Five essential books about the war in Afghanistan. Photo by Mac Caltrider/Coffee or Die Magazine.
After two decades of fighting in Afghanistan, America’s longest war has finally come to an end. Historians will long debate if the war was a successful response to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, or if it was a strategic failure, but whatever the case, America’s venture into the Graveyard of Empires marked a major milestone in American history. For anyone wishing to better understand the 20-year Afghanistan conflict, here are five essential books about the war.
Few places in Afghanistan proved as volatile, costly, and confusing as the Pech River Valley. America’s strategy (or lack of) in Afghanistan’s remote northeast corner could act as a stand-in for the entire war.
The valley initially served as a staging area for the Joint Special Operations Command, but operations there grew larger and larger. America was killing the Taliban and attempting to bring stability to the region, but vague goals like “bring stability” did not translate well to the reality on the ground. With no clear objectives beyond enemy body counts, Americans slugged it out in the Pech with little direction. The Hardest Place describes the seemingly unjustified escalation of operations in the valley as a “self-licking ice cream cone.”
While politicians debated about the appropriate course of action, American troops continued to fight and die in the Pech, resulting in 13 Medals of Honor and a significant loss of life. The best of a generation fought gallantly in some of the toughest terrain ever encountered by American forces while political objectives remained unclear and unreachable. The Hardest Place is essential for understanding what went wrong in Afghanistan.
“War is life multiplied by some number that no one has ever heard of,” acclaimed conflict journalist Sebastian Junger writes in War.
In 2007 and 2008, Junger embedded with US soldiers from Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade over the course of their 15-month deployment to Afghanistan’s deadly Korengal Valley. Junger lived with and documented the soldiers as they engaged in some of the most intense fighting of the war. In War, Junger provides a powerful rendering of the ferocity of the fight in the Korengal, the character and spirit of the American soldiers who fought there, and the lengths they were willing to go for one another.
“The Army might screw you and your girlfriend might dump you and the enemy might kill you, but the shared commitment to safeguard one another’s lives is unnegotiable and only deepens with time. The willingness to die for another person is a form of love that even religions fail to inspire, and the experience of it changes a person profoundly,” Junger writes in one of the book’s many profound insights into the psychology of America’s warfighters.
War is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand why soldiers volunteer to go to war and why they often miss it when they come home.
Special operations played a more significant role in Afghanistan than in any other war in history. America’s most elite units were called on to carry a larger share of the burden than in previous conflicts, and in doing so, operators forever changed the way the United States wages war. There are too many incredible books about special operations in Afghanistan to single out one as the best, so we settled on the story of the first special operations mission of the war: Horse Soldiers.
Doug Stanton’s 2009 book tells the story of the Green Berets from the 5th Special Forces Group who were tasked with establishing a foothold in Afghanistan just days after the 9/11 terror attacks. Following a harrowing flight over the Hindu Kush, the men of Task Force Dagger linked up with CIA operatives and the Northern Alliance. Mounted on horseback, they led the attack against the Taliban and initiated the 20-year war with a string of decisive victories. You can’t understand the war in Afghanistan without first understanding the contribution of special operations, and that begins with Horse Soldiers.
When picturing Afghanistan, most people likely imagine soldiers fighting up mountains through heavily timbered forests or operators with dual-tube night vision, hunting high-value targets under a cloak of darkness. But the fertile river valleys of southern Afghanistan were a different beast than the mountains of the north, and Afghanistan’s Helmand province, where 955 coalition troops were killed, was Afghanistan’s deadliest region for Americans by far.
The Hill is Aaron Kirk’s 2021 memoir of a Marine grunt in Helmand. Marines carry upwards of 150 pounds as they tiptoe through poppy fields, constantly dodge IEDs, and get in firefights that always seem to take place in the middle of minefields. The Hill captures how it felt to be an E-3 tasked with leading men in combat at a young age. The Marine Corps prides itself on winning hard fights despite being ill equipped and undermanned, and Helmand province lived up to that morbid tradition.
After just two years of rolling their dice in the leg lottery, the Marines were told to begin pulling back. As terrain was passed to the Afghan National Army, the Taliban moved in to reclaim their southern stronghold: an early indicator for the entire US withdrawal. No book tells the story of the small bands of Marines who fought across Helmand quite like The Hill.
The war in Afghanistan was unique for many reasons, not the least of which was the extensive use of unmanned aerial vehicles. There were more than 13,000 drone strikes between 2004 and 2020, and Peter Lee’s Reaper Force follows British UAV crews, highlighting both the role of drones in Afghanistan as well as the contributions of America’s allies.
The airmen of Reaper Force operated out of bases in Nevada and England, fighting a war in the morning, then going home in time for dinner. With zero buffer between using lethal force and then pulling into the driveway like a conventional nine-to-five job, the airmen often found themselves struggling to make sense of the rapid transition.
UAV crews regularly followed their targets for extended periods of time, studying their patterns and behavior. The intimate relationship between the person behind the trigger and their target is not dissimilar to that of a sniper, and the psychological effects of that intimacy are still not fully understood. The war in Afghanistan cannot be condensed into five books, but to exclude the role of drones or the fact that America stood among a coalition of allies would be a major misstep.
This article first appeared in the Fall 2021 edition of Coffee or Die’s print magazine.
Mac Caltrider is a senior staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. He served in the US Marine Corps and is a former police officer. Caltrider earned his bachelor’s degree in history and now reads anything he can get his hands on. He is also the creator of Pipes & Pages, a site intended to increase readership among enlisted troops. Caltrider spends most of his time reading, writing, and waging a one-man war against premature hair loss.
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