. A graphic designer, he has trained in Krav Maga and Muay Thai kickboxing. His work has appeared in several anthologies of speculative fiction. His work can be found in Apex Magazine, Fiyah Magazine, Galaxy’s Edge, Lamplight, Nightlight Podcast, and the novels, Lightning Wears a Red Cape, Blood for the Sun, and All the Dead Men.

I wrote...

All The Dead Men: Alexander Smith #2

By Errick Nunnally,

Book cover of All The Dead Men: Alexander Smith #2

What is my book about?

Alexander Smith is a long-lived werewolf losing his mind to a supernatural Alzheimer’s. He hates magic, and vampires—excepting his adopted daughter, Ana, of course—so it makes sense in this sequel to Blood for the Sun that he’s coping with his daughter’s abduction, a guilty remnant of his past, and a vampire church named Our Lady of Perpetual Death that isn’t at all what it seems to be.

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