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Posted on Jan 14, 2011

By Nick Turse

This review originally appeared on TomDispatch.

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.


book cover


The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan


By Nick Turse


Verso, 208 pages


Buy the book

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.

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LocalHero's avatar

By LocalHero, January 31, 2011 at 6:25 am Link to this comment

Well said Carl Street! Couldn’t agree more.

Very happy to see so many here remarking on the futility of voting so I’d like to pile-on.

The act of voting is nothing more than the prison warden allowing the inmates a vote on how the prison will be run - the warden knowing all along that the votes will never be counted.

It sure makes the knuckle-dragging prisoners feel better though.

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drbhelthi's avatar

By drbhelthi, January 22, 2011 at 7:03 pm Link to this comment

When professionals such as Dr. Laura use the terms “paranoia” or “marginal personality,” the words have genuine meaning to other professionals.  However, persons qualified do not use such terms very much in blogs or speeches.  And when they do use them, they are circumspectly employed. 

It interested me, that about a year after “Psychology Today” hit the streets, all psychology sophomores had become psychologists.  The discrepency was swiftly seized upon by political propagandists.  Now, terms that were once used in mental-health-professional settings, have become the parlance of street-talk, and propagandists. 

Spotting propaganda requires the application of only a couple of rules.

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David J. Cyr's avatar

By David J. Cyr, January 21, 2011 at 5:50 am Link to this comment

QUOTE (Emily Springer):

“I’d like to see a book written that explicitly draws the parallels, that shows how we have repeated virtually every mistake and misconception of the Vietnam War”

America’s aggressor war waged against the people of Southeast Asia unofficially began during the preliminary planning phase of the Truman administration, with the general deployment of the U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) to Indochina. Eisenhower reorganized MAAG into target specific units (picture sniper scope crosshairs on a map). Kennedy created the Special Forces to be deployed there for assassinations targeting nation loyal village leaders and as educators in torture and repression for locals willing to collaborate. Johnson escalated to ramp up the profits. Nixon de-escalated to cut the losses. It was all just business. None of it was about “mistakes” made. All of it was a crime.

The Long War OF Terror for remnants of fossil fuels unofficially began during the planning phase of the Carter administration. Carter, Reagan, GHW Bush, Clinton, GW Bush, and Obama have not been making “mistakes” in their serial wars against the people considered expendable for oil & gas. they have all been committing the highest of international crimes: aggressor war.

It’s also no “mistake” that there’s never an international court, with a hangman around, when a POTUS commits mass-murder for industrial profits.

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By Emily Springer, January 20, 2011 at 11:33 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The thing that strikes me about the Forever Wars in the Middle East is the amnesia of official Washington, as if the Vietnam War never happened. Well, that’s not quite true, the Pentagon has learned how to control the media.

I’d like to see a book written that explicitly draws the parallels, that shows how we have repeated virtually every mistake and misconception of the Vietnam War on an item by item basis. Currently President Obama is acting the role of Richard Nixon, pretending he has an exit strategy when he has no clue what to do except escalate.

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By James, January 17, 2011 at 8:33 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Anyone who wants to read a good, anti-war book about modern Afghanistan
should check out Sarah Chayes’s “The Punishment Of Virtue.” Ms. Chayes is an
unaffiliated aid worker, and her book describes ground-level reform efforts that
are inevitably doomed by military mission creep and the corruption of the Karzai
government. It’s a good history lesson and a touchingly sad human story, with
some great moments of humor in it. Well worth getting from your local library.

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By garth, January 16, 2011 at 12:39 pm Link to this comment

Sebastion Junger’s book “War” is an example of the junior high school level of the aggrandizement of war that is being written nowadays. 

Written by professional, pampered, young journalists who ‘went to the finest schools all right but only used to get juiced in it.’

This war is coming home.  And not only in the respect that one imagines as in body bags and wounded soldiers and marines.

For example, Vietnam gave us Special Forces soldiers trained in counter-insurgency like Ward Churchill and, most recently, J. Eric Fuller or James Eric Fuller.

Fuller says he was wounded in Tucson.  They showed pictures of a knee with stitches, but they never showed the knee connected to him.

He’s a 63-year old vet and he appeared on Aimee Goodman’s DemocracyNow!.  He said that he went to the Loughner residence a day or two after the shooting to tell the Loughners he forgave their son.

Today, he was on TV, the Amanpour, Dilly-Dally Hour, and he threatened one of the persons in the audience who supported gun rights.  He said, “You’re dead.”

They said that Fuller was arrested and taken into custody where he’ll have his head examined later this week.

Look up ‘Gladio’. 

Churchill was a Special Forces soldier and an SDS infiltrator.  He taught those two hapless SDSers in NY in the 60s how to build a bomb.  When they tried on their own, they blew themselves up.

Churchill surfaced a few years ago as an ersatz professor of Native American culture at the U of Colorado.  When they found that he had plagiarized, they forced him out.

Churchill carried a Magnum 45 revolver, I believe.

These the are members of the home grown mutation of Galdio.

You’ll probably be hearing from J. Eric Fuller or James Eric Fuller, Jim Fuller in the future.

Telltale signs

The language these people use gives them away.  Fuller said on DemocracyNow! that Jesse Kelly, the ex-Marine, who ran against Giffords was a ‘marginal personality.’  Where have you heard talk like that before and who uses those types of ad hominem attcks?

BTW:  What does ‘marginal personality’ mean?

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David J. Cyr's avatar

By David J. Cyr, January 16, 2011 at 10:08 am Link to this comment

QUOTE (Carl Street):

Mr. Cyr your latest post in response to my comment regarding the legitimacy of elections has taken me from puzzled to confused.

The clearly evident fact that elections aren’t used for their alleged purpose doesn’t mean they don’t have a purpose, for which accurate counts are useful.

A master magician can correctly pick the one card he’s “pushed” upon near anyone who volunteers from his audience. A trick is involved, but the cards are real, and a master magician doesn’t need the cards to be marked or number manipulated in any way. The trick works because the magician is capable of getting nearly anyone who volunteers to assist him to pick whatever card the magician has pre-selected to be chosen.

The elections illusion is in the appearance of people deciding what will be done, which they don’t. It doesn’t matter which “electable” receives the majority of the popular vote because both “electables” have been corporate person pre-selected as acceptable to be corporate state policy continuum providers.

The corporate state can alter counts (the “statistics”) at will, but it rarely needs to. The votes that actually matter are all cast before the election; cast in very large dollar denominations. The “contributions” of corporate persons routinely succeed in deciding which “electable” the sheeple will choose, with no magic or vote count manipulation required. If the sheeple by a narrow margin choose the “electable” less preferred by the corporate persons, then the “electable” not pre-selected to be the chosen one concedes. If there’s any naive natural persons’ interference delaying the concession, then the Judicial Branch can be absolutely relied upon to choose the corporate persons’ choice.

Election fraud, with regard to count, is something that local zealots do, because there is a real competition between the corporate party’s factions. The liberal and conservative factions of the corporate party do fiercely compete for the privilege of managing the corporate state’s crimes; and both are certain that they can commit the crimes better than the other. The conservatives believe any evil should be quickly done. The liberals believe that great care should be taken to have every evil well done.

The only vote count that really matters is the dissident vote — the resistance vote.

Why? Permanent government.

Robert Gates has managed the foreign war policy in both the past “nasty” Bush Administration and the current “nice” Obama administration.

Goldman-Sachs has managed the domestic war policy ever since Clinton lied about everything.

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By M L, January 16, 2011 at 9:26 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Two thirds of eligible voters don’t even bother to vote believing our government is corrupt. American people generally support wars believing we are making progress or winning. Authors of these pro-war books simply make the case for military progress or winning. The American people continue to buy into the lies and propaganda.

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By surfnow, January 16, 2011 at 8:45 am Link to this comment

Even John Krakauer’s recent book about Pat Tillman proved to be a huge disappointment. What I learned about Tillman’s tragic friendly-fire killing was worse than I imagined. Tillman it seems had a chance- due to his celebrity - to be released from his commitment after his first tour-which was in Iraq in 2003- but he elected to go back to Afghanistan.Tillman was so caught up in the mystique of the honor and glory of soldiering, that he forgot what a huge lie that the War on Terror was.

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By gerarlam, January 15, 2011 at 5:19 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I notice that my comment has not been put on this blog.

Gerard Lamontagne

Thank you

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By samosamo, January 15, 2011 at 4:27 pm Link to this comment



Certainly seems that the huge influx of pro-war literature
indicates the u.s. military will add to and keep ‘pounding away’
at the reinvigorated ‘sustainable wars’ that keep the mic so
happy. In fact it’s connotative that the u.s. mic is an entity unto
its own, a state within a state or the true rulers of a nation.

Why else would a propaganda campaign of publishing more pro
war books be of importance unless it was to drown out the anti
war literature.

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Carl Street's avatar

By Carl Street, January 15, 2011 at 4:07 pm Link to this comment

Wow, Mr. Cyr your latest post in response to my comment regarding the legitimacy of elections has taken me from puzzled to confused.

As I understand it, you AGREE with me that elections are fraudulent; but then you go on to say that voting statistics indicate the public mood, motivation, morals, and ethics.

Logically, you CAN’T have it BOTH ways:

—IF the elections are fraudulent, then it follows the statistics MUST be as well…


—IF the statistics are valid, then it follows the elections CANNOT be fraudulent.

In primitive societies members burn offerings on altars and expect to curry favors.

In even more primitive societies members press buttons or place marks on pieces of paper and place them in boxes and expect to curry favors.

And political party members think they are more advanced than illiterate savages???

What a laugh! 

Obviously, they still believe in miracles, witch doctors and magic or they would NOT waste their time politicking and voting.

Wake UP—All politicians are liars, thieves and murderers—HOW do you think they got to the top of the cesspool??  Nice, honest, ethical people do NOT obtain political office anymore than ethical God-fearing people become Mafia contract killers.  The very nature of the system automatically filters out anyone who has ethics and has not been compromised.

If voting could REALLY change things it would be illegal.  Neither Democrats nor Republicans are going to “change things”—both are corrupt sociopathic psychotics addicted to power and privilege; just like their “opponents”. Only fools believe otherwise.

In a curious sort of way, George Bush is the most honest president the USA has ever had because he stated the truth when he said, “The Constitution is just a `goddam’ piece of paper”.  All other presidents believed that too; but they were too hypocritical to admit it and you were too deluded to detect it.

Constitutions, elections, voting, politicians, etc. are just SHOW BUSINESS designed to distract you and divert you from taking measures that would REALLY change things.  But, I guess they no longer teach history and most are illiterate and believe in Harry Potter magic tricks and other miracles.

What a shame,—but perhaps someday a REALLY intelligent species will occupy the earth after HomoPoliticoStupidus is extinct—shouldn’t be much longer…

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David J. Cyr's avatar

By David J. Cyr, January 15, 2011 at 7:23 am Link to this comment

QUOTE (Carl Street):

“I am ALWAYS amazed that people who believe the government lies about everything can somehow believe that elections are honest.”

Corporate state elections are an illusion, but they do usefully reveal which few of us — among We The People speaking — are honest.

American elections offer an opportunity for natural persons to provide popular mandate approvals for the corporate state crimes that corporate person’s have decided will be done. The people who are free-willing to be complicit in corporate crimes are allowed to indicate their (R) or (D) preference for how they wish those crimes to be committed by the “electable” candidates; either hot-bloodedly by Republicans, or cold-bloodedly by Democrats.

Elections results reveal that 99% of those who vote choose to be willing accomplices in the crimes of the corporate state. Unfortunately, elections don’t indicate why those who haven’t voted didn’t vote. How many didn’t vote because they consciously and conscientiously refused to be complicit? That information isn’t available.

However, the more important function of elections is that they serve as a barometer for the corporate state to frequently measure the actual real level of societal dissidence. No other polls matter. And it doesn’t matter how many or how large street demonstrations are, if the demonstrators later dutifully support the corporate party’s candidates.

The corporate state carefully watches its dissidence barometer (election results), because it knows that action to moderate itself, by providing some small relatively insignificant improvement in conditions to reduce dissidence, is only required if there is significant voter support for real political alternatives to the one corporate party only system. Any small rise of just a few percent in support of any true opposition is significant to the corporate state. It’s something considered a serious threat. It’s something that demands that attention to people’s demands must then be more seriously paid. The greater the support for unelectable alternatives opposing the interchangeable part “electable” candidates that the corporate state installs, the greater the small crumbs it needs to then supply. But, if there is no alternative party, if there’s no disloyal opposition organization significantly supported by voters, then there’s no need for the corporate state to moderate the already adequately self-moderated masses.

Elections could have been a useful tool for insurgency in America, but so far they’ve only served to prove how dishonest Democrats are.

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By gerarlam, January 15, 2011 at 12:00 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The american population is more or less interested in what is happening in Afghanistan as compared to Viet Nam because this a war is fought by personnel who volonteered to be in the armed forces.
The threat of being drafted and sent to the battlefield stimulates the imagination and the will of the young and their parents to take actions to let the governement know that they are not willing to go out and get maimed or killed for reasons they do not understand.
I do not think that the government would have been able to convince the population in the first place if he had decided for the draft.

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By Rocco Colella, January 14, 2011 at 8:22 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I’m new to you site; I’m impressed——-keep up the great work!

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By Carl Street, January 14, 2011 at 12:57 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

With all due respect to David J. Cyr, I am ALWAYS amazed that people who believe the government lies about everything can somehow believe that elections are honest.

Actually, they are just another method of control—they act as heat sinks to soak of energy and effort while their outcome is controlled. 

“Those who vote count for nothing; those who count the votes count for everything”—Josef Stalin

Twas ever thus…

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By Carl Street, January 14, 2011 at 12:50 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The author notes the literary difference between Vietnam and Afghan wars—the difference is largely economic in that the Military did not have the unlimited budget to shape the literary marketplace then as it does now.

The old adage, “The power to tax is the power to destroy” has an often overlooked corollary, “The power to spend is the the power to employ”—read that as shape the market.

Truly, we get what they pay for..

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By garth, January 14, 2011 at 12:46 pm Link to this comment

Who got the nukes? 
Who got the nukes? 

Israel wants to know, who got the nukes?

Is it Pakistan now the the head of the Mossad has admitted in his retirement that Iran was never closer than 5 years from making a nuclear weapon?

The parplegic psychiatrist, Dr Charles Krauthammer, the Dr. Strangelove of the right wing has introduced the story that the Mossad and the CIA put a virus in Iran’s computers and that was a “monkey wrench in the works.”

So, who do they turn to when nobody loves them?  Pakistan, of course.  Scary, scary Pakistanis.

After all, they all look alike, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, swarthy, dark.  What’s the diff?

So it’s off to nuclear war we’ll go where everyone will have to really sacrifice.

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By gerard, January 14, 2011 at 11:50 am Link to this comment

Killing people is a mental and spiritual disease. Individuals who kill people one by one are mentally and spiritually sick.  Nations that kill people by the thousands are mentally and spiritually sick. People who permit their government to kill people, one by one or by the thousands are evading the first and last human healing responsibility—Do No Harm!

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David J. Cyr's avatar

By David J. Cyr, January 14, 2011 at 8:23 am Link to this comment

QUOTE (Sebastian Junger):

“The moral basis of the war doesn’t interest soldiers much.”

That’s because the moral basis of voting hasn’t interested many voters much.

Fascist nations allow elections when the voters reliably always elect fascists.

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