Quick—name the five most important, influential, and best known books on the Afghan War. Okay, name three. Okay, I’ll settle for two. How about one?
While the American war in Vietnam raged, publishers churned out books whose titles still resonate. In 1967 alone, classics like Mary McCarthy’s Vietnam, Howard Zinn’s Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal, Thich Nhat Hanh’s Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire, not to mention Norman Mailer’s Why Are We in Vietnam: A Novel all hit the shelves.
In fact, between 1962 and 1970, as American involvement in the conflict accelerated and peaked, some 9,430 books were written about the Vietnam War. From 2002 to 2010, less than half as many—4,221 texts of all types—have been written about the Afghan War.
Of course, it didn’t help that, from 2003-2008, the Iraq War sucked up all the attention and left Afghanistan largely “forgotten,” analytically and otherwise, nor did it help that the Afghan War never had a significant antiwar movement. The vibrant, large-scale movement of the Vietnam years, filled with people eager to learn more about just what they were protesting, proved an engine that drove publishers. Significant numbers of books produced by and for members of that movement investigated aspects of the civilian suffering the American war brought to Indochina. Not surprisingly, the Afghan War has produced many fewer works on the conflict’s human fallout, and books like Zinn’s, calling for withdrawal, have been few and far between.
Four decades ago, a stream of books was being produced for popular audiences that exposed the nature of war-making and focused readers’ attention on the misery caused by US military actions abroad. Today, a startling percentage of the authors who bother to focus on the current conflict are producing works dedicated to waging the seemingly endless American war in Afghanistan better.
Pentagon Reading Lists
Just recently, the Pentagon put a book focused on the Afghan War, Operation Dark Heart by Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer, on the bestseller list. No mean feat in itself. The initial version of Shaffer’s book, vetted and cleared for release by his Army Reserve chain of command, was already in print and about to head for local bookstores when the Pentagon got cold feet about letting the man who ran the Defense Intelligence Agency’s operations out of Afghanistan’s Bagram Airfield in 2003-2004 have his say. At a cost of almost $50,000 taxpayer dollars, the Defense Department promptly reached an agreement with Shaffer and his publisher to buy up and then destroy most of that print run—about 9,500 copies. The resulting publicity from the military’s official book-burning vaulted a newly redacted version to number one on Amazon.com’s bestseller list and, according to Army Times, “a week after going on sale, it was on its third reprint with 50,000 copies sold or on sale.”
Operation Dark Heart’s path to prominence may have been atypical, but when it comes to books on the Afghan War, the Pentagon has driven sales and shaped the market in other powerful ways. For one thing, the war has produced a plethora of professional military reading lists populated by books designed to help officers and enlisted personnel become educated in the hottest subject in military affairs: counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine—the same disastrous form of warfare that, in the Vietnam years, indirectly produced so many books for antiwar reading lists.
Take the “Commander’s Counterinsurgency Reading List” from the US Army’s Combined Arms Center. It contains seven key texts, most of them classic works, including The Evolution of a Revolt by T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia), but its “additional readings” contain newer faves like retired Army colonel and COIN uber-cheerleader John Nagl’s 2002 text, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam. Similarly, a pre-deployment reading list for Army personnel shipping out to Afghanistan breaks down selections by rank, assigning privates a series of texts, including Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia by Ahmed Rashid, while their colonels are told to read Nagl’s book, among other works.
“Today’s military thinker must appreciate the many dimensions — political, environmental, economic, informational, and others — that comprise international security,” said Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz in July, marking the latest of his office’s quarterly recommendations of books to read. Among the selections was former Australian infantry officer and counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen’s 2009 offering, The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One, which also appeared on this year’s US Army War College’s “suggested military reading list.”
But don’t think this is strictly a military phenomenon. Nagl’s and Kilcullen’s works and others like them, focused on enhancing war-fighting capabilities, not stirring debate on the wisdom or morality of the war in question or war-making in general, are increasingly being sold to civilian audiences, too. In recent years, newspapers and magazines have done their part in publicizing selections from such military reading lists and from military or former military figures. The process, involving articles, positive book reviews, op-ed opportunities, as well as raves from pundits and commentators, can now transform even a once little-noticed Pentagon-approved tract into a must-read for the book-buying public.
Confessions of a COINdinista
With the career implosion of General Stanley McChrystal this past summer, Kilcullen became America’s second foremost “COINdinista”—as advocates of counterinsurgency warfare are now called. Numero uno, of course, is General David Petraeus, who first dusted off Vietnam’s counterinsurgency doctrine, long discarded by the US military, and made it gleam in a 2006 manual produced for the Army and Marines. It even got its own trade edition complete with a foreword co-authored by none other than, you guessed it, Petraeus himself. He then employed Kilcullen, who was (like Nagl) one of the field manual’s many co-authors, as his senior counterinsurgency advisor while he commanded the Multinational Force in Iraq in 2007. Today, Kilcullen serves as the President and Chief Executive Officer of Caerus, a private consulting firm which sells advice to those operating in areas in crisis, like war and disaster zones.
This year, Kilcullen has a new book out. Its one-word title could hardly be more sweeping: Counterinsurgency. No ifs, ands, or buts about it, even though, as the author immediately informs readers, the book is simply “a snapshot of wartime thinking,” a collection of new and previously published selections “written mainly in the field during the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.” In reality, the COIN guru’s latest offering is yet another manual, complete with rounded corners and an easy-to-grip, beveled “tough cover,” designed to be tossed into a rucksack and taken to war—or simply meant to thrill a certain class of armchair COINdinistas.
No one reading this book or his previous one can doubt Kilcullen is smart, even if quite a few of his observations come across as anything but. Case in point are some of his “twenty-eight articles” (a reference to T.E. Lawrence’s famed “Twenty-Seven Articles” on waging an insurgency, a title choice which manages to imply that Kilcullen is the new Lawrence of… well, the Greater Middle East). These fundamentals for company-level counterinsurgency, distributed on-line ad infinitum by the COIN community, have already become very influential within the US military.
Here’s a little sample: “Be prepared for setbacks.” No shit. “Have a game plan.” Ditto. “Rank is nothing: talent is everything.” Alright already. You get the idea.
While America does send mere boys into combat, one hopes the slightly older boys leading them would have already discovered many of these truths. Likely as not, military fans have embraced Kilcullen’s 27-plus-1, because it is a short read in the always-popular checklist format.
More interesting than anything in Kilcullen’s new book is what it says about the topics on the table for the military crowd and what publishers like Oxford University Press, which sent the text into the world, think is important about the Afghan War. Counterinsurgency is in. War-fighting handbooks are in. Gimmick covers designed for the warzone are in. Analysis about whether to fight such wars, investigation of the true costs of war to those most affected, plans to end bloody costly wars: all definitely out.
The Pentagon Printing Press
Kilcullen, now freelancing “in the board room, the battle space, and anywhere in between” (according to his company’s website), represents one militarized segment of this overwhelmingly pro-war, or at least anti-antiwar, publishing trend. Another party responsible for beefing up the numbers when it comes to books on the Afghan War is the military itself.
Over the last year, the Pentagon’s own publishing arms have been printing up a storm. Take Afghanistan Counterinsurgency and the Indirect Approach, released earlier this year by the Joint Special Operations University—a Pentagon professional school designed to meet the “specific educational needs of special operators and non-SOF [special operations forces] national security decision makers.” It is just one of the many monographs pouring off Pentagon presses that investigate various aspects of COIN and related concepts with an eye toward improving US fortunes in Afghanistan. In the book, Thomas Henrikson, former Army officer and now senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, conducts a historical analysis of the “indirect approach” to COIN. (In other words, when Americans partner with, or rely on, local forces to carry out US wars abroad.) And guess what? He thinks it’s exactly the way to go, so long as it’s done with “thoughtfulness,” and so he advocates for more of the same in the years ahead.
Another Joint Special Operations University monograph on COIN concepts published this year, Joseph Celeski’s Hunter-Killer Teams: Attacking Enemy Safe Havens, analyzes past efforts at “hunter-killer operations”—long-term lethal missions conducted in enemy safe havens designed to out-guerrilla enemy guerrillas. Celeski, a retired colonel who spent 30 years in the Army and served two tours commanding special ops units in Afghanistan, offers a hunter-killer survey of history ranging from brutal American colonial efforts against Native Americans to the ruthless anti-partisan warfare of Nazi jagdkommandos during World War II. While he’s at it, he can’t help cataloging a sordid history of soldiers making war on noncombatants in the name of counterinsurgency.
You would think that, given the lineage of hunter-killer operations and where they always seem to lead, Celeski might suggest that they are ineffective in a COIN environment, where “hearts and minds” are key, and a sure road to war crimes and civilian suffering. Not so. Instead, he advocates the creation of new, specialized “hunter-killer” units within the US military. And on the ground he’s in good company, it turns out. At this moment, according to the New York Times, Afghan War commander Petraeus is threatening (more) cross-border ground operations into Pakistan and “greatly expanding Special Operations raids (as many as a dozen commando raids a night).”
War—What Is It Good For?
A marketplace filled with books by former military men devoted to tweaking, enhancing, and improving war-fighting capabilities cries out for some counterbalance. This year’s foremost civilian-authored text on the conflict in Afghanistan is, without a doubt, Sebastian Junger’s War. While nothing like the antiwar texts of the 1960s and 1970s that laid bare the folly and terror of American campaigns in Southeast Asia, War still offers a rare glimpse of the horrors that authors like Celeski, Henrikson, and Kilcullen tend to skip over or discount.
Early in his book, Junger recounts a Navy SEAL’s admission that the only thing that stopped him from executing three unarmed Afghans was concern about the press catching wind of the murders. A page later, he writes of an American attempt to take out a mid-level Taliban leader in Chichal, a village high above Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, that killed 17 civilians instead. The military responsible for training that elite fighter who felt unconstrained by the laws of war and the men who called in the air strike on Chichal is the very one Kilcullen and various Pentagon minds think can carry out kind-COIN.
As a book, War suffers from many of the pitfalls that afflicted its movie companion, the documentary Restrepo. The overly ambitious title belies the fact that it is not about “war,” but one aspect of war, combat, as experienced by US Army troops in Korengal Valley. Moreover, there’s a dismaying amount of combat-friendly hyperbole and celebratory rhetoric in and around the book, from the publisher’s book-jacket prose labeling combat “the ultimate test of character”—a theme that buzzes through the entire book—to a famous chapter-leading quote by George Orwell or Winston Churchill (Junger refuses to decide which) that tells us we all “sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.”
Unfortunately, as the last century showed, too many “rough men” were all too willing to do the bidding of leaders like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Suharto, Brezhnev, Johnson, and Nixon, to name just a few, to the detriment of many millions who ended up dead, wounded, or psychologically scarred. All of this suggests that perhaps if we stopped celebrating “rough men,” we could all sleep easier.
That said, there is much to be learned from Junger’s in-print version of Americans-at-war. His blow-by-blow accounts of small unit combat actions, for instance, drive home the tremendous firepower American troops unleash on enemies often armed with little more than rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. Page after page tallies up American technology and firepower: M-4 assault rifles (some with M-203 grenade launchers), Squad Automatic Weapons or SAWs, .50 caliber machine guns, M-240 machine guns, Mark-19 automatic grenade launchers, mortars, 155 mm artillery, surveillance drones, Apache attack helicopters, AC-130 Spectre gunships, A-10 Warthogs, F-15 and F-16 fighter-bombers, B-52 and B-1 bombers, all often brought to bear against boys who may be wielding nothing more than Lee-Enfield bolt-action rifles—a state of the art weapon when introduced. That, however, was in the 1890s.
The profligacy of relying on such overwhelming firepower is not lost on Junger who offers a useful insight in regard to another high-tech, high-priced piece of US weaponry, “a huge shoulder-fired rocket called a Javelin.” Junger writes: “Each Javelin round costs $80,000, and the idea that it’s fired by a guy who doesn’t make that in a year at a guy who doesn’t make that in a lifetime is somehow so outrageous it almost makes the war seem winnable.”
But “almost,” as the old adage goes, only counts when it comes to horseshoes and hand grenades. And bombs dropped by B-1s, like one unleashed at night near the village of Yaka Chine, are certainly not hand grenades. Junger chronicles the aftermath of that strike when US troops encountered “three children with blackened faces… a woman lying stunned mute on the floor [while f]ive corpses lie on wooden pallets covered by white cloth outside the house, all casualties from the airstrikes the night before.” He continues, “The civilian casualties are a serious matter and will require diplomacy and compensation.”
Instead, an American lieutenant colonel choppers in to lecture village elders about the evils of “miscreants” in their midst and brags about his officers’ educational prowess and how it can benefit the Afghans. “They stare back unmoved,” writes Junger. “The Americans fly out of Yaka Chine, and valley elders meet among themselves to decide what to do. Five people are dead in Yaka Chine, along with ten wounded, and the elders declare jihad against every American in the valley.” Vignettes like this drive home the reasons why, after nearly a decade of overwhelming firepower, the US war in Afghanistan has yet to prove “winnable,” despite the ministrations of Kilcullen and crew.
Later in the book we read about how Junger survives an improvised explosive device that detonates beneath his vehicle. He’s saved only by a jumpy trigger-man who touches two wires to a battery a bit too early to kill Junger and the other occupants of the Army Humvee he’s riding in. In response, Junger writes: “[T]his man wanted to negate everything I’d ever done in my life or might ever do. It felt malicious and personal in a way that combat didn’t. Combat gives you the chance to react well and survive; bombs don’t allow for anything.”
Junger, at least, traveled across the world to consciously and deliberately put himself in harm’s way. Imagine how the poor people of Yaka Chine must have felt when a $300 million American aircraft swooped in to drop a bomb on them in the dead of night. Junger’s book helps reveal these facts far better than his movie.
Getting a Read on War
Surveying this year’s Afghan War literature from popular best-sellers to little noticed Army monographs is generally disheartening but illuminating. “The moral basis of the war doesn’t interest soldiers much,” writes Junger near the beginning of his book. “[T]hey generally leave the big picture to others.”
America’s fighting men at the front are not alone. Most Americans have similarly chosen to ignore the “moral basis” for the war and the big picture as well. They have been aided and abetted in this not only by a president evidently bent on escalating the conflict at every turn, but also by a coterie of authors—many of them connected to the Pentagon—content to critique only doctrine, strategy, and tactics. Each of them is eager to push for his favorite flavor of warfare, but loath to address weightier issues. Perhaps this is one reason why Junger’s front-line troops—if they are indeed sampling the best the military’s prescribed reading lists have to offer—have a tendency to ignore fundamental issues and skip intellectual and moral inquiry.
If Pentagon-consultant-turned-potential-defense-contractor Kilcullen and the Joint Special Operations University’s author corps aren’t going to address morals and “big picture” issues, then the Sebastian Jungers of the world need to step up and cover the real, everyday face of war: the plight of civilians in the conflict zone. They also should focus on big-picture issues like whether the United States actually has anything approaching a true strategic vision when it comes to its wars and occupations abroad, whether there truly is a global Islamist insurgency as Kilcullen maintains, whether it could ever coalesce into a worldwide threat, and whether whatever it is that exists should be attacked with the force of arms. They need to offer more help in launching serious mainstream debate about America’s permanent state of war and its fallout.
The US military’s reading lists are, not surprisingly, dedicated to combat and counterinsurgency. So are its favorite authors. To them, combat is war. Civilians in war zones know better. They know that war is suffering, because they live with it, not a tour at a time but constantly, day after day, week after week, year after year. Civilians outside war zones should know, too. It would be helpful if they had authors with the skill, intellect, and courage to help them to understand the truth.
Nick Turse is the associate editor of TomDispatch.com. An award-winning journalist, his work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, and regularly at TomDispatch. His latest book, The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan (Verso Books), which brings together leading analysts from across the political spectrum, has just been published. Turse is currently a fellow at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute. You can follow him on Twitter @NickTurse, on Tumblr, and on Facebook. His website is NickTurse.com. To catch Turse discussing the “Pentagon printing press” and the Afghan War in a Timothy MacBain TomCast audio interview, click here or, to download it to your iPod, here.
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