The “War” in National Book Awards

The “War” in National Book Awards


One thing war is good for? The National Book Award for fiction. More than a dozen times the honor has gone to a war-themed book.


The Man with the Golden Arm
Nelson Algren

Winner of the National Book Award in 1950, Algren’s The Man With the Golden Arm follows jazz drummer and backroom card dealer Frankie Machine as he struggles against a morphine addiction brought on by a WWII battle wound. Algren served in WWII with the army medical corps.


From Here to Eternity
James Jones

Along with inspiring one of the most famous kisses in cinematic history, James Jones’ debut novel From Here to Eternity took the award in 1952. It’s the first of three WWII novels by Jones, who as an infantryman witnessed the bombing of Pearl Harbor and was later wounded in the Pacific Theater.

A Fable
William Faulkner

Claiming both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1955, William Faulkner’s novel A Fable focuses on a Christ-like WWI French corporal. Faulkner was too short for the Army and instead joined the British Armed Forces during the war, though it ended before he finished training.


The Moviegoer
Walker Percy

Walker Percy’s debut novel The Moviegoer tackled PTSD long before it was known as such. Binx Bolling is a young stockbroker living in New Orleans. Unable to get over his bloody tour in the Korean War, he seeks escape in movies.


Gravity’s Rainbow
Thomas Pynchon

American and Nazi soldiers vie to find a mysterious rocket during the Blitz. Pynchon’s postmodern masterpiece shared the 1974 National Book Award with Isaac Bashevis Singer’s A Crown of Feathers and Other Stories.


Dog Soldiers
Robert Stone

The 1975 prize was also split, between two war-themed novels. In Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers, Vietnam correspondent John Converse gets caught up in a heroin deal gone awry


The Hair of Harold Roux
Thomas Williams

The co-honoree for 1975 was a novel-within-a-novel addressing both WWII and Vietnam.

Going After Cacciato
Tim O’Brien

Though best known for his debut, The Things They Carried, it was Tim O’Brien’s second book, Going After Cacciato—about the search for an AWOL U.S. soldier in Vietnam—that was bestowed wtih the National Book Award, in 1979.


Sophie’s Choice
William Styron

Recipient of the 1980 award, William Styron’s novel highlights the psychic trauma of WWII-concentration camp survivors.

Paco’s Story
Larry Heinemann

The only member of his infantry company to return from Vietnam, crippled U.S. soldier Paco Sullivan struggles to assimilate to post-war life.


Cold Mountain
Charles Frazier

The fictionalized story of Frazier’s great-great-uncle is so far the only Civil War novel to take home the National Book Award.

Ha Jin

In this rich examination of 20th Communist China, a doctor in the Chinese army is torn between desire and fidelity.


The Great Fire
Shirley Hazzard

Shortly after the destruction of Hiroshima, an English war hero is sent to record the effects of the bomb.

Europe Central
William T. Vollman

William T. Vollman’s sprawling historical novel is set against the backdrop of WWII Europe and features appearances by a host of key military figures.


Tree of Smoke
Denis Johnson

Winner the 2007 award, Tree of Smoke—about a CIA operative in Vietnam—was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

This article originally appeared on Zola Books.







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