What Do War Bestsellers Say About Our Society?

In Discussion by Edward Nawotka

By Edward Nawotka

Sometimes, after reading a Steig Larsson or Jo Nesbo novel, I wonder if people aren’t really sick, in so far as they find violence, rape, murder, and general societal mayhem entertaining. It’s worrisome. Watch an hour or two of prime time television…it’s even more worrisome. But maybe I’m simply being sensitive.

Perhaps my childhood has something to do with it. As someone who was raised by an Army officer, I had plenty of exposure to war, everything ranging from military manuals on the Soviet menace (stacked up waist deep in my father’s private bathroom), to The World at War and Black Sheep Squadron on TV, to the models of a US Corsair and a Japanese Zero dogfighting over my bed as a child. Later, in military school I was transfixed by the graphic images in the Time-Life World War II books (as were, by the state of disrepair of the books, were most of my classmates) and the first full-length books I remember reading were biographies of Erwin Rommel and Bernard Montgomery. Even the first two works of adult fiction that I can recall reading on my own were war-related: Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five and John Hersey’s A Bell for Adano.

Years later, as a bookseller, it was evident that I wasn’t alone in my interest in war books. Men coming into the store inevitably gravitated to the history section, where we faced out anything war-related. In the intervening years, working as critic, I’ve had hundreds of war-related titles pass over my desk — and reviewed my fair share, since it seems it’s one thing men are happy to read about. Osprey Publishing, a publisher of military history, is one of the most innovative and successful companies going, and has sustained itself on this ongoing interest.

Our pervasive obsession with war, be it in books and in the media, is worth noting. Look at the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list today and the there are two war-related books in the top ten. Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken (Random House, $27) is the story of survival, is at #6; American Sniper by Chris Kyle with Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice (Morrow/HarperCollins, $26.99) sits a #2.

But what does this say about us as a society? Though, over the past decade, America has been engaged in two of the longest-running wars of our history in Iraq and Afghanistan — a large percentage of society is at a remove from these events. Unlike previous wars, where conscription could touch every family, our volunteer military means that the wars are “out-of-site, out-of-mind” for many. Reading about them can be either edifying or entertainment, depending on your disposition. Would that be the case if more people were impacted by the actual events?

The book industry is now able to produce books in near-real time, with the participants penning stories of their day to day actions at short chronological and psychological remove from the actual events. The movie industry is also catching up, with the forthcoming movie Act of Valor promising to deliver, according to IMDB.com:

An unprecedented blend of real-life heroism and original filmmaking, Act of Valor stars a group of active-duty Navy SEALs in a powerful story of contemporary global anti-terrorism. Inspired by true events, the film combines stunning combat sequences, up-to-the minute battlefield technology and heart-pumping emotion for the ultimate action adventure.

Combat as “the ultimate action adventure” calls into question some of the values of our society. Is such a movie truly entertainment, or is is it something else — Propaganda? Perversity? Immorality?

And does it really matter, so long as you’re on the winning side.

Let us know what you think in the comments.

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.