What is it about a boy's fascination with war? And why do some of us never outgrow it?
The boy part is pretty easy. We're drawn to war as a kind of real-life comic book. The grown-up part is harder to suss out, although I subscribe to the view of Drew Gilpin Faust, the Harvard University president and Civil War historian, that war "offers an authenticity and intensity of experience" missing elsewhere in modern society.
The following list of 23 war books, along with the two reviewed above, represent my personal Top 25. But first a caveat: This list is highly subjective and skewed to non-fiction and the war of my generation -- Vietnam.
NON-FICTIONAbout Face by David Hackworth & Julie Sherman (1989) The highly-decorated Hackworth, a battle-scarred veteran of Korea and successive tours in Vietnam, criticized Army leadership, training and tactics in Vietnam and was shamefully hounded into premature retirement.
The Art of War by Sun Tzu (6th century B.C.) This was the definitive text on military strategies and tactics of its time and remains one of the most influential today.
The Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War by James M. McPherson (1988) This Pulitzer Prize winner covers not only the military aspects of the war but the economic, political and social forces that drove the conflict.
Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War by Mark Bowden (1999) A strikingly detailed account of the 1993 nightmare operation in Mogadishu that left 18 American soldiers dead, many more wounded and the Clinton administration with a foreign-policy disaster.
The Conquest of Gaul by Gaius Julius Caesar (50s or 40s B.C.) Written as a third-person narrative, Caesar provides a firsthand account of the battles and intrigues of the Gallic Wars.
Dispatches by Michael Herr (1977) This collection of Esquire magazine articles based on Herr's front-line reporting in Vietnam captures the feel of combat to an extraordinary extent and compliments Tim O'Brien's best fiction.
Falling Through the Earth by Danielle Trussoni (2006) This is the story of Trussoni’s journey to try to understand her Vietnam veteran father. It is a book for our times, as well, with soldiers coming home from
Fields of Battle: The Wars For North America by John Keegan (1996) Keegan emphasizes the influence of geography on the military history of the continent through an intimate examination of five fortress systems that have controlled space on our continent over the past 400 years.
Fire in the
Ghost Soldiers: The Forgotten Epic Story of World War II's Most Dramatic Mission by Hampton Sides (2001) The horrifying story of the Bataan Death March and the little-known rescue of many of the survivors in one of the very first U.S. Special Forces operations.
The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell (1975) Fussel explans in this landmark study how World War I changed an entire generation, ushered in the modern era and revolutionized how we see the world.
The Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman (1962) A riveting account of the events leading up to World War I, including how the war could have been stopped but wasn't.
»Hitler's Empire: How the Nazis Ruled Europe by Mark Mazower (2008) Those detail-obsessed Nazis gave little thought to governance, let alone a long-term vision for their immense empire and were ill prepared to take advantage of their early victories.
On War by Claus von Clausewitz (1832) Among the most important treatises on strategy ever written, the Prussian officer integrates politics and social and economic issues as important factors in deciding the outcomes of a war.
A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East by David Fromkin (1989) It is likely that the Middle East still would be a big mess without the meddling of the major European powers during and after World War I, but at least the mess would have been self created and not foisted on the peoples of the region by imperialists.
Street Without Joy: The French Debacle in Indochina by Bernard Fall (1964) Fall offers a clear -- and widely ignored -- warning of what American forces would face in the jungles of Southeast Asia: A costly and protracted revolutionary war fought without fronts against a mobile enemy.
FICTIONAll Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (1929) This classic novel, which begat the great motion picture of the same name, was Remarque's attempt to confront and ultimately rid himself of the haunting memories of his time serving in World War I.
Going After Cacciato by Tim O'Brien (1978) An all-too-common experience of the men and women who served in Vietnam was the feeling that the war was an indescribable blend of fact and fantasy. This novel, the best on the war, plays off of that moulage of fact and fantasty.
Horatio Hornblower by C.S. Forester (1937-1967) Hornblower, a Royal Navy officer, is the fictional protagonist of a series of 11 adventure novels, some of which became movies and television programs.
The Quiet American by Graham Greene (1955) The astonishing thing about this anti-American novel is that although it was written between 1952 and 1955, it is a metaphor for two decades of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane (1895) One of the most influential works in American literature and a template for Francis Ford Copolla's Apocalypse Now, this novel depicts the cruelty of the Civil War through the yes of a young recruit.
A Rumor of War by Philip Caputo (1977) This is an extraordinarily challenging book -- especially for people who are smugly certain about their views of war -- because it demands that the reader reflect on how he might have acted on the battlefields of Vietnam.
Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky (2006) The author, a Russian Jew who emigrated to Paris, completed only this, the first two of a projected five novels portraying life in France following the June 1940 German invasion before dying in a Nazi gas chamber.