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7 Best War Books You’ve Never Heard Of

Here are some obscure classics the veteran bibliophile should seek out

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Photo: Andre Rucker

We’ve all read those blockbuster war books, such as We Were Soldiers Once…and YoungA Bridge Too FarUnbrokenBlack Hawk Down and American Sniper – or at least seen the great movies they became. But there’s nothing quite like discovering an obscure classic, a brilliant book that deserves to be better known.

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Some of my favorite reads are books that almost everyone seems to have ignored or are long forgotten. Occasionally I’ll mention one to someone and there’ll be an expression of pleased surprise that leads to a conversation between what feels like two members of a secret club.

I’m sticking to nonfiction here. I tend to channel William Casey, who as CIA director reputedly said to those who suggested novels to him: “I’ve got better things to read, and so do you.”

Here, in no particular order, are some fantastic war books you have probably never heard of:

spinner image back down the ridge
Photo: Andre Rucker

'Back Down the Ridge’ by W.L. White (1953)

Vivid, poignant tales of American soldiers “clobbered” (wounded) in Korea, the medical treatment they received at MASH units and what they thought, in the author’s words, “of this curious little war which they were all sent out to fight.”

Quote: “Training and experience help in war, but always there is luck. It can happen that a veteran will get clobbered and a green man survive, as Benjamin Seldon will tell you.” 

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spinner image war story
Photo: Andre Rucker

'War Story’ by Jim Morris (1979)

Riveting account of a Green Beret who came to love Vietnam and admire the montagnard allies he fought alongside. Despite being seriously wounded and losing many friends, he felt the war was worthwhile and concludes that he would not hesitate to do it all again.

Quote: “All my life I’d wanted to be a soldier. I did not intend for my war to be the first one America ever lost. And if there was anything I could do it wouldn’t be. I was prepared to die, not prepared to lose. … The war was my life and I identified with it totally. To end it was to end me, and that I would not do.”

spinner image bushmasters
Photo: Andre Rucker

'Bushmasters: America’s Jungle Warriors of World War II’ by Anthony Arthur (1987)

The title is the nickname of an Arizona National Guard unit made up principally of Native Americans and Mexican Americans. Remarkable descriptions of the grim reality of combat, heroism and fear in the Pacific.

Quote: “Erb drew the first watch and stared into the now-still night. He had time now to think about how close he had come to death. … Suddenly he began to shake … his carbine quivered as though he were firing a machine gun.”

spinner image dead center
Photo: Andre Rucker

'Dead Center: A Marine Sniper’s Two-Year Odyssey in the Vietnam War’ by Ed Kugler (1999)

A raw, unfiltered and often shocking account of the transformation of a teenage Marine into a hardened warrior whose job is to seek out and neutralize enemy fighters before they can kill Americans. Powerful insights into the unique psyche of a sniper.

Quote: “We crouched and decided to wait it out. Patience, Kug, patience. He who hesitates might be lost. But he who makes a noise is found dead. My gut jumped as a chop echoed out of the nearby jungle. 

spinner image in the company of heroes
Photo: Andre Rucker

'In the Company of Heroes’ by Michael J. Durant (2003)

Heart-stopping tale of the Black Hawk pilot who was shot down during the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993 before being brutally beaten, shot and held captive for 11 days.

Quote: “At first I had been happy just to survive the crash, then accepted that I’d fight to the death, then swelled with elation at the promise of rescue. ...The bursts of AK fire were starting to roll together like a thunderstorm. I was alone.”

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Photo: Andre Rucker

'In a Time of War: The Proud and Perilous Journey of West Point’s Class of 2002’ by Bill Murphy Jr. (2008)

A painstakingly researched and compassionate account of young Army officers who came of age with 9/11 and found themselves facing war and death in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Quote: “‘Sir, I got hit!’ yelled Pineda, who had been driving with one hand and shooting his M-4 rifle out the open window with the other … his Kevlar helmet fell off. The bullet had come through the open window and hit the helmet at just the right angle, splitting it in two.”

spinner image the women with silver wings
Photo: Andre Rucker

'The Women With Silver Wings’ by Katherine Sharp Landdeck (2020)

During WWII, the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) offered a select few aviators the chance to prove they were just as skilled as men. They could not fly in combat, but they trained male pilots and flew planes across the country. Full of telling details about these trailblazers.

Quote: “If anyone asked, the women had to say they were a part of a girls' basketball team ... a wildly mixed group divided by class, economic status, and background but with at least one thing in common: none of them was a pushover.”

Bottom line

By all means read bestsellers, but don’t be afraid to step away from the crowd sometimes and try something different.

You can subscribe here to AARP Veteran Report, a free e-newsletter published every two weeks. If you have feedback or a story idea then please contact us here.

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