Mauss by Art Spiegelman

Books That Have Taught Me About War

Being English in times of war or conquest, is a position of privilege. I don’t mean for the people who fight, but as a spectator, a citizen, War is somewhere you go to, visit, fight, wait. From my meagre knowledge of History, past conquests, I cannot think of many events where war has been brought to my country. Excluding the Blitz and acts of terrorism.

Please do correct me if I am wrong. After all, this post is on my ignorance and the literature I have encountered that have taught me more about the subject – I’m here to learn.

When war, like many other things, is separated by other countries and water, it is easy to forget about or ignore its magnitude. From the political to the personal, war resonates for those who are exposed to it.

The majority of the books I have read that are either on or about war have dealt with the personal effects, so I please do recommend me books that deal with cultural and political ramifications. Recommend me any, really.

Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford

“The beastliness of human nature is always pretty normal. We lie and betray and are wanting in imagination and deceive ourselves, always, at about the same rate. In peace and war! But, somewhere in that view there are enormous bodies of men….. If you got a still more extended range of view over this whole front you’d have still more enormous bodies of men. Seven to ten million… All moving towards places towards which they desperately don’t want to go. Desperately! Everyone of them is desperately afraid. But they go on. An immense blind will forces them in the effort to consummate the one decent action that humanity has to its credit in the whole record of history; the one we are engaged in. The effort is the one certain creditable fact in all their lives…. But the other lives of all those men are dirty, potty and discreditable little affairs…. Like yours… Like mine…”

I use this passage a lot when I talk about Parade’s End, but, however many times I read it, it never loses effect.
War breaks Christopher Tietjens, it scars him. Not only the endless bombing, his stint on the front line and the death, but the waiting, the endless waiting.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Septimus’s fall into madness is brought on by his post-traumatic stress. Soldiers who returned after the first world war were not treated for these illnesses. In fact, from what I remember, soldiers were treated fairly abominably on their return to England.

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

“It wasn’t that I forgot Hanna. But at a certain point the memory of her stopped accompanying me wherever I went. She stayed behind, the way a city stays behind as a train pulls out of the station. It’s there, somewhere behind you, and you could go back and make sure of it. But why should you?”

Bernhard Schlink writes about the collective sense of German guilt over the war, and how it is (or isn’t) dealt with. War is not confined to a set of dates, its repercussions reverberate.

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

“It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

“And that, …is the story of our country, one invasion after another…Macedonians. Saddanians. Arabs. Mongols. Now the Soviets. But we’re like those walls up there. Battered, and nothing pretty to look at, but still standing.”

War is rarely about what is ‘right’ and is always about power.

The English Patient by Michael  Ondaatje

“Why are you not smarter? It’s only the rich who can’t afford to be smart. They’re compromised. They got locked years ago into privilege. They have to protect their belongings. No one is meaner than the rich. Trust me. But they have to follow the rules of their shitty civilised world. They declare war, they have honour, and they can’t leave. But you two. We three. We’re free.”

Maus by  Art Spiegelman

Another piece of art that has taught me how the experience of war stays with you throughout your life. On first glance, Vladek Spiegelman is a cantankerous old man, hoarding food and supplies, but he has good reason for being so thrifty when food literally means life or death.

When I began writing this post I thought I had read more (in number and diversity) than this. Can you recommend me any books that provide an insightful depiction of war?

*Quotes from GoodReads.

8 thoughts on “Books That Have Taught Me About War

  1. Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor was Divine – how the interment of Japanese in America during WWII affect the Japanese-Americans.


  2. No doubt everyone else will say this but you have to read ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’. It’s the best depiction of WWI I’ve ever read; most importantly by someone who was actually there 🙂


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