There have been many great books written about and around war. Take Grahame Greene’s Our Man in Havana, the 18th of his 27 books, which is set in Cuba during the Cold War and which pastiches many of the spy novels of the time and lampoons both British and American spy agencies. Another of his novels, The Quiet American, is set during the Vietnam War.
I have mentioned Joseph Heller in a previous blog, but his Catch-22 is undoubtedly a book that delivers a punch when it comes to psychological warfare. His “hero”, Yossarian, is a bombardier in Italy during the Second World War. He desperately wants to get out of flying any more missions by feigning a mental illness. But, as the authorities are quick to point out, you can’t possibly have a mental illness if you think you have one. The dreaded “Catch-22”.
Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls recounts the story of a young American working with Republican guerillas in the mountains during the Spanish Civil War, while his other classic, A Farewell to Arms, has been dubbed “the premier American war novel from the First World War”. Hemingway himself had driven an ambulance in Italy during that war after failing enlistment in the US Army due to poor eyesight.
Birdsong, the fourth novel by Sebastian Faulks, has been compared to Hemingway, with his “stripped-back” descriptions of the Battle of the Somme, while Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead is based on the author’s own experiences with the 112th Cavalry Regiment during the Philippines Campaign in the Second World War.
All of these war books have something for the reader, but I have a particular love of the American Civil War. You will, of course, immediately think of Gone With the Wind, the sprawling novel by Margaret Mitchell which led to the equally sprawling 1939 film of the same name starring Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable. The book was, in fact, the only one written by Mitchell, despite constant pleading by her publisher. A novella she wrote as a teenager came to light after her death in 1949. Gone With the Wind was spread over 1,472 pages, was published in 1936 and won the Pulitzer Prize the following year. The characters of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler have gone down in literary history.
However, that is not the book I reach for. My choice is a considerably slimmer volume (a mere 55,000 words compared with Mitchell’s 426,590!) which was first published in book form in 1895 (after a short story version was printed in 200 city daily papers and 550 weeklies). The original title had been “Private Fleming: His Various Battles”, but the author eventually changed it to The Red Badge of Courage, referring, of course, to wounds sustained during combat.
The author, Stephen Crane, was born in 1871, six years after the war ended. The ninth surviving child of Methodist parents, he began writing at the age of four, and had several pieces published before he was 16. His first book, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, was not a success, but The Red Badge of Courage brought him international acclaim. He died tragically young in 1900.
The book tells the story of 18-year-old Henry, a private in the fictional 304th New York Regiment, who wonders whether he will remain brave in the face of battle. However, during the fighting he deserts, and the book relates his redemption and how he returns to his regiment to become the flag-bearer for his triumphant army.
I love a happy ending!!