What to read on Iraq

Monitor Middle East correspondents Scott Peterson, Dan Murphy, and Jill Carroll recommend the best books on the Iraq war.

Walk into any bookstore today, and you are bound to find a shelf filled with books on current events in Iraq.

How can a reader far from the fray know what's worth reading? For help, we turned to our in-house experts – the Monitor's Middle East correspondents Scott Peterson, Dan Murphy, and Jill Carroll – who've experienced the conflict in Iraq firsthand and asked them for their top picks.

Peterson calls Spider's Web: Bush, Saddam, Thatcher and the Decade of Deceit (Faber & Faber, 1993) by Alan Friedman "the most detailed account of how senior US officials – former Defense chief Donald Rumsfeld among them – helped clandestinely arm and support Saddam Hussein in his fight against the revolutionary Islamic regime of Ayatollah Khomeini in the 1980s."

Recommended: Default

'Spider's Web' is 'a powerful reminder of how policies shift again and again in the Middle East.' (Scott Peterson)

Journalists An­­drew and Patrick Cockburn offer "an invaluable understanding of Saddam Hussein's regime in the 1990s" in Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein (HarperCollins, 1999), says Peterson. The book explains "how the aftermath of the first Gulf War from 1991 – with its sanctions, weapon inspections, and political brinkmanship – set the stage for the eventual US invasion of 2003. Full of on-the-ground reporting and detail, it is the best on this period."

'"Out of the Ashes" was the first book I read when I learned I was going to Iraq, and it's one I refer back to often.' (Dan Murphy)

Peterson also recommends Endgame (Simon & Schuster, 1999) by former United Nations weapons in­­spector Scott Ritter. "The book describes the work of the UN inspectors and how some of their efforts were used by the CIA and Western intelligence agen­cies until Ritter resigned in 1998," says Peterson. Ritter "was one of the few US voices before the 2003 war to declare that Iraq had dismantled its weapons programs – which proved to be true."

'Scott Ritter's insight into the workings of Baghdad's security apparatus are invaluable – and help explain the potency of the anti-US insurgency today.' (Peterson)

Crusade: The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War (Houghton Mifflin, 1993) by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Rick Atkinson offers insight into the United States' 1991 military engagement with Saddam's Iraq. Atkinson had "unparalleled access to US decisionmakers, both military and civilian," says Peterson. By "drawing upon exquisitely detailed sources," Atkinson "explains how the US obsession with Saddam began."

This is 'the definitive – and voluminous – account of the 1991 Gulf War.' (Peterson)

Night Draws Near (Henry Holt, 2005) by Anthony Shadid is "the best book to have emerged from the 'shock and awe' campaign against Baghdad," says Peterson. A Lebanese-Am­erican, Wash­ington Post reporter Shadid won a 2004 Pulitzer Prize for his journalistic accounts of the daily lives of ordinary Iraqis during and after the 2003 Baghdad bombing campaign. "Night Draws Near," which Peterson praises for its "masterful writing" and "lyrical power that draws on [Shadid's] Arabic fluency and honed eye for detail," tells of the run-up to the war in Iraq, the invasion, and its aftermath – as seen through the eyes of Iraqis.

'Few writers have ever deserved the Pulitzer Prize for interna­tional reporting more than Anthony Shadid for his masterful writing during and after the 2003 Baghdad bombing campaign.' (Peterson)

Readers who want an up-close look at the 2003 US invasion of Iraq should turn to Generation Kill (Putnam, 2004) by Evan Wright, says Peterson. Wright was embedded with a platoon of First Reconnaissance Battalion marines during the invasion and later wrote about his experiences in a three-part series for Rolling Stone. "Generation Kill," says Peterson, is "full of raw power, adrenaline, exhaustion, and the profane flavor of modern-day war." Wright captures "a powerful, unvarnished, unblinking view of conflict, as if he turned on his tape recorder and video camera from the first order to 'step' and forgot to turn them off." He also calls "Generation Kill" the Iraq equivalent of the classic Vietnam war book "Dispatches," by Michael Herr.

' "Generation Kill" is the book that takes the reader as close as possible to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.' (Peterson)

For Jill Carroll (Monitor Middle East correspondent now based in Cairo), the fullest and most thorough accounting of the current war in Iraq is found in Fiasco (Penguin, 2006). "Fiasco" was written by Washington Post reporter Thomas Ricks and is based on hundreds of interviews – conducted both in person and via e-mail – with US military men and women on the ground in Iraq.

'For anyone wondering how the groundwork for what we are witnessing today was laid, "Fiasco" provides an exhaustive answer.' (Jill Carroll)

Thunder Run by Los Angeles Times correspondent Dan Zucchino (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2004) "is a powerful narrative and blow-by-blow account – literally, in some cases – of the first American unit to run the gantlet and roar into Baghdad in April 2003, setting the stage for the collapse of Saddam Hussein," says Peterson. "Zucchino masterfully weaves an oral history of the fighting, drawn from the soldiers that fought it."

'Zucchino tells this episode of the conflict better than anyone else .' (Peterson)

For strong combat narrative, Dan Murphy (Monitor Middle East correspondent based in Cairo) recommends Cobra II (Pantheon, 2006) by Michael Gordon. "It's the inside story of the planning and execution of the invasion and occupation plan for Iraq, mostly from the US military perspective," says Murphy.

'Cobra II' has 'great access and information and some fascinating tales.' (Murphy)

For insight into what happened after the fall of Baghdad, Carroll recommends Imperial Life in the Em­erald City (Knopf, 2006) by Washington Post bureau chief Rajiv Han­drasekaran. The book, she says, "provides a comprehensive and authoritative view into the complex and often impenetrable organization of diplomats, bureaucrats, spin doctors, and consultants that shaped the important formative months after the fall of Baghdad." Murphy calls it "a good primer on the absurdity, incompetence, and nepotism of the CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority]."

'Few reporters covered the Coalition Provisional Authority's days as thoroughly as Rajiv Chandasekaram.' (Carroll)

Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife (Praeger, 2002) by John Nagl "is not an Iraq book, but it's the counterinsurgency book that's on every war commander's desk in Baghdad," says Murphy. "It looks at why the British succeeded in their counterinsurgency campaign in Malaysia and why the US failed in Vietnam." Nagl is considered one of the US's leading experts on counterterrorism and recent editions of the book are updated to include Nagl's firsthand observations of the situation in Iraq.

'If you're interested in the intellectual arguments that are shaping the "surge" and changes in military doctrine brought on by the failures so far in Iraq, this is a great place to start. (Murphy)

The most recent events in Iraq cannot be understood without a basic grasp of the conflicts within Islam. What are the differences between Sunni and Shiite, why are they fighting in Iraq, and what does this mean for the future of Iraq? The Shia Revival (W.W. Norton, 2006) by Vali Nasr, a professor of Middle East politics, is a "lucid and direct look" at such questions, says Murphy.

'Nasr's book is accessible to those who bring little foreknowledge to these questions, yet also detailed enough to be useful to scholars.' (Murphy)

The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright (Monitor review, 9/5/2006)

"The Looming Tower" (Knopf, 2006) is a collection of New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright's accounts of the people, politics, and theology behind Islamic terrorism. The book, writes Monitor reviewer Erik Spanberg, is "filled with dazzling insight, pitch-perfect anecdotes, and compelling context" and "should be required reading for every American." Wright's reporting is so good, says Spanberg, that it's "hard to imagine a better portrait of 9/11 and its causes emerging anytime soon."

The Assassins' Gate by George Packer (Monitor review, 12/27/05)

Packer is also a New Yorker writer and "The Assassins' Gate" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2005) is largely drawn from pieces published there. The book "is basically a repackaging of magazine material, expanded, and it shows," warns Monitor staffer Peter Grier. However, he adds, "If you're looking for one book on Iraq that expands on the daily news and gives a sense of the US enterprise there as a whole, you probably can't do better than this."

State of Denial by Bob Woodward (Monitor review, 10/24/06)

Readers hungry for details on the aftermath of the war as seen from Washington will find everything they want to know – and a good deal more – in "State of Denial" (Simon & Schuster, 2006), Bob Woodward's third book on the current Bush administration. Monitor staffer Peter Grier warns that the level of detail is "numbing," but also notes that Woodward is "a reporting machine. His reputation is such that he can talk to almost anyone he wants to – so he does." The result, says Grier, "is that he's got great stuff to illustrate his points."

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