In his memoir Afghan Post, veteran Adrian Bonenberger provides a visceral account of his bumpy road to self-discovery during his two deployments, and his experiences during his years of service. Bonenberger chose his 10 favorite contemporary war novels for Tip Sheet.
It’s been over 10 years since we entered Afghanistan, and the war has produced some compelling literature. Much of the written intellectual and literary production thus far has focused on journalist and soldier war memoirs, and recently there has been a trend toward fictional accounts of the War on Terror (or, more accurately, The Global War on Terror [under Bush] and Global Contingency Operations [under Obama]).
While the fictional output is still relatively limited, below are, in my estimation, the best novels to date. Unlike in previous wars, where an author like Erich Remarque or Kurt Vonnegut or Joe Haldeman could reasonably claim to speak with universal authority about an experience, Iraq and Afghanistan have been broken into so many divers and fundamentally different compartments that no single book can hope to fully explain what happened – each one of these tackles an element of the war, and each, so far as I can tell from my own experience, represents its element truthfully.
You won’t see many of these books in airport magazine shops, but most of them will get you through a transcontinental flight with ease. In the event that you’re headed to a combat zone, you should consider lighter fare.
1. The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders - The greatest living author’s variation on the theme of Orwell’s classic Animal Farm. George Saunders explores what happens to a small and comparatively weak group of people when a larger, more culturally homogenous and well-organized group decides to bully them, and then follows the events as they escalate. The book was published in 2005, and it’s difficult not to hear “Bush, Bush, Bush, Bush” while reading about Phil. The level of human sympathy at all levels and stages of the catastrophe is matchless in contemporary fiction.
2. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins - This book should be considered because Collins claims to have received inspiration from the Muse during a channel-surfing session that went from a reality television competition to footage from the invasion of Iraq. I read it in three hours, in a single sitting. The idea of children being sent to compete for honor by a decaying society dependent on exploitation, entertainment, and technology-driven consumerism for relevance make The Hunger Games the quintessential science fiction book to describe the wars.
3. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini - Along with the non-fiction Ghost Wars by Stephen Coll, The Kite Runner was the most engaging and emotionally accurate literary description of Afghanistan I’ve ever encountered. Hosseini writes from a strange perspective – that of the privileged outsider, the expatriate – and it is easy to understand the observations he makes as he writes from America. It catalogues both the frustrations and the potential for good that exist in war-torn Afghanistan.
4. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain - An extraordinarily vivid portrait of what public expectations surround soldiering in the 21st centuries, vested in the context of what it must be like for a soldier to inhabit a civilian body during “leave” from combat. Leave, especially from a combat zone, is essentially a vacation on steroids – The Hangover with more ambiguity and less belly laughs. If you’ve ever been at a sporting event and wondered what must be happening in the minds of those guys in uniform on the jumbotron, Billy Lynn has the answer, and I am certain that it will go down in history as indisputably the best novel about “leave” ever written.
5. Sand Queen by Helen Benedict - The only compelling fictional account I’ve read of a woman in combat, Benedict’s writing is impressive, passionate, and visceral. I never visited Iraq, and I’m not a woman, but I felt like I understood what it was like to experience the trials of a deployment as a female through her main character’s eyes. Reading this book is the best literary path to understanding the particular challenges of being female in the military during warfare.
6. Fobbit by David Abrams - I didn’t read this book until August of 2013, and immediately regretted that I hadn’t written it myself – although, as a combat vet, I’m not sure I could’ve spoken with the same freedom that Abrams did without it coming across as ungracious. Here’s what you need to know about Fobbit: in Iraq and Afghanistan, for every soldier with a rifle, there are five or six soldiers who never see any combat but remain on the base doing other jobs. There is an incredible tension between these two groups, especially when one from the former overhears one from the latter talking about how difficult they had it, a rift Abrams successfully captures.
7. Sparta by Roxana Robinson - A novel about the psychological toll of war, and how that can unravel even the most upstanding, idealistic soldier’s (or in this case, officer’s) life. Echoes of Lord Jim and Moby Dick from the protagonist’s perspective – reading this, I felt an immediate kinship with the novel’s hero, and watching him overcome the common symptoms associated with trauma in a war zone, I felt as though I was reliving my own struggles with PTSD.
8. One Hundred and One Nights by Benjamin Bucholz - One of the most emotionally challenging books written about the current wars, One Hundred and One Nights covers a topic that’s almost as rare as military stories told from a woman’s perspective: what life is like for the people whose country we occupy. I found the book difficult to put down while reading, and once I closed the cover for the last time, impossible to forget.
9. The Watch by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya - The Watch begins when an Afghan woman approaches a small unit of Americans in Afghanistan in an effort to recover her brother’s dead body. A moving and provocative re-telling of Antigone, The Watch follows several characters, and Roy-Bhattacharya manages to imbue each of them with a rich complexity. One of those rare stories that finds its stride in the opening pages, and doesn’t stumble.
10. The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers - The Yellow Birds is a beautifully written story about American soldiers in Iraq, a poetic and lyrical description of two enlisted men struggling to survive during the worst of the fighting. Powers brings the soldiers’ drab, dispiriting surroundings to life. The ambiance is transporting, heady, and – speaking as a combat veteran as well as a reader - almost too good for war.