The good parts of The Great War for Civilization so far outweigh the bad parts that I can still recommend it wholeheartedly. It feels a little slapdash at times, and the quality is not consistent, but I've come out of it with a much better, much more thorough understanding of a number of conflicts that are often mentioned and rarely explained: the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iran-Iraq war, the war in Algeria, the Armenian genocide, and the first war in Iraq - Desert Storm. All of these really add up to a much better understanding of what's going on in Iraq right now.
For example, here is some information I would have liked to see explained clearly and briefly before:
- Iraq is a majority Shi'i state.
- Iran is a Shi'i state.
- Saddam Hussein belonged to Iraq's Sunni minority.
- Saddam Hussein was a relatively secular dictator, but he heavily favored the minority Sunni population and violently repressed the Shi'i majority.
- The United States supported Saddam Hussein because his oppression of Iraq's Shi'i majority helped contain Iran. The enemy of our enemy was our friend - and Saddam Hussain was an enemy to Iran.
- Now we want democratic elections in Iraq.
- The Shi'i majority never had a chance to develop home-grown political parties and leadership
- Shi'i political parties and leadership in Iraq were developed in Iran.
- Iran has shown great willingness to extend its influence through the support of Shi'i political parties abroad - see: Lebanon.
- The United States still hates Iran.
- Conclusion: the US is going to have a hard time accepting democracy in Iraq.
Maybe I could have read a handful of different books to get all the same information - but it was nice to have one big book as a starting point. And maybe I could have read something that was a little more measured or restrained in tone - but The Great War for Civilization is actually an enjoyable read, and in a book that is so long and so depressing that counts for a lot.
Standard Operating Procedure was in many ways a corrective to The Great War for Civilization. Every word was carefully chosen and the authors, Gourevitch and Morris, work hard to be dispassionate, even-handed, and give the soldiers of Abu Ghraib the chance to tell their own story without interference. At first I wished for a bit more context - I wanted to hear more about the whole conflict, and not just the prison - but by the end I was grateful that the book is so focused. It's not about the Middle East - it's about the United States - and the context is correctly a military one.
I think it would be a shame to spoil the book - and I also think it would be incredibly difficult. It has to be read to be believed. All I will say is that having read Standard Operating Procedure, I will never think about Abu Ghraib in the same way again.