The Great Game, historian Peter Hopkirk’s account of Russia and Great Britain’s nineteenth-century battle for Central Asia, reads like an argument as to why one should leave Afghanistan to its own devices. Whether by freezing in mountain passes, dying at the hands of tribal warlords or breaking against the walls of desert fortresses, the British and Russian armies spend most of their campaigns coming to grips with an ineluctable reality: regardless of which century you’re living in, invading Central Asian countries is really, really, really hard.
Since 2001, the United States has expended billions of dollars and thousands of lives proving that it’s just as difficult to subdue Kabul in the twenty-first century as it was in the nineteenth. By turns horrifying, engrossing and majestic, America’s sojourns in Iraq and Afghanistan have shaped this nation’s identity for the past decade and produced a body of literature as jaw-dropping and varied as the campaigns themselves.
1. Generation Kill, Evan Wright
Generation Kill, journalist Evan Wright’s firsthand account of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, came about thanks to a bit of cosmic serendipity. A magazine journalist with a history of substance abuse and a résumé that included stints at Hustler and Rolling Stone, Wright proved a spiritual match for the combat marines with whom he embedded. Riding the tip of the American invasion, Wright produced an account that marvels at the destruction, courage and (occasionally) incompetence of America’s invading forces.
Later adapted into an HBO miniseries, Generation Kill allows uncomfortable questions to form at its center: What does it mean to root for these brave, intelligent young men as they do combat with some of the most impoverished people on earth? What does it mean not to?
2. War, Sebastian Junger
Several of War’s reviewers marveled that Sebastian Junger had managed to write an apolitical account of America’s activities in Afghanistan. Indeed, Junger, best known as the author of The Perfect Storm, portrays war as a natural force akin to a typhoon, and the men and women involved in it as working stiffs, trying to ride it out with only the benefit of courage, gumption and luck.
In researching the book, Junger embedded for a year with soldiers at a remote outpost in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. His account relates the stress of coming under daily fire, as well as the boredom, frustration and camaraderie bred by protracted isolation.
This material also served as the basis for the documentary Restrepo, which Junger co-directed with British photojournalist Tim Hetherington.
3. Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, Thomas E. Ricks
Thomas E. Ricks lays bare his intentions within Fiasco’s first page, stating “the U.S.-led invasion [of Iraq] was launched recklessly, with a flawed plan for war and a worse approach to occupation.” After traversing Ricks’s exhaustive catalogue of willfully ignored intelligence, ideological bullheadedness and simple bungling, it’s hard to disagree.
Ricks populates this executive summary of the Second Gulf War with a familiar cast of characters – Cheney, Franks, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, et al. – while also describing the bureaucracies, analysts and ground commanders who either added to or fought against the war’s unraveling.
In 1967, Norman Mailer famously asked, “Why are we in Vietnam?” Fiasco answers a nearly synonymous question for a very different generation.
4. The Forever War, Dexter Filkins
The Forever War reads like a collection of postcards from a decade-long trip through hell.
Filkins, first as a reporter with the Los Angeles Times and later as a correspondent with The New York Times, spent years traveling through the Middle East, witnessing a never-ending concatenation of wars, conflicts and police actions.
Though told chronologically, The Forever War lacks a narrative in the traditional sense. Instead, Filkins relates his story through snapshots and anecdotes: Cops trying on coats inside the wreckage of a Brooks Brothers on 9/11; an Afghani butcher selling the carcasses of goats that wander into the minefield by his house; villagers burying their televisions to protect them from seizure by the Taliban. Filkins rarely tries to makes sense of what he sees. By the book’s end, you get the feeling that it defies explanation.
5. Jarhead: A Marine’s Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles, Anthony Swofford
While most of the books on this list sprang from the labors of professional journalists, Jarhead owes its existence to Anthony Swofford – an ex-Marine Corps sniper and a combatant in the first Gulf War.
Swofford’s narrative begins with a montage of his training that will sound familiar to anyone who has seen Full Metal Jacket or its ilk. However, when Swofford and his fellow Marines head to Saudi Arabia prior to the 1990 invasion of Iraq, things take an unexpected turn. Guided missiles, tanks and the threat of chemical weapons leave the warriors without access to the war for which they’ve trained.
Rife with boredom, bloodlust and fear, Jarhead makes modern war seem simultaneously hellish and a total letdown. The central tragedy of Swofford’s memoir is that he didn’t get to kill anyone, which is fairly compelling in itself.