There is much that is inexpressible about the experience of war. Images can powerfully communicate moments in time — an anguished parent, an exhausted soldier, bullet-riddled walls — but they can’t recreate the constant threat of death. Words can convey fear, grief, and victory, but not the smell of burning flesh. Or how time moves differently during battle. Or how completely the light leaves the eyes of the dying, and that empty moment after. Many survivors do not talk about their experiences because there is no context for understanding in the peacetime world. But others feel compelled to tell their stories, to keep the world from forgetting the sacrifices made and lives lost.
Loung Ung tells the story of her family in First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers (2001 Best Books for Young Adults; 2003 Popular Paperbacks). In 1975, the Khmer Rouge Communist Party took control of Cambodia. Over the next four years, this regime killed an estimated 1.7 million people, leading some to refer to this time period as the Cambodian genocide. (The award winning movie The Killing Fields is a dramatized account of this period.) Twenty years after escaping Cambodia, Loung is asked in an interview if American readers can truly grasp the magnitude of her experiences:
I think most definitely they cannot grasp it, and they’re very blessed. I do not wish people to have gone through my experience, and yet I find that they really do care when you bring the story to them.
In Sierra Leone’s civil war of the early 1990s, young boys were recruited to join the dwindling army. Ishmael Beah was thirteen years old when he was forced to become a soldier. The boy soldiers were ramped up with drugs, given AK-47s, and trained to kill. Beah relates his story in A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier (2008 Alex Award,; 2008 Best Books for Young Adults). In an interview with Jon Stewart, Beah told Jon Stewart that it was more difficult to rejoin civilized society than to become a child soldier.
Pulitzer Prize winning journalist David Finkel presents a segment of the Iraqi War from the viewpoint of American Army soldiers in his nonfiction account, The Good Soldiers (2010 Alex Award) As an embedded journalist, Finkel spent eight months with a battalion of soldiers during the military campaign know as “the surge.” He captures not only the events of that time, but the intense emotions of decent men (average age: 19) caught in an impossible situation. Not all of the servicemen survive, and many are wounded. Below Finkel gives a sense of what it was like for soldiers during the surge.
Many true accounts of war find their voices through books. The list below is far from complete. Feel free to suggest books that I have overlooked.
- The Other Side of the Sky: A Memoir by Farah Ahmedi (2007 Popular Paperbacks)
- The Forgotten Victims of the Holocaust by Linda Jacobs Altman
- Chittagong Summer of 1930 by Manoshi Bhattacharya
- Come Back to Afghanistan: A California Teenager’s Story by Said Hyder Akbar and Susan Burton (2006 Best Books for Young Adults)
- 10,000 Days of Thunder: A History of the Vietnam War by Philip Caputo
- Last Day in Vietnam: A Memory by Will Eisner (2002 Popular Paperbacks)
- Children of War: Voices of Iraqi Refugees by Deborah Ellis
- The Tumbler: A 16-Year-Old Boy’s Live Chronicle of Auschwitz, Belsen, Hanover, Hildesheim, Wolgsberg, and Wustegiersdorf Nazi Death Camps by Azriel Fuerstein
- The Other Victims: First-Person Stories of Non-Jews Persecuted by the Nazis by Ina R. Friedman
- Eleanor’s Story: An American Girl in Hitler’s Germany by Eleanor Ramrath Gamer (2000 Best Books for Young Adults)
- When Broken Glass Floats: Growing Up Under the Khmer Rouge by Chanrithy Him
- Why Do They Hate Me? Young Lives Caught in War & Conflict by Laurel Holliday (2002 Popular Paperbacks)
- Farewell to Manzinar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and John D. Houston (1997 Popular Paperbacks)
- The Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution by Ji-Li Jiang (1998 Best Books for Young Adults; 2003 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults)
- Soldier: A Poet’s Childhood by June Jordan (2001 Alex Award)
- In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Survivor by Irene Gut Opdyke (2000 Best Books for Young Adults; 2002 Popular Paperbacks)
- Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (2004 Alex Award)
- In Defense of Our Country: Survivors of Military Conflict by Sheila Stewart with Joyce Zoldak
— Diane Colson, currently reading The Program by Suzanne Young and listening to The Next Time You See Me by Holly Goddard Jones, narrated by Cassandra Campbell