“What to Read Now: War Narratives”

From the September/October 2015 issue of World Literature Today


While the US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been going on for fourteen years, much of American literature from these conflicts is only now emerging. I appreciate the veterans who’ve woven the simultaneously “worst and best days of their lives” into literature. They have turned to all forms to find their truth—poetry, short stories, memoir and the novel. (Disclosure: I’m the mother of a Marine who served in both conflicts and is now one of the novelists listed here.)

I have framed these suggested readings with a history from the Great War a hundred years ago and with a diary of one of the long-serving detainees in Guantánamo. Truth in literature is determined in part by point of view. In these books, the reader can take a journey from many perspectives.

Margaret MacMillan
The War That Ended Peace
Random House

In this nonfiction book, Margaret MacMillan narrates history through the lives of those responsible for World War I. The characters and cousins could populate a fiction collection with their dramas, imaginations and absurdities. MacMillan offers an inside view, revealing the people and stories behind the politics and events that led to a war many feel—and felt at the time—shouldn’t have happened.

Brian Turner
My Life as a Foreign Country: A Memoir
W.W. Norton

The author writes of his deployment as an Army sergeant, beginning in the US learning to identify body parts, watching combat on television, and then arriving in Iraq and facing real combat in the first Stryker brigade. “We rode on a war elephant made of steel,” he writes of the nineteen-ton tank. A poet (Here, Bullet), Turner narrates his experiences and his return home in a poet’s language, which spins the harshest circumstances—the soggy, trodden straw—into gold and art.

Phil Klay
Penguin Press

A veteran of the US Marine Corps assembles a dozen short stories and first person narrators—soldiers on the front lines, in the rear, at desks, with their family, friends, wives and girlfriends back home. The narrators’ voices are witty, unflinching, nostalgic, and the stories make the reader laugh, cry and wonder how a generation honed on this conflict will return to life as it was.

Elliot Ackerman
Green on Blue

This novel narrates the war in Afghanistan from the point of view of an Afghan orphan who gets caught up on the American side of the conflict in order to keep his brother alive. He quickly learns that the war has too many sides and so many points of view that truth shimmers only in the eyes of the beholder.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Larry Siems, ed.)
Guantánamo Diary
Little Brown

Guantánamo Diary tells the story of the “war on terror” from the point of view of one who has been detained, tortured, and continues to proclaim his innocence. With a literary and humane voice, Slahi, edited beautifully by Siems and redacted by a censor, renders the horror and humanity in this war that will not end.


  1. Eugene Schoulgin on September 12, 2015 at 11:25 am

    I am following the situation in Afghanistan closely through our friends there, and through media, and everything seems totally black. Nearly nobody believe in a better future any more. On the contrary. Politically the situation is disastrous, socially it has become much worse the last year, security = 0. That country has been totally destroyed, partly by greediness, corruption, power games and criminality, partly by a rootless political engagement from the international community (read for a great part the US). It is published one book after the other with analyses of the reasons and the current situation, but I have frankly spoken not read anything “new” for a long time. From the borders to China in the east to the Mediterranean in the west, from the borders to Russia in the north to the Indian ocean in the south the political situation is more or less a mess and a disaster, as I see it. If the countries are not involved in civil wars and uprisings they are oppressed by rootless and reactionary regimes. And now the situation in Turkey is also alarming! If Erdogan succeeds in his efforts to get rid of Selahattin Demirtas and the HDP party at the new elections on the 1st of November, the country will fall back into the aúthoriterian semi dictatorship status which all the other countries in the region (Isreal is a different matter) are suffering. If he understands he will not succeed, he is power freaked enough to trow his country into a civil war, or arrange, if he is able to, a coup d´eta.

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