The best books on the human toll of civil war

Daniel Combs Author Of Until the World Shatters: Truth, Lies, and the Looting of Myanmar
By Daniel Combs

The Books I Picked & Why

Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa

By Jason Stearns

Book cover of Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa

Why this book?

The Democratic Republic of the Congo’s civil wars have claimed 5.5 million lives since the mid-1990s, but most people have never heard the stories of those who died. Stearns is an academic who spent years in the DRC researching how and why communities that once lived side by side could descend into brutal violence. This book is essential reading for anyone who wants to better understand how intercommunal conflict can turn neighbors into enemies, ethnicity into a weapon, and school children into genocidal street gangs. I spent two years living in DRC reporting on human rights abuses, and found Stearns’s treatment of his subjects and their personal histories arresting, respectful, and deeply humane. 


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Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001

By Steve Coll

Book cover of Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001

Why this book?

The inside story of how the CIA, the Mujahadeen, and Pakistani intelligence orchestrated a civil war in Afghanistan, and sowed the seeds of Islamic militancy that would eventually lead to the attacks of September 11, 2001. Steve Coll’s history is a masterpiece of journalistic research and political storytelling. I love this book because Coll provides both the sweeping global scope of history and the minute, gritty details that bring the sights, stories, and blood of Afghanistan’s war into sharp focus for readers. For such a deep dive, the book is incredibly accessible and is a breeze to read.  As an American living abroad, I think of Ghost Wars as essential reading for understanding our role in one of the longest, most violent conflicts in the world.


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Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town

By Barbara Demick

Book cover of Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town

Why this book?

Demick is a master at showcasing the true drama of ordinary people living ordinary lives. In this saga of Tibetan royalty, resistance, and renaissance, she knits these personal stories into a sweeping epic covering the last 60 years of Tibetan history. The characters may at first glance seem innocuous: a long-lost daughter; a shopkeeper; a monk. But together, their stories paint a frightening and vivid picture of the everyday repression and fear under the largest and most sophisticated authoritarian regime on the planet. Throughout, Demick’s narrative displays a profound sense of place, plopping the reader onto the frigid Tibetan plateau, making us feel present to the resistance movement on the rooftop of the world. 


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Cutting for Stone

By Abraham Verghese

Book cover of Cutting for Stone

Why this book?

The only novel on this list, Cutting for Stone isn’t even strictly about a civil war. Most of the book takes place in hospitals, rather than on the battlefield. But I would be hard-pressed to find a book that better illustrates how the political and social forces rippling across a country can tear apart a family. I read this book while I lived in Addis Ababa, and somehow Verghese’s descriptions of life in Ethiopia felt even more alive and colorful than the world outside my window. Cutting for Stone is a deeply moving book, about the human toll of rebellion and revolution. 


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Land of Jade: A Journey from India Through Northern Burma to China

By Bertil Lintner

Book cover of Land of Jade: A Journey from India Through Northern Burma to China

Why this book?

Bertil Lintner’s many books on Myanmar were essential background material for me when I lived there doing my own research on the country’s never-ending civil war. Land of Jade is a vivid and insightful study of Myanmar’s conflicts, and my favorite of his works. In 1985, he struck out to walk on foot from India, across northern Myanmar (then Burma), and eventually into southwestern China. The journey was the first (and likely only) time a journalist would undertake such an arduous, dangerous, and unforgettable trek.

His hosts along the way were a bewildering array of rebel groups at war against Myanmar’s despotic authoritarian regime. Accompanying Lintner on the journey was his pregnant wife Hseng Noung, whose photographs of Myanmar’s rugged northern terrain further enhance this incredible travelogue. 


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