The best war novels ever

It's not an easy task to compile a top 15 of the "best" war novels. There are so many excellent war books written that there will always be comments on the absence in this list of this or that book. The emphasis in this list is on books describing soldiers' experiences in war, whether on the battlefield or at the front. A lot of books have been written that play during times of war but are not necessarily about the direct experience of war itself by soldiers.

Now, this list is mainly offered as an inspiration for people who are looking for good war books to read. It is certainly not the ambition to give any absolute ranking of all war novels ever written.

A top ten of the war books ever
Book cover from All Quiet on the Western Front: A Novel by Erich Maria Remarque

1 All Quiet on the Western Front

All Quiet on the Western Front, originally 'Im Westen Nichts Neues' in German, by Erich Maria Remarque is considered by many as one of the best war books ever, if not the very best war novel ever. All Quiet on the Western Front, from the first day of its publication in 1928, is considered not only a literary monument, but a political and cultural fact of great significance. Due to the sober and pregnant description of the madness of war, the literary work was immediately and permanently recognized as one of the most important and impressive books of modern times.

The central character of this anti-war novel is Paul Baumer, who, like so many of his contemporaries in Germany and elsewhere, is very enthusiastic about joining the First World War. But from the first bombing in the trenches, it becomes apparent that the reality of the war is very different from what he had imagined. Soon Paul's main concern is simply to survive. An impressive novel about the "destroyed generation" of the First World War.

Book cover from Catch-22: 50th Anniversary Edition by Joseph Heller

2 Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Joseph Heller has written 'the war novel that makes all other war novels unnecessary' with Catch-22. It is an absurd book, but also original, bitter, vulgar, witty and moving. The black humor, the absurd logic and the unforgettable characters, such as the bombing director Yossarian and the most popular mess officer Milo Minderbinder, make it an unforgettable book. Joseph Heller himself was an army pilot who flew 60 missions in 1944.

The anti-hero Yossarian, the main character in the book, is stationed on an Italian island and - like the author - an air bombing pilot in the air force in the last years of the Second World War. He is surrounded by some stereotypical army figures: complete nutters, idealists, hardliners, opportunists, cynics etc. Black humor and cold, comic satire, realism and over the top characters are the main ingredients of this lively novel. Every logic is missing and everything is put upside down in this vivid drawing of the madness of the war.

Book cover from Billy Lynns Long Halftime Walk: A Novel by Ben Fountain

3 Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is the debut novel of American writer Ben Fountain. The book is about Bravo Company's experiences, and especially Billy Lin', the main character, after having gone through a bloody battle with Iraqi insurgents. This fight was followed by a television camera crew and the ensuing video becomes an instant hit on YouTube, making Bravo Company and Billy Lin in particular, American heroes overnight.

The Bush administration sees the enormous promotional opportunities of the video, brings the company home and organizes a victory tour throughout the country. The book describes the last hours of the tour and follows Billy and his team in the company of millionaires and politicians, unpleasant people and ordinary citizens, cheerleaders and Beyonce Knowles. Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is funny and sharp, but also moving and compelling. A modern novel about eight young men struggling with their hero status, their hangovers, the incomprehensible death of their companions.

Book cover from Birdsong: A Novel of Love and War by Sebastian Faulks

4 Birdsong

Sebastian Faulks is one of England's most important writers of this time. He is known among other things, for his world-wide bestsellers Engleby and One week in December. Birdsong is widely regarded as one of the greatest novels of the First World War, and has now been filmed by the BBC as Birdsong.

In 1910, the young Englishman Stephen Wraysford is sent to Amiens by his employer to study the French textile industry. He falls in love with Isabelle, the wife of his landlord, and experiences a short, passionate relationship with her. She flees Amiens and Isabelle becomes pregnant, but she feels guilty and returns to her husband. Stephen becomes a British military at the Somme in 1916, the area where he lost his great love and soon to be the location for one of the greatest slaughters in human history. The horrific circumstances make Stephen an alienated bitter man, but he succeeds in surviving the inferno of the trenches. At the end of the seventies, his granddaughter, Elizabeth Benson, finds her grandfather's diaries in a dusty attic.

Book cover from War and Peace (Vintage Classics) by Leo Tolstoy

5 War and Peace

War and Peace by Russian author Leo Tolstoy is not only one of the greatest classics in literature, it is also a book about war. About the invasion of Russia by Napoleon in 1812, to be more precise. War and Peace is an attempt by Leo Tolstoy to describe that war in a historically correct way, including lifelike descriptions of the various battles of this war. Tolstoy himself had been a soldier in the Crimean War, so it is no surprise he could describe the war with Napoleon in a very realistic way.

War and peace is a monumental work of fiction, more than a thousand pages long, describing the war of Russia against Napoleon France (1805-1814) by following the lives of five different Russian families. The story alternates between the daily lives of members of the five families and detailed descriptions of battles, which Tolstoy attempts to describe as accurately as possible. A very different kind of book than Tolstoys equally famous novel Anna Karenina.

Book cover from Slaughterhouse-Five: A Novel (Modern Library 100 Best Novels) by Kurt Vonnegut

6 Slaughterhouse-Five

Kurt Vonnegut himself was present in Dresden in 1945 when the Allies bombed the city. He survived the attack by sheltering with his fellow prisoners in the cellars of the slaughterhouse where he was employed as a prisoner of war. He processed this traumatic experience in the initially controversial but nowadays classical war novel Slaughterhouse-Five. The book truly shows the absurdity of the war.

Billy Pelgrim, the main character, is not bound by time. He goes to sleep as a an old widower and wakes up on the day of his wedding. He enteres a door in 1955 and returns to 1941. He has seen his own birth and death many times, he says, and regularly visits all the events in between. Only in that strange way, completely detached from reality, Billy succeeds in processing the horrors of Dresden. A staggering masterpiece that everyone has to read.

Book cover from For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

7 For Whom the Bell Tolls

With A Farewell to Arms (1929), Ernest Hemingway established his reputation as one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. About ten years later, For Whom the Bell Tolls, one of the best war books of all time, appeared. The writer based this war classic (from 1940) on experiences he had as a war reporter in Spain.

For Whom The Bell Tolls tells the story of the young American Robert Jordan, who fights in the Spanish Civil War as partizan on the side of the antifascists. During this war his loyalty, courage and ideals are put to the test. Hemingway's typical themes of war and personal honor are present in this war novel. At the same time, this is perhaps his most moving novel.

Book cover from Johnny Got His Gun: A Novel by Dalton Trumbo

8 Johnny Got His Gun

Johnny Got His Gun is often called one of the most shocking war books ever written. It was written by Dalton Trumbo and published one week after Germany invaded Poland on the first of September 1939. It is not only a powerful anti-war document, it is also an example of an overwhelming and magnificent imagination.

On the last day of the First World War, Joe Bonham is completely shot up. Because the medics can get him out on time, and the doctors present have time on their hands, they can experiment freely on the remains of the young soldier, he stays alive. Without legs, arms, ears, eyes, nose and mouth, but with his brains intact, and still capable of normal thought. The only means of communicating that is left available to him is kicking his head on his pillow and producing morse code. These 'silent words' are eventually understood by his nurse. "What do you want?", she asks of him. "To be part of the outside world," he replies. The young soldier shows himself as a living dead, as thinking dead, in response to the question of whether there is something worthy dying for. The answer he receives is of a fierce cruelty.

Book cover from The Naked and the Dead: 50th Anniversary Edition by Norman Mailer

9 The Naked and the Dead

Norman Mailer is an American writer (1923-2007) who wrote his debut novel in 1948 with The Naked and the Dead, a few years after the end of World War II. The book is based on the author's own experiences during his military service in the Philippines during World War II. In the war novel, we follow the experiences of a battalion of young American soldiers during the battle on the island of Anopopei, occupied by the Japanese. The emphasis in the book is not on the fighting, but on the friendships that are formed between men in the most difficult of circumstances.

Norman Mailer has won the Pullitzer price for his famous novel The Executioner's Song.

Book cover from Empire of the Sun by J. G. Ballard

10 Empire of the Sun

Empire of the Sun, truthfully filmed by Steven Spielberg, is a war novel by deceased British writer J. G. Ballard. Ballard is famous for his apocalyptic science fiction novels, but his literary reputation is largely won by his magically realistic fantastic stories. Empire of the Sun is an exception in his oeuvre and is a semi-autobiographical story of the four years spent by a British boy in a Japanese prison camp during World War II.

The young James Graham is stranded in Shanghai after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and is imprisoned in a Japanese detention camp. As the war continues and James becomes more and more aware of the reality of the war, his feelings develop and his life becomes a battle of survival. The confusion that is so typical of the war is shown exceptionally well in this book. In Empire of the Sun Ballard accurately describes the terrible reality of the Chinese-Japanese war and the Japanese concentration camps in China.

Book cover from Regeneration (Contemporary Fiction, Plume) by Pat Barker

11 The Regeneration Trilogy

English writer Pat Barker has written three novels in the nineties about World War One: Regeneration (part one of the Regeneration Trilogy) (1993, about a poet who is treated in England for shellshock from his experiences in the trenches); The Eye in the Door (1994, in which an officer develops a split personality from his experiences at the front); And The Ghost Road (1995, the impressive closing of the triptych). In a clear narrative style, the writer of the trilogy paints a vivid picture of the horrors of this man-to-man war and the traumatic consequences for those who survived.

It is 1917. In a public statement, Siegfried Sassoon, poet and officer in the British army, takes a stand against the futility of the war. His provocative charge, addressed to the politicians responsible for the slaughter at the front, does not get him court marshaled. Instead, Sassoon is submitted in the military hospital Craiglockhart, where a conflict arises between him and Dr. Rivers.

Book cover from The Hunters: A Novel by James Salter

12 The Hunters

James Salter was born in New York in 1925. He is the author of the novels Solo Faces, Light Years, A Sport and a Pastime: A Novel and The Hunters. The Hunters was his first novel, originally published in 1965, and is based on the author's own experiences as a fighter pilot during the Korean War. The book is considered a classic war novel.

Captain Cleve Connell is already a well-known name among pilots when he arrives in Korea to take on the Russian MIGs with the new F-86 fighter aircraft. His goal, like any combat pilot, is to shoot down enough enemy fighters to become an 'ace' pilot. But things work out differently than expected. Mission after mission, he fails to shoot down enemy planes and the other pilots begin to doubt his will to fight the enemy. As a result, Cleve's self-confidence begins to waver, and fear takes over. A dramatic mission over the Yalu River finally proves his courage and honesty.

Book cover from Covenant with Death by John Harris

13 Covenant with Death

Covenant with Death is proclaimed by many as one of the best books about war ever written. World War I, also called the Great War, was intended as the war that would end all wars. But that wasn't what the First World War did. On the contrary, it was a massacre. More than one million people died during the battle of the Somme, and without a clear winner.

John Harris Covenant with Death tells the story of one particular battalion of volunteers during the naive war optimism in 1914, until its ultimate destruction during the first hostilities at the Somme. An anti-war novel that is often compared to All Quiet on the Western Front by German Erich Maria Remarque.

Book cover from The Yellow Birds: A Novel by Kevin Powers

14 The Yellow Birds

Kevin Powers entered the US army at the age of seventeen. For a year he served in Iraq. After leaving the army and a number of useless jobs, he went to the University of Virginia to study English. He is currently teaching poetry at the University of Texas in Austin. With The Yellow Birds, he wrote, according to many, the great novel about the war in Iraq.

The Yellow Birds is the story of the young soldier Bartle, for whom the Iraq war is a hopeless void. His endless days are full of death and ruin, but especially boredom. In a desperate attempt to get hold of his frustrations, Bartle clings to the companionship with his fellow men, especially his friend Murphy. Kevin C. Powers lets the reader be an eyewitness, guilty party and martyr all at the same time in a breathtaking book which has been translated in 16 languages already.

Book cover from From Here to Eternity by James Jones

15 From Here to Eternity

James Jones is one of the great masters of the war novel. He was himself a soldier during World War II and has used his experiences as a basis for various war books he wrote later on. His best-known books are From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line. In From Here to Eternity, James Jones outlines the courage, passion and struggle of men and women who live on the basis of an unspoken code of honor and in unspeakable despair.

Diamond Head, Hawaii, 1941, just before the attack on Pearl Harbor: Robert E. Lee Prewitt is an exemplary soldier. However, if he refuses to become a member of the company's boxing team, he gets a "treatment" that will break him or kill him. First Sergeant Milton Anthony Warden is a better soldier than most who put his career at stake by starting a relationship with his commander's wife. Warden and Prewitt are connected by their destiny: the army is everything for them in life, but they are likely to while serving in that army too ...

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