The best Iraq books

8 authors have picked their favorite books about Iraq and why they recommend each book.

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Occupational Hazards

By Rory Stewart,

Book cover of Occupational Hazards: My Time Governing in Iraq

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.


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.

The President's Gardens

By Muhsin Al-Ramli, Luke Leafgren (translator),

Book cover of The President's Gardens

I’ve just returned from a research trip to Iraq (one of many settings for my next book: stay tuned). I took along two Iraqi novels, The President's Gardens and Daughter of the Tigris (they’re really just one; the first literally ends with the words to be continued) and I was as stirred by reading them as by what I saw there. While we protest Russia’s outrageous rape of Ukraine, we forget the hideous mess that America’s unjustifiable invasion left in Iraq. Even under Saddam Hussein, Iraq was considered the flower of Arab culture, a land overflowing with poetry, music, and art. Today much of it is rubble. Masterfully, Al-Ramli describes the latter with all the breathtaking beauty of the former. This ranks among my most moving reading experiences ever.


Who am I?

I’m a nonfiction author whose success owes enormously to fiction. It challenges me to portray real people as vividly as characters in novels, and to use narrative and dialogue to keep readers turning the pages. Reading great novelists has taught me to obsessively seek exactly the right words, to fine-tune the cadence of each sentence, and to heed overall structural rhythm; continually, I return to the fount of fiction for language and inspiration. The astonishing novels I’ve shared here are among the most important books I’ve recently read to help grasp the critical times we’re living in. I’m confident you’ll feel the same.


I wrote...

The World Without Us

By Alan Weisman,

Book cover of The World Without Us

What is my book about?

How would the rest of nature fare if suddenly – never mind why – human beings vanished from Earth’s ecosystem?  How quickly could nature invade our vacated spaces, dismantle our infrastructure and architecture, refill empty niches, and heal the scars we’ve inflicted on this lovely planet? Would endangered species, relieved of our constant daily pressures, suddenly rebound? What about everything we’d leave behind – could nature eventually eliminate all our traces, or are some things we've created so permanent they're indestructible? Which human artifacts would last the longest?

These captivating questions, designed to seduce readers into thinking about the environment while there’s still time to save it and ourselves, made this book’s original edition an international bestseller, now in 35 languages. See for yourself why, in this 15th-anniversary edition with a new afterword.

To Start a War

By Robert Draper,

Book cover of To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America Into Iraq

In To Start a War, Robert Draper investigates how it was that the US came to invade Iraq in 2003. A gifted writer, he reveals the paranoia and fear that led to the collecting of ‘intelligence’ that confirmed the biases of senior US officials – but which was often fabricated and false. 


Who am I?

I served in Iraq as Governorate Co-ordinator of Kirkuk for the Coalition Provisional Authority, 2003-2004; and as advisor to the Commanding General of US Forces in Iraq from 2007-2010. I retain a deep love of the country and am a regular visitor. I teach about the Middle East and Global Affairs at Yale University. 


I wrote...

The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq

By Emma Sky,

Book cover of The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq

What is my book about?

When Emma Sky volunteered to help rebuild Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, she had little idea what she was getting in to. Her assignment was only supposed to last three months. She went on to serve there longer than any other senior military or diplomatic figure, giving her an unrivaled perspective of the entire conflict.

Sky provides unique insights into the US military as well as the complexities, diversity, and evolution of Iraqi society. The Unraveling is an intimate insider's portrait of how and why the Iraq adventure failed and contains a unique analysis of the course of the war. Highlighting how nothing that happened in Iraq after 2003 was inevitable, Sky exposes the failures of the policies of both Republicans and Democrats.

Here, Bullet

By Brian Turner,

Book cover of Here, Bullet

This collection of poems by an Iraq war veteran opens a door into the crazy, horrifying world of America’s time in Iraq. I used this book while teaching a section on poetry to combat veterans at the local university. For some of these men and women, the poems offered their first glimpse into the power of verse. Turner showed my students how, through the searing beauty of words made into images, it was possible to capture—and thus contain—the horrors of war. As Turner writes:

This is a language made of blood.
It is made of sand and time.
To be spoken, it must be earned.


Who am I?

I'm an award-winning and bestselling author who teaches creative writing to veterans as part of a collaboration between the Department of Defense and the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m also an Air Force brat who grew up around military folk. After traumatic events gave me personal experience with post-traumatic stress disorder, I better understood why veterans don’t talk about their time in war. The books on this list are some of my favorites for capturing the terror of battle and the difficulty of reintegrating into a society that gives little thought to the human cost of war. 


I wrote...

Blood on the Tracks

By Barbara Nickless,

Book cover of Blood on the Tracks

What is my book about?

“Part mystery, part antiwar story, Nickless’s engrossing first novel... skillfully explores the dehumanizing effects resulting from the unspeakable cruelties of wartime as well as the part played by the loyalty soldiers owe to family and each other under stressful circumstances.” - Publishers Weekly

When a woman is murdered, the lead suspect is a scarred Iraq War vet known as the Burned Man. Suffering from blackouts due to post-traumatic stress, the Burned Man worries he might be guilty. But railroad police Special Agent Sydney Rose Parnell can't shake the feeling that larger forces are behind this apparent crime of passion. As she dives into the investigation, Parnell battles her own trauma from her time in war and faces a terrible question: Can she fight monsters without becoming one herself?

Consequence

By Eric Fair,

Book cover of Consequence: A Memoir

Our recent wars, waged under the spotlight of journalists’ cameras and highlighted on social media, exposed American audiences to the dark underbelly of what it means to wage war. We saw not only the horrors of combat, but also the fallout from our treatment of the enemy. Eric Fair worked as an interrogator in Iraq, where Abu Ghraib became synonymous with everything America did wrong in a foreign country. His memoir reveals the ethical consequence of our quest for intelligence, and how those who participated in “enhanced interrogation” against foreign soldiers and civilians will forever carry the dark memories of their actions.


Who am I?

I'm an award-winning and bestselling author who teaches creative writing to veterans as part of a collaboration between the Department of Defense and the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m also an Air Force brat who grew up around military folk. After traumatic events gave me personal experience with post-traumatic stress disorder, I better understood why veterans don’t talk about their time in war. The books on this list are some of my favorites for capturing the terror of battle and the difficulty of reintegrating into a society that gives little thought to the human cost of war. 


I wrote...

Blood on the Tracks

By Barbara Nickless,

Book cover of Blood on the Tracks

What is my book about?

“Part mystery, part antiwar story, Nickless’s engrossing first novel... skillfully explores the dehumanizing effects resulting from the unspeakable cruelties of wartime as well as the part played by the loyalty soldiers owe to family and each other under stressful circumstances.” - Publishers Weekly

When a woman is murdered, the lead suspect is a scarred Iraq War vet known as the Burned Man. Suffering from blackouts due to post-traumatic stress, the Burned Man worries he might be guilty. But railroad police Special Agent Sydney Rose Parnell can't shake the feeling that larger forces are behind this apparent crime of passion. As she dives into the investigation, Parnell battles her own trauma from her time in war and faces a terrible question: Can she fight monsters without becoming one herself?

Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia

By Karen Rhea Nemet-Nejat,

Book cover of Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia

People often think that we don’t know much about ancient Mesopotamia because it flourished so long ago, but that isn’t true at all. The excavated documents are full of information about real people and their lives. Karen Rhea Nemet-Nejat’s book is a great introduction because she has organized the chapters thematically to examine such features as family life and religion (as it was actually practiced), and because she quotes and analyzes obscure and interesting ancient texts. Readers can also explore ancient Mesopotamian government, economy, and intellectual innovations here, but the author always maintains her focus on the people.


Who am I?

I’m a historian and professor of ancient Mesopotamia. I was born in the UK but have lived in the US for decades, and from childhood I loved ancient history and archaeology (even through a five-year stint as a bass player before and during college). No matter how long the human race exists in future, we have only one shared ancient global past, the remains of which represent a completely non-renewable resource and source of inspiration. There is plenty left to discover, with much evidence already excavated and awaiting interpretation. It’s a joy to analyze and share the words and life-stories of Mesopotamians in my books—in a conversation that stretches across millennia.


I wrote...

Weavers, Scribes, and Kings: A New History of the Ancient Near East

By Amanda H. Podany,

Book cover of Weavers, Scribes, and Kings: A New History of the Ancient Near East

What is my book about?

In Weavers, Scribes, and Kings I have investigated the history of the ancient Near East through the lives of more than 100 real individuals, rich and poor, female and male, from all walks of life. Their stories are preserved on hundreds of thousands of cuneiform clay tablets. I’ve quoted extensively from their own words, each person providing a window into their era. These people range from palace weaving women in the 24th century BCE to a female innkeeper opening a brewery almost 2,000 years later, from the earliest kings skirmishing over borders to Neo-Assyrian soldiers conquering vast regions, and from scribes first developing the cuneiform writing system around 3200 BCE to their distant heirs preserving cuneiform as a dying art in the fourth century BCE.

Echo in Ramadi

By Scott A. Huesing,

Book cover of Echo in Ramadi: The Firsthand Story of US Marines in Iraq's Deadliest City

Major Scott Huesing is a Marine after my own heart. He was once a Lance Corporal and understands the Corps from top to bottom. He was the combat leader for Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines during their bloody battles in the deadliest city of the Iraq War. Reading this book taught an old Marine what the new Corps is like.


Who am I?

As a combat Marine, I believe these books honor the brave men who served and died for America. I joined the Marine Corps at 17 years of age after graduating from St. Petersburg High School. I served as a machine gunner with the famed 5th Marine Regiment during the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. I was wounded 3 times by mortar round, grenade, and gunshot. I've written nine books around these subjects as well as an off-Broadway stage play titled The Battle For Nong Son. Many of my books are recommended reading for all newly commissioned officers at The Basic School. I am the recipient of the U.S. Marine Corps Combat Correspondents Association Brigadier General Robert L. Denig Memorial Distinguished Service Award for writing, as well as the Silver Star, 3 Purple Hearts, the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Palm, the Civil Action Combat Medal, and the Marine Combat Ribbon among other decorations.


I wrote...

Guns Up!: A Firsthand Account of the Vietnam War

By Johnnie M. Clark,

Book cover of Guns Up!: A Firsthand Account of the Vietnam War

What is my book about?

"Guns up!" was the battle cry that sent machine gunners racing forward with their M60s to mow down the enemy, hoping that this wasn't the day they would meet their deaths. Marine Johnnie Clark heard that the life expectancy of a machine gunner in Vietnam was seven to ten seconds after a firefight began. Johnnie was only eighteen when he got there, at the height of the bloody Tet Offensive, and he quickly realized the grim statistic held a chilling truth.

The Marines who fought and bled and died were ordinary men, many still teenagers, but the selfless bravery they showed day after day in a nightmarish jungle war made them true heroes. This new edition is filled with photographs and updated information about those harrowing battles, also contains the real names of these extraordinary warriors and details of their lives after the war. The book's continuing success is a tribute to the raw courage and sacrifice of the United States Marines.

Take What You Can Carry

By Gian Sardar,

Book cover of Take What You Can Carry

A Californian woman travels to Iraq to visit her Kurdish boyfriend’s family. It’s during Saddam Hussein’s regime, when just being a Kurd can get you tortured or imprisoned. The author perfectly captures the smells, sounds and cultural details that fascinate a Western newcomer to Kurdistan -- including markets, weddings, dancing, and foods. All is not what it appears, however, and murky secrets lurk beneath the smiling faces. Like most books about Kurds, this one is disturbing in parts. But the romantic subplot keeps you turning pages. It also has great insights into the complexity of cross-cultural relationships, both pros and cons.

Who am I?

Like the main character in my book, I went to Kurdish Iraq as a well-meaning (but admittedly naive) teacher, and fell in love with the Kurdish people and their culture. To be more specific, it was village women I really bonded with. Listening to their stories, and watching them try to cope with so many practical restrictions, tore at my heart. Part of me wanted to “liberate” them from the seemingly outdated traditions that held them back. Simultaneously, I couldn’t help but envy them for the solaces their tight community offered them -- and which Western society denied me. Rather than claiming to be an expert on Kurds, I am now someone who studies them with the greatest respect. The humble Kurdish villagers gave me moral examples that I wish every Westerner could be fortunate enough to have.


I wrote...

The Kurdish Bike

By Alesa Lightbourne,

Book cover of The Kurdish Bike

What is my book about?

With her marriage over and life gone flat, Theresa Turner responds to an online ad and lands at a school in Kurdish Iraq. Befriended by a widow in a nearby village, she is embroiled in the joys and agonies of traditional life. Her greatest challenge will be balancing respect for cultural values while trying to introduce more enlightened attitudes toward women -- and seeking new spiritual dimensions within herself.

"The Kurdish Bike has such strong characters and story that the reader feels like a member of the family. If you are interested in learning about the lives, culture, and hardships faced by people in the Middle East, this book is a must-read. Five stars." Manhattan Book Review

The Librarian of Basra

By Jeanette Winter,

Book cover of The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq

This is one of the first “solutionary stories” I fell in love with as a humane educator and mom. A classic and beautiful true story of an Iraqi librarian in war-torn Basra who, with the help of her neighbors, hides and saves the books in her city’s library, this one never fails to touch my heart. Jeanette Winter has a simple, powerful way of evoking emotions in her books—in this one, about war, and about one woman’s mission amidst it. This story speaks to the power of books, the power of community, and the power of one person’s passion to save something precious when everything else may be lost.


Who am I?

I’m someone who feels everything deeply and longs for a kinder, healthier world for everyone. A humane educator and diverse books advocate, I’m drawn to true stories that inspire compassion, inclusivity, and taking action in our own unique ways to make a difference. My nonfiction picture books—including Winged Wonders, Cougar Crossing, Ocean Soup, Make Way for Animals!, So Much More To Helen, and more— focus on “solutionaries” who help people, animals, and the planet. They’ve won Golden Kite and Eureka! Nonfiction Honor Awards, starred reviews, and spots on best books lists.


I wrote...

Miep and the Most Famous Diary: The Woman Who Rescued Anne Frank's Diary

By Meeg Pincus, Jordi Solano (illustrator),

Book cover of Miep and the Most Famous Diary: The Woman Who Rescued Anne Frank's Diary

What is my book about?

The story of Anne Frank and her diary is one of the world's most important and well-known, but less is known about the woman who sheltered Anne and her family for years and, ultimately, rescued Anne's diary from Nazi clutches. Miep Gies was an ordinary woman who rose to bravery when humanity needed it and risked everything for her neighbors. It is because of Miep we know Anne Frank—and now, this is Miep's story.

The Watermelon Boys

By Ruqaya Izzidien,

Book cover of The Watermelon Boys

Again set in the Middle East, this novel about Ahmad and Carwyn, Arab and Welsh, who are both drawn into the war on its Eastern Front, is an absorbing story from a part of the world that has been neglected in World War I fiction. The two men are both betrayed by the English in different ways, and Izzidien’s Iraqi-Welsh heritage allows her to draw a compassionate picture of both protagonists. It also shows how the rapacious European colonialist mentality that underpinned the entire war created the conditions for terrorism and strife in the region today.


Who am I?

I am a writer based in Ireland. When I was fifteen, I read about the Battle of Verdun, and the horror and ineptitude of it led me into an obsession with World War I. Visiting the Imperial War Museum, I learned about the white feather of cowardice, bestowed by girls upon men out of uniform. Such a transformation of a symbol of peace to an instrument of stigma and shame made me think of Irish society as well as British. When White Feathers was published, its refusal to follow a sentimental “Tommy in the trenches” line angered some revisionist critics. But in the end, it is a passionate and intense love story with resistance.


I wrote...

White Feathers

By Susan Lanigan,

Book cover of White Feathers

What is my book about?

White Feathers – a tale of passion, betrayal, war – and resistance.

Young Irish immigrant Eva Downey jumps at the chance to escape her stultifying life in London and attend finishing school in southeast England after a legacy from an old suffragette. There she finds kinship and, eventually falls in love. But when World War I breaks out and the man she loves refuses to enlist, Eva’s family starts pushing her to present him with a white feather of cowardice – an act which will have devastating consequences.

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