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What to read on Iraq

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

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

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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."