Literature and Warfare Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

War is life’s greatest conflict and the ultimate form of competition.


War is life’s greatest conflict and the ultimate form of competition. As such, it continues to provide writers with a fertile field for examining the always intriguing complexities of human nature. Warfare is often railed against, and on occasion it has been chic to view it as obsolete. In the overall scheme of things, however, war has generally managed to remain popular. Indeed, the noted philosophers Will and Ariel Durant once calculated that in the past 3,000 years only 268 of those years have been free of war. With this in mind, it is perhaps not surprising that wars have provided grist for some of the world’s most enduring literature.Warfare;literature[literature]LiteratureWarfare;literature[literature]LiteratureFictional literature


Literature that focuses on war recognizes how war affects human behavior through characters created in literature.

History of Literature and WarfareAncient World

Organized armies have fought against each other for at least ten thousand years. Either at war or in anticipation of war, military infrastructures have played a key role in the organization of human societies. The earliest civilizations of China, for example, were established by organized armies.

Accounts of the earliest conflicts were preserved in song and story through oral tradition, often setting warfare in a Mythologymythological context. Rigveda (Hindu sacred text) Rigvedic hymns of ancient India, for instance, relate tales of the warrior god Indra. A Babylonian epic poem, “War of the Gods,” deals with the myth of world creation and the establishment of divine hierarchy, which formed part of a New Year’s festival.

The earliest literary work in the Western tradition to deal with war is found in the Iliad (Homer) Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e. ; English translation, 1611), ostensibly written by Homer (c. 750 b.c.e. ), but whether or not it is a work of shared authorship is a moot point. One of the classics of world literature, the Iliad deals with the very long and savage war between Athens and Sparta–the Trojan War (c. 1200-1100 b.c.e.) Trojan War (c. 1200-1100 b.c.e. )–with the culminating siege of Troy, which dragged on for three decades. The war was originally based on a struggle for control of important trade routes across the Hellespont. However, in the Iliad, the story centers on one incident: the Trojans’ attempt to recover the abducted Helen of Troy. When Agamemnon–king of the Greeks (who invade Troy), refuses to ransom Chryseis to her father, the god Apollo inflicts a plague of pestilence on them, compelling Agamemnon to return the girl. Not to be entirely thwarted, Agamemnon takes Achilles’ prized concubine instead. Dishonored, Achilles withdraws his warriors. War here is depicted as not only mean and bloody but also a process of retaliation and quid pro quo. During this process, when a warrior is slain or an attack is perpetrated, the fury of the combatants escalates. Such endlessly escalating conflict required a resolution, and Homer offered one in the Odyssey (Homer) Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e. ; English translation, 1614), which tells the story of a survivor of the Trojan War, Odysseus (or Ulysses), who undergoes a series of adventures that function as tests and atonements before he can return home to a joyful reunion with his wife, Penelope. Both the Iliad and the Odyssey draw heavily on the rich storehouse of Greek mythology, and in so doing provide a “divine” perspective on the issues of loss and redemption surrounding the Greek view of war.

In the Aeneid (Vergil) Aeneid (29-19 b.c.e. ; English translation, 1553), war is the context for nation-building: The Roman poet VergilVergil Vergil (Publius Vergilius Maro) uses literature as a sort of genealogical tool to reconstruct the beginnings of the Roman Empire. In this epic poem, the Greek warrior Aeneas has fled his native land following the Trojan War and–after a series of adventures, some harrowing–arrives in Italy, where he proceeds to recount the details of the Trojan War. After defeating the Rutulian leader Turnus in battle and miraculously recovering from a wound received in combat, Aeneas marries Lavinia (daughter of Latinus, king of the Latins) and establishes the new kingdom on the Seven Hills that has been promised to him in a dream.

Medieval World

The adopted nephew of Charlemagne, the knight Roland, and his bosom friend Oliver, together with their valiant comrades, sacrifice their lives to protect Charlemagne’s army by defending the pass at Roncesvalles in the Pyrenees Mountains in 778 c.e. Their epic defense was later immortalized in the anonymous Song of Roland, The Chanson de Roland (c. 1100; The Song of Roland).

Among Germanic peoples, one of the most influential works of literature was the Nibelungenlied Nibelungenlied (c. 1200; English verse translation, 1848; prose translation, 1877), set in the fifth century in north-central Europe. Although medieval in origins, the Nibelungenlied, like the Homeric writings, draws on numerous myths, including Siegfried’s titanic battle with a great dragon, including rituals of ancient worship that are woven throughout the work. War, again, is depicted in the context of national origins and identity, with an emphasis not on realism but on the mythic and glorified aspects of battle, reflecting an ancient Germanic cult of hero worship.

By the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, the literature of war had begun to depart from the reliance on mythology found in earlier literature and to concern itself more with historical reality. The topic of war continues to provide an opportunity for writers to speak of glory, honor, and courage, but with increasing fidelity to the background against which the story is set. Shakespeare, WilliamShakespeare, WilliamWilliam Shakespeare’s Henry plays (Shakespeare) Henry plays, for example–Henry IV, Part I (1592), Henry IV, Part II (1597) and Henry V (c. 1598-1599)–smoothly blend poetry and history both to glorify England and to explain how the notoriously un-princely Henry V evolved from a rakish and somewhat unprincipled youth into a revered king, the hero of Henry VHenry V (king of England)[Henry 05];Shakespearean depiction Agincourt, Battle of (1415);Shakespearean depiction Agincourt. In the belief that he has as much lawful right to the throne of France as did Charles, the reigning French monarch, Henry V makes his claim for that crown. Insulted by Charles’s son, the Dauphin, Henry prepares for war. At the decisive Battle of Agincourt, Henry’s leadership carries the day, despite the fact that his army is outnumbered and weakened by illness. Shakespeare glorifies Henry V (r. 1413-1422) and his victory at Agincourt, and his contemporaries may well have regarded the portrayal as an overtly patriotic affirmation of contemporary warfare against Spain. However, many critics have seen in the play’s language and portrayals a more ambiguous attitude toward warfare and perhaps a veiled criticism of contemporary events in Elizabethan England (where open criticism of the monarchy and its policies would not have been safe). The play thus illustrates both the growth in literature referencing actual events and the sensitivities, and potential dangers, of doing so.

Modern World

As world civilizations advanced in age and (especially) technology, these achievements were reflected in world conflicts. Wars increasingly expanded their sphere of impact. Increasingly, battles were no longer confined to unpopulated areas. Accordingly, literature sought to keep pace with the evolution of modern warfare. Although the heroic values present in the literature of ancient and medieval wars was still to be found in literature the realism, the suffering and horror of war became increasingly evident.

As warfare evolved into the so-called modern period, writers sought to present their subjects more realistically. Literary characters provided the opportunity and the voice to reveal a more accurate portrayal of the grim horrors found on the battlefield. In literature as in real life, war as a glorious confrontation of chivalric honor was now depicted as a bloody crucible of suffering and death.

Novels, plays, and poems increasingly began to address not only the external events of war but also the soldier’s personal experience of such traumatic events, from courage to cowardice. In American Civil War (1861-1865);in literature[lit]Crane, StephenStephen Crane’s classic Civil War novel, Red Badge of Courage, The (novel) The Red Badge of Courage: An Episode of the American Civil War (1895), young Henry Fleming finds himself tormented by fear. Having dreamed of glorious battles as a young farm lad, he was at first anxious to taste combat, as are many soldiers who find themselves on the field of war for the first time. Now, as his regiment advances, Henry sees battle as an escape from the boredom of inactivity. Then comes battle, with its cacophony of sounds, followed by an enemy counterattack and panic. Henry flees from the field and now thinks of himself as a coward. In a subsequent battle, he redeems himself, earning the praise of his lieutenant. The novel offers the reader an instructive psychological profile of one young man enduring the chaos, fear, and self-doubt that every soldier must face.

In his 1929 novel of World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];in literature[lit]World War I, Remarque, Erich MariaRemarque, Erich MariaAll Quiet on the Western Front (Remarque) Im Westen nichts Neues (1929; All Quiet on the Western Front, 1929), Erich Maria Remarque produced what is generally thought to be the best-known work of antiwar literature published between the two world wars. The novel was subsequently adapted for the screen, starring actor Lew Ayres. So forcefully did the film depict the horror of war that Ayres became a pacifist and later refused to serve in the military during World War II.

Two other haunting and memorable literary statements to emerge from World War I are Lieutenant Colonel McCrae, JohnMcCrae, John[Maccrae, John]"In Flanders Fields" (McCrae)[In Flanders Fields]John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields” (1915) and the poem "Rouge Bouquet" (Kilmer)[Rouge Bouquet]“Rouge Bouquet” (1918), by Sergeant Joyce Kilmer (perhaps best known for his poem “Trees,” 1914). In “Rouge Bouquet,” Kilmer memorialized his World War I comrades, who had perished at Rouge Bouquet, near Baccarat in France. Many other poets emerged from this war, including the “war poets”Owen, WilsonOwen, WilsonWilson Owen, who died in battle at the age of twenty-five, and his friend Sassoon, SiegfriedSassoon, SiegfriedSiegfried Sassoon.

World War I and its fierce trench warfare gave rise to what a group of writers called “the lost generation”; they not only depicted the horror of war but also questioned its value and necessity as a means of resolving disputes between nations. In his novel Farewell to Arms, A (Hemingway) A Farewell to Arms (1929), Hemingway, ErnestHemingway, Ernest Ernest Hemingway wrote what many regard as the strongest polemic against war. The story is told through the eyes of a young American officer, Lieutenant Frederic Henry, who is attached to a medical unit on the Italian front. There he meets and falls in love with a nurse, Catherine Barkley. Wounded, Henry is hospitalized and eventually has surgery on his knee. He and Catherine are together during his rehabilitation. She becomes pregnant. While attempting to avoid capture by the Germans, Henry deserts, and the two manage to reach Switzerland, where Catherine and the baby both subsequently die.

The original 1929 front jacket cover for Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.

(The Granger Collection, New York)

One World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];in literature[lit]of the most meaningful works of modern literature to address the subject of war, Naked and the Dead, The (novel) Mailer, NormanNorman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (1948), is regarded by some as the best novel of World War II. The author set his story on a South Pacific island, focusing primarily on one platoon of soldiers: their trials and tribulations, their interactions with one another, and the same fears and issues with which young Henry Fleming grapples in The Red Badge of Courage. In the world of The Naked and the Dead, there is little empathy among the members of the platoon, and no sympathy whatever for their Japanese foes. Mailer introduces a second element to his novel, wherein he uses his story as a forum to describe ridiculous army rules and protocols, always the source of irritation for the soldiers. The novel also sets the conflict in perspective by providing background for the campaign and a critique of military judgment.

Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

(Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Satire and comedy have been used in many modern works to depict and condemn war. Critique of war becomes an outright condemnation in Heller, JosephHeller, JosephJoseph Heller’s Catch-22 (Heller)[Catch twenty two] Catch-22 (1961), which uses satire to focus on the futility and sheer idiocy of the way in which the military prosecuted war. Heller’s main character, Yossarian, a bomber pilot based in Italy, has looked at enough sky. He has no interest in heroism, medals, or glory. His one abiding interest is to get rotated home. In what almost appears to be a contrived setup, Yossarian finds that each time he approaches the required number of missions to qualify for rotation home, the higher echelon increases the number. Determined, Yossarian resorts to various deceptions to try to defeat the system. Heller provides a supporting cast of characters every bit as devious as Yossarian. Hilarious in its satiric effect, Catch-22 speaks against war as loudly as more serious works–but here by casting war as a farce.

The novel Mister Roberts (Heggen) Mister Roberts (1946), by Heggen, ThomasHeggen, Thomas Thomas Heggen (adapted for the stage in 1948 by Heggen and Joshua Logan, and in 1955 released as a feature film), focuses on life as a soldier, making the audience aware that men in combat must deal not only with fear and suffering but also with the boredom of daily life in the backwater of war. The setting is a supply ship in the South Pacific commanded by a tyrannical captain who cares only about his next promotion. The hero, Lieutenant Douglas Roberts, who longs for a transfer to combat, finally gets his request for transfer approved by the captain–or rather by the members of the crew, who forge the captain’s signature in repayment for Roberts’s having managed to secure liberty for the crew by agreeing to give up challenging the captain’s authority.

The Vietnam War (1961-1975);in literature[lit]Vietnam War (1961-1975) has occasioned many novels. In these works, realism has continued to be emphasized–including, again, the psychological experiences of the individual soldier. In the case of O’Brien, TimO’Brien, Tim[Obrien, Tim]Tim O’Brien, a Vietnam War veteran, psychological realism renders his novels extremely personal to the point where, at times, the narrative crosses the boundary between actual fact and internal imaginings. Going After Cacciato (O’Brien) Going After Cacciato (1978, revised 1989), which won a 1979 National Book Award, examines the conflicting moral imperatives of the Vietnam War when the point-of-view character, Paul Berlin, joins others in his platoon to retrieve the deserter Cacciato (literally “the hunted” in Italian), who has vowed to escape the war by walking to Paris. The actual events in the narrative are seamlessly interrupted by Berlin’s fantasies and fears, making the distinction between reality and Berlin’s psychological state difficult to discern. The clear sense, however, is that Cacciato, in attempting to carry out his insanely bold plan, is a hero–in some ways a goal to be pursued rather than a criminal to be hunted–as the soldiers grapple with the moral ambiguities of following orders not because they believe in the war but because they need to avoid the fate that Cacciato will inevitably meet when they finally locate him near the Laotian border.Warfare;literature[literature]LiteratureFictional literature

Books and Articles
  • Barlow, Adrian. The Great War in British Literature. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Elucidates the different ways that World War I has been used in British literature and how that literature has impacted people.
  • Berkvam, Michael L. Writing the Story of France in World War II: Literature and Memory, 1942-1958. New Orleans: University Press of the South, 2000. Looks at the works of literature that portray French life during World War II, after the fall of Paris, showing that not all French resisted the Germans and many later wrote about it.
  • Chakravarty, Prasanta. “Like Parchment in the Fire”: Literature and Radicalism in the English Civil War. New York: Routledge, 2006. Uses the literature of English sects during the Civil War to outline the roots of what would later be called liberalism.
  • Dawes, James. The Language of War: Literature and Culture in the U.S. from the Civil War Through World War II. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002. Analyzes the ties between language and violence, looking at how words frame the experience and understanding of war.
  • Griffin, Martin. Ashes of the Mind: War and Memory in Northern Literature, 1865-1900. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2009. Uses the literature of three northern poets and two writers of fiction to investigate the social memory of war and its place in cementing national values.
  • Jones, Kathryn N. Journeys of Remembrance: Memories of the Second World War in French and German Literature, 1960-1980. London: Legenda, 2007. Focuses on the memory of the Holocaust in the literature of France, West Germany, and East Germany during 1960-1980.
  • Mickenberg, Julia. Learning from the Left: Children’s Literature, the Cold War, and Radical Politics in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Examines a specific genre of children’s books during the 1920’s-1960’s that went against the Cold War rhetoric to teach so-called radical viewpoints, many of which are now mainstream.
  • Natter, Wolfgang. Literature at War, 1914-1940: Representing the “Time of Greatness” in Germany. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999. Ties German literature about World War I to the rise of a military ethos that persisted through the German defeat and helped prepare the ground for Adolf Hitler’s rise and World War II.
  • Phillips, Kathy J. Manipulating Masculinity: War and Gender in Modern British and American Literature. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. By using examples from the literature from World War I, World War II, Vietnam, and Iraq, this study illuminates how men are goaded into war mentality through the feminization of common traits.
  • Taylor, Mark J. The Vietnam War in History, Literature, and Film. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2003. Uses a case study approach in looking at five episodes during the Vietnam War to examine how returning veterans are regarded in film and literature.

Art and Warfare

Commemoration of War

Film and Warfare

Ideology and War

Music and Warfare

Religion and Warfare

Television and Warfare

War Films

War Literature

Categories: History