For many of us, Memorial Day means the unofficial start of summer. We plan outdoor activities and enjoy a Monday off from work. As the struggles for many veterans of our fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to grow, however, it is time to consider the real reason for Memorial Day.
Originally called Decoration Day, Memorial Day started as a day to honor the nation’s Civil War dead by decorating their graves. Since then, the last Monday in May has been set aside to honor those who have died in all of America’s wars and conflicts.
A list of books for your Memorial Day reading
A fitting way to honor our fallen soldiers is to read about what they have been through and what they have given our country. Here is a list of books ranging in topic from the Civil War to Middle East to consider.
Memorial Day Reading – Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg by James M. McPherson (2003)
Distinguished Civil War historian James M. McPherson, author of Battle Cry of Freedom, takes us on a journey to America’s most famous battlefield to lend his insights into the events that unfolded there on that hot summer of 1863. He makes the journey personal by sharing anecdotes of his many visits there and by looking at the battle’s impact on American history. Part history book and part travel guide, this book is valuable to both to the Civil War expert and to the Civil War neophyte.
Memorial Day Reading – The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane (1895)
If you read Stephen Crane’s haunting novel as a high school student, it’s time to read it again with a little life experience behind you. Crane’s protagonist, Henry Fleming, is filled with shame after he flees from battle, and returns to fight to earn his “red badge of courage.” Like the Civil War itself, the book is surprisingly modern and brutal.
Word War I
Memorial Day Reading – All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (1929)
Written by a German veteran of Work War I, this book shows that the horrors of war are universal. Banned by the Nazis, the book gives a chillingly realistic depiction of trench warfare and of the difficulties soldiers face when retuning home after battle. Although it is often hailed as an anti-war book, Remarque wrote in his preface that his book is not an intended as a political statement but as a description of a soldier’s life.
Memorial Day Reading – A Farewell to Arms (1929)
Ernest Hemingway’s semi-autobiographical novel tells the story of an American ambulance driver for the Italians during World War I. Part love story, part war story, the book is a dark look at the ravages of war. Interestingly, the early editions of the book were censored with profanities in the dialogue replaced with dashes. Reportedly, whenever Hemingway signed or gave away a copy of the book, he would write in the missing words.
These two next books tell of the sacrifice many American communities paid in World War II.
Memorial Day Reading – The Bedford Boys by Alex Kershaw (2001)
The town of Bedford, Virginia lost 19 sons on D-Day, more men in one day than any other American city. Kershaw tells about the men who died, the men who survived and all of their families and friends. As a result, we learn about the lasting impact of war.
Memorial Day Reading – The Ghosts of Hero Street by Carlos Harrison (2014)
Incredibly, one street in Silvis, Illinois was home to 57 men who fought in World War II and the Korean conflict. Eight of them died, and this book eloquently tells their story. What makes the book stand out is that these men were all from Mexican-American families, and despite the fact that they grew up fighting poverty and discrimination, they were proud to defend their country.
Memorial Day Reading – A Christmas Far from Home by Stanley Weintraub (2014)
Stanley Weintraub, who has written two other wartime Christmas books, gives a detailed account of what it was like to serve in Korea in the harsh winter conditions of November and December 1950. It is a story of outright slaughter and survival and also of amazing courage.
Memorial Day Reading – Paco’s Story by Larry Heinemann (1986)
This novel examines the intense challenges Vietnam War veterans faced when they returned home. Wounded in mind and body, Paco Sullivan navigates a life that has lost all prior meaning. This book was written by Vietnam War vet, and it shows on every page.
Memorial Day Reading – Thank You for Your Service by David Finkel (2013)
Journalist David Finkel examines the post-war lives of Gulf War veterans and documents their struggles in returning to “normal” life. The book is powerful and moving, and it may prompt you to find a veteran to say thank you.
Afghanistan and Iraq
Memorial Day Reading – The Things They Cannot Say by Kevin Sites (2013)
Kevin Sites interviews 11 current and former soldiers and marines about what it is like — what it is really like — to engage in modern warfare. Through their stories, we find that most of them are suffering from some form of PTSD. The book is a tough read, not only because many of the related experiences are chilling and violent, but also because the book forces the reader to confront the savagery of war on a gut level.
In reading these and other books, you will find a common thread of heroism and loss and of brutality and kindness. This Memorial Day weekend is a good time to reflect on the sacrifices these soldiers have made.