When I was asked to provide a list of the “top five books for veterans,” I initially thought there was no way I could provide a list of just five books. I’m the type of person who has trouble answering questions about my favorite food or singer or movie. I’m kind of an “it depends” type of person. Ultimately, like reading, I thought the process of creating the list and examining why I thought these books for veterans were valuable would be fun and informative in its own way.
Although this list includes some military focused books, it does not only focus on the military experience. Being a veteran is not about continuously reflecting on the past nor (as much as I love them) diving deep into war novels. Each provides different, but equally valuable insight and explores topics that include the military experience and the struggle that can be associated with combat, separation from the military, finding one’s next role, leading a healthy lifestyle, and leadership.
In generating this list, I used my personal academic research related to the military population, my professional experience working with veterans since I retired from the Marine Corps, and finally my own personal experience and the value these books have provided me. This list of books for veterans is far from all encompassing, but it is a great start for everyone between those preparing to exit the military, and for those who served decades ago.
What It Is Like to Go to War – Karl Marlantes
Karl Marlantes is a brilliant author and Marine. In What It Is Like to Go to War, he provides a transparent and honest depiction of his own experience in and after war. As I was reading his writing, I found myself making a direct connection to what he was sharing. For those who have experienced combat or war directly, this book can provide the reader with the realization that they are not the only person who experiences the feelings and thoughts that they do. In turn, this relieves some of the burden they might be carrying. Additionally, Marlantes examines war from the individual level to the national level which highlights how we participate in war as a collective nation that asks a small portion of our citizens to execute it. This further emphasizes how we ignore the need to heal our shared wounds brought about by war through the convenience of simply ignoring it.
TRIBE: On Homecoming and Belonging – Sebastian Junger
In Tribe, Sebastian Junger explores what is lost when we separate from tightly knit organizations like military units. He argues that military members experience a connection and belonging during service that is mostly missing in our society. These connections are further strengthened through participation in combat. When a military member reintegrates into the greater society, this loss of the “tribe” can bring about significant anxiety and further exacerbate any issues that individual may be facing. Additionally, he explores how the greater population of the United States is becoming more and more disconnected from the military experience which further contributes to some of the friction created through transition from military service. Like Marlantes’s writing, many veterans discover a personal connection to Junger’s Tribe.
RANGE: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World – David Epstein
A common theme I have witnessed in working with veterans is their feeling of being behind. The growth of social media and the ease of comparing our personal experience and status in life with the veneer of what people “share” can bring about the feeling of needing to catch up to some unknown position. Additionally, when someone separates from the military they often work in a profession that is not in any way related to the job they performed in the military. In Range, David Epstein offers that reaching a certain mile marker by a specific age is a common myth that society and all of us tell ourselves should happen. He further delves into the professional value that is created through having a breadth of experience, much like what is developed in military service.
Range is a great book to start with when one is exploring what they want to do or what they want to do next. Taking time to step back to assess what is influencing the direction of your life and if it is the best influence for you is important.
Honorable mention: Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth
Experience Nature Unplugged: A Guide to Wellness in the Digital Age – Sebastian Slovin & Sonya Mohamed
In a list of books for veterans, some might consider this unusual because it is structured as a workbook. I think Sebastian Slovin and Sonya Mohamed were wise in how they created Experience Nature Unplugged. This book is full of useful knowledge on living a healthy lifestyle and maintaining a balanced relationship with technology. More and more people are becoming aware of the negative impact technology is having on our lives. Slovin and Mohamed provide data into how smart devices are influencing us and how their developers are striving to capture more of our attention every day. Awareness is power, but this book offers more than that through a step by step approach to countering the negative influence by utilizing the natural environment around each of us. This is not a hippie book about hugging trees (maybe a little, hugging a tree is healthier than checking your social media hundreds of times throughout the day). It is a book about how to live a lifestyle that will increase your capacity to perform at the highest level when addressing all of the things you truly care about.
Honorable mention: The Comfort Crisis: Embrace Discomfort to Reclaim Your Wild, Happy, Healthy Self by Michael Easter
Leadership: Theory and Practice – Peter Northouse
The military focuses the vast majority of its leadership instruction on traits-based leadership theory. This is for a good reason because it needs to teach thousands of new servicemembers to learn how to and immediately implement the practice of leadership every year. The structure and stratification of the military system also provides military members incredible authority in their roles in order for them to be successful in executing the mission. After years of working within the military system and perhaps having success in leading others, for many it can feel like the leadership traits outlined by their particular branch are the be-alls and end-alls. However, there is a lot more out there.
For those interested in practicing leadership at the highest level it will be a lifetime of work. There are nuggets of wisdom through reading accounts of individuals, but in the end, one is left with just anecdotes that they may or may not be able to apply to their own life and roles (this is how most people learn how to practice leadership). Peter Northouse breaks down several leadership theories in Leadership: Theory and Practice. His book exposes the reader to multiple theories and includes an overview, historical research, and critique of each. This book is a great reference and jump off point for diving into the deeper study of leadership. It further provides framing for assessing those autobiographies of “great leaders.” Although it is a textbook, it is very easy to read and process. Because it is a textbook it can be a bit expensive. However, there are multiple versions of the text now and an earlier version can be purchased at a very reasonable cost (my personal copy is three or four versions old).
About Derek Abbey
Derek Abbey spent 23 years in the Marine Corps before retiring in 2014. Today he is the President and CEO of Project Recover, an organization dedicated to searching for, locating, and repatriating Americans missing in action (MIA) since World War II. He holds a Ph.D. in Leadership Studies from the University of San Diego. His research focuses on military and higher education, as well as adult development and transition from the military. He lives in Bend Oregon and is an avid outdoorsman.