Slimmer pickin's than last tour. The economy and Afghanistan (and now Michael Jackson and Sarah Palin) are flavors of the year. But with 130,000 troops still here, and thousands destined to stay at least two more years, we should keep up to speed. More importantly, these books offer, in part, lessons learned and cautionary tales that we should know so we can try to avoid making the same mistakes somewhere else. And more important than anything, we owe it to the 4,321 Americans who have died in Iraq (six from Merced County), the 31,000-plus wounded and the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi casualties to make informed choices next time somebody tells us we have to go to war.
In no special order:
'The Accidental Guerilla," David Kilcullen. An Australian counterinsurgency expert, he was Petraeus' consigiere in Baghdad during the 2007 surge. This should be a primer at West Point, Annapolis, the Command and General Staff College and for any civilians who want to understand who we're fighting and why in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places. Kilcullen acts more as an anthropologist than a soldier (though he was a 20-year officer Down Under) in forensically explaning 21st century warfare. One key point: he uses the Arabic word "takfiri terrorist" to describe the enemy, a doctrine that "disobeys the Koranic inunction against compulsion in religion and instead holds that Muslims whose beliefs differ from the 'takfiri's' are infidels who must be killed." Our generation's Bernard Fall.
"On Killing," Lt. Col. Dave Grossman. The subtitle tells us why we should read it: "The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society." And the chapter headings make us keep turning the pages: "Killing and Physical Distance"; "An Anatomy of Killing"; "Killing and Atrocities"; "The Killing Response Stages"; "Killing in Vietnam: What Have We Done to Our Soldiers?"; "Killing in America: What Are We Doing to Our Children?" As a onetime Army basic trainee and a Vietnam vet, one sentence in the Nam chapter struck me cold and hard: "Basically the soldier has rehearsed the process so many times that when he does kill in combat he is able to, at one level, deny to himself that he is actually killing another human being."
"My Life as an Explorer," Sven Hedin. First published in 1925, this first-person account deals with Iraq only in a couple of chapters, so purists may want to exclude it. But the young Swedish adventurer tells a tale a page, sometimes three or four, so the adventure is worth tagging along for, as he takes us with him mostly on the Silk Road through India and Tibet. Incredibly, he traveled to Baghdad from Basra, in the south of Iraq, by boat. On the Tigris River over four days. And equally hard to envision, as the latest sandstorm cloaks the capital in a brown bowl, Hedin observes that "the mountains of Kurdistan were visible in the distance." Old-fashioned adventure writing.
"The Gamble," Thomas E. Ricks. The former Washington Post defense correspondent's followup to "Fiasco." He's the fly on the desert tent and on the Pentagon wall as he chronicles in dramatic detail the personalities, issues, conflicts and tipping points of the war in Iraq 2006-07. Besides what appears to be unfettered access, Ricks reports the hell out of the war and the times. It's heavy with stars, both in the Hollywood sense and those on the epaulets of many of the main players. But he also asks sergeants and specialists about the war and the surge and their thoughts as well. The most stunning disclosure is just how close the United States came to losing the war in Iraq. His account of how both the American and Iraqi combatants stepped up the abyss, looked in, and then the Iraqis stepped back makes for compelling history. For all those who cheered the June 30 withdrawal of U.S. "combat forces from major Iraqi cities," Ricks' conclusion--whch he has justifies with more than 300 pages of first-rate reportage and analysis--will sober us all: "No matter how the U.S. war in Iraq ends, it appears that today we may be only halfway through it....In other words, the events for which the Iraq war will be remembered probably have not yet happened."