Getting the Right Read on America's Afghan War

A U.S. soldier shields his eyes from dust as a Blackhawk helicopter UH-60 lands at the U.S. base in Arghandab Valley, Afghanistan in this Aug. 7, 2010 file photo.
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Nick Turse is the associate editor of  An award-winning journalist, his work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The Nation, and TomDispatch. His latest book, The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan  (Verso Books). Turse is currently a fellow at Harvard University's Radcliffe Institute. 

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 U.S. 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'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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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.