Books on the Battlefield

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Some would say “only a fool would bring a book to a gunfight.” That might be true if the person carried the book in lieu of a firearm, but the fact is many varieties of literature accompany soldiers to war.

When Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote “the pen is mightier than the sword,” he offered a powerful insight into how ultimate victory hinges more on knowledge and ideas than on direct violence. Of course, he didn’t mean that in a personal conflict between two combatants a quill could best a saber.

Even those who’ve never been to war realize warriors need to have their bodies, minds and spirits renewed in order to be at their best when their lives hang in the balance. Bodies are taken care of by providing healthy sustenance, swift medical attention, and opportunities to remain fit.

Minds and spirits overlap somewhat, but for the latter, most of the world’s militaries send chaplains to accompany the men and women “in harm’s way.” Spiritual encouragement often comes even more readily from their fellow military members.

Wartime is, surprising no one, an optimal time for people to consider their spiritual wellbeing and contemplate their eternal destiny. Still, that does not make true the adage “there are no atheists in foxholes.”

That said, war zones are places where the fields are literally “white unto harvest” (Luke 4).

It is no accident copies of the Bible have accompanied Christians to war since the first printed copies were available.

During the American Civil War, personal Bibles and religious tracts were widely distributed. It was not uncommon for a soldier to send a particularly meaningful tract home to his family. In addition to chaplains, numerous ministries today work to ensure no service member who desires a Bible is without one.

Reading for the Mind

It would be wrong to think religious works dominate the literature available to military members dispatched to war. Most locations offer access to numerous publications, and even the internet. The Department of Defense even provides access to the nonpartisan Stars and Stripes, which offers some of its headline articles here.

And then there are books. Books of all genres, though perhaps, tilted towards thrillers and sports subjects. Soldiers pass their books around, and for many lucky enough to serve in a garrison type of setting, there is often a library.

Yes, a real library—except that the books are typically all available for free. This is due in large part to the generosity of publishers. During the Second World War, the Council on Books in Wartime, founded by publishers and others, provided over 120 million paperbacks in their Armed Services Editions. (The classic titles sold for an average of six cents.) The Council’s slogan was, “books are weapons in the war of ideas.”

So, military folks read lots of books overseas. In fact, here is a photo of yours truly reading one of my favorite authors (David Drake) while I was on a flight between Pakistan and Afghanistan back in 2002.

I was delighted recently when rereading C.S. Lewis’ autobiography to see that I was following in his footsteps. Lewis is discussing how actual books, and not merely periodicals, can accompany us on our journeys. He refers briefly to his war experiences.

Soon too we gave up the magazines; we made the discovery (some people never make it) that real books can be taken on a journey and that hours of golden reading can so be added to its other delights.

(It is important to acquire early in life the power of reading sense wherever you happen to be. I first read Tamburlaine while traveling from Larne to Belfast in a thunderstorm, and first read Browning’s Paracelsus by a candle which went out and had to be relit whenever a big battery fired in a pit below me, which I think it did every four minutes all that night.) (Surprised by Joy)

I would not equate our two situations. After all, a comfortable C-130 (even when making “combat” landings and take-offs) can hardly be compared to a muddy WWI trench.

But, like nearly all of Mere Inkling’s audience, I do share C.S. Lewis’ joy at knowing books need never be far from our hand. Whether it be on holiday, in the hospital, or even in prison (God forbid), we can always find some pleasure and peace in reading.


During Desert Storm, I helped ship thousands of donated books to troops on the front lines. Unfortunately, there was a problem with the clothing worn by most of the women on the covers. We learned the Saudis were destroying some of the books, deeming them pornography.

As a result, our book processors began tearing the cover off of every book featuring a woman. As a compromise, I offered to become an informal “Saudi censor.” With a large black marker, I was able to suitably cover up elements of the female anatomy that would have presumably offended our Middle East allies.

Despite my misgivings about “defacing” the covers, I felt it was less destructive than removing the entire cover. I’ll leave it to you to be the judge.

15 thoughts on “Books on the Battlefield

  1. I recently read a book called When Books Went to War which talks about this. It was quite interesting. It dealt with WW2.

    Your postscript about you becoming “an informal Saudi censor” was fascinating! Wow…

    1. That postscript really was an afterthought. It’s strange to think that our past experiences can actually become “historical anecdotes” at some point. I don’t recall any events of the like being recorded anywhere.

      I haven’t read When Books Went to War, but I’ve read a couple reviews and I’m quite tempted to add it to my (far-too-long) reading list.

  2. That “war zones are places where the fields are literally ‘white unto harvest’ (Luke 4)” makes me wonder whether the cause is the extremity of the situation or the circumstance of having no distractions from contemplating one’s own existence. How many men & women crowd their lives with distractions rather than spend a moment in contemplation? That “still small voice” is drowned in busyness.

    1. That’s a very keen observation. It can be either, or both.

      Remembering that most of the people in the line of fire are young adults, it’s nearly always their first encounter with their own mortality. If they see others die, particularly up close (where the bullet or shrapnel could just as easily have borne their name), that confrontation is magnified.

      As for distractions… there certainly are fewer out on the front. In garrison, they abound. Computers, internet access and countless video game systems abound. Then there is typically a gym, etc. Chapels try to offer fellowship and study opportunities. Even with that, boredom (due to distance from home and often humdrum daily activities) frequently occurs.

      However, even with boredom and lack of access to alcohol invite introspection and reflection on life… I’ve learned some folks frankly are less inclined towards such pursuits. Some even appear to almost be incapable of it.

      I don’t want that to sound judgmental, because I have great compassion for people who have never learned these priceless abilities. It is a great privilege to help someone discover these talents and refine them. Much, I suspect, like educators–who lead their pupils to epiphanies on a daily basis.

    1. There’s much truth to your observation.

      When I learn people have personal experience with their subject matter (e.g. combat, grief at the loss of a child, surviving a tsunami) I pay much closer attention to their observations and opinions. It’s quite easy to wax authoritatively about subjects we know very little about.

    1. Being a chaplain–just like serving as a civilian pastor–is a great privilege. It keeps one humble, knowing how imperfectly we care for the Lord’s flock though.

      As for smuggling… I left the Bible smuggling to my sister-in-law and her husband… but that’s another story.

  3. Hi Rob, Amen on equiping the heart,mind, and soul of a soldier. We get so busy and forget the pressures they are under. Thank you for what you did and are still doing to encourage our troops.

    In Christ,


    1. All of us know individuals in the military we can send an encouraging note to. (Prayers, as well.) Remember that the families of soldiers and first responders also deserve our thanks.

  4. Pingback: C.S. Lewis & Animal Authors « Mere Inkling

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