Brendan James Murray, author of The Drowned Man, a true story of life, death and murder on HMAS Australia, reveals his top ten anti-war books:
A list of anti-war books could be a thousand pages long. In fact, every book ever written about war could be argued as an anti-war book… A writer who sets out to pen a celebration of military conflict would need to be quite disturbed (and, probably, somebody who has never experienced war first hand). Below are some of my favourites, sorted chronologically in terms of the wars they examine: The Great War, the Second World War and the Vietnam War (or ‘American War’ as it’s known to the Vietnamese).
Fly Away Peter by David Malouf
I first read Fly Away Peter as a teenager, and it had a profound impact on me. Malouf’s novel is about far more than simply a young Australian – Jim Saddler – enlisting in the Great War; it’s a reflection on responsibility, violence and masculinity, all delivered through the medium of lyrical prose-poetry. One of the best things about this book is Malouf’s use of juxtaposition. On the one hand we have Saddler’s idyllic, atypically masculine existence in Australia, where he watches birds and enjoys a friendship with the elderly photographer, Imogen. On the other hand Malouf confronts us with the stomach-turning horrors of the Western Front. Fly Away Peter is an unforgettable anti-war novel with a metaphysical conclusion.
A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
Perhaps the most famous war novel ever written, Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms hints at its anti-war stance as early as the title. The author’s position is cemented when we discover that his protagonist, Frederic Henry, is serving in a medical corps; here is a man who puts things together rather than tearing them down, setting him aside from almost all the other young men of his generation. His goal, of course, becomes maintaining his relationship with his lover, Catherine, and ensuring that their unborn child enters a world free of the horrors Henry himself has encountered in Italy. Despite being published almost ninety years ago, A Farewell to Arms maintains its power, in no small part due to its devastating final pages.
The Thin Red Line by James Jones
Loosely based on Jones’s own experiences fighting on the island of Guadalcanal, The Thin Red Line is a brutal examination of the realities of combat. Dispensing with the “gung-ho” heroics that dominated representations of war in America at the time, Jones reveals military conflict for what it is: a dirty, terrifying quirk of human stupidity. In the nightmare world of The Thin Red Line, American soldiers dig up corpses for fun, tear gold teeth from the mouths of dying Japanese, steal weapons from one another. One morally upstanding officer is shipped home because he dares to prioritise the lives of his men over a military objective. The thin red line of the title can be interpreted in many ways, but to me it represents the division between the civilised and uncivilised that all combatants in a war must cross.
The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer
The Naked and the Dead explores many of the same themes as The Thin Red Line, though in a more literary way. While Jones’s novel is a fairly traditional linear narrative, Mailer experiments with flashbacks (what he refers to as ‘Time Machine’ chapters) that act as detailed character studies. More interestingly, ‘Chorus’ chapters offer dialogue between characters written in the style of a script or screenplay. Far more than Jones, Mailer shows that a huge amount of time in forward military areas is spent not fighting; as such, the men are left with the challenge of how to fill that time. Ultimately, this results in a range of petty disputes and conflicts, which for me become Mailer’s way of hinting at the broader pettiness of war itself.
The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monsarrat
Like the previous two authors, Monsarrat based this book on his own experiences fighting in the Second World War. As the title implies, The Cruel Sea is a naval story, examining the challenges faced by Royal Navy sailors caught up in the Battle of the Atlantic, escorting vital conveys between America and England. Their enemy is threefold: first, the German U-boats that stalk the merchant vessels; second, the gnawing anxiety arising from not knowing when the Germans will attack; and third, the sea itself. This last enemy is perhaps the most formidable, and becomes a character unto itself over the course of the novel. The naval experience is often forgotten in a society strangely obsessed by tales of the army, but Monsarrat reminds readers that combat on the ocean was just as terrible – and futile – as anything that occurred on dry land.
The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk
Made famous by the black-and-white film starring Humphrey Bogart, The Caine Mutiny is nonetheless an outstanding novel in its own right, and essential reading for anybody interested in the naval experience. Ostensibly about an incompetent captain and his crew’s decision to challenge him, Wouk’s book is actually far more complex. Lieutenant Commander Queeg comes to stand for many things common in war: arrogance, pettiness, stupidity and blindness to objective reality. The book is also an examination of cowardice, leaving readers to ponder what it is, how it affects behaviour and who has the right to challenge it. None of the battles in this novel involve the enemy – they all take place between American sailors supposedly on the same side. Again, I see this as Wouk’s subtle comment on human folly and the tendency towards conflict.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
When people ask me if I have a favourite book, I invariably answer with Catch-22. I’m not totally sure that it is my favourite – there are other books on this list I enjoy as much – but nonetheless Joseph Heller’s comedy remains an answer I’m comfortable with. Hilarious, heartbreaking and replete with poignancy, this novel about an American bomber squadron in the closing days of the Second World War is a must read. Yossarian is the quintessential sane man perceived as insane due to his completely rational desire to avoid death at any cost. The enemy, Yossarian argues, is anybody who is likely to get you killed, and often that includes your own officers. Yossarian’s naked appearance at a parade is laugh-out-loud funny, but becomes tragic when Heller finally reveals why this young man refuses to wear his uniform.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
This winner of the 2014 Man Booker Prize has been written about so extensively of late I have little to add. Disturbing, moving and written in prose aglow with artistic intensity, The Narrow Road to the Deep North should become a classic of Australian literature. Most impressively, Flanagan challenges the notion of Australian military hero-worship, humanising his Weary Dunlop-esque protagonist in a way that does not diminish his sacrifices. An extremely confronting book with a powerful anti-war message.
Into the Smother by Ray Parkin
A harrowing account of Parkin’s time spent as a prisoner of the Japanese working on the Burma-Thailand railway, Into the Smother is a fantastic complement to The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Anybody who enjoyed Flanagan’s fictional work will find echoes of the characters in the real life heroes and villains that Parkin depicts with such cutting insight. As well as illuminating the brutality of the Japanese, this is a book which highlights the incompetence and naiveté of the Allied forces who set out to challenge them. Ultimately uplifting, this journal is nonetheless a chilling account of humanity at its worst.
Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien
One of my favourite war writers, Tim O’Brien has shown that it is possible to write again and again about the same war – in his case, Vietnam – but without a sense of dreary repetition. With its use of magical realism and reverse chronology, Going After Cacciato is perhaps O’Brien’s most challenging work, but it is well worth the effort. Cacciato is a naïve, boyish soldier who goes AWOL after claiming he intends on walking to Paris. O’Brien’s protagonist is Paul Berlin, a young soldier who joins a hotchpotch group of others to track Cacciato down. As the men trudge their way across Asia, crossing borders and meeting bizarre characters along the way, it becomes clear that we (like Paul Berlin) are caught up in a gigantic metaphor. Paris symbolises many things, and Berlin constantly questions whether it’s even possible to get there. “Paris,” the book observes, “is not a place; it’s a state of mind.” Going After Cacciato is not a powerful war novel, but a powerful peace novel.
Read our Q&A with Brendan James Murray here
More: Thirteen Fictional Tales of War