Google is not a good friend if you put in a search string about what you might want to watch or read to commemorate or even educate yourself or others about Memorial Day and what it represents. You get a lot of peripheral . . . um . . . rubbish.
Now it’s been a human instinct since Homer to use the setting of war and wartime sacrifice to make political points, settle scores, promote agendas, or just tell a tale loosely connected to the wartime event. Think here movies (some great ones!) such as Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, M*A*S*H, Inglorious Bastards, GI Jane, or (on the other side of the cultural ledger) Top Gun. Or stirring books of war and sacrifice (some of our best fiction and non-fiction) such as A Bright Shining Lie, Hiroshima, Catch-22, The Naked and the Dead, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Leaves of Grass, or Cold Mountain.
But this weekend, instead of all that, I encourage Americans digging for the meaning of Memorial Day to read or watch something that brings one closer to the raw point of the commemoration in the first place — giving the ultimate sacrifice in war. To bring home the point of Memorial Day, for me the book or movie should be viscerally close to the combat or war experience — but without undue varnish, political angles, tortured analogies, or surrealism. Something that is less ornate and more real, in understanding the act and the action that led to the individual sacrifice we honor this weekend.
My suggestions are below. A few words of explanation. Memorial Day is an American commemoration, although many other countries have similar tributes (Remembrance Day in the U.K., Anzac Day in Australia, Armistice Day in France). So, save The Bridge Over the River Kwai, Das Boot, or All Quiet on The Western Front for another day perhaps. My list is from the American wars.
Overall, I prize those histories, memoirs, movies, and novels that capture the unique physical, psychological, and communal nature of combat, war, and sacrifice, but do so in the larger setting of the cause, the purpose, and the mission — presented without cynicism and despair. At the same time, they expose us to the full range of emotion elicited by war and sacrifice; from triumph, heroism, and unparalleled comradery to futility, angst, and horror.
My short list of suggestions for this weekend is below, but to give one example I would point to author Rick Atkinson’s lyrical histories of World War II (The Liberation Trilogy) or his Revolution Trilogy, currently being published and written. An Army brat and former reporter whom I first met when he came out to report on our tank battles in Desert Storm, he has mastered the art of weaving the grit and visceral detail of the individual combatant story into the bigger picture, while doing agenda-less justice to both. He has also managed to capture an important facet of war and sacrifice — the randomness and caprice of death and war — but without indulging in the idea it might be senseless because of folly, incompetence, or cruel chance.
Atkinson captures this in a way that allows us to appreciate the real nature of the heroism we salute this weekend, which is the heroism of surrendering oneself to the cause, the effort, the machine in some cases — and with no guarantee about how it could end, including in inexcusable mishap and disaster.
So, we commemorate not only the Boys of Pointe du Hoc but also the highly trained Ranger platoon who confidently leaped over the side of their grounded landing craft in the invasion of Sicily into an unknown runnel and promptly drowned. We recognize as heroes not just the Band of Brothers who made it from Normandy to the Eagle’s Nest but also their assistant division commander in the 101st Airborne who after three years of readying his division for combat unwisely sat in his jeep in the belly of a Waco Glider on D-Day and snapped his neck on the landing. We think of the nurses, doctors, and bed-ridden patients randomly killed by stray bombs at Anzio. All of these and so many others throughout American wars died cruelly in unheroic circumstances in a way, but as part of the most heroic and sacrificial act of mankind — surrendering oneself to the greater cause or group and without limit. This we commemorate this weekend.
I love the picnics and the pool openings too, nothing wrong with that. But here is a short list of some suggestions for Memorial Day if you take a chance to read, watch, reflect, discuss, remember, and pray. Some of the books are available on Kindle Unlimited or online, so even a chapter or two snatched off the Internet is a nice tribute to the day. Some wars provide rich literature or movies, others less so. I made no attempt to balance the list in any way but rather to range across various episodes of sacrifice and honor.
- The Winter Soldiers, Saratoga, or Victory at Yorktown by Richard Ketchum (American Revolution)
- Six Frigates by Ian Toll (Post Revolution to 1812)
- Any descriptions of battle from the Civil War histories of Shelby Foote, Stephen Sears, or Bruce Catton
- The Rick Atkinson trilogies of the American Revolution or World War II, or his book The Long Gray Line (Vietnam)
- The Pacific War Trilogy by Ian Toll (WWII)
- Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors by James D. Hornfischer (WWII Navy)
- Band of Brothers and The Wild Blue by Stephen Ambrose
- The Korean War by Max Hastings
- This Kind of War by T. R. Fehrenbach (Korea)
- We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young by Hal Moore and Joe Galloway (Vietnam)
- Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam by Mark Bowden
- Bloods: Black Veterans of the Vietnam War: An Oral History by Wallace Terry
- Black Hawk Down by Mark Bowden (Somalia)
- War by Sebastian Junger (modern)
- A Narrative of a Revolutionary Soldier by Joseph Plumb Martin (American Revolution)
- The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant by Ulysses S. Grant
- Company Aytch or a Side Show of the Big Show: A Memoir of the Civil War by Sam R. Watkins
- Military Memoirs of a Confederate by Edward Porter Alexander
- Inside the Army of the Potomac: The Civil War Experience of Captain Francis Adams Donaldson edited by J. Gregory Acken
- The Fall of Fortresses by Elmer Bendiner (WWII bomber campaign)
- With the Old Breed by E. B. Sledge (WWII Pacific Theater)
- Ernie Pyle’s War: America’s Eyewitness to World War II by James Tobin (kinda, sorta a memoir)
- If You Survive: From Normandy to the Battle of the Bulge to the End of World War II by George Wilson
- A Rumor of War by Phil Caputo (Vietnam)
- Chickenhawk by Robert Mason (Vietnam)
- Home Before Morning: The Story of an Army Nurse in Vietnam by Lynda Van Devanter
- One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer by Nate Fick (Iraq)
- Run to the Sound of the Guns: The True Story of an American Ranger at War in Afghanistan and Iraq by Nicholas Moore
- Places and Names: On War, Revolution, and Returning by Elliot Ackerman (modern)
- The Spy by James Fenimore Cooper (American Revolution)
- The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara and Shiloh by Shelby Foote (Civil War historical fiction)
- The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane (anti-war Civil War classic)
- Once an Eagle by Anton Myrer (multiple American wars)
- Run Silent, Run Deep by Ned Beach (submarine warfare)
- The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk (WWII Navy)
- The Good Shepherd by C. S. Forester (WWII Navy)
- W. E. B. Griffin’s The Corps Series (WWII)
- A Walk in the Sun by Harry Brown (WWII)
- The Thin Red Line by James Jones (WWII)
- The Marines of Autumn by James Brady (Korea)
- The Thirteenth Valley by John Del Vecchio (Vietnam)
- Fields of Fire by Jim Webb (Vietnam)
- The Lionheads by Josiah Bunting (Vietnam)
- The Crossing
- The Patriot
- Sergeant York
- Saving Private Ryan
- Band of Brothers
- The Longest Day
- A Bridge Too Far
- Hacksaw Ridge
- Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo
- The Tuskegee Airmen
- Memphis Belle
- 12 O’Clock High
- Letters from Iwo Jima
- The Bridges at Toko-Ri
- Run Silent, Run Deep
- Hamburger Hill
- We Were Soldiers
- Black Hawk Down
- The Hurt Locker
- American Sniper
- Lone Survivor
John Hillen is a decorated combat veteran and author of numerous books and articles on military affairs. He was the military adviser to the Call of Duty video-game series.