Book notes - Read about American soldiers from the past


War has had a defining role in our country's history. From the Revolutionary War to the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Americans have put their lives on the line to fight for our country. Unless we have a friend or relative in the Armed Services, the dangers of war may seem remote and distant from our lives. To honor these brave men and women who are currently serving our country and to remember those who fought in previous wars on Veteran's Day, Nov. 11, why not read a book about our country's military history?

For a vivid look at a pivotal moment in the American Revolutionary War, try "Washington's Crossing" (2006) by historian David Hackett Fischer. The book describes in detail General Washington's crossing of the ice-filled Delaware River during Christmas 1776 and explains how the Americans reversed their fortunes in a short, sharp campaign that impressed military professionals at the time. Fischer's exhaustive research captures the precariousness of the Americans' situation. On the surface, it would have appeared lunacy to cross to the other side to face an alleged superior force of professional enemy soldiers. However, the author points out that the overwhelming odds were not quite so insurmountable. During much of the year, America's ragtag army developed a new form of fighting suited to the land and much more flexible than that of the British troops and their Hessian mercenaries. This is a great account that gives each side its proper due and criticism.

Pulitzer Prize winner James McPherson's "Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War" (1988) has been described as one of the best single-volume histories of the Civil War. His brisk narrative describes the economic, political, social and military events that preceded the outbreak of the Civil War, including the Dred Scott decision, the Lincoln-Douglas debates and John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry. He then moves into a chronicle of the war itself - the battles, the strategic maneuvering by each side, the politics and the personalities. Particularly notable are McPherson's views on such matters as the slavery expansion issue in the 1850s, the origins of the Republican Party, the causes of secession, internal dissent and anti-war opposition in the North and the South, and the reasons for the Union's victory. American history and military buffs will appreciate that his treatment of both sides in the war is evenhanded.

A different perspective of World War I is given in "Portrait of War: The U.S. Army's First Combat Artists and Doughboy's Experience in WWI" (2006) by Peter Krass. Eight graphic artists were recruited by the government and sent into combat to create a visual record of World War I. Despite the dangers, the men, proud of their role in recording history, were thrilled to have what one called "a free ticket to the greatest fight in the world."

The day to day adventures of these eight artists are well documented in a steady stream of letters home, personal diaries, and after-the-war memoirs by Krass. The book features some of the art works created by these men, a body of work comprising over 500 different pieces now owned by the Smithsonian Museum.

Studs Terkel gathered the reminiscences of 121 participants in World War II for his book "The Good War: An Oral History of WWII," first published in 1984. Terkel collected tales from combatants and non-combatants alike. He draws from both the European and Pacific theaters and from various ranks in all of the military branches and from several of the warring nations. These participants, men and women, famous and ordinary, tell stories that add immeasurably to the understanding of that cataclysmic time.

In 1973 Frances Fitzgerald won the Pulitzer Prize for her book "Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and Americans in Vietnam." The book was reissued in 2002 with a new afterward in which Fitzgerald updates the story three decades after the American withdrawal. Fitzgerald's analysis differs from combat histories in that it presents the Vietnamese and Americans from a sociological point of view and examines the reasons why it was impossible for the United States to win the war in Vietnam. Fitzgerald based the book on her own research and travels in Vietnam. She takes the reader into traditional villages and crowded cities, into the conflicts between Communists and anti-Communists, Catholics and Buddhists, generals and monks and reveals the country as seen through Vietnamese eyes.

War stories, both fiction and non-fiction, are a common theme in literature. Do you have a favorite war story? Please send your recommendations to


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment

Click here to sign in