The Wars in the World of Literature

With tomorrow being America’s Memorial Day, I want to mention some of the most memorable novels set in wartime.

Many of those books show the awfulness of war, while some glorify it. A good number of fictional works focus on the people doing the fighting; others focus on civilians and how they’re affected — whether those civilians are in/near the carnage or far away on the home front. Some wartime novels are written by military veterans and might even be semi-autobiographical, while others are by writers who get their battle “experience” via research. Many wartime books are of course dramatic, visceral, and heartbreaking — and sometimes darkly humorous.

One great novelist who turned to wartime scenarios again and again was Erich Maria Remarque. His World War I-focused All Quiet on the Western Front is justly famous, but Remarque also authored several exquisitely written WWII-set novels that pack an immense emotional wallop — including Arch of Triumph, The Night in Lisbon, and A Time to Love and a Time to Die.

Then there was Remarque’s Nazi-concentration-camp-placed Spark of Life — one of a number of novels, such as William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice and Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, with a Holocaust theme.

Other compelling wartime novels include (to name a few) Elsa Morante’s History, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, John Steinbeck’s The Moon Is Down, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Alistair MacLean’s Where Eagles Dare, and James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific (all WWII); Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls (Spanish Civil War); L.M. Montgomery’s Rilla of Ingleside and Willa Cather’s One of Ours (WWI); Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, Geraldine Brooks’ March, and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind (America’s Civil War); Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (Napoleon’s invasion of Russia); and Sir Walter Scott’s Old Mortality (Scotland’s 1679 Battle of Bothwell Bridge).

As one can see from the above paragraph, plenty of women have written riveting wartime novels.

Then there’s fiction that includes main or supporting characters dealing with war-caused physical injuries, post-traumatic stress, survivor’s guilt, and more. Among those novels are Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, John Irving’s The Cider House Rules, Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress, and M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans.

Which war-related novels have you found most memorable?

Here’s a review of, and a video interview about, my new literary-trivia book Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for, which covers Montclair, N.J., and nearby towns. The latest weekly column is here.