The Scottish Book Trust recently added a post to their site of ten recommended war memoirs titled, naturally, War! Huh! What is it Good For? Given that 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the declaration of the war that would go on to be known as World War I, it’s a timely list. Personally, my war-related reading tends to focus more on the recent and ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, so I’ve only read one of the books on the list (If I Die in a Combat Zone by Tim O’Brien). In my not-at-all-relevant defense, I’ve had Dispatches by Michael Herr on order at the library for quite some time now, and I read some Wilfred Owen poetry at school. Anyway, since my own reading has focused on quite a different area from The Scottish Book Trust’s, I’ve decided to put my own top ten together. The list is arranged alphabetically because I have always been terrible at assigning a ranking to things, which is why I never rate anything over on my LibraryThing account.
The Baghdad Blog by Salam Pax
A key point of view often overlooked in accounts of war is that of the non-combatants. There are endless texts on military strategy, political machinations and impact on armed forces, but what about the people just trying to go about their daily business in a war zone? Åsne Seierstad’s A Hundred and One Days: A Baghdad Journal was the first book to shake me out of my Allied forces-centred reading, but it was The Baghdad Blog that really captured what the war was like for regular Iraquis. Made up of blog entries written in the run up to and aftermath of the American-led invasion, Pax’s style was thoroughly engaging, full of insight and provided a stark reminder that the people around him were far from extremist terrorists.
Generation Kill by Evan Wright
Evan Wright is a journalist with absolutely no military experience who ends up riding along with a team of recon marines during the intial invasion of Iraq. Unlike the enlisted men he travels with, Wright has access to officers throughout the chain of command, allowing him to put the actions he saw on the ground into a wider context that allows us to see that there actually was a plan for invading Iraq, it’s just that it wasn’t a particularly good one. The insanity of the invasion is captured clearly, as are the personalities of the men in the unit. Plus, it’s really very funny in places.
Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Baghdad’s Green Zone by Rajiv Chandrasekaran
This very accessible book walks us through the absolute madness that was the Green Zone – the area of Baghdad from which the allied forces ran the war and governed Iraq. Although Chandrasekaran was based in the Green Zone, the book is more of a synthesis of life in the Green Zone, the policies that were produced there and the effects they had, rather than a first hand account. It’s a rather scathing inditement of the American rule of Iraq and, if you have any interest in the political process, it’s actually quite depressing because what the whole thing comes down to is a combination of wilful ignorance and nepotism.
Jarhead by Anthony Swofford
Throughout this account of serving during the first Gulf War, Swofford never shies away from the nitty gritty of what he actually went through, giving us access to his lowest and least mentally balanced moments with breathtakingly beautiful writing. When it comes to war memoirs, Swofford is easily one of the most talented writers to have shared his experiences.
Maus by Art Spiegleman
What is there to say about Maus that hasn’t already been said? It’s a work of deceptive depth, placing layers upon layers of meaning into a fairly simple cartoon format. An utterly gripping account not only of one Jewish man’s experiences during World War II, but also of his son’s attempts to come to terms with them.
One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer by Nathaniel Fick
An interesting parallel to Generation Kill, One Bullet Away is Nathaniel Fick’s account of his time with the Marines, starting with his determination to enlist and ending with his decision to leave after becoming somewhat disillusioned. A personal and thoughtful read, Fick helped me to partially understand what motivates people to join the armed forces (unlike The Junior Officer’s Reading Club which marketed itself on this premise but absolutely failed to deliver). Throughout the book we see Fick struggle with what he believes to be right and what he is asked to do as part of the Marine Corps, a struggle that he never quite comes to terms with.
Red Zone: Five Bloody Years in Baghdad by Oliver Poole
“Oliver Poole was embedded with an American unit during the initial invasion of Iraq (chronicled in the earlier Black Knights: On the Bloody Road to Baghdad), an experience which drove him to return to Baghdad at a later date in the employ of a major UK newspaper. The main focus of the book is on what happened in Baghdad in the five years after the invasion (almost nothing good, tragically), but there are also moments of painful self-reflection from Poole which are deftly handled and elevate the book above the average account of the time.
Soft Spots: A Marine’s Memoir of Combat and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder by Clint Van Winkle
Reaching the literary heights of someone like Anthony Swofford with aplomb, Soft Spots is an amazingly personal account of one Marine’s struggle with PTSD. At times, I found it almost embarrasing to keep reading, feeling that I was prying into something that I had no business knowing about, such is the honesty with which Van Winkle writes. A gripping and haunting read.
Waltz With Bashir by Ari Folman and David Polonsky
Echoing Soft Spots to some extent, Waltz with Bashir deals with the psychological fall out that Ari Folman experienced after serving in the Israeli army. An intriguing look at false memories and the appalling impact of war.
A Woman in Berlin by Anonymous
We all know about the Blitz spirit and the French underground, but what about the lives of ordinary German people? A Woman in Berlin is the diary of a German woman during the occupation of Berlin by Soviet forces in the days immediately after Germany’s surrender in World War II. The events it chronicles are sometimes harrowing but are told in a matter of fact, sometimes humourous tone, making it simultaneously beautiful and heart-rending
So those are my top ten war memoirs. It was a close run race though, and there were several books that just missed out on a top spot: