Looking to crack open a novel at the beach this summer? Look no further than this list. Our contributors offer their favorite fiction about war, foreign affairs, and intrigue.
Spytime: The Undoing of James Jesus Angleton, by William F. Buckley, Jr. (2001) — For those who like spy novels, but find Ian Fleming too fantastical and John Le Carré too cynical. It’s also based on the career of one of the CIA’s most impactful figures, and has much to tell about the ways that a single perceived threat can consume even the best in government service.
Horn of Africa, by Philip Caputo (2002) — Intensely personal depiction of covert operations in a challenging, complex, and messy part of the world with strong echoes of “Apocalypse Now.” I’ll never understand why it isn’t on the shelves of more bookstores, but it is absolutely worth a visit to Amazon.
The Tale of Old Mortality, by Walter Scott (1816) — Written in 1816, the year after the Napoleonic Wars (Scott had been in Paris with the allied leadership at the time that Napoleon was vanquished, and was close to those in power). It is set in a period of political turmoil in Scotland in the late 17th century at the time of the Scottish Covenanter’s rebellion. It is the model of an historical novel about the complexities of political allegiance, factionalism, and the ability (or lack thereof) of man to change the course of history. Health warning: you need to work through the treacle-like Scottish dialogue in the first few chapters before it starts to flow. Scott was a conservative but hugely admired by Karl Marx.
Flashman, by George MacDonald Fraser (1969) — I’m currently, finally, chewing my way through War and Peace by Tolstoy. But if you want to enjoy your holiday, read the first “Flashman” set at the time of the first Anglo-Afghan War.
Once An Eagle, by Anton Myrer (1968) — Teaches honor versus self-promotion which still exists in today’s military.
Shogun, by James Clavell (1975) — Teaches two things above all: personal strategy in the midst of crisis is as important as national strategy and love in a war environment is as deep an emotion as one can experience.
From Here to Eternity, by James Jones (1951) — Explores the personal and professional trials and tribulations of officers and NCOs in a pre-world War II rifle company during the Great Depression, an existence aptly described as the equivalent of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Lost Generation.”
The Young Lions, by Irwin Shaw (1948) — Traces the dissimilar experiences and eventual fates of an eventually disillusioned junior German officer and two U.S. soldiers during World War II — one a Jew, the other a dissolute white Anglo-Saxon Protestant.
The Human Factor, by Graham Green (1978)
The Sword of Honour trilogy, by Evelyn Waugh (1952, 1955, 1961)
Red Sparrow, by Jason Matthews (2013)
The Kerberos Saga, by Mamoru Oshii (1986) — A multimedia franchise including manga, novels, anime, live-action films, and radio dramas, Kerberos Saga is a story of paramilitary units, political intrigue, and terrorism set in a dystopian alternate history version of Japan. One of the best places for newcomers to start is the Kerberos Panzer Cop manga comics. An English version exists, but searching online can yield more canonical-free fan translations of the originals. Kerberos Saga is a must-read for anyone interested in political violence, civil liberties, and the security state.
The Illuminatus! Trilogy, by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson (1983) — Conspiracies, counter knowledge, and closed worlds have been a constant in national security from James Jesus Angleton’s counterintelligence gone wild to outlandish 9/11 conspiracy theories. Shea and Wilson’s Illuminatus! series takes readers on a psychedelic journey to get to the bottom of a grand conspiracy involving everything from secret societies of intelligent porpoises to the geopolitically contested island of Fernando Poo. You’ll be alternatively tickled and puzzled by the massive amounts of sex, drugs, and savage roasts of 1960s cultural and political figures. If you can make it through to the end you’ll never pick up another Dan Brown novel again.
Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe (1958)
The Bridge at Andau, by James Michener (1957)
Catch-22, by Joseph Heller (1961) — War is a human activity, and in fact, a very social one. No novel captures that better than Heller’s masterpiece. Often misconceived as an anti-war book, Catch-22 is much deeper and far more complex than that. I have probably read it 10 times by now and each time it makes me laugh and tear up. Set in World War II, it is about a U.S. Army Air Force bombardier who doesn’t want to go on combat missions anymore. Written during the worst of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s excesses, Heller skewers political ideology and authority in general, but especially military authority. The book presaged the rise of private military companies (and accompanying perverse incentives) through the character of Milo Minderbinder and his syndicate. Readers new to the book might be surprised to know that Snowden is a major figure in the main character’s development. No, not Ed Snowden. You’ll have to read the book to find out.
God Knows, by Joseph Heller (1984) — Yes, another Heller book. I get annoyed when I hear people say Catch-22 was the only good book Heller wrote. This simply isn’t the case. God Knows features an elderly King David, wasting away in his palace and telling his life story. As Heller’s David says, he has the best story in the Bible. The book is full of violence, sex, lust, and betrayal, along with profound, witty insights into human nature — and a very complicated relationship with God. David wants to set his story straight. He doesn’t appreciate how he has since been depicted: “That’s another thing that pisses me off about that Michelangelo statue of me in Florence. He’s got me standing there uncircumcised! Who the fuck did he think I was?” Read it.
Henry IV, Pts 1and 2, by William Shakespeare (1598) — Beyond the experience of Sir John Falstaff (arguably the best character created in the English language), these two plays are about the effects of war in coming of age, about honor and loyalty, and about the folly of fighting because of anger. Hotspur is antithetical to realism, Prince Hal exemplar of rising to the occasion, and King Henry on fighting when necessary, but understanding how dangerous and wearying is war. Come for the lessons, but do stay for the Falstaff.
Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes (1605) — The world is hard and dangerous, but becomes increasingly so if you fail to see the world as it is, as our eponymous hero fails to repeatedly. Strategic plans are only as good as the assumptions upon which they are based and clarity of thought is required. Another story with great characters, pay attention to how even Sancho Panza follows his master despite his relative clarity and you gain another lesson on how to follow as well, or rather on how not to.
The Sand Pebbles, by Richard McKenna (1962) — Tells the tale of a 1st Class Petty Officer serving on a U.S. gunboat in China during the inter-war years between the world wars. McKenna had experience in the Asiatic Fleet during the same period and writes a very realistic portrayal of life for sailors in that theater. While at the tactical level for sure, it examines some of the most basic drivers of behavior in our young enlisted and officers making decisions far from home in independent situations. It has a great movie to go with it, starring Steve McQueen, and is very “true” to the original book.
Battlefield Earth, by L. Ron Hubbard (1982) — Do not be dissuaded by the really awful movie version of this novel starring John Travolta. Hubbard illustrates a science-fiction confrontation between the people of Earth who are dominated in the future by an alien race sucking the planet dry of natural resources. Earthlings stage a great comeback using primarily economic means in the face of a technologically superior enemy. If read carefully, the book truly shows the importance of economics as the underpinning of the success of any civilization.
All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Remarque (1929)
Matterhorn, by Karl Marlantes (2009) — Both books capture the essence of combat by focusing on the people in a fashion that both breaks down the humanity of war, while at the same time, accurately portrays the horrors of war without romanticizing them.
Guard of Honor, by James Gould Cozzens (1964) — This Three novel is set over three days at an Army Air Force base in central Florida during World War II, showing the differentiation between those who went overseas and those who didn’t, as well as how racial issues could crop up amidst the temper of the times, and how courage and cowardice can arise in a bureaucratic situation thousands of miles from a shot being fired in anger.
Company K, by William March (1933) — First serialized as over a hundred short pieces in New York magazine from 193o to 1932, this novel examines individual members of a Marine infantry company in World War I. Specifically, it shows the wild diversity of reactions to combat, the random nature of battlefield death, and how sometimes the people you loathe may be the people you have to rely on and who save your life — in other words, the huge range of people who you’ll find in a combat unit.
Horn of Africa, by Philip Caputo (2002) — Caputo was a U.S. Marine Corps infantry officer whose Vietnam war memoir A Rumor of War was a global bestseller. He later was a Pulitzer-winning war correspondent before settling into a career writing novels. His first novel, Horn of Africa, set in the late 1970s, channels Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim as it describes what happens to three war veterans (two Americans and a Brit) who lead a gun-running covert action to tribes in some very bad territory in the Horn of Africa.
Indian Country, by Philip Caputo (2004) — This novel is set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and discusses the travails of a Vietnam war vet who years after the war struggles with the delayed onset of PTSD.
1632, by Eric Flint (2000) — A West Virginian mining town is sent back in time to central Europe during the Thirty Years War. The novel examines innovations in military technology, continental politics, and hard decisions as Renaissance Europe and a small band of determined, modern-day Americans come to terms with their new situation.
In the Balance: An Alternate History of the Second World War, by Harry Turtledove (1994) — Aliens invade Earth in the middle of World War II — that’s pretty much all you need to know.
The Sorrows of War, by Bao Ninh (1996) — This is a remarkable account of the Vietnam War from the perspective of a long-serving Viet Cong soldier. The night in the jungle of screaming souls is particularly haunting.
War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy (1869) — Tolstoy’s view of history and Russia’s role in shaping it is still seminal for anyone interested in understanding Russian foreign policy today.
Beowulf, trans. J.R.R. Tolkien (2014) — The passages I read in the New Yorker were gripping. It is an oldie but goodie and deals with all the sorts of things that make this form of literature about the human condition and violence real and meaningful. It does so using modern language to convey meanings from pre-modern language. In this sense, it serves as almost a bridge between worlds and human expression.
Last Kind Words Saloon, by Larry McMurtry (2014) — This novel is easy to read and hard to put down. You will view Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday in entirely new ways. McMurtry seems timeless, and when he dies (as did Elmore Leonard), a huge hole will be left in the English language (American version).
A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens (1859) — Set during the French Revolution, this Dickens novel powerfully illustrates how during wartime, heroism and sacrifice don’t just take place on the battlefield.
Fallen Angels, by Walter Dean Myers (1988) — A story about an 18-year-old soldier fighting in Vietnam. I read it more than 20 years ago and still consider it one of the most brutal and realistic portrayals of warfare I’ve ever come across.
Red Storm Rising, by Tom Clancy (1986) — A gripping, broad narrative of what a massive conflict with the Soviet Union could have been. An amazing story with realistic views on modern warfare.
Neuromancer, by William Gibson (1984) — A book by the man who defined “cyberspace” — as we stand on the edge of cyber warfare, the map for this future was already written in this brilliant story of hackers and enhanced enforcers.
The Quiet American, by Graham Greene (1955) — Although considered anti-war and anti-American by some, it is an entertaining read that provides useful lessons for working overseas with indigenous personnel.
Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad (1899) — Although immortalized by “Apocalypse Now,” this is a study of complex human nature and dealing with indigenous people. Read this instead of watching the movie.
Red Sparrow, by Jason Matthews (2013) — It is a great spy novel and the CIA analysts who reviewed it said they were shocked that it wasn’t redacted.
Gates of Fire, by Steven Pressfield (1999) — A wonderful yarn set in the ancient Greek world. This book introduced me to one of the most interesting characters in all of history, the Greek Admiral/General Alcibiades, whose flexible loyalties enabled him to serve Athens, Sparta, and Persia (though not at the same time).
Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell (1936) — No, really. In addition to being a fantastic read, this is a story of the depredations brought by war upon a Southern family. Scarlett O’Hara is even more interesting a character in the book than in the movie.
Hell or Richmond, by Ralph Peters (2013)
Cain at Gettysburg, by Ralph Peters (2013) — Peters is an exquisite writer who does intricate historical research and a former soldier with great empathy for the troops.
Matterhorn, by Karl Marlantes (2009) — This is a brutal look at combat from Karl Marlantes, a Marine infantry officer and Navy Cross winner in Vietnam. The book was some 30 years in the making, but unsurprisingly reads as if it was written in the moment. The book is a reminder for our generation that there are possible futures out there where the weather is too low for air day in and day out, the canopy is too thick for GPS, and scared young men will lead others into a dark world where the threats are too many to keep track of: accurate artillery, effective regiments, debilitating hunger and thirst, and even tigers.
A Bell for Adano, by John Hersey (1944) — An Italian-American major tries to bring democracy to a town after the American invasion of Sicily. The book was written in 1944, but the story will be eerily familiar to many veterans of our latest wars. Caught between uncomprehending leaders and intransigent civilians, Major Joppolo faces an impossible mission.
The Ugly American, by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer (1958) — This novel remains a classic about the self-inflicted wounds that occur when a Country Team does not sufficiently engage with the host nation and diplomats and others get trapped in the bubble of capital cities. The title is actually a play on words. The protagonist is a physically unattractive man who is very capable and effective while the pretty people in the capital are not.
The Godfather, by Mario Puzo (1969) — A classic encapsulation of realism. This book shows how the dark side of power works and illustrates many components of strategic interactions.
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee (1960) — I know, certainly not “new on the scene,” but I usually re-read this about once a year (along with snippets of the Federalist Papers, Washington’s Farewell Address, and my obituary — long story). Other than having one of the greatest lines in a book I’ve ever seen —“Atticus told me to delete the adjectives and I’d have the facts” — this “simple” book is about a “simple” truth that most of us will/may never learn: To know others is to ultimately know ourselves that much better. Thus, we should take extra pains to try to understand the perspectives of others before rushing to judgment, and see the world as they see it, not to justify or excuse them necessarily, and to always try, even in punishment, to be as kind to one another as we can. One of the more famous lines that has been adapted over time is, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view–until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Of course, another great line that has direct applicability for WOTR is, “Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”
The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco (1980) — Although a profoundly nihilistic book and ostensibly a murder mystery that deals with 14th century religious controversies, heresies and sects, at the heart of the work is its exploration/fascination with semiotics (signs, symbolism, semantics, communication writ large). Dan Brown’s main character Robert Langdon would kill to exist in this novel. It should also not be lost on the reader that the abbey in question contains the greatest library in Christendom, but it remains hidden within its labyrinth of a library. What if Alexandria had been maintained in the same manner — where would human knowledge be as a result?
The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara (1974) — About the agony of generalship in the Civil War.
The Blood Crows, by Simon Scarrow (2013) — About a brutal commander on the frontier in Roman Britain who is out of control.
The Sword of Honor trilogy, by Evelyn Waugh (1952, 1955, 1961) — Like many of his works, this trilogy includes the satirical depiction of the declining English aristocracy. It does so, however, through the chronicle of Guy Crouchback’s experiences during the Second World War, which parallel Waugh’s own. Waugh’s prose is exceptional, so for the WOTR reader, his wartime trilogy is a must.
The Honourable Schoolboy, by John Le Carré (1977) — Also part of a trilogy (preceded by Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and followed by Smiley’s People), The Honourable Schoolboy is the second installment of iconic protagonist George Smiley’s quest for Karla, his nemesis in Moscow. Smiley’s efforts to rout out corruption in the British intelligence service take his colleagues to war-torn Southeast Asia on a mission with several vivid, intertwined plots. All are suffused with the intelligence and urgency typical of this Cold War spymaster.
The Flashman Papers, by George Macdonald Fraser (1969)
Red Storm Rising, by Tom Clancy (1986)
The Sword of Honor trilogy, by Evelyn Waugh (1952, 1955, 1961) — Described by his friend Christopher Sykes as “utterly unfit” to be a line officer, Waugh nevertheless secured a commission in the Royal Marines and served with sometimes astonishing bravery in the Mediterranean theater. Sword of Honor draws on his wartime experiences, including the ill-fated Dakar expedition of 1940, the shambolic evacuation of Crete in 1941; and as a liaison officer in Yugoslavia to Communist partisan forces led by Marshal Tito (whom Waugh mischievously insisted was a woman). Populated with a superbly realized cast of warriors, patriots, spivs, and weaklings, the Sword of Honor novels — suffused with rage, crackling with humor, and saturated in melancholy — have rightly been regarded as the greatest English works of fiction to emerge from the Second World War.
W. Jonathan Rue
The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien (1990) — A work of fiction that has a great deal of truth about war.
The Ugly American, by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer (1958) — This 1958 novel by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer is still the best primer on how to conduct successful American national security policy. Don’t let the title make you think it is anti-American — it’s a profoundly loving portrait of the people who advance our interests and a scathing critique of the processes and people who don’t.
The Hustler’s Handbook, by Bill Veech (2009) — Not a work of fiction, exactly, but a collection of tall tales from baseball man (and Marine veteran) Bill Veeck in which he proves himself one of the finest strategists to ever hold American citizenship. The creativity he brings to advancing his interests, the joy he takes in the cacophony and opportunity of our society will give inspiration to up our game. Not to be missed (especially for War on the Rocks denizens) is the chapter, “Where Are the Drunks of Yesteryear?”
War and Remembrance, by Herman Wouk (1978) — The sequel to The Winds of War. Don’t be put off by the page count. No account of World War II is easier to read. With the lightest of touches, and despite the fact that the mass-market paperback version of the book makes it look like a potboiler, Wouk does a great job juxtaposing German, Japanese, Soviet, and U.S. strategies. His characters also wrestle with profound leadership and command challenges. Truth in advertising: The Holocaust does loom large. So does the U.S. Navy.
The Light in the Ruins, by Chris Bohjalian (2013) — Takes place around Florence in 1943, as changes in the course of the war were affecting characters caught in the middle.
The Sandcastle Girls, by Chris Bohjalian (2012) — Takes the reader back to 1915 as a modern-day woman researches the history of her grandmother and grandfather in Syria at the time of the Armenian genocide.
A Game of Thrones, by George Martin (1996) — The ongoing saga is a marvelous depiction of power, strategy, coercion, intelligence, diplomacy, and deception across an evolving tapestry of actors.
Rifleman Dodd, by C.S. Forester (1932) — The most famous works by Forester are, of course, the Horatio Hornblowers novels — themselves well worth reading for insight into Napoleonic naval warfare — and The African Queen. However, this short novel should not be neglected. It follows a British soldier who is cut off from his regiment during the Peninsular War against Napoleon in Spain. The book is likely to dispel any romantic notions readers may have of that war or of guerrilla warfare generally.
Storm of Steel, by Ernest Jünger (1920) — Most of the famous literature that came out of World War I emphasizes the horrors of that war — think of Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front or the work of the British war poets. Jünger, however, is not ashamed to let us in on the dirty little secret that for some people, war is the pinnacle of life.
The Flashman Papers, by George Macdonald Fraser (1969) — Because what better way to learn about 19th century great power competition and military history than by following the adventures of a red-faced coward who nevertheless rises to the rank of brigadier-general in the British army?
Superiority, by Arthur C. Clarke (1951) –This short story by a science fiction great has an important lesson applicable to military acquisitions: Perfect is the enemy of the good.
Master and Commander, by Patrick O’Brian (1969) — An enjoyable start to the epic 21-book series. Filled with amazingly detailed descriptions of Napoleonic-era nautical tactics.
A Desert Called Peace, by Tom Kratman (2007) — One of the better examinations of the spiritual and emotional effects of war, as well as a really good read.
The Regiment, John Dalmas (2001) — One of the better fictionalizations of a totally non-Western view of war and warriors.
John Allen Williams
Advise and Consent,by Alan Drury (1959) — Drury’s political characterizations were simplistic, to be sure, but this story about the struggle for secretary of state was an early introduction for me to the interaction of domestic politics and national security issues and a foreshadowing of the “take no prisoners” style of politics.
The Flashman Papers, by George Macdonald Fraser (1969) — Many thanks to Bob Killebrew for starting me off with these. Fraser’s series of books on the unprincipled Harry Paget Flashman — undeserved military hero and the luckiest man alive — offers a good deal of British military history alongside side-splitting funny adventures.
The Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling (2001—2011) — As friends and classmates at Hogwarts, Harry Potter, Ronald Weasley, and Hermione Granger become immersed in a bitter, longstanding struggle between those who seek to preserve an inclusive magical community and those who employ violence and intimidation to eliminate wizards who have even a trace of “muggle” (non-wizard) blood. With their depiction of uncompromising virtue and unambiguous iniquity, Rowling’s books reflect our desire to impose clarity on a hopelessly complex world: There are good people and bad ones, there is truth and falsehood, and so forth. Lord Voldemort has also become a metaphor for threats that observers in certain quarters refuse to acknowledge or insist on minimizing, whether out of ignorance, fear, or bad faith. Who would have imagined that China and Japan would invoke the arch villain to criticize each other’s policies in the Asia-Pacific region?
Lord of the Flies, by William Golding (1954) — Samuel Huntington, one of the most influential political scientists of the second half of the 20th century, argued in the late 1960s that Golding’s novel offered “[p]erhaps the closest contemporary model” of “the means by which the despot appeals to the people, isolates and eliminates his enemies, and builds up his personal strength.
Usha Sahay is an Assistant Editor at War on the Rocks.