Reading the newspaper these days feels a little like time traveling. After eight years of war in Iraq and (let's be honest) at least three years of societal amnesia, it's startling to wake up to headlines about sectarian violence and the president's requests for resources to fight ISIS, the radical Islamic organization conquering vast swathes of western Iraq, with devastating humanitarian consequences. Haven't we been here before? Didn't we win? And didn't we leave?
The reports remind me of a college class I taught on war literature a few years ago. One of the things that intrigued me was my students' disinterest in learning about Iraq. For them the war was their growing up, just part of the din of the adult world that has no meaning in childhood, like mortgage payments or tax reform. Sure, they had political opinions about the country — what American doesn't? — but no real knowledge of Iraq or the second Gulf War. And, in trying to refute their apathy, I realized to my embarrassment that I didn't either.
Many excellent books have been written on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the last decade, the most popular falling into what I call the "hero genre" — books like Chris Kyle's American Sniper and Marcus Luttrell's Lone Survivor, which glorify the role of the elite American soldier in combat. Somewhat less popular but immensely important are recent books on the history of the Shia-Sunni conflict and the plight of veterans returned from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. When I first realized how little I knew about Iraq, these were the books I turned to; and now that time seems to be reversing its course, it feels right to revisit them.
For a more thorough understanding of America's historic role and interest in Middle Eastern policy, I recommend reading Hugh Wilford's well-researched and entertaining America's Great Game: The CIA's Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East. Wilford explores the lives and activities of three CIA officers in the Middle East in the 1940s and '50s (the "Mad Men" of the Middle East), describing how — despite the best intentions — they initiated political turmoil that destabilized the region and permanently affected relations between the U.S. and Middle Eastern leaders. Another useful contextual book is Lesley Hazleton's After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split in Islam. Written in a colorful narrative style, After the Prophet describes the seventh-century conflict over who should lead Islam after the Prophet Muhammad's death. Hazleton does an expert job of linking ancient events to the present day, providing the reader with a profound understanding of the Shia-Sunni violence central to the current Iraqi conflict.
If what interests you are the experiences of American combat troops and war correspondents, Dexter Filkins's magisterial The Forever War surveys the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan in a series of vignettes that cover a broad range of perspectives and gracefully abstain from political judgment. If I had to recommend just one book on the Iraq War, this beautifully written, brave, and thoughtful work would be it. Another exceptional book on American troops is David Finkel's Thank You for Your Service, a devastating portrait of the difficulties many men and women experience when they return from war. Like Filkins, Finkel's work is markedly apolitical, governed by its interest and empathy in its subjects rather than an ideological agenda.
It's difficult to find analysis of the war from an Iraqi or Muslim perspective, but two recent books help provide Western readers with a glimpse of what life is like inside Iraq and other war-torn Middle Eastern countries. The first, Kirk W. Johnson's To Be a Friend Is Fatal: The Fight to Save the Iraqis America Left Behind, details Johnson's experiences as a very young reconstruction coordinator in Iraq. Johnson's idealism is soon replaced by fear and depression as he sees his Iraqi friends kidnapped and murdered for working with American agencies; once Johnson returns to the U.S., frantic emails from friends fearing for their lives inspire him to start the List Project, aimed at securing refugee status for Iraqis formerly employed by the U.S. coalition. Many of the stories in this book are gruesome, but it documents an important and forgotten consequence of the U.S. invasion. For an international relations angle, Professor Mohammed Ayoob's Will the Middle East Implode provides a clear and succinct introduction to the intersection of faith and politics in the Middle East, and lends insight into the Shia-Sunni struggle at the heart of the ISIS takeover of Iraq.
Finally, because it's summer and sometimes you just want a good war story, reach for John Crawford's now-overlooked memoir The Last True Story I'll Ever Tell, about his 2002 deployment to Iraq with the National Guard. Crawford writes in spare short stories about the impact of war on his sense of self and marriage. The last chapter is a masterpiece, showcasing the way fiction can reveal — more powerfully than any memoir or reportage — the truths about ourselves that we most want to conceal.
Books mentioned in this post