We have always taken the position with our children that war is always a disaster for individuals and for nations but that it is sometimes an unavoidable disaster. There is no such thing as a good war, though some wars may be more clearly unavoidable than others.
At the same time we have tried to strike a balance with them: the crucible of war that destroys so much also often presents the extreme circumstances that permit acts of unalloyed giving, self-sacrifice, and nobility. So the challenge becomes how to extract the examples and valuable lessons of personal conduct and noble goals from the context of war without glorifying war itself.
And all of this is made even more difficult by matters of gender and maturity. With our limited sample of three (though friends confirm similar experiences), it would seem that a fascination with violence and the action of war is manifested to a greater extent among our young boys than our young girls. Presuming this to be generally true, we then face the conundrum that we want boys to read more but at the same time may not want them to read more of that which they are more strongly interested in: war and action.
On the maturity front you have the issue that war mirrors in some ways the turmoil of the young adult years as they carve out their own identity, autonomy and independence. Just as battle and strife often force an accelerated self-learning and self-awareness on the part of soldiers, so teenagers are attempting to forge their own beliefs under what they believe to be trying if not traumatic circumstances. It is appealing to young adults to read of others experiencing the same process under different circumstances.
Rather than try and tackle the larger topic of war in general, the books we list here are really focused on what it means to be an American citizen soldier: what are the experiences? what are the consequences? what is lost and what is gained?
This mirroring of young adult turmoil shows up in the distribution of good titles across the reading ranges. There really aren't all that many picture books about being an American soldier. There are a reasonable number at the independent reader level and there is a plethora at the Young Adult age.
With our boys that are interested in war and action, one of the things that we do with them that I think is a valuable mitigator in the long run, is to tell them stories of family loss. I have the advantage of having several generations of aunts and uncles who, on retirement, took up genealogy as a hobby. Consequently there is a reasonably good volume of information about who fought in what wars, going a good ways back.
When the boys have read a number of war books with enthusiasm, I make a point of finding a time to raise the topic of some family member that was lost in some past war, usually leading the conversation to a discussion of what might have been (just imagine if X had lived through that battle, the rest of the family might not have moved west after the war…). I try to not make it an obvious connection to what they are reading and I have not had to do it more than a half dozen times over a few years, but I think it does temper the youthful infatuation with glory and heroism with some real world realization of the consequences.
Finally - and making up for the absence of picture books a little - there are some wonderful poems that I think do strike the balance between heroism and nobility in the midst of war while emphasizing the destructiveness of war. See in Thing Finder Grandmother's Story of Bunker Hill by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Molly Pitcher by Kate Brownlee Sherwood, Barbara Frietchie by John Greenleaf Whittier and Kentucky Belle by Constance Fenimore Woolson.
As an addendum, Peggy Noonan had an article in the Wall Street Journal a little more than a year ago, March 30, 2006 - Patriots, Then and Now which makes for interesting reading.
The Story Of The H.L. Hunley And Queenie's Coin by Fran Hawk and illustrated by Dan Nance Recommended
The Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln and illustrated by Michael McCurdy Highly Recommended
Paul Revere's Ride by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and illustrated by Ted Rand Highly Recommended
There Come a Soldier by Peggy Mercer and illustrated by Ron Mazellan Recommended
The Last Brother by Trinka Hakes Noble and illustrated by Robert Papp Suggested
America's White Table by Margot Theis Raven and illustrated by Mike Benny Recommended
They Called Her Molly Pitcher by Anne F. Rockwell and illustrated by Cynthia von Buhler Suggested
H Is for Honor by Devin Scillian and illustrated by Victor Juhasz Recommended
Turn Homeward Hannalee by Patricia Beatty Suggested
House of Sixty Fathers by Meindert De Jong Suggested
Annie Between the States by L.M. Elliott Suggested
April Morning by Howard Fast Suggested
Bull Run by Paul Fleischman and illustrated by David Frampton Suggested
Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes and illustrated by Lynd Ward Recommended
Thunder at Gettysburg by Patricia Lee Gauch and illustrated by Stephen Gammell Suggested
Across Five Aprils by Irene Hunt Suggested
Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith Suggested
Best Little Stories from World War II by C. Brian Kelley Suggested
Best Little Stories of the Blue and Gray by C. Brian Kelley Suggested
Magic Treehouse Civil War on Sunday by Mary Pope Osborne and illustrated by Sal Murdocca Suggested
Magic Treehouse Revolutionary War on Wednesday by Mary Pope Osborne and illustrated by Sal Murdocca Suggested
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson and illustrated by Donna Diamond Recommended
The Perilous Road by William O. Steele and Jean Fritz Suggested
Clara Barton Founder of the American Red Cross by Augusta Stevenson Suggested
Molly Pitcher Young Patriot by Augusta Stevenson Suggested
Mr. Lincoln's Drummer by G. Clifton Wisler Suggested
Band of Brothers by Stephen Ambrose Recommended
Flags of Our Fathers by James Bradley and Ron Powers Recommended
Flyboys by James Bradley Suggested
The Great Escape by Paul Brickhill Recommended
The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane Recommended
Into the Valley by John Hersey and Donald Dickson Recommended
Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors by James D. Hornfischer Highly Recommended
Goodbye Darkness by William Manchester Recommended
We Were Soldiers Once...and Young by Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway Highly Recommened
With the Old Breed by E.B. Sledge Highly Recommended