The best books about the tragedy of war

Who am I?

I have lived, breathed, and studied peace and conflict since 1998, but what I’m most passionate about is the plight of the people. I spent over a decade in countries such as Iraq, Sudan, and East Timor providing humanitarian assistance followed by another decade writing and working on the consequences of wars. The more we understand the impact of wars the better humanity will be placed to stop them. That is why I chose five beautifully written books that will be difficult to put down while offering an array of voices and perspectives that together provide insights into how we can better respond to outbreaks of war.

I wrote...

No Dancing, No Dancing: Inside the Global Humanitarian Crisis

By Denis Dragovic,

Book cover of No Dancing, No Dancing: Inside the Global Humanitarian Crisis

What is my book about?

As an aid worker in war zones around the world, I often wondered what happened to the people and the projects. Did the communities flourish? Were the water plants maintained? Did the second bout of fighting destroy what we built? No Dancing follows my return journey to the site of three major humanitarian crises—South Sudan, Iraq, and East Timor—in search of answers.

Along the way, I engage with young entrepreneurs striving to build their businesses, tribal leaders who give unvarnished views of foreign aid, and former colleagues who continued to serve their community long after the last expatriate had left. Alongside stories of freeing kidnapped colleagues and dealings with ayatollahs and tribal chiefs the book looks behind the façade of Western aid interventions and along the way offers answers to how we can better respond to the global humanitarian crisis.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier

Why this book?

Despite having worked in war zones for over a decade including responding to the first genocide of the twenty-first century in Darfur I found Ishmael Beah’s book about his life as a child soldier confronting. Maybe I was always one step removed from the people who were doing the killing or the war in Sierra Leone was particularly debased. Either way, this is a difficult book to read because it shows us in vivid detail the terrible life of gun-totting children. Every time I put the book down, the images painted by Beah lingered in my mind for days on end. A Long Way Gone, takes you into the hurt, anguish, and pain of a young boy separated from his family and forced to make a diabolical choice—kill or be killed.

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier

By Ishmael Beah,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked A Long Way Gone as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This is how wars are fought now: by children, hopped-up on drugs and wielding AK-47s. Children have become soldiers of choice. In the more than fifty conflicts going on worldwide, it is estimated that there are some 300,000 child soldiers. Ishmael Beah used to be one of them. What is war like through the eyes of a child soldier? How does one become a killer? How does one stop? Child soldiers have been profiled by journalists, and novelists have struggled to imagine their lives. But until now, there has not been a first-person account from someone who came through this…

Book cover of Kabul in Winter: Life Without Peace in Afghanistan

Why this book?

Ann Jones’ memoir Kabul in Winter takes the reader inside the lives of Afghan women following the overthrow of the Taliban in the early 2000s. The book includes the necessary tour of Afghanistan’s history taking the reader through major events alongside the more valuable contribution of her time in Kabul. The book’s beauty lies in Jones’ ability to explain the plight of Afghan women in the complex context of entrenched cultural norms and religious beliefs without relying on simplistic Western cliches. We get to understand that there is no easy solution, no quick fix, because the entire society is structured around an uber patriarchy. I loved how her writing didn’t hold back and how her passion shines through along with her anger and despair.

Kabul in Winter: Life Without Peace in Afghanistan

By Ann Jones,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Kabul in Winter as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Soon after the bombs stopped falling on Kabul, award-winning journalist and women's rights activist Ann Jones set out for the shattered city. This is her trenchant report from the city where she spent the next four winters working in humanitarian aid. Investigating the city's prison for women, retraining Kabul's long - silenced English teachers, Jones enters the lives of everyday women and men and reveals through small events some big disjunctions: between the new Afghan "democracy" and the still-entrenched warlords, between American promises and performance, between what's boasted of and what is. At once angry, profound, and starkly beautiful, "Kabul…

The Shadow of the Sun

By Ryszard Kapuściński,

Book cover of The Shadow of the Sun

Why this book?

I prefer to read books whose focus lingers long enough on a conflict to uncover its complexities and contradictions. But in this instance, despite The Shadow of the Sun sometimes reading like a backpacker’s travel memoir, I couldn’t put it down. Spanning four decades and much of Africa, the narrative begins in the newly independent Ghana of the nineteen-sixties when the hopes and aspirations of a continent are alive on the streets of Accra, and continues through to the troubled times of Eritrea and Ethiopia in the mid-nineties and many coups and wars in between. Kapuściński’s writing covers the mundane through to the life-changing. From the state of the roads, to stories of his neighbors, to the geopolitics of governments, the breadth of his writing helps the reader contextualize the Africa of today.

The Shadow of the Sun

By Ryszard Kapuściński,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Shadow of the Sun as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Only with the greatest of simplifications, for the sake of convenience, can we say Africa. In reality, except as a geographical term, Africa doesn't exist'. Ryszard Kapuscinski has been writing about the people of Africa throughout his career. In astudy that avoids the official routes, palaces and big politics, he sets out to create an account of post-colonial Africa seen at once as a whole and as a location that wholly defies generalised explanations. It is both a sustained meditation on themosaic of peoples and practises we call 'Africa', and an impassioned attempt to come to terms with humanity itself…

Book cover of City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World's Largest Refugee Camp

Why this book?

Ben Rawlence’s City of Thorns makes the list because of his ability to weave a powerful narrative around the day-to-day lives of refugees living in camps. Far too often our knowledge of refugees is limited to numbers—the number of people who die crossing the Mediterranean, the number living in a camp, or the amount of dollars required to ease the suffering. This book is an antidote to the numbers. Rawlence introduces us to the hopes and challenges of nine residents of what was then the world’s largest refugee camp, Dadaab, Kenya. Unfortunately for the nine, Rawlence’s book covers a period when famine and terrorism hit the Horn of Africa adding another dimension to understanding the plight of the most vulnerable caught up in the vagaries of war.

City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World's Largest Refugee Camp

By Ben Rawlence,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

To the charity workers, Dadaab refugee camp is a humanitarian crisis; to the Kenyan government, it is a 'nursery for terrorists'; to the western media, it is a dangerous no-go area; but to its half a million residents, it is their last resort.

Situated hundreds of miles from any other settlement, deep within the inhospitable desert of northern Kenya where only thorn bushes grow, Dadaab is a city like no other. Its buildings are made from mud, sticks or plastic, its entire economy is grey, and its citizens survive on rations and luck. Over the course of four years, Ben…

Book cover of Occupational Hazards: My Time Governing in Iraq

Why this book?

Occupational Hazards provides a glimpse into the challenges of rebuilding countries after war. In mid-2003 Rory Stewart joined the British government effort to rebuild Iraq. His time overlapped with my early days but regrettably, operating in different areas, our paths never crossed. While I was focusing on humanitarian assistance and community development, Rory was navigating the politics of Maysan province. Rory is an accomplished writer who turns the prosaic work of governance, such as ensuring local salaries are paid, into an exciting and insightful narrative of the mechanics of running an occupation. Luckily for the reader, Rory isn’t the desk-bound type and as a result, we are taken to the streets of Amara, the reed houses of the Marsh Arabs, and the delicate negotiations between competing factions who are seemingly always only one step away from civil war.

Occupational Hazards: My Time Governing in Iraq

By Rory Stewart,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A fascinating insight into the complexity, history and unpredictability of Iraq.

By September 2003, six months after the US-led invasion of Iraq, the anarchy had begun. Rory Stewart, a young Biritish diplomat, was appointed as the Coalition Provisional Authority's deputy governor of a province of 850,000 people in the southern marshland region. There, he and his colleagues confronted gangsters, Iranian-linked politicians, tribal vendettas and a full Islamist insurgency.

Occupational Hazards is Rory Stewart's inside account of the attempt to rebuild a nation, the errors made, the misunderstandings and insurmountable difficulties encountered. It reveals an Iraq hidden from most foreign journalists…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Sierra Leone, Kenya, and Africa?

8,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Sierra Leone, Kenya, and Africa.

Sierra Leone Explore 7 books about Sierra Leone
Kenya Explore 45 books about Kenya
Africa Explore 211 books about Africa

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Mountains Sing, On Killing, and Cider with Rosie if you like this list.