I have always enjoyed a good war story.
When I was young, I scoured the shelves and boxes in Ottawa’s The Book Market to find the next soldier’s story, and filled my own collection with the pulp and grist of some of the finest – and worst – writing I have ever seen. Vietnam was a particular fascination, with stories of jungles and paddy and punji-stakes driving me to turn the pages and spend my allowance and meager earnings from Pizza Hut and Bargain Harold’s. I loved every page I burned through and musty-paged breath I took when I was immersed in those stories.
But not everyone honors the war experience – indeed, there are some who think that war literature is little more than reveling in the worst of what humans do to each other. I encountered rolled eyes and even scoffing from others when I tried to explain – in my limited, pubescent way – why I was so drawn in to those books.
I’m glad I read what I read.
Twenty-five years later, I still enjoy reading about conflict – and the Gulf Wars, Peacekeeping, Somalia, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Iraq have allowed more excellent material to emerge about what is, perhaps, humanity’s greatest narrative. If the job of the writer is to tell the human story – and I believe it is – war must be one of the most impactful ways to share because war is everywhere, has always been, and likely always will be. (People change, but never so profoundly as to stop trying to kill each other when they run out of constructive ways to disagree – history is very clear on that point.)
I think what I enjoy most about war literature – fiction and non-fiction – is the range of experiences, attitudes, philosophies, and sheer humanity that leaps from those wonderful pages. My teenage desire to read about the steamy and horrific battles fought in places with names like Mekong and Nha Trang has become a pursuit of the human experience of the war, from combatant to bystander to the people back home. And what always strikes me is how amazingly human every character is – I can’t empathize or even sympathize, really, but it is truly amazing how much I feel about what they are feeling.
So, on this Remembrance Day, I’m going to offer up, of course, my encouragement never to forget the sacrifices of those who stood between chaos and freedom. But I’m also going to share a few of my favourite war tales, from the good to the bad, in the hopes that maybe, just maybe, we’ll all listen a little closer the next time a veteran is compelled to share something we can only imagine, and perhaps fear enough to think twice about.
I still wonder, though: what might be the true experience of war?
War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
The Red Badge of Courage – Stephen Crane
The Thin Red Line – James Jones
The Corps – WEB Griffin
Mission MIA – JC Pollock
Fallen Angels – Walter Dean Myers
The War of the Rats – David L Robbins
Run Between the Rain Drops – Dale A Dye
The Wars – Timothy Findlay
The Things they Carried – Tim O’Brien
Shake Hands With the Devil - Romeo Dallaire
Fifteen Days - Christie Blatchford
Gods Go Begging – Alfredo Vea
Matterhorn – Karl Marlantes