The Literature of War

Used With Permission

By Rea Berg

Since the beginning of recorded history, war has defined the story of mankind in profound ways. Man’s propensity for war reflects not only his fallen nature but also the sublime heights to which he can rise in selfless acts of courage and heroism. No wonder then, that entire periods of history are often characterized by the wars that were fought and by the literature created by those seeking to ascribe meaning to these times of tremendous upheaval.


One of the earliest epics known to mankind, The Iliad, is the poet Homer’s account of the final year of the decade-long Trojan War. The Iliad is a study in human nature, the capricious nature of the Greek gods, and the immutable quest for immortality through military glory. From this enduring epic, many of our Western notions about war derive their essence. For instance, the Trojan hero, Hector, wrestles with whether or not the war he wages against the Greeks is a just war, since it was instigated by his brother Paris’s ill-fated alliance with Helen, the wife of the Greek hero, Menelaus. In reality, Hector has little choice, as he either fights or watches the destruction of his city. When his beloved wife Andromache begs Hector to leave the battle and return to her and their young son, the scene is one of the most heart-wrenching found in literature, echoing the sublime tragedy repeated every time a soldier dies defending his homeland. The profound beauty and enduring relevance of The Iliad rests upon the ways this epic presents the various faces of war through the Greek and Trojan heroes, as well as the impact upon their wives, their families, and their societies.


The battles and military engagements of the Old Testament patriarchs also reflect universal themes of war, but with a key difference. While the heroes of the ancient Greek and Roman works battled for supposed immortality through military glory, the military engagements of the Israelites are purposed by Jehovah, the one true God, in His plan to establish a chosen people to reflect His glory and prepare a people for the coming of his Son­—the one whom we hail as the Prince of Peace. God rejected the warrior King David in building the Templebecause he had “shed blood abundantly and hast made great wars” (1 Chronicles 22:8); the King of Glory comes as the Peacemaker, and He comes to a war-torn world to bring “peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:14).


Wars of theOld World

Wars that are depicted in great works of literature for mature readers (high school) include War and Peace by the Russian author and patriot, Leo Tolstoy. One of the world’s finest works, this tome treats the Napoleonic invasion of Russia in 1812 and though fictional, presents more than 150 historical characters. Les Misérables by Victor Hugo depicts the uprisings of the French Republicans in 1832 as students sought to overthrow the French monarchy. The splendor of Hugo’s work is that within this beautifully crafted novel is a powerful tale of redemption. Sentenced to nineteen years in prison for stealing a piece of bread for his sister’s starving child, when finally released, the embittered Jean Valjean is redeemed through the kindness and mercy of a humble parish priest. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens opens in 1775, and in classic Dickensian style throws light upon issues of class, injustice, and redemption against the drama, intrigue, and bloodshed of the French Revolution.


Wars of theNew World

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