The greatest war novels ever written

17 February 2017

Inspired by Whitney Terrell's The Good Lieutenant, the gripping, bitter and heart-breaking story of a female officer’s experience in Iraq told in reverse, we’ve put together a collection of what we believe to be the greatest war novels ever written.

Have we missed your favourite? Let us know at get in touch with us on Twitter at @PicadorBooks.


Gone With The Wind
Margaret Mitchell

Set against the dramatic backdrop of the American Civil War, Margaret Mitchell's magnificent historical epic is an unforgettable tale of love and loss, of a nation mortally divided and a people forever changed. Above all, it is the story of beautiful, ruthless Scarlett O'Hara and the dashing soldier of fortune, Rhett Butler.

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All Quiet on the Western Front
Erich Maria Remarque
This classic novel of the First World War is written in the first person by a young German soldier.
Paul Bauer is just eighteen when he’s pressured by his family, friends and society to enlist and fight at the front. He enters the army with six school friends, each filled with optimistic and patriotic thoughts. Within a few months they are all old men, in mind if not completely in body. They witness such horrors, and endure such severe hardship and suffering, that they are unable to even speak about it to anyone but each other.

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Testament of Youth
Vera Brittain

In 1914 Vera Brittain was 20, and as war was declared she was preparing to study at Oxford. Four years later her life - and the life of her whole generation - had changed in a way that would have been unimaginable in the tranquil pre-war era.
One of the most famous autobiographies of the First World War, is Brittain's account of how she survived those agonising years; how she lost the man she loved; how she nursed the wounded and how she emerged into an altered world. 


For Whom The Bell Tolls
Ernest Hemingway

Inspired by his experiences as a reporter during the Spanish Civil War, For Whom the Bell Tolls tells the story of Robert Jordan, an American volunteer in the International Brigades fighting to defend the Spanish Republic against Franco.
After being ordered to work with guerrilla fighters to destroy a bridge, Jordan finds himself falling in love with a young Spanish woman and clashing with the guerrilla leader over the risks of their mission.

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Anthony Doerr

A beautiful, stunningly ambitious novel about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.

Doerr weaves together the stories of a French girl named Marie-Laure who has lost her eyesight and a German orphan named Werner. As Hitler’s occupied territory grows, Marie-Laure and Werner’s lives and families are torn apart by the war, yet this beautiful novel is the story of people who, against the odds, find good in one another.  

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Joseph Heller

A satirical indictment of military madness and stupidity, and the desire of the ordinary man to survive it. 

Set in the closing months of World War II, this is the story of a bombardier named Yossarian who is frantic and furious because thousands of people he has never met are trying to kill him.

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Slaughterhouse 5
The Children's Crusade - A Duty-Dance With Death
Kurt Vonnegut

Prisoner of war, optometrist, time-traveller - these are the life roles of Billy Pilgrim, hero of this miraculously moving, bitter and funny story of innocence faced with apocalypse.

Slaughterhouse 5 is one of the world's great anti-war books. Centring on the infamous fire-bombing of Dresden in the Second World War, Billy Pilgrim's odyssey through time reflects the journey of our own fractured lives as we search for meaning in what we are afraid to know.

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The Hunters
James Salter

Drawing upon his time as a fighter pilot in the Korean War, James Salter’s first novel is a landmark masterpiece in the literature of war.

Captain Cleve Connell arrives in Korea with a single goal: to become an ace pilot. But as his fellow airmen rack up kill after kill - sometimes under dubious circumstances - Cleve’s luck runs bad. Other pilots question his guts. Cleve comes to question himself. And then in one icy instant 40,000 feet above the Yalu River, his luck changes forever

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The Things They Carried
Tim O’Brien

A startling exposé of humanity in the Vietnam war. Presented as a chain of interconnected short stories, O'Brien intrinsically links the weight of things individual soldiers carried on their backs and in their hearts. In a thought-provoking metafiction that will make you laugh and cry he unmasks the masculine facade, debunks the ideal of heroism, and reveals the Vietnam soldiers for what they really were: children.

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Tree of Smoke
Denis Johnson

Set in south-east Asia and the US, and spanning two decades, Tree of Smoke ostensibly tells the story of Skip Sands, a CIA spy who may or may not be engaged in psychological operations against the Viet Cong -- but also takes the reader on a surreal yet vivid journey, dipping in and out of characters’ lives.

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The Kite Runner
Khaled Hosseini

Afghanistan, 1975: Twelve-year-old Amir is desperate to win the local kite-fighting tournament and his loyal friend Hassan promises to help him. But neither of the boys can foresee what will happen to Hassan that afternoon, an event that is to shatter their lives. After the Russians invade and the family is forced to flee to America, Amir realises that one day he must return to Afghanistan under Taliban rule.

Hosseini explores the nature of friendship, of forgiveness and of redemption, set against the turbulent background of his native Afghanistan.

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 The Story of Brief Marriage
Anuk Arudpragasam

Set during the closing days of the horrors of the Sri Lankan civil war in the north of the island, Anuk Arudpragasm’s beautiful debut, The Story of Brief Marriage, tells the story of two young people thrown together by their perilous circumstances, learning to feel as people again as the fighting closes in around them. Hypnotic in its detail, this devastatingly moving novel bears unflinching witness to the lives of those caught up in a conflict now much forgotten by the wider world. 

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 The Yellow Birds 
Kevin Powers

An unforgettable depiction of the psychological impact of war, by a young Iraq veteran and poet.

Everywhere John looks, he sees Murph. Back home after a year in Iraq, memories swarm around him: bodies burning in the crisp morning air. Sunlight falling through branches; bullets kicking up dust; ripples on a pond wavering like plucked strings. The promise he made, to a young man's mother, that her son would be brought home safely. It vividly captures the desperation and brutality of war, and its terrible after-effects.

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Whitney Terrell's remarkable novel of the Iraq War, The Good Lieutenant, is out now. 

The Good Lieutenant, literally starts with a bang, as an operation led by Lieutenant Emma Fowler goes spectacularly wrong. From here we unspool backward in time as Fowler and her platoon are guided into disaster by suspect informants and questionable intelligence. Terrell reveals what can happen when good intentions destroy, experience distorts, and survival becomes everything.

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