The few. The proud. The Marines. These tough-as-nails warriors have been defending our country for nearly 225 years. Longer if you count its predecessor in the Revolutionary War, the Continental Marines. In the spirit of Memorial Day, we continue to remember those who serve by asking ourselves: What makes a Marine?

The six fictions we’ve gathered here answer that question. From tales of military families to the valor of a single son, from those fighting on the front lines to those who return to action as veterans, from those victorious in the fight to those grappling with the unimaginable horrors of the battlefield, from those bearing witness to historic wars to those in wars that may or may not come, we’ve culled a wide selection for your reading consideration.

Call to Arms by W.E.B. Griffin

You simply can’t have a list about fictional Marines without an entry from W.E.B. Griffin. The author of 10 books in The Corps series, Griffin is the master of this subgenre of military fiction (as well as of those involving the OSS and the Army, but let’s save that for another list). In this second book of the series, the action is set during World War II. The attack on Pearl Harbor has forced America’s hand, plunging the country into the raging heart of war. The South Pacific theatre presents a daring new challenge, and the men of the Corps are ready to fight. An elite fraternity begins to organize — one that would become known as the Marine Raiders.

But this new Special Ops regiment faces not only challenges from the enemies of the Allied Forces, but from line officers within the Marines’ own ranks — those who resist and resent the changing of the guard. Griffin used official records and eyewitness accounts by former Raiders to write this historically accurate tale of lovers and fighters, leaders and heroes. Sadly, Griffin passed away in 2019, but not before leaving us his epic legacy of storytelling, of which this novel represents but a fraction.

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November 400CP Is Missing by Anderson Harp

Once a Marine, always a Marine. This is the sixth adventure featuring Anderson Harp hero Will Parker, a decorated Marine lieutenant colonel. In the opening scenes, however, we find Parker deploying his military skills to rescue injured climbers on treacherous Alaskan peaks. Until he hears news from the wife of a former Marine buddy, that is. Her husband was among an exploration team en route to a newly discovered Indonesian oil reserve when the jet he was on disappeared along with all of its passengers. The FBI and the CIA aren’t doing much about it, so he assembles a rogue team and heads to Indonesia.

It’s a page-turning pursuit story that moves between three vantage points: Parker and his team, a band of terrorists, and the imprisoned crash survivors who await a near-certain death likely to be televised around the world unless they escape. Along the way, you’ll get a rich education in the politics, culture and geography of Indonesia — and a scary appreciation for how the passionate views of religious terrorists make them different from the rest of us. Harp has the creds to write about these things. As a Marine, he taught arctic survival and mountaineering and was stationed around the globe, including as an officer in charge of the Marine’s Crisis Action Team during the invasion of Afghanistan. And, like Will Parker, he’s also a pilot. (Read Dennis Hetzel’s full review here.)

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Today Is the Day by Deborah Curtin

Pete Alexander’s world is turned upside down when he loses his best friend in a tragic car accident. He begins a spiraling descent into despair and delinquency with nearly tragic results until he finds an unlikely mentor in his elderly neighbor, Mr. Alouette, and begins to take interest in a hobby that would set his life’s course — shortwave radio. He spends hours with Mr. Alouette sending and receiving messages to and from every corner of the world. One night, the two pick up a ship-to-shore call from somewhere near the Persian Gulf — with Arabic and English voices planning an attack on a strategic American satellite installation. Life, as Pete knows it, is about to change.

Now he and Mr. Alouette know too much, but worst of all, the enemy knows they know — and comes calling to make sure they never talk. The harrowing incidents that follow open Pete’s eyes: when it comes to terrorism, the enemy is among us. He joins the Marines and so begins his quest to defend all he holds dear. More than just a military thriller, Today Is the Day is a character study of a young man’s coming of age in post-9/11 America.  (Read our full review here.)

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The Remains of the Corps: Volume I – Ivy & The Crossing by Will Remain

This is not your typical novel, in format or appearance. In this volume, pseudonymous author Will Remain chronicles the years 1913 to 1917 of the life of his grandfather, Marine Second Lieutenant Kenneth Remain. It’s a tale that takes us from his halcyon days at Harvard to the grueling two-week, 3,500-mile journey across the Atlantic to the chilly shores of France, where he would ultimately be awarded for his valor in the Battle of Belleau Wood — one of the most famous battles in Marine Corps history. It’s also a story about two families — the Boston Brahmin bred Blakeslees and the salt-of-the-earth Remains — whose fortunes become entangled, for better and for worse, when Kenneth and his Harvard roommate, Lawrence Blakeslee, fall for the same girl.  

The novel builds a whole world out of precise and colorful details, right down to each man in the regiment, in a story that’s epic in scope and based on the author’s knowledge, research and first-hand experience. The writing is enhanced by illustrator Tara Kaz’s 53 drawings and 81 portraits of the action and the characters. As if this weren’t ambitious enough, Volume I – Ivy & The Crossing is the first of a planned six-volume series documenting three generations of the Remains family and their service in the Marines, right up to Vietnam. (Read our full review here.)

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The White Donkey: Terminal Lance by Maximilian Uriarte

Moving from illustrated novels to graphic novels, this New York Times bestseller has been hailed “a masterpiece” (Booklist). The Washington Post describes it as an “illustrated deployment journal … Yet, tucked into the panels and frames, are those singular moments that, like a rock cast into a pond, send their ripples out almost infinitely, altering lives and ending others. …  A ‘true’ war story and a lonely chapter in a war our country is trying desperately to forget.”

The book is drawn from Uriarte’s real-life experiences serving two Iraq deployments in the Marines, where he became famous for his comic strip about military life, Terminal Lance — popularity he parlayed into a successful Kickstarter campaign for this book. His fans’ loyalty was well rewarded — Uriarte puts it all on the page for a story that is hardcore and haunting, with a genius for details that illuminate the truth and pull you into the story with cinematic fervor. He uses the art form itself to punctuate his pacing and immerse you in the inner reality of a Marine’s life. It’s a vivid and moving tribute to the experience of war and PTSD and a brilliant addition to wartime literature. —JeriAnn Geller

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The Chosen One by Walt Gragg

Vietnam Special Forces vet Walt Gragg’s first novel, The Red Line, was a Best Book award winner for best thriller/adventure novel and was a 2018 International Thriller Writers best first novel award finalist. His sophomore title, The Chosen One, is a geopolitical thriller that imagines a nightmare scenario in the Middle East in which an actual army led by a murderous Islamic fundamentalist — called the Mahdi, or the Chosen One — is on the march through the friendly Arab states of Saudi Arabia and Egypt. America’s tit-for-tat military response unfolds from the perspective of Marine lieutenant Sam Erickson who’s staged an amphibious landing from the Mediterranean. As the missiles and bombs fly on sea and desert floor, Erickson slogs through the front lines where the war will be won or lost.

What follows is military writing at its absolute level best, making Gragg the chosen one in his own right when it comes to this kind of tale. But this follow-up to his award-winning debut presents war from a literary sensibility more like James Jones (From Here to Eternity) or Herman Wouk (The Winds of War), making this a must-read for all military thriller fans.  —Jon Land

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