John Maxwell Edmonds, the English classicist, wrote an epitaph that is found on war memorials around the world. It reads, “When you go home, tell them of us and say, For their tomorrow, we gave our today.” As we honor our veterans this Veterans Day, Edmonds’ epitaph serves as a reminder of the sacrifices made by our men and women in uniform.
Here are my picks for books – both fiction and non-fiction — that tell some of the stories of our war veterans and the times in which they served.
The American Revolution (War of Independence 1775-1783)
The Glorious Cause by Jeffrey Shaara
In The Glorious Cause, Jeffrey Shaara, a war novelist, tells the story of the Colonies six-year struggle in the war for independence from Britain. With a focus on the military achievements of George Washington and his army, Shaara takes us from the defeats in the battles of Brooklyn and Manhattan to the victory at Yorktown. Shaara is especially adept at providing vignettes of the ‘great men’ of history, including Washington and Ben Franklin, while telling an engaging story. For more on the Founding Fathers, see our piece on books for Independence Day: “My Country ‘Tis of Thee: Of Thee I Read”.
The Civil War (1861-1865)
The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane
Stephen Crane’s story of a young Union soldier who flees the battlefield but later seeks redemption from his cowardice act through a “red badge of courage” still resonates today. The young Union private, Arthur Fleming, overcomes his act of cowardice by serving as a Union standard-bearer on the battlefield. Crane’s novel is probably one of the most widely-read Civil War books ever published and has long been standard reading for high school students.
March by Geraldine Brooks
Anyone who loved Louisa May Alcott’s, Little Women will enjoy the way Geraldine Brooks in her novel, March tells the story of the March family’s absent father. As devotees of Little Women know, Mr. March leaves his wife and daughters and their Massachusetts home to join the Union Army. Through the eyes and experiences of Mr. March we get a sense of the great suffering and death experienced by both sides in the Civil War. March’s storytelling and originality earned Brooks the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2006.
World War I (The Great War 1914-1918)
The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 by Margaret Macmillan
In The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914, Margaret Macmillan, a Canadian historian, asks the tough questions as she analyses the origins of World War I. With the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, “the fuse was lit”, but as the New York Times wrote, “no one jumped on it.” The failure to prevent a war was devastating: An entire generation of men in Britain, France and Germany was gone. While the US didn’t enter the war until 1917, Douglas MacArthur, George Marshall and George Patton all saw action on the battlefield — and caught the attention of their superiors. Macmillan comes to no sweeping conclusions but through her analysis demonstrates how well-intentioned leaders can make fatal mistakes. For novels on the Great War see our piece on “Novelists Who Capture the Great War”.
World War II (1941-1945)
Band of Brothers by Stephen Ambrose
Stephen Ambrose tells the story of Easy Company’s 101st Airborne Division, a group of soldiers who parachuted into France D-Day morning, into Holland during the Arnheim campaign and went on to hold the line in the Battle of the Bulge. They were tough, loyal — and impressively modest. Ambrose took the book’s title from the St. Crispin’s Day speech in Shakespeare’s Henry V, aptly describing the commander, Dick Winters, and his men as, “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. “
The Vietnam War (1967-1973)
Faith of My Fathers by John McCain
No one can speak with more authenticity on the subject of Vietnam than John McCain. McCain spent five and a half years in North Vietnamese POW camps. In Faith of My Fathers, he describes the torturing and suffering he and his fellow prisoners experienced at the hands of the North Vietnamese. The book concludes with McCain’s release from captivity in 1973. Describing his release McCain writes, “ [I was] A filthy, broken man, all I had left of my dignity was the faith of my fathers. It was enough.”
All of us have family members or friends who served in the military. My father served on a US Navy carrier in the Pacific theater during World War II. This feature is dedicated to his memory and to the memory and honor of all our veterans, including those who served in the Korean War and those serving today in Iraq and Afghanistan.
To purchase a featured book on Amazon click on the book title.