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How the Pentagon Tries to Influence What Books You Can Read About Afghanistan

A marketplace filled with books by former military men devoted to tweaking, enhancing, and improving war-fighting capabilities cries out for some counterbalance.

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.

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