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Illustration by Mike Caplanis“For nonfiction, I love military history, biography, autobiography, economic theory, and diplomacy; at the top of anyone’s list about World War II is Churchill’s magisterial The Second World War,” writes Admiral James G. Stavridis. “But above all, I love to read the novels that illuminate what flows under the polished surface of historical fact. Here is a handful I cherish relating to World War II.”

The Sun Also Rises
Ernest Hemingway (1926)
“As the lost generation of World War I floods the bars and beaches of Europe, one can sense the Second World War gathering in the apathy and emptiness of the protagonists. Set largely in Spain, a nation that would be nearly destroyed by its brutal civil war in the run up to World War II, the novel is lyrical, symbolic, and acutely realized as a story of the aftermath to one war—and the zeitgeist of the next. My favorite novel, written by a master craftsman at the height of his early power.”

The Thin Red Line
James Jones (1962)
“Certainly the best novel of World War II set in the Pacific, James Jones captures perfectly the harsh realities of combat across the sprawling campaigns in Micronesia. His memorable cast of characters will remain in your head and in your heart long after you put down the book. The movie is just as good.”

The Winds of War
War and Remembrance

Herman Wouk (1971, 1978)
“The stunning achievement by this superb novelist is to sustain so many plot lines across so many years yet always hold our interest, simultaneously telling the story of the Henry family in all of its glory and all of its tragedy. A long but utterly engrossing read.”

All the Light We Cannot See
Anthony Doerr (2014)
“This is a brilliantly realized novel about the extraordinary chance meeting of a blind French girl and an equally young German corporal during the Allied bombing of Saint-Malo toward the end of World War II. Moving and illuminating, it rises above the horror of combat to give us a sense of the basic goodness of so many who are caught up in the machine of war.”

The Cruel Sea
Nicholas Monsarrat (1951)
“The best sea novel of World War II, heartbreakingly real, and full of leadership lessons on virtually every page. To understand the Battle of the Atlantic at sea level, with all of its harsh challenge and ultimate success—even given the terrible cost—this is the best book.”

Admiral James G. Stavridis is a 1976 graduate of Annapolis, and earned his PhD at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, where he serves as the 12th dean. From 2009 to 2013 he was the 16th Supreme Allied Commander at NATO, where he personally selected the command’s reading list, including many fiction titles. He is the author of six books, among them, Destroyer Captain: Lessons of a First Command (2008) and The Accidental Admiral: A Sailor Takes Command at NATO (2014).

Illustration by Mike Caplanis.