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

Who am I?

As an author, humanitarian, and diplomat, I’ve seen firsthand how the everyday brutality of civil wars and ethnic conflicts is often overlooked in favor of statistics: 100,000 displaced; 500 arrested; 7 villages torched. In places like Myanmar, Ethiopia, Congo, Nigeria, and Bangladesh, I have tried to use human-centered reporting to bring a magnifying glass to the effect of these tragedies on everyday people. By focusing on the stories that most of the world would rather turn away from, I think we have a better chance to understand, and ultimately prevent, these violent political and social upheavals. 

I wrote...

Until the World Shatters: Truth, Lies, and the Looting of Myanmar

By Daniel Combs,

Book cover of Until the World Shatters: Truth, Lies, and the Looting of Myanmar

What is my book about?

Bum Tsit has a problem. In Myanmar’s far north, he is caught between the insurgent army his family supports and the business and military leaders his career depends on. Soon, he must choose a side. Phoe Wa lives in a very different Myanmar. He is a young migrant who has come to Yangon to pursue his dream of being a photojournalist. At a time when the government is jailing reporters and nationalist voices are on the rise, he believes that he has a responsibility to educate the public about his country’s problems. 

Until the World Shatters interweaves Phoe Wa and Bum Tsit’s stories to present a definitive portrait of Myanmar’s politics and people, taking readers deeper into its world of secret-keepers and truth-tellers than ever before. 

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The books I picked & why

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

Why did I love 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. 

By Jason Stearns,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Dancing in the Glory of Monsters as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A Best Book of the Year- The Economist & the Wall Street Journal At the heart of Africa is the Congo, a country the size of Western Europe, bordering nine other nations, that since 1996 has been wracked by a brutal war in which millions have died. In Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, renowned political activist and researcher Jason K. Stearns has written a compelling and deeply-reported narrative of how Congo became a failed state that collapsed into a war of retaliatory massacres. Stearns brilliantly describes the key perpetrators, many of whom he met personally, and highlights the nature…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Steve Coll,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Ghost Wars as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize

The explosive, New York Times bestselling first-hand account of America's secret history in Afghanistan

Prize-winning journalist Steve Coll has spent years reporting from the Middle East, accessed previously classified government files and interviewed senior US officials and foreign spymasters. Here he gives the full inside story of the CIA's covert funding of an Islamic jihad against Soviet forces in Afghanistan, explores how this sowed the seeds of bn Laden's rise, traces how he built his global network and brings to life the dramatic battles within the US government over national security. Above all, he…

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

Why did I love 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. 

By Barbara Demick,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Eat the Buddha as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A gripping portrait of modern Tibet told through the lives of its people, from the bestselling author of Nothing to Envy

“A brilliantly reported and eye-opening work of narrative nonfiction.”—The New York Times Book Review

NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY Parul Sehgal, The New York Times • The New York Times Book Review • The Washington Post • NPR • The Economist • Outside • Foreign Affairs

Just as she did with North Korea, award-winning journalist Barbara Demick explores one of the most hidden corners of the world. She tells the story of a Tibetan…

Cutting for Stone

By Abraham Verghese,

Book cover of Cutting for Stone

Why did I love 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. 

By Abraham Verghese,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Cutting for Stone as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

My brother, Shiva, and I came into the world in the late afternoon of the twentieth of September in the year of grace 1954. We took our first breaths in the thick air of Addis Ababa, capital city of Ethiopia. Bound by birth, we were driven apart by bitter betrayal. No surgeon can heal the would that divides two brothers. Where silk and steel fail, story must succeed. To begin at the beginning...

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

Why did I love 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. 

By Bertil Lintner,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Land of Jade as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Gripping record of a now legendary odyssey through northern Burma by reporter Bertil Lintner and family, updated by the author and newly indexed.

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