14 Of The Greatest Novels Inspired By War

The best books to come out of conflict zones over the past hundred years, from World War One to Iraq

Essential reading on the timeless and terrifying topic of war, these are the novels that teach us the cost and sacrifice of conflict and remind us why, in a time when a tweet appears capable of triggering a nuclear stand off, we should remember the lessons of the past.

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Slaughterhouse Five – Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut's most famous novel (alternatively titled The Children's Crusade – A Duty-dance With Death) is notable not only for its harrowing portrayal of the fire-bombing of Dresden, but for its bizarre scenes set on the planet Tralfamadore where protagonist Billy Pilgrim falls in love with an abducted porn star. Released in 1969, Slaughterhouse Five was one of the first novels to mix absurdist post-modernism and pop culture with straight-faced accounts of the Second World War. As Billy Pilgrim himself explains: "They were trying to re-invent themselves and their universe... Science fiction was a big help." So it goes...

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Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks

Faulks' fourth novel has been compared to the work of Hemingway, and the similarity resonates in the stolid, stripped back descriptions of the Battle of the Somme. "There was a man beside him missing part of his face, but walking in the same dreamlike state, his rifle pressing forward. His nose dangled and Stephen could see his teeth through the missing cheek." Presenting a desynthesized approach to death as the only way to survive one of humanities bloodiest battles, Faulks succeeds in crafting what has been called "a genuinely cathartic description of the war's last days".

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Catch 22 – Joseph Heller

The satire that set the standard for all authors looking to lampoon the futility and bureaucratic absurdity of war, we've already listed Catch 22 as one of our funniest books of all time, but among the maelstrom of characters, friendly bombing raids and troubles with mass supplies of Egyptian cotton, Catch 22 is first and foremost a book about fear. A classic told from the perspective of one of literature's greatest creations, American bombardier John Yossarian, who has long since decided that his bombing missions over Italy are at direct odds with his intentions to "live forever or die in the attempt".

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For Whom The Bell Tolls – Ernest Hemingway

Over almost 500 pages Hemingway's Pulitzer Prize-nominated novel sets out to explore the philosophical convictions of anti-fascist rebels and their American dynamiter as they prepare to blow up a bridge vital to nationalists during the Spanish Civil War. When the final battle does come, it manages to surpass everything else Hemingway has ever written ("Robert Jordan saw them there on the slope, close to him now, and below he saw the road and the bridge and the long lines of vehicles below it. He was completely integrated now and he took a good long look at everything."), as the New York Times enthuses in their original review, "Mr. Hemingway has always been the writer, but he has never been the master that he is in For Whom the Bell Tolls." 

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The Time Of Doves – Mercè Rodoreda

After working for the Government of Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War, Rodoreda was exiled to France where she began work on a number of works of fiction. The Time Of The Doves, her first novel to be printed in English, follows a young woman living in Barcelona before, during and after the civil war, contemplating suicide to escape from the stifling horrors of civilian life during wartime. Told as a stream-of-consciousness, The Time Of The Doves is a vital novel in understanding those left behind during wartime and is widely regarded as the most acclaimed Catalan novel of all time.

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Regeneration – Pat Barker

Inspired by her grandfather's bayonet wound, the first book in Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy was nominated for the 1991 Booker Prize and focuses not on the war itself, but on soldiers being treated for post-traumatic stress (or "shell-shock"). Previously known for writing about gritty Northern women, Barker took on the world of fractured masculinity, as told through the stories of the First World War poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, and a number of fictionalised accounts, such as a soldier blasted into the stomach of a rotting corpse, and another who finds comfort in lying naked among the bodies of animals. Perhaps the most original and honest trilogy on the psychological effects of war, the third entry in the series, The Ghost Road, rightly picked up where the first one missed out, winning the Booker Prize in 1995.

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Men At Arms – Evelyn Waugh

While young men are dying all over Europe, Guy Crouchback joins the army, hoping that being in his mid-thirties will not stop him from seeing action in the Second World War. What follows is a farce of military training as Guy's unit is transferred about Britain, without any real purpose, except in guarding the "thunder-box" of fellow officer (and eccentric alcoholic) Apthorpe and humouring Brigadier Ben Ritchie-Hook, a one-eyed and belligerent friend of Guy's father with a habit of pickling the heads of the men he kills. Quite possibly the second funniest book about WW2, Men At Arms was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1952.

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Our Man In Havana – Graham Greene

Greene, perhaps more than any other writers personifies the word "prolific". In his 86 years he wrote a total of 27 novels. His 18th, Our Man In Havana, is a black comedy set in Cuba during the cold war. Pastiching the spy novels of the time and lampooning the British and American spy agencies, Greene's novel focuses on a vacuum salesman in Havana who sends photographs of vacuum parts off to his government when asked to spy on possible Cuban missile bases in a plot mirroring the lead up to the Cuban Missile Crisis. However, amongst the comedy Greene has several poignant comments to make, "I don't care a damn about men who are loyal to the people who pay them, to organizations... I don't think even my country means all that much. There are many countries in our blood, aren't there, but only one person. Would the world be in the mess it is if we were loyal to love and not to countries?"

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Suite Francaise – Irène Némirovsky

Irène Némirovsky was a French writer of Ukranian Jewish descent who planned to write a series of five novels under the title "Suite Francaise". She had completed the first two novels when she was arrested and sent to Auschwitz in 1942. Némirovsky died in the camp but the first two books and her notebooks were published after the war. Telling the story of the German invasion of France, this is a historical narrative written during the period it depicts. From her notes it is obvious that Némirovsky knew the ending of her series was less than certain, "It's really in the lap of the gods since it depends on what happens." Optimistically, the planned fifth book was provisionally titled "La Paix" or "Peace".

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The Hunters – James Salter

The literary world has fallen back in love with James Salter in recent years. Often heralded as an underappreciated literary great, it was his first novel The Hunters that set Salter upon his career as a writer. Based on his own career as a U.S Air Force fighter pilot with over 100 missions flown in Korea, The Hunters deals with U.S. pilots competing to get the coveted five kills needed to qualify as "Aces". As those already familiar with Salter will know, it is the author's descriptive prose that is the seat of his talent. While Salter's fourth novel Light Years is rightly regarded as a beautifully descriptive novel, The Hunters is more than able to hold its own, "In June came ponderous heat and mornings like eggshells, pale and smooth."

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