Authors Who Turned Wartime Experiences into Literature

A number of well-known American authors served in the armed forces during wartime and lived to tell about it - and tell about it with eloquence and style. Living through a war permanently changes who one is and how one sees the world, and these great American writers have shown us what they've learned and how they've changed through their great literary works.


Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut was a student at Cornell University when the United States entered World War II. During his third year, he enlisted in the army and joined up with the 106th Infantry Division in 1943. In 1944, he was captured by German troops and moved to a POW camp in Dresden, Germany.

Vonnegut, housed in the underground meat locker of a slaughterhouse, survived the infamous bombing of Dresden in 1945 that destroyed most of the city and left hundreds of thousands of German civilians dead. This bombing is a central event in Vonnegut's breakout novel, Slaughterhouse Five, and is also mentioned in several of his other novels.

Joseph Heller

The son of Jewish immigrants from Russia, Joseph Heller joined the Army as a file clerk in 1942. Later that year, he moved to the Army Air Forces, the precursor to the U.S. Air Force, and enrolled in officer training. After graduating as a first lieutenant in 1944, Heller was assigned to the 488th Squadron of the 12th Air Force in Corsica, and in the beginning enjoyed his position and his station.

All that changed on Heller's 37th mission, a raid on Avignon in southeast France and the basis of a fictionalized account that is central to his most famous novel, Catch-22. During the bombing run, a co-pilot panicked and set the B-25 into a dive. After control of the plane had been regained, Heller found that one of the gunners was wounded and realized that death lay near on these flights.

Heller's satirical Catch-22 explores the nature of regular soldiers being expected to blindly obey the orders of those in authority, even in the face of questionable logic and obvious misjudgment.

Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943 and served as a cook in the 112th Cavalry stationed in the Philippines. Although he didn't see much combat, he had enough material from which to draw to write and publish his first novel, The Naked and the Dead, in 1948.

Mailer was a prolific writer, essayist, journalist, playwright and social activist. His publications earned him two Pulitzer Prizes: Armies of the Night earned him the 1969 prize for general nonfiction, and The Executioner's Song won him the 1980 prize for fiction.

Tim O'Brien

Tim O'Brien was drafted into the armed services in 1968, shortly after earning his bachelor's degree in government and politics. Even before he was drafted, O'Brien was against the war in Vietnam. After being drafted, O'Brien was torn between his feelings against the war, his sense of national duty, and the example of his parents, who met while serving in the U.S. Navy. He even considered, as others had done, fleeing to Canada to avoid military service.

O'Brien spent the summer after his graduation working in a meatpacking plant during the day and pouring out his anxiety and grief onto the typewritten page at night. This experience sowed the seeds for his later writing career.

In the end, he did answer his country's call and shipped out to Army basic training in mid-August. He served a 13-month tour of duty in Vietnam as a regular foot soldier, a "grunt," and was wounded twice.

O'Brien's The Things They Carried is considered by some to be the most significant work of fiction to come out of the Vietnam War. It's a powerful meditation on the experiences of foot soldiers in Vietnam and after the war. The work is simultaneously a war autobiography, writer's memoir, and group of fictional short stories.