7 Books That Speak the Truth of War for Civilians

Faleeha Hassan, author of "War and Me," recommends writers brave enough to confront the realities of violent conflict

Photo by Ahmed akacha via Pexels

War operates like a disease. Only those who have personally experienced it know its toll. For them, they will suffer from the pain of it, and stay up all night praying to God to be healed from it.

Warmongers never talk about the costs of war, and so it falls to brave writers to reveal the emotional, economic, and physical tolls. I wrote my memoir, War and Me, to inform readers about ordinary Iraqi citizens and the horrors they faced during many years of war—the Iraqi-Iranian War which lasted for eight years; and then the Iraqi-Kuwait War (Gulf War), which ended with the imposition of an economic blockade in Iraq that lasted for thirteen. 

On my first day of middle school in Najaf, the government announced they would close schools for ten days, until “certain victory” in the war with Iran was announced. But the war did not end in ten days. It lasted eight years, and all my friends were killed in the war or went missing in it. As a young woman, I hated seeing my father and brother go off to fight, and when I needed to reach them, I broke all the rules by traveling alone to the war’s front lines. That was my reality.

In my book, and in the list of superb books below, readers learn the truth about war for innocent citizens: crushing poverty and starvation, constant danger and fear, job loss, severe lack of medical care, and the absence of security and freedom. In a world on fire, these writers find courage, compassion, and a voice.

In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park

In her memoir, Yeonmi Park delves into the darkest corners of life in North Korea, a country whose inhabitants live in abject poverty, starvation, deception, and misery. Park describes the constant indoctrination that prevents the population from rising up against the “Great Leader.” With dignity and bravery, she also divulges that she and her mother were sold into sexual slavery in China and endured horrific hardships before they found their way to freedom in South Korea. Now a human rights activist, Park works tirelessly to bring attention to the oppression of North Korea’s citizens. 

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

Vera Brittain’s memoir is an insightful and exquisitely written record of World War I told through the lens of a young, fiercely independent spirit. Brittain details falling in love with a soldier and becoming active in the war effort as a nurse for the wounded. The war cruelly robs Brittain of her lover, her brother, her dearest friends, and her academic work. But it also opens up new worlds, allowing her to travel alone to foreign fronts, first in Malta, and then in France to work in hospitals near the front. Brittain is a shrewd and intelligent observer of all aspects of war, and her story has lost none of its power to shock and enthrall readers since it was first published in 1933.

The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh

Bao Ninh’s harrowing tale depicts the lasting impact of war on an individual’s conscience through the journey of Kien, a veteran of the Glorious 27th Youth Brigade of the Vietcong. Kien struggles with PTSD, substance abuse, and an indescribable longing, a hope for a better future that he knows will never come. Ninh beautifully illustrates the emotional aftermath of war, a subject that often goes underrepresented in war stories.  Though it was written in 1990, the novel is still fresh, presenting a unique, but surprisingly relatable, story of one soldier and how war changed both the world around him and the world within him. The Sorrow of War was banned in Vietnam upon its release for its negative representation of war and the government. It is that exact rawness, however, that makes it such a standout read.

The Broken Circle by Enjeela Ahmadi-Miller

The Broken Circle is a heart-stopping memoir that details the brutalities of war on Afghanistan’s citizenry. As a child, Enjeela has great pride and affection for Kabul, a prosperous and peaceful city. Everything changes after the Soviet invasion of 1980, when her family is thrust into chaos and fear. Enjeela, her siblings, and their father spend the next five years attempting a dangerous escape out of the country, where they hope to mount a desperate search for their mother, who left Afghanistan to seek medical attention prior to the civil war. Enjeela’s is a story that conveys war’s horrific effects on children.

Against the Loveless World by Susan Abulhawa

This powerful novel presents a refreshingly original portrait of a Palestinian woman who fights for a better life for her family as she travels throughout the Middle East as a refugee. Born in Kuwait in the 1970s to Palestinian refugees, Nahr, the protagonist, dreams of falling in love with the perfect man, raising children, and opening her own beauty salon. But the US invasion of Iraq changes everything. Instead, she becomes a refugee, like her parents before her. After trekking through her temporary home in Jordan, she lands in Palestine, where she finally makes a home, and falls in love. As her destiny unfolds under Israeli occupation, Nahr’s subversive humor and moral ambiguity make this book a special treasure.

The Face of War by Martha Gellhorn

One of the most prolific investigative journalists – and a former wife of Ernest Hemingway – Martha Gellhorn writes in a way that makes readers feel as though they are in the throes of war alongside her. In The Face of War, Gellhorn takes readers from the Spanish Civil War in 1937 through the wars in Central America during the mid-1980s. Some of her reporting and interviews are so damning and explosive, they were never published by  the contemporary news media. Gellhorn’s brisk, candid reporting reflects her deep empathy for people no matter their political ideology; it is a truly transformative anti-war book.  

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

Madeleine Thien has crafted a novel that is at once deeply personal and broadly political, rooted in the details of life during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Thien vividly describes two successive generations of a musically gifted Chinese family – those who lived through Mao’s Cultural Revolution and their children, who became the students protesting in Tiananmen Square. As readers become emotionally invested in Thien’s multidimensional characters, they learn how Chinese citizens were forced to reimagine their artistic selves during China’s political campaigns and how their fates were irrevocably changed by the Cultural Revolution.

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