This Memorial Day, while lying on a beach, flipping some 'burgs with your buds, remembering the troops, or all of the above, consider picking up a book written by a vet. If you need suggestions, below are some fantastic and moving novels and story collections about the experiences of war and the lives of soldiers lost written by American authors who served in one capacity or another.
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Vonnegut is famous for his hilarious and biting science-fiction, but Slaughterhouse-Five, his best novel, has him in a much darker mode. Vonnegut fought in World War II and was captured during the Battle of the Bulge, which led to him being in Dresden during the infamous allied bombing and subsequent firestorm. That horror becomes the dark center of a novel about aliens and time travel.
Redeployment by Phil Klay
Published only a few years ago, Klay's Redeployment has already joined the canon of American war literature. In these 12 short stories, Klay inhabits the voices of different Iraq War veterans to give a nuanced and powerful portrait of what that war did to our soldiers and the country. The collection won the National Book Award in 2014, and was even recommended by President Obama as "powerful and, for me, painful set of stories about the experience of ordinary soldiers in Iraq."
The Healer's War by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough
Scarborough served as an army nurse during the Vietnam War, and turned those experiences into a moving fantasy novel about a young army nurse who is given a magical amulet by a dying Vietnamese man. While a fantasy, Scarborough doesn't hide the real horrors of American involvement in the country. The Healer's War won the Nebula, one of the most prestigious awards in science fiction and fantasy writing, in 1990.
The war stories of Ambrose Bierce
Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day, after the American Civil War. Bierce was a pioneering writer in many respects, writing important works of satire, science fiction, horror, and journalism. But his most important work might be his war stories. Bierce wrote realistically and brutally about the horrors of war, drawing on his experiences in the Civil War in the 9th Indiana Infantry. His war stories were published in various collections, and can be found collected together in some editions.
Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
While "hilarious" isn't a word one normally associates with war, much less World War II, Heller somehow finds a way to pull humor from the madness of that conflict. Heller flew over 60 missions as a B-25 bombardier in the Italian arena of the war, which served as the basis for his classic war satire.
Fobbit by David Abrams
A Catch 22 for the Iraq War, Abrams's debut novel is a darkly humorous look at the American troops in a Forward Operating Base. (A "fobbit" is someone who avoids combat by staying inside the Forward Operating Base like a hobbit never leaving the Shire.) Abrams served in the army for two decades and was deployed in Baghdad during the Iraq War.
A Son at the Front by Edith Wharton
Wharton is best known for her brilliant and witty novels of manners like The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth, but she also wrote several poignant books about World War I, the best of which is A Son at the Front. Wharton was living abroad in Paris during the time, and worked in various capacities for the French war effort, including visiting the front lines and bringing aid to troops.
The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer
When Mailer was drafted to fight in World War II, he tried to get a deferment by telling the army he was writing an "important literary work." It didn't work, but Mailer did draw upon his experiences fighting in the Philippines to pen one of the classic American war novels. Mailer writes powerfully about the dehumanization of soldiers, and provides insight into a theater of WWII that Americans often forget about.
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