ReadersMagnet takes a look at war literature and how it has evolved in recent years.

War literature is a literary genre whose works (novel, short story, poetry, prose, etc.) depict war. A work under war literature features a setting or plot taking place in a battlefield, or something to do with armed conflicts. The literary work can be a military fiction, historical fiction or non-fiction, or even a war memoir. Throughout history, war literature has produced classic works and prominent writers. To this day, war literature’s influence in modern society remains especially in the field of military science, philosophy, politics, and culture. One of the most famous works of war literature is Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. To this day, the lessons inscribed in his book influence leaders, tacticians, and businessmen. However, that is just one of the many forms of war literature. Today, the themes and sub-genres have evolved and flourished greatly across time.

War Literature: History and Evolution

The earliest works of war literature can be traced in the poetry of classical and medieval times such as The Iliad by renowned Greek poet Homer, Beowulf, The Aeneid Sagas, and early works about the legend of King Arthur. Even during those periods, war literature already established its influence to many literary greats such as Seneca the Younger, William Shakespeare, and Euripides. By 19th century, the wars that were waged in Europe proved to be a great inspiration for what would become classic works such as Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma, and later on Stephen Crane’s retelling of the horrors of the American Civil War, The Red Badge of Courage. 

World Wars and the Rise of Modern Classics

World Wars I and II produced some of the most remarkable and poignant war literature. Ernest Hemmingway’s A Farewell to Arms became a hit and is considered one of the greatest novels about war. Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front introduced readers to new and more daring types of war novels. Post-war themes also became popular with the publication of Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier in 1918. It is a story about the challenges that war veterans have to face after suffering from war trauma. The reintegration into civil society is among its central themes. 

After World War II, Hemingway would again release another classic hit, For Whom the Bell Tolls, a novel set during the Spanish Civil War. By this time, the novels as well as the writing style have already flourished and evolved. Themes not central to combat or featuring the gory details of war also emerged. Post-war, existentialism, nihilism, and romance are some of the themes incorporated in the novels especially in the 1900s. 

The Vietnam War and Literature

The Vietnam War produced many great novels with varying themes and subplots. Some of the best-selling and critically acclaimed works include The Quiet American by Graham Greene. It tells the story of a young journalist who fell in love with a Vietnamese woman during the early days of the U.S.’s intervention in Vietnam. Other remarkable works are The Sorrow of War by Bảo Ninh, a Vietnamese writer, and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carry. Theater plays and screenplays about war also became popular. Two of the most successful are Oliver Stone’s screenplay for the war film classic The Platoon and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s musical Miss Saigon.

Recent Works of War Literature

Today, war literature encompasses many titles, forms, subjects, and narratives. We have military fiction, dark noir, historical non-fiction, memoirs, war drama, and many others. Some of the recent works that have gained wide readership include Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead, Acts of War by famous war novelist Tom Clancy, Slaughterhouse-Five by award-winning author Kurt Vonnegut, and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Aside from novels, other forms of literature on war continue are also being produced. The poetry and memoir Weapons of War is an example of modern war literature. It is not a book on military weapons by Robert E. Wright, but a collection of poems that he wrote during his time in Vietnam. Robert E. Wright served in the army as in infantryman and has taken part in many covert and challenging missions. The bloodshed and the horrors he saw somehow affected his spirit and he turned to poetry to combat these feelings of despair and anxiety. The letters he wrote were addressed to his fiancé Barbara Hampton, who would later become his wife. Weapons of War is just among the many books available out there the deal with war and its aftermath.

Overall, war literature will always be a part of our culture and arts. These literary works reflect the realities that are happening as well as the lives of those who participate in armed conflicts. They continue to encourage and teach us valuable lessons from time to time. Lastly, they are stark reminders of history’s dark places and hope that they will never repeat.