The two books I tell people to read to understand not just the United States’ war in Vietnam, but also its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the current world war the US has created and sustained that stretches from western Africa to Pakistan, are David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest and Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie. Both men were New York Times reporters, with extensive experience in Vietnam, and both men reported not only critically on the war, but adversarially, something that any observer of major American media of the last twenty years will note is often missing in US media coverage of the current wars in the Muslim world.* What few examples we have in corporate media these last two decades of critical and adversarial reporting on the wars is fickle and frail when compared to the strength, integrity and depth of reporting and writing produced by Halberstam and Sheehan. Read these two books about the lies, the self-deceptions, the careerism, the group-think, the chauvinism, and the greed of the American Empire and its officers, and you will understand not just the American war in Vietnam, but the wars of this century, wars that continue to devastate and destroy so many.**
I read those two books when I was a junior officer in the Marine Corps in the late 1990s, not because I had some critical perception of the US military or possessed a rebellious intellect, but because those books, at the time, were required reading for Marine officers. So were the works of Mao, Che Gueverra, Bernard Fall, Alistair Horne, Alan Moorehead, Harry Summers and Sun Tzu; and not just one, but two books about General Giap, the Vietnamese military commander who defeated both the French and the US, appeared on the 1998 list, including Giap’s own work, How We Won the War. The commandant of the Marine Corps, James Jones, who became Barack Obama’s national security adviser and then cheer-led for and oversaw the escalation of the Afghan War in 2009, in a message to all Marines in 2000, said A Bright Shining Lie was one of his top 5 most important books. He said that before he had the choice of supporting the Afghan and Iraq wars against his own career. We all know which he chose…
Now those books and authors are nowhere to be found on the required reading list for Marine officers. The closest you get to a book about the vainglories, hallucinations and malfeasance of generals is Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, which deals with the Europeans, over 100 years ago, and so is easily dismissed by current officers as not relevant or as simply a cautionary tale about far removed and long ago men. Cobra II by New York Times reporter Michael Gordon, who had the opportunity to be critical of the Iraq War before it began, but chose not to, and retired Marine Corps general Bernard Trainor, details some of the errors and mistakes of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, but it passes most of the blame to politicians, expounds as much upon the success of the invasion of Iraq as it does the war’s failings, and leaves the reader with the impression that the questions of the war’s failings, strategic and moral, are issues that can, and should be, done better next time. After that, Jim Webb’s Fields of Fire, a novel, is the most instructive book on war and its realities, even though Webb doesn’t seem to have come across a war in the last thirty years of his public life that he didn’t seem to mind too much. E.B. Sledge’s seminal account of Peleliu and Okinawa, With the Old Breed, is also on the list; “what a waste” Sledge says over and over, but that was the “good war”, long ago, so no reason to apply his lessons to now…Webb and Sledge’s books deal with lower level officers and enlisted men, and don’t address the strategic or operational levels, ie. the big lies, of war.
Over the last decade or so I have monitored the required reading list for Marine officers, as each commandant of the Marine Corps will make changes annually to the list. Even as America’s wars have clearly shown the mass failings of US military power, to include clandestine and covert wars, the Marine Corps required reading list has included books authored by men with names like Stanley McChrystal, Richard Haass, Max Boot, H.R. McMaster, Karl Malantes, David Kilcullen, Thomas Hammes, Robert Kaplan, and, of course, Henry Kissinger; although to be fair, Kissinger’s book was on the list in my time too. These are all men who haven’t gotten anything right in their books, opinion columns, policies, speeches, or in McChrystal and McMaster’s case, their actions as generals at war. It is no surprise the required reading for Marine officers reflects a spirit of boot-licking, as now multiple decades of Marine officers, as well as officers in the other branches, have gone along, without complaint or resistance, to these failed, immoral and illegal US wars.
I relate this to emphasize how important it is that you, as readers of CounterPunch, all continue to share your knowledge of film and books as widely as possible. It is a very real possibility, I would say almost a certainty, that I would not be communicating with you right now as a veteran who is against war and empire if I had not read those books while I was a Marine officer. Quite simply, some of those critical books and authors, including ones by the “enemy”, I may never have become familiar with if they had not been listed on the Commandant’s required reading list. Those books and authors, along with teachers in high school and professors in college, gave me the foundation and wisdom to think critically and honestly, and to recognize the Iraq and Afghan wars, and the men and women who were conducting them, to be as immoral, worthless and criminal as preceding wars, generals and politicians. History may not repeat itself, but it often rhymes said Mark Twain, a person who is not read enough.
The current reading list for Marine officers is an intellectual, moral and historical coward’s list, which fits fine with the leadership of the organization and the US government. Such a critique of myself is true as well, until I resigned in protest from the State Department in 2009. If it had not been for those books, I may never have had the courage, wisdom, knowledge, or heart to quit the wars. So please share your books, articles, films, podcasts and videos with many and all, as you never know whom you may be influencing and what impact you may have on them.
*For example, contrast the willingness of both Halberstam and Sheehan to use the word “lie” in their reporting with that of the Washington Post’s coverage of the Afghan Papers late last year. The Afghan Papers, documented through the statements of more than 600 US officials and military officers, that the US government systemically and continually lied about the war in Afghanistan through all three presidencies, yet the Post can’t bring itself to use the word “lie” in its coverage, let alone confront the non-adversarial, in reality collegial and comradely, reporting of so many of the Post’s correspondents over the years with the Pentagon and the US military command in Afghanistan.
**I also recommend Fredrik Logevall’s Embers of War, which is about the US role in Vietnam in the 1950s, and John Stockwell’s In Search of Enemies, which is about the US role in Angola in the late 1970s. Both of these books give the same context and understanding to today’s wars as do Halberstam and Sheehan’s works, however I read these books after I had left the Marine Corps and turned against the wars. Additionally, I recommend Que Mai Phan Nguyen’s novel, The Mountains Sing, to understand the universal suffering that comes from war.