Karl Marlantes’ Top 10 War Reads

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After studying at Yale, Karl Marlantes served as a marine in Vietnam and was awarded numerous medals including two Purple Hearts. In 1977 he began writing Matterhorn, a novel about his experience of combat in the jungle. The book ended up taking Marlantes 30 years to write while raising a family of five children and working full-time in energy consultancy. Marlantes last book was What It Is Like to Go to War.

About books on war in general, Marlantes says:

“It seems to me that a great war book must speak the truth about war; that it is mostly tedious, numbing, confusing, occasionally thrilling, filled with love for your comrades, and ultimately leaves you sad. Then, of course, there is the constant authorial challenge to keep the reader turning the pages — a challenge fully met by all of these tales.”

Here are Marlantes’ favorite war reads. Feel free to suggest your own in the comments below.

1. The Iliad by Homer

“I have to confess I first read this in a Classics Comic Book version. What struck me then — I was about eight or nine — was that the author actually thought that the Trojans weren’t morally any better or worse than the Greeks. Maybe a little better, in fact, but I’m half-Greek so that was hard to swallow. It was only after I’d been in a war myself that I read the actual epic, and I did it in both Robert Fitzgerald’s and Richmond Lattimore’s translations. On those readings I was struck by the changelessness of the experience, no matter the technology, and the utter randomness of it all, in Homer personified by the intervention of the gods.”

2. The Red Badge of Courage by Steven Crane

“This one I read because it was required in school. I suspect it got on the required list in part because our teachers thought it was short enough to at least encourage us not to reach for the Classic Comic Book. It is of course notable for the understanding of fear, cowardice, and slaughter from a man who wasn’t in combat. This is rare, and I have to admit that I’m highly suspicious of any novel about war that is written by someone who hasn’t experienced it.”

3. Egil’s Saga

“I was taken by this ancient tale’s authentic celebration of the dark joy of being on the winning side. It’s also just a very good adventure that takes place in a time that tends to get romanticized. Here, by contrast, you get the feeling that it’s a pretty tough way to make a living. Full disclosure, my grandfather was a Norwegian and I was fairly predisposed to overlook some of Egil’s more pathological mental states.”

4. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

“I’ve read this twice and am going through it for the third right now with the new Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation. This man’s genius is to handle a huge cast of characters and points of view, from an Olympian historical analysis, to the minds of dictators and generals, to the minds of individual soldiers. When I read how Prince Andre felt when he went down mortally wounded, seeing the concrete nothingness of the sky, I actually had to stand up and take a walk it hit me so profoundly.”

5. The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry

Here we get the true feeling of senseless mechanised slaughter, the terror of artillery shellings and poison gas that, supported by rail systems and industrial economies, could go on and on until minds broke, and the numbing degradation of life in the trenches. These poems also made it clear that the day of the individual warrior who could significantly influence his odds of survival through skill of arms had truly come to an end.

6. Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves

“Graves expressed so clearly the aftermath of combat, the wounds to the mind and soul. And he told of the actual experience in chilling understatement.”

7. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

“This is the first novel I read where “the con” of patriotism was fully revealed. I have nothing against patriotism; it’s a good thing. It’s just that sometimes you can have too much of a good thing.”

8. In Parenthesis by David Jones

“This small novel is very close to poetry in its spare and beautiful use of language and its use of symbols. Being a mythology nut, I relished the inclusion of the old Welsh epics and myths in the text. He also captures, as does his title, the way the intensity of combat is bracketed between versions of ‘normal life.’”

9. The Thin Red Line by James Jones

“Here is a book written by a soldier with a soldier’s eye and sensibility. I think Jones captured jungle warfare brilliantly. He also captured the nerve-shredding anxiety of nothing happening.”

10. The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer

“Here is war writing that focuses on a group and the interaction within that group. It is the small unit of friends that provides the meaning of war to most veterans, not the sweeping generalizations of the politicians. This is not to say that some sweeping generalizations aren’t true — it’s fairly easy, for example, to agree that destroying fascism was a good cause. But when my uncles and father and their friends could be persuaded to talk about their experience of the second world war, to a man said they never thought once about “the cause” when they were actually fighting. They thought about their friends.”


This piece first appeared in The Guardian as part of their Top 10s series.

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  • C.J.

    I would recommend the “March of the 10,000 Greeks,” by Xenophon, and the WWII reporting of Ernie Pyle.

  • http://www.facebook.com/terry.boevers Terry Boevers

    The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien. I can’t believe it didn’t make the list.

  • Lee B. from Austin

    Catch-22:
    “There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.”

  • Creighton King

    A top-twenty list would also include, I presume, Tobias Wolff’s In Pharaoh’s Army (in addition to earlier commenters’ picks by O’Brien and Xenophon)?

  • Liddy RIch

    Catch-22 fits this definition perfectly . I’m surprised it is not on the list.

  • JR

    Soldiers Heart, by Elizabeth Samet, tells of her teaching literature at West Point and gives a compassionate and unexpected account of the young people who know they are heading for war, and the way that literature helps them think about that, both in advance and while in combat.

  • Abdicated

    Johnny Got His Gun, war has implications and affects on society as a whole, but the most profound destructive result is on the level of the individual human.

  • Cheri

    Pacific War Diary, I never understood what my Dad lived for 5 years until I read this book.

  • Helen & Paul Canin

    This was a powerful interview. It is unfortunate that our government leaders are not forced to listen to it.
    Two more important books on war to be added to the list: “The Road Back” by Eric Maria Remarque, and “Johnny Get Your Gun ” by Dalton Trumbo.

  • Alvie

    For the effects of Trauma, even unknown trauma, on the next generation. Leila Levinson’s book, Gated Grief.

  • H N Angell

    First rate interview and great presentation by Mr Marlantes

  • Denis Neville

    Vasily Grossman’s novel “Life and Fate” about the Nazis and
    Soviets at war and totalitarianism.

    Grossman confronting evidence of the Holocaust: “There are no Jews in the Ukraine. Nowhere –
    Poltava, Kharkov, Kremenchug, Borispol, Yagotin – in none of the cities,
    hundreds of towns, or thousands of villages will you see the black, tear-filled
    eyes of little girls; you will not hear the pained voice of an old woman; you
    will not see the dark face of a hungry baby. All is silence. Everything is
    still. A whole people has been brutally murdered.”

    Some ask why write about this? Why remember all that? Why
    read it?

    “Why do people have memories? It would be easier to die -
    anything to stop remembering.” – Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate

    But Grossman felt it his moral duty to speak “on behalf of
    those who lie in the earth.”

    To not read his novel is to insult the memory of those who
    lie in the earth.

  • Mountain Mike

    Seven Pillars Of Wisdom… T.E.Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia)

  • 19obert63

    Great list-the only thing I would add is Shakespeare’s Henry THE 4TH AND 5TH; Tuchman’s Guns of August and Heller’s Catch 22.

  • anon

    Having read and enjoyed both Marlantes books I would add the following as great Vietnam War reads, in no particular order: Fields of Fire by James Webb, They Marched Into Sunlight by David Maraniss, 365 Days by Ronald Glasser, The 13th Valley by John M. Del Vecchio.

  • oboogie2

    “My War Gone By, I Miss It So” by Anthony Loyd; The 13th Valley by Delvecchio; We Were Soldiers Once…and Young by Galloway and Moore; War is a Racket by Gen. Smedley Butler; and any of the poetry from Wilfred Owens, are all definitely missing from this list.

  • Judy

    “Fatal Light” by Richard Currey is an elegant and powerful must read addition to this list.

    http://www.richardcurrey.com/fatallight.html

  • cacciato

    read Bao Ninh, “the sorrow of war” vietnamese recording of the other side’s horrors

  • 19obert63

    Mrs. Dalloway-Virginia Woolf
    JFK and the Unspeakable-James Douglas
    Poems OF Walt Whitman
    Histories of Herodutus
    Julius Ceasar-Shakespeare

  • 19OBERT63

    I think his list is great but one book confuses me and that is the Illiad. The gods run the show, the soldiers are mere puppets and cannon//spear fodder. Bloated speeches with
    “big lies” everywhere espousing ethnocentric paranoia. Hey wait a minute; now, I get it!

  • http://www.facebook.com/bill.rayburn.3 Bill Rayburn

    There are several. Along with ‘If I Die In A Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home’, by Tim O’Brien, a searing portrait of the grunt’s daily struggles in Vietnam, I would have to include ‘Paths Of Glory’, by Humphrey Cobb, a serious indictment on the pride and arrogance of France’s generals in WWI. For newer books, I think we will be talking about for some time ‘The Liberation Trilogy’ books by Rick Atkinson, in-depth studies on WWII.