Before we dive into this reading guide, let’s get one thing straight: the Iraq War never should’ve happened.
Let’s say that one more time: THE INVASION OF IRAQ NEVER SHOULD’VE HAPPENED.
Why? Well, first, the rationale for the war was in part based on the assertion by George Bush’s government that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. That was proven false.
Okay, cool. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, we’re going to detail seven books that go into the gritty and catastrophic details of the so-called ‘War on Terror’ in Iraq and Afghanistan, a war which was premised on lies and bad intelligence and that brought immense suffering to the people of both these countries (as well as the American soldiers that died or are currently dealign with the trauma of PTSD).
1. Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield by Jeremy Scahill
Jeremy Scahill is a writer, journalist, and documentarian who previously wrote Blackwater. In Dirty Wars, Scahill explores the covert and clandestine military actions of the US government, operations that are legally ambiguous and often transcend national boundaries. These elite soldiers are granted nearly infinite access and resources in order to fulfill missions on behalf of what Scahill believes is a rapidly growing and violent American intelligence machine. According to the book, these missions include infiltration into restricted areas, covert killing missions, and targeted drone strikes. And the American public doesn’t know about any of it. Scahill argues that the expanding military powers are concerning precisely because they often exacerbate, rather than abate, violence and war. He explores how this new style of military gained footing after the invasion of Iraq, as George Bush’s government declared their mission to weed out Islamic terrorism worldwide. He also begins to explore the beginnings of ISIS, particularly through the life and death of Anwar al-Awlaki, a direct outgrowth of these disastrous military policies.
How did al-Qaeda come to power? What about the Taliban and Osama bin Laden? To what extent is Russia involved in their funding and perpetuation? How did the United States, particularly the CIA, provoke Russian presence in the Middle East? For Coll, to understand the current day situation in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have to go back – way back, to the 70s and 80s, the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, the bombing of the American embassy in Islamabad in 1979, the turmoil in the Middle East in the 80s, the Gulf War… Coll’s book compels us to return to the history book to gain clarity in the fumbles and missteps that brought us to today. In detail, he explains how the US government funded Islamic jihad groups as part of the Cold War against Russia. Extensively researched and extremely well-cited, Ghost Wars brings to light an important history about how the US participated in the rise of terror in the Middle East. This book won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction.
3. The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright
Another winner of the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction! Lawrence Wright’s book focuses on the people involved in the planning and execution of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. He begins with the Boeing 767, taken over by Mohadem Atta and four others, and expands outward and back, to their childhoods in Cairo, Islamabad, and elsewhere, tracing the steps that led them to the plane. In many ways, this book is a masterpiece in portraiture, using incredible scholarship to bring us the lives of the five 9/11 attackers (all of whom were Western educated). The book is also notable for how it humanizes the attackers – not sympathizing with them, but rather bringing their actions to bear with their past, discovering the historical and political situations that motivated them to commit such an act of evil.
4. Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS by Joby Warrick
Okay, this is the last Pulitzer winner on the list. We just couldn’t help ourselves! Although this book isn’t about the war in Iraq and Afghanistan per se, it is an important piece of the story. The book begins in 1999 in Jordan, a small country that many don’t consider in the history of Middle Eastern jihadism. Yet, as Warrick outlines, Jordan was a location for many terrorist events, including those perpetrated by a man named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the man who most now consider to be the founder of ISIS. The book takes its reader through the many early incarnations of the terrorist organization, when it was called al-Qaeda in Iraq, for example, and when it was more closely aligned with figures like Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. This book is a particularly interesting biography for al-Zarqawi himself – how did a quiet man come to head the most dangerous and infamous terrorist organization in the world? Crucially, Black Flags posits that Zarqawi and his associates took advantage of the chaos and burgeoning violence of the Middle East after the US invasion. The US invasion was an opportunity, not an obstacle, to their goal of worldwide jihad.
5. Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2003 to 2005 by Thomas E. Ricks
In this book, Thomas Ricks makes crystal clear the extent to which American military officials misconceived of the political, social, and ethnic disagreements in Iraq, and how these misunderstandings and blunders led to the current state of affairs. Ricks focuses on the military in particular, and you’ll be introduced to many characters that are skipped over in other books. Although we believe that the invasion should’ve never taken place to begin with (#antiimperialism), this book at least shows that some of the violence towards the Iraqi people could’ve be mitigated if the US military had at least some foundational plan in place before entering the country.
6. The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace by Ali A. Allawi
This book is unique on this list in that first, it’s written by an Iraqi. Second, Allawi isn’t an everyday writer or a journalist, but was the ministers of finance and defense and trade in the first Iraqi government installed after the overthrowing of Saddam Hussein. For these reasons, his book brings a unique look into the poorly constructed policies and changing sociopolitical landscape of the new regime. He details the process of writing the Iraqi constitution, the growing rebel forces opposing this government, and the various ethnic tensions that reached their zenith in the period after the occupation. This book is a dense read but only because it is so thoroughly invested in tracking what exactly went wrong.