The best books about the exorbitant cost of America’s War in Iraq

Who am I?

I am a retired Army officer who served in a tank unit in Operation Desert Storm. After that war, I became convinced that the future of warfare looked more like America’s experience in Vietnam than like the war in which I had just fought. I taught at West Point and then served in another tank unit early in the war in Iraq before being sent to the Pentagon where I helped Generals David Petraeus and Jim Mattis write the Army and Marine Corps doctrine for counterinsurgency campaigns. I am now studying and teaching about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as a professor at the U.S. Army War College.  


I wrote...

Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam

By John A. Nagl,

Book cover of Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam

What is my book about?

Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife compares the course of the Malayan Emergency from 1948 to 1960 with the Vietnam War from 1950 to 1975. Both of these long campaigns demanded that foreign armies adapt to meet the demands of insurgencies with complicated strategies that incorporate politics, economics, information warfare, and training foreign armies and police forces. The British were more effective at this series of tasks in Malaya than was the American Army in Vietnam, with tragic results for America, Vietnam, and all of Southeast Asia. I closed the book by arguing that future American enemies were likely to fight us as terrorists and insurgents and that we needed to prepare for that kind of war.  

The books I picked & why

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The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq

By George Packer,

Book cover of The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq

Why this book?

Packer examines why the United States invaded Iraq without a just cause and without a plan for what to do once it succeeded in toppling Saddam Hussein. He explains the critical first few months of the war that set the course for everything that followed in a searing examination of America’s extraordinary hubris in the “War on Terror.” What sets Packer’s work apart is his ability to explain events in the White House and Pentagon and tie them to their bitter denouement on the streets of Baghdad. He tells the story of a big war of choice gone badly wrong before the first shots were fired. 


The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War

By Fred Kaplan,

Book cover of The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War

Why this book?

The insurgents of the title are a group of military officers, many of whom had taught at West Point’s Department of Social Sciences, who attempted to help the Army and the nation come to terms with the war in Iraq. Ironically, most had been opposed to the invasion of Iraq in 2003; nonetheless, they worked with great urgency to understand the conflict and produce better policies to minimize the suffering and harm to U.S. interests it caused. The team, led by Army General David Petraeus and Marine General James Mattis, created the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual that Petraeus implemented when he took command of the Iraq war effort in 2007, changing the course of the war and America’s understanding of the future of conflict.


The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual

By United States Army,

Book cover of The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual

Why this book?

Military doctrine is rarely particularly enthralling reading. However, this manual, published by the University of Chicago Press, was featured on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. It provided a road map for General Petraeus to follow on the ground in Iraq with its focus on creating an Army that could learn and adapt while protecting the population rather than creating more insurgents with excessive violence. For more than two centuries, the Army’s missions had been “Attack” and “Defend”; this book added “Protect,” making it perhaps the most important Army doctrinal manual since the end of the Cold War.


You Know When the Men Are Gone

By Siobhan Fallon,

Book cover of You Know When the Men Are Gone

Why this book?

Wars change the societies in which they are fought, but they also profoundly affect the home front. Fallon’s collection of short stories examines the impact of the war in Iraq on America with a particular focus on the families of those serving in America’s most complicated and divisive war since Vietnam. You Know When the Men are Gone is honest, empathetic, and informed by the experience of being the wife of a soldier deployed in harm’s way, when every phone call or knock on the door causes your heart to stop. Even if they come home physically unharmed by war, all is not necessarily well.


Thank You for Your Service

By David Finkel,

Book cover of Thank You for Your Service

Why this book?

A sequel to The Good Soldiers, which told the story of an infantry battalion through some of the bloodiest fighting of the war during the “Surge” in Baghdad, David Finkel’s Thank You for Your Service follows the soldiers on their return to the United States. All are marked forever by the experience of combat; many have devastating physical wounds while others struggle mentally and emotionally with what they have seen and done at their country’s call. Life after war can be harder than life in war, and Finkel unpacks how and why with an unsparing but compassionate eye. This book should be read by every politician with responsibility for sending troops to combat—before they start America’s next war.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the Iraq War, Iraq, and military policy?

5,809 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the Iraq War, Iraq, and military policy.

The Iraq War Explore 37 books about the Iraq War
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Military Policy Explore 15 books about military policy

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Echo in Ramadi, To Start a War, and Here, Bullet if you like this list.