What to Watch or Read in Honor of Memorial Day

There are some books and films to consider if you're interested in learning more about the real significance of Memorial Day.

If you type in a search query about what you would want to watch or read to honor or educate yourself or others about Memorial Day and what it means, Google is not your best buddy. You get a lot of peripheral... um... garbage.

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 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 nonfiction) 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.

Instead, this weekend, I advise Americans searching for the meaning of Memorial Day to read or watch something that takes them closer to the original purpose of the observance in the first place - making the ultimate sacrifice in combat. To emphasize the significance of Memorial Day, the book or film should be viscerally close to the fighting or war experience — but without excessive polish, political angles, tortuous comparisons, or surrealism. Something less ornate and more real in comprehending the act and action that resulted in the individual sacrifice we commemorate this weekend.

My recommendations are listed below. A few words of clarification. Memorial Day is an American holiday, while many other countries observe similar observances (Remembrance Day in the U.K., Anzac Day in Australia, Armistice Day in France). So, perhaps keep The Bridge Over the River Kwai, Das Boot, or All Quiet on the Western Front for another day. My list is based on American conflicts.

Overall, I value histories, diaries, films, and books that reflect the unique physical, psychological, and communal nature of fighting, conflict, and sacrifice, but do so in the context of the broader cause, purpose, and mission – delivered without cynicism and despair. Simultaneously, they expose us to the complete gamut of emotions evoked by conflict and sacrifice, from triumph, heroism, and unrivaled companionship to futility, despair, and terror.

My weekend reading list is below, but I'd recommend author Rick Atkinson's poetic histories of World War II (The Liberation Trilogy) or his Revolution Trilogy, which is now being published and written. He has mastered the skill of blending the roughness and visceral detail of the individual combatant story into the wider picture, while giving agenda-free justice to both. He is an Army brat and former reporter whom I first met when he came out to report on our tank fights in Desert Storm. He's also managed to portray a vital aspect of conflict and sacrifice — the randomness and caprice of death and war — without falling into the trap of thinking it's all a waste of time due to folly, ineptitude, or cruel coincidence.

Atkinson portrays this in a way that allows us to comprehend the true character of the heroism we honor this weekend: the heroism of committing oneself to the cause, the effort, and, in some circumstances, the machine — with no certainty of how it will finish, including terrible error and disaster.

So we remember not only the Pointe du Hoc Boys, but also the highly trained Ranger platoon that confidently went over the side of their grounded landing ship into an unknown runnel during the invasion of Sicily and drowned. We honor not only the Band of Brothers who made it from Normandy to the Eagle's Nest, but also the 101st Airborne's assistant division commander, who, after three years of preparing his division for war, sat in his jeep in the belly of a Waco Glider on D-Day and snapped his neck on the landing. At Anzio, we remember the nurses, doctors, and bedridden patients who were killed by stray bombs. All of these people, like so many others who died in American wars, died painfully in unheroic circumstances, yet as part of humanity's most heroic and sacrificial act: sacrificing oneself to a greater cause or group without limit. This is something we'll remember this weekend.

I enjoy picnics and pool openings as well, so there's nothing wrong with that. However, if you have a time to read, watch, ponder, discuss, remember, and pray on Memorial Day, here is a small list of some possibilities. Some of the books are available on Kindle Unlimited or online, so grabbing a chapter or two from the web is a good way to commemorate the day. Some battles produce a wealth of literature or films, while others do not. I made no attempt to balance the list in any way, instead choosing to cover a wide range of sacrifice and honorable acts.

Narrative Histories

  • 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)

Memoirs

  • 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)

Novels

  • 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 Valle , by John Del Vecchio (Vietnam)
  • Fields of Fire, by Jim Webb (Vietnam)
  • The Lionheads, by Josiah Bunting (Vietnam)

Movies

  • The Crossing
  • The Patriot
  • Gettysburg
  • Glory
  • Sergeant York
  • Saving Private Ryan
  • Band of Brothers
  • The Longest Day
  • A Bridge Too Far
  • Greyhound
  • Hacksaw Ridge
  • Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo
  • The Tuskegee Airmen
  • Memphis Belle
  • 12 O’Clock High
  • Letters from Iwo Jima
  • Flags of Our Fathers
  • The Bridges at Toko-Ri
  • Run Silent, Run Deep
  • Hamburger Hill
  • We Were Soldiers
  • Black Hawk Down
  • The Hurt Locker
  • American Sniper
  • Restrepo
  • Lone Survivor

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