As a schoolboy I lied to my friends.
Not about what I had done on the weekend but about the "fact" that I did not watch war movies, because I did not like war.
To be accurate, I clearly remember saying, "I object to war". I grew up with parents who were constantly fighting - they hated each other with an unfathomable intensity - so it made sense that I did not seek out high-conflict stories in which violence was at the core.
But I did engage with war stories.
I used to be glued to the television while watching The Dam Busters, which was made in 1955 but repeatedly regularly, and The Great Escape (1963). Along with most other children my age, I laughed along with Hogan's Heroes (1965-1971 with endless reruns).
I was obsessed with Jeff Wayne's musical version of The War of the Worlds (1978) based on the novel by HG Wells (1898) - as the disco rhythms got my heart beating fast I would sit on the floor and be transfixed by the cover illustrations that depicted a war between humanity and alien invaders.
I allowed myself to be captivated by the serialisation of Roger McDonald's classic war novel 1915; it was aired in 1982, when I was 14 years old.
At the end of the final episode, when the main character, a soldier, comes home a physically and psychologically damaged young man, I turned to my mother and said, "What will happen to him?" She said, "We don't know, do we?"
I said, "But I need to know".
Four decades later, that need has not gone away: I have not stopped trying to work out how we let things get so out of hand that the only "solution" is to pick up weapons and try blasting the enemy to smithereens.
Just before I sat down to begin writing this piece it took less than 10 minutes to retrieve 50 war books from my shelves. There is the Great War poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.
There are the Great War novels: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (1928), Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves (1929), and Regeneration (1991), Pat Barker's fictional account of the close friendship between Owen and Sassoon as they recovered from what we would now call post traumatic stress disorder.
There is Stephen Crane's American Civil War story The Red Badge of Courage (1952), which I first read as a boy - perhaps that was the book that had sparked my bold schoolyard claim
I own the classic Australian war novels, including The Middle Parts of Fortune by Frederic Manning (1929), the previously mentioned 1915 by Roger McDonald (1979), and Richard Flanagan's Man Booker Prize-winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2013).
There are the glittering international successes: Kate Atkinson's Life After Life (2013), All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (2014), and Robin Robertson's astonishing verse novel about post-war life, The Long Take, which was shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize.
The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh (1991) and Aminatta Forna's The Hired Man (2013) have both had a significant impact on me.
There is nonfiction too. Peter Stanley's gutsy Bad Characters: sex, crime, mutiny, murder and the Australian Imperial Force (2010), which was the co-winner of the 2011 Prime Minister's Prize for history, and Charles Glass's very moving Deserter: a hidden history of the Second World War (2013). I could go on.
What if I applied that old trick: my house is on fire - or there is an approaching army at the end of my street - and I only have time to rescue three war books?
Of course, if I were to do this exercise tomorrow the results would probably be different, but today, with the sky entirely cloudless and a comfortable warmth in the air, the sense that Australia may have COVID-19 under control, and, on the other side of the world, the clown who is president may at last be forced to shuffle off the stage, I choose the following books.
The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers by Australia's Delia Falconer is a short novel published in 2005 about the American Indian Plains War. Set in 1898, Frederick Benton, a captain in General Custer's Seventh Cavalry, records his thoughts about two horrific days. Falconer condenses her prose to the point that every sentence measures a life's worth.
"It was the horses they cared for, more than themselves, he remembers, as they urged those great cleft breasts towards the arrows. Martini, behind him at the Washita, muttering soft Italian in his mount's ear. Powell weeping as his horse limped behind him, resting its head on his shoulder every time he stopped, its patient eye against his cheek, until he had to shoot it."
There is more power, tragedy and violence in that short scene than in most blockbusters written by lesser novelists.
In my panicked handful would be a collection of Wilfred Owen's poetry, specifically his volume in Faber & Faber's "Poets of the Great War" series, published in 2004. Because his life was cut down in the final days of the war (and, perhaps, due to his now acknowledged non-conforming sexuality), Owen has become mythologised, but there can be no doubt that he was a poet who shone a light on war's less palatable truths.
Here he is in "Disabled", which was first drafted in 1917: "Now, he will spend a few sick years in institutes, / And do what things the rules consider wise, / And take whatever pity they may dole, / Tonight he noticed how the women's eyes / Passed from him to the strong men that were whole, / How cold and late it is! Why don't they come / And put him to bed? Why don't they come?" Oh my: such pathos; such yearning.
Finally, I would select Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The story of the village of Le Chambon and how goodness happened there, written by Philip Hallie and first published in 1979.
A history based on first-hand accounts, the book examines why, during the Second World War, a German-occupied Protestant town in the French mountains with a population of 3000 people risked everything to save 5000 Jewish refugees.
As Hallie states, this is a story not of military valour but ethical valour. How could one community almost unanimously decide to do so much good? That is the question Hallie asks.
His answer is surprisingly simple: "It may appear that what happened in Le Chambon during the war years was almost too complex to understand. In essence, that is true. Looking at the story with an analytical eye, there were many factors at work before and during those years, forces that made the rescue efforts of the Chambonnais succeed. But if you are interested in understanding what happened in Le Chambon in a way similar to the way the Chambonnais themselves looked at what they did, their actions become rather easy to understand. They become as easy to understand as Magda Trocmé rushing in her frenetic way from the kitchen to the presbytery door, turning the doorknob, and opening the door for a refugee with 'Naturally, come in'."
Perhaps that is what a life of war stories has taught me: yes, humanity has a horrific capacity for war and destruction, but goodness does happen.
Goodness and, in the end, peace.
Though at what cost?
- Nigel Featherstone is the author of Bodies of Men, which was recently longlisted for the inaugural ARA Historical Novel Prize.