The horror of war has the weird ability to produce moving and conflicted works of literary art, as writers work through the best and worst of human emotion to come to grips with what they’ve seen, heard, and experienced. Novels have played a major role — the Civil War gave us The Red Badge of Courage; World War I gave us All Quiet on the Western Front — but works of on-the-ground reporting like the Vietnam-era Dispatches and The Things They Carried offer readers an immediacy and reality different from that found in fictional works or the nightly news. The current war in Iraq is no different, having inspired dozens of worthy titles since the 2003 invasion. The titles on this list are jaw-dropping in their honest and frank depiction of the politics and battles involved in the Iraq War (with some examining Afghanistan, as well), and they offer a variety of eye-opening viewpoints that bring home the complexity and brutality of war. For anyone who cares about what’s happening in the country today, they’re required reading.
1. Generation Kill, Evan Wright: Rolling Stone reporter Evan Wright spent weeks embedded with the Marines of First Recon Battalion as they served as the tip of the spear for the 2003 invasion. (He even bartered away his satellite phone to ride with lead vehicles.) His articles went on to form this book, in which he profiles the men of First Recon and examines the mix of resolve and resignation that sets in as they fight their way to Baghdad. He captures the camaraderie and reluctant heroism with skill, and he also highlights the bureaucracy that can screw up anything. The book was later adapted into a critically praised HBO miniseries. [See this interview of Evan Wright here.]
2. Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone, Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Rajiv Chandrasekaran served as Baghdad bureau chief for The Washington Post, a role that gave him an intimate view at life in Iraq after the U.S. invasion as coalition forces tried to maintain the peace and support an infrastructure. His book discusses the Coalition Provisional Authority based in the Green Zone, examining the ups and downs of Paul Bremer’s administration there from 2003-2004. For political junkies or people who just want to know more about the behind-the-scenes aspects of war, the book is an enlightening and compelling read. It also served as the inpiration for the 2010 film Green Zone.
3. What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception, Scott McClellan: Scott McClellan was press secretary for President George W. Bush from 2003 to 2006, giving him a unique insider’s account on the balance of power during wartime. His 2008 memoir discusses the methods used to make the case for war to the American public, including a “political propaganda campaign” that McClellan says was less than completely truthful about the causes and potential effects of the conflict. An interesting look at war from the domestic side. [See this interview of Scott McClellan here.]
4. Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, Thomas E. Ricks: This is the first installment of Washington Post Pentagon reporter Thomas Ricks’ examination of the Iraq War, followed in 2009 by The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq. In Fiasco, Ricks begins to explore the fantastic array of intelligence and logistical decisions that led to the war and its subsequent management (or mismanagement, as the case may be). The research and interviews on hand place the books in the upper ranks of war analysis, as Ricks moves past assertion into true exploration of war’s consequences.
5. My War: Killing Time in Iraq, Colby Buzzell: Colby Buzzell was stationed in Iraq as part of the U.S. Army when he began blogging about his experiences in the war. His firsthand account was rare for its honesty and for being directly from a soldier, not filtered through a reporter or any other source. My War collects blog entries and adds other bits of narrative to form a story of a man on the ground in the war, dealing with the difficulty of it all. Profane, bitter, and uncompromising, it’s definitely a challenging but rewarding work.
6. The Forever War, Dexter Filkins: The Forever War is admittedly a dour title, but Dexter Filkins isn’t the kind to beat around the bush. A foreign correspondent for The New York Times, Filkins was on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan to report on the wars there, and this book covers his experiences going back more than a decade. One of the book’s many strengths is that Filkins avoids explicit political arguments and lets the horror of war and the quicksand of terror do all the talking for him. The violent experiences in this book are shocking looks at the side of war many people back home tend to forget.
7. The Good Soldiers, David Finkel: David Finkel won a Pulitzer in 2006 for his Washington Post reporting on America’s involvement with democracy efforts in Yemen, and his skills for clear, explanatory journalism are on display in The Good Soldiers. The book describes the months Finkel spent in 2007 embedded with an Army battalion as part of the troop surge, and it’s a potent blend of action and introspection. One of the best pieces of reportage from the war.
8. War, Sebastian Junger: Sebastian Junger is no stranger to documenting conflict, with credits including The Perfect Storm and the true-crime volume A Death in Belmont. He visited Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley to report on the war for Vanity Fair, eventually turning those experiences into the documentary Restrepo and the book War. The narrative captures the perverse excitement of battle even as it underscores the physical and emotional toll it takes on the men who fight it. Impossible to put down.
9. Plan of Attack, Bob Woodward: Bob Woodward almost doesn’t need an introduction: He’s been with the Washington Post since 1971 and became one of the most famous reporters in history when he and Carl Bernstein spearheaded the coverage that broke open the Watergate scandal. He’s written four books about the George W. Bush administration in relation to the Iraq War: Bush at War, Plan of Attack, State of Denial, and The War Within. Completists should look at reading the entire series, but it’s also acceptable to jump in with Plan of Attack, an interesting look at the build-up and launch of the Iraq War. It’s a contentious but readable book, and definitely worth the effort.
10. From Baghdad, With Love: A Marine, the War, and a Dog Named Lava, Jay Kopelman: Written with journalist Melinda Roth, Marine Jay Kopelman’s book focuses on Lava, a stray dog his unit found in Fallujah, and Kopelman’s work to transport the pup back to the United States. It’s a captivating backdrop to Kopelman’s real story about the utter hell of war and his attempt to reconcile himself with the human suffering around him. He writes with candor about the war, and his efforts to save a dog are the ideal way to highlight the value of all life.