Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S., the country has waged an ongoing war in Afghanistan, a conflict as widely misunderstood as it is divisive. As the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, PW looks at forthcoming books that aim to surface new information about America’s Forever War and tell the story of the conflict from atypical viewpoints.
I heard the news today, oh boy
History buffs and news junkies who want to understand how the U.S. got into the longest, most expensive war in history—and why American troops are still on the ground—will find books offering diverse, previously unheard perspectives. But why are these stories coming to light now?
“We were lied to, for 20 years, about what we knew and when we knew it,” says Priscilla Painton, executive editor, nonfiction, at Simon & Schuster, which is releasing The Afghanistan Papers by Washington Post investigative reporter Craig Whitlock in September. “Craig had to sue the federal government twice to get the confidential documents that anchor this book; we now have the advantage of two decades of research. The great thing about history is that by definition you go deeper with time.”
CNN national security analyst Peter L. Bergen has written several books on al-Qaeda, including 2010’s The Longest War, which PW called “one of the more useful analyses of the ongoing conflict” in a starred review. His next title is the August S&S release The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden. “Bin Laden changed the course of our history, and we continue to battle his heirs today, but he’s an obscure figure, a caricature,” Painton says. “Our feelings about Osama bin Laden haven’t changed, but there’s a willingness to understand where he came from and who he really was.”
Painton says Bergen’s history, like others, benefits from the passage of time. “There are people, intelligence officers and so on, who couldn’t talk five or 10 years ago, but will now. Papers have been recovered at bin Laden’s compound that weren’t available before.”
Vanessa Mobley, v-p and executive editor at Little, Brown, points out that newly available interviews and first-person accounts can provide a human-interest angle to help civilian readers understand the scope and impact of the war. She acquired First Casualty (Sept.) by veteran foreign correspondent Toby Harnden, about Johnny “Mike” Spann, a CIA paramilitary officer who was a member of the first team of American soldiers dropped behind enemy lines after 9/11. “We’re hoping to appeal to what we expect will be interest in understanding the early days of the war, now that we have the distance and perspective, and participants willing to speak,” Mobley notes.
Harnden interviewed Spann’s surviving family and members of Team Alpha to offer what his editor calls “a human, first-person perspective. It shows that the task of waging a war on terror was so vast in its scope that to actually execute it was very difficult for America’s finest fighters and minds.”
A complicated legacy
The anniversary presents an opportunity not just for looking back but also for readers to come to terms with ongoing fallout from the war. For instance, says Hachette Books senior editor Sam Raim, “It’s been years since Guantanamo was at the forefront of our minds. It does, and should, make us feel guilty.”
In August’s Don’t Forget Us Here, Mansoor Adayfi recounts his 14-year imprisonment at the infamous detention camp, the tactics that kept him and his fellow prisoners alive, and the PTSD that he now suffers from. “The story is not just, here’s what we did to ‘those people,’ ” says Raim, who acquired the book. “It talks instead about what ‘those people’ did. They survived. They built a brotherhood, taught classes, made art. He doesn’t hide the terrible; he makes it a way for people to engage with the story.”
The effect, he explains, humanizes the detainees. “We have to get past this idea of litigating guilt and innocence—we’re beyond that conversation,” Raim says. “This is a place that never should have existed; the only way to rectify it is to close it.”
Scott Fraser, publisher at Dundurn Press, first met Phil Halton, author of May’s Blood Washing Blood, when Halton was his commanding officer in the Canadian army. The book delves into the 100 years of internal Afghan conflict that led, ultimately, to the 9/11 attacks. “In order to understand Afghanistan, you have to look at it as a social conflict rather than as a military conflict,” Fraser says. “NATO countries see it this way: as long as we have enough soldiers and equipment and can achieve strategic objectives, we’ve succeeded. But this is a social conflict internal to Afghanistan, a tension between tradition and modernity.”
In addition to taking the long view of history, Fraser explains, it’s important to remember that though many vividly recall the event that precipitated the current war in Afghanistan, not everyone does. “There are now young adults with no firsthand memory of 9/11,” he notes. “We spent billions of dollars on a war we don’t understand. We have to keep the Afghanistan war in our cultural memories, so we avoid remaking the same mistakes. We need a little more international humility.”
Dave McBride, editor-in-chief of social sciences at Oxford University Press, agrees that public education on the war is lacking. “The American audience doesn’t know how many mistakes, how many shortsighted decisions, we made along the way,” he says. In July, Oxford is releasing The American War in Afghanistan by historian Carter Malkasian, a former adviser to U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan.
“We pitched the idea of a big book about this war to Carter,” McBride notes. “He’s fluent in Pashto and spent two years in the Garmser district in Afghanistan with the State Department. He knows the people, knows how the war is seen within Afghanistan, and why, for example, people supported the Taliban.”
For the St. Martin’s release The Long War (Oct.), veteran BBC foreign correspondent David Loyn interviewed eight generals—seven U.S., one British—who led the war against the Taliban; Loyn’s previous books include Frontline: Reporting from the World’s Deadliest Places (“a thrilling read,” per PW’s 2012 review). “Readers will see the unique challenges in this war,” says Marc Resnick, executive editor and v-p at St. Martin’s Press, of Loyn’s latest. The author underscores just how hard the task before America’s military was, giving readers a firm basis from which to judge. “There’s a tremendous audience in America who always supported the war,” Resnick notes. “Both to exact revenge, and also to help the Afghan people.”
The story was somewhat different across the Atlantic, says Henry Wilson, publishing manager at the U.K.’s Pen & Sword Books, which specializes in military history. “This wasn’t a popular war, and people didn’t necessarily want to read about it,” he notes. In the May Pen & Sword release Special Forces Interpreter, Eddie Idrees, a pseudonymous Afghan-born refugee to Pakistan, shares his experiences as an interpreter for the U.S. Special Forces and the British Special Air Service.
“This is an unusual angle,” Wilson says. “We haven’t seen other cases where Afghan interpreters could record their stories.”
Amid the uncertainty around the timeline for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan—President Biden recently moved the date from May 1 to September 11—editors say that readers will be looking to these and other books for a richer, more nuanced understanding of the past two decades of warfare.
Liz Scheier is a writer, editor, and product developer in Washington, D.C.
Below, more on 9/11 anniversary books.
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