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August 26, 2010

Redemption (Part Two)

Ghost Wars

Redemption, it seems, does not come easy. About five months ago—March 22, to be exact—in an acknowledgment of how far I had fallen during my time in law school, I set forth a rather unambitious goal for myself: read two books—for fun—by the end of [] spring break. Given the steady rate of book consumption during my restive pre–law school days, this should have been no big deal.

But it was. After making quick progress with the first, A Tale of Two Cities, I bogged down. Maybe it was the interminable paper I was writing that week, or maybe I picked a book that was too long (usually not a problem for yours truly), or maybe the fact that it was nonfiction made it move slowly. For whatever reason, though, I didn't finish a second book that break. I didn't even get close. And I wouldn't for the next five months. With the whirlwind race to graduation during spring, and then the awful summer of study, reading for fun was hardly a priority. But though the indelible stench of unmitigated failure may consume me, the aura of incompleteness does not. In this post, I review Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 by Steve Coll. Better late than never.

Generally not one for contemporary history, I was drawn to this book through the recommendation of a friend. That, and my childhood obsession with spy novels and in particular those penned by Tom Clancy. Reading the back of Ghost Wars in a bookstore one cold Chicago night, I was instantly reminded of The Cardinal of the Kremlin, easily one of my favorite Clancy novels, and decided on a whim to buy it. The thought process that night, while hardly informed, was not too far off base.

Ghost Wars is a fairly straightforward chronological account of US involvement in Afghanistan from the late 1970s until early September 2001. The fact that the US was involved in Afghanistan during the Cold War and beyond is all but common knowledge, but Coll's work fills in the gaps with a tremendous amount of detail that was previously unavailable. Written in a narrative style that sometimes felt as though in the same genre as Clancy's earlier (and better) novels, the salient difference that distinguishes this book can be summarized as thus: it's all nonfiction. It was therefore a far more sobering read, but never to the point of melodrama or political hackery.

Indeed, if I could point to the strongest point in this book (there are many), it would be that there wasn't any discernible political agenda hiding behind the narrative. In the world of contemporary historical accounts, this by itself is an accomplishment of the highest order. But beyond slant, there is a compelling and profoundly depressing portrait of two decades worth of misunderstanding, misjudgment, distraction, and bad luck that eventually led to the events of September 11, 2001.

The account was all the more interesting because it was a study of recent events, almost all of which I was alive for, but many of which are blissfully missing from my memories. Though I missed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 by a few years, I was already in school by the time the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. Nevertheless, I have no recollection of Bush's election in 1988 and only vague memories of Clinton's in 1992, the only two presidencies of four covered in depth in the book that I could hope to remember. (Carter was out of office years before I made my unpleasant appearance upon this planet, and Reagan left before I knew what great communication was.) But despite all that, I was around (and rocking, no doubt)—these events transpired in my lifetime. Reading in detail about what was going on then, therefore, was quite entertaining to the news junkie in me.

With all that praise reaped, I must caution: this is not a particularly easy read. Clocking in at just about 600 pages (not including notes), and with tons of characters to keep track of, the book took me quite a lot of time and determination to power through. And if I was still tasked with enormous amounts of reading like I used to be in law school, I would have never finished for lack of both energy and concentration. For the same reason, those who aren't particularly interested in this subject or genre are likely to flounder with this book. That's not a criticism exactly; it's more a warning. Overall, four out five stars.

And despite the stack of fifteen or so unread books that made the cut to travel with me to the 'Vine, there will be no more reading goals. School's out; redemption has been achieved.


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