Like millions of other Americans, I spent the weeks after September 11, 2001, struggling to understand how the tragic events of that day could have happened. CNN’s Aaron Brown and Paula Zahn came to feel like permanent guests in our living room. I watched Frontline documentaries. I scoured obscure websites on Islamic fundamentalism. I read – or, rather, tried to read – Ahmed Rashid’s Taliban, one of the few English-language books then in print on recent Afghan history. I wasn’t a complete moron. I had heard of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, and I was old enough to remember the tales of the plucky Afghan mujahideen bringing the Soviet military to its knees in the waning years of the Cold War. But none of what I already knew, even when combined with the new facts I learned that fall, added up to 19 guys hijacking four planes and flying them into buildings full of thousands of innocent men, women, and children.
It is only recently, through Steve Coll’s masterly Ghost Wars, first published in 2004, that I have begun to feel like I understand, viscerally as well as intellectually, what started the terrible train of events that ended that bright fall morning now almost ten years ago. There are armloads of first-class histories of the period, ranging from Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower to the U.S. government’s own 9/11 Commission Report [pdf], and I heartily recommend all of them, but if you only have time for one book on the subject, make it Ghost Wars.
Histories of Islamic extremism written for an American audience have to confront this country’s fundamental ignorance of the Muslim world. In Taliban, Rashid, a Pakistani journalist, deals with this problem by ignoring it and diving headlong into the hellish cauldron of military alliances that beset the Afghan capital of Kabul after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 as if the rival Afghan leaders Ahmad Shah Massoud, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and Mohammad Najibullah were household names. For this reason, Taliban may be one of the least-finished bestsellers in recent memory. In contrast, in The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini, an Afghan refugee who has lived in the U.S. since 1980, presents the rise of the Taliban in a way guaranteed to make Americans feel at home. Hosseini, who lived only a few years in Afghanistan as a child, portrays the sectarian conflicts between the Pashtun and Hazara factions in the country of his birth as analogous to racial strife between white and black people in the American South, and in case that isn’t familiar enough, he gives his principal baddie, a neighborhood bully who becomes a Taliban leader, a Hitler fixation. The Kite Runner has sold millions of copies and been made into a Hollywood film, but really it says more about the lenses through which Americans see the Muslim world than it does about how the Muslim world actually works.
Coll handles his readers’ ignorance of his subject by rolling up his sleeves and explaining, in a remarkably patient, non-partisan way, the whole ugly history of America’s involvement in Afghanistan since the Soviet invasion in 1979. Naturally, this takes some time – the book is almost 600 pages long – but it makes for riveting reading. One comes away from Ghost Wars with two seemingly paradoxical impressions: 1. unlike most American civilians, U.S. politicians and military leaders saw 9/11 coming years before it happened; and 2. barring a run of stupid luck, they had almost zero chance of stopping it, given the geopolitical realities of the pre-9/11 world.
American diplomats and spies spent years pressing our Islamic allies, particularly Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, to force the Taliban to give up bin Laden. President Clinton and his security team spent hundreds of hours poring over satellite images and intelligence reports, trying to pin bin Laden down so they could kill him before he attacked us. They failed, and thousands of Americans died, followed by thousands more in the two wars that followed, but a fair reading of history suggests they were fighting with both hands tied behind their backs.
The Original Sin of America’s involvement in Afghanistan – our clandestine arming of the mujahideen and our abandonment of the country after the Soviet retreat – makes a great deal more sense when viewed in context. It would have been politically foolish, and morally craven, to leave the Afghans defenseless against the Soviets in the 1980s, and once the Soviets left, there was exactly no political support for getting in the middle of a civil war in a distant country many Americans would have had trouble finding on a map. Likewise, while in hindsight it is hard to understand how American politicians allowed Pakistan to so openly drag its feet in challenging its Islamist allies in the Taliban, at the time the far greater worry among Western policymakers was that nuclear-armed Pakistan would pick a fight with its nuclear-armed neighbor, India, and blow Central Asia off the map.
The past is a foreign country, as the British novelist L.P. Hartley famously said, but every now and then a work of history offers a guidebook to that country, not as it looks to us now, but as it was then. It is a cause for celebration, then, that in an age when telegenic polemicists like Glenn Beck and Rachel Maddow dominate the public debate, that real journalists like Steve Coll can still do their work.
A group at NYU’s journalism school has named “The Top Ten Works of Journalism of the Decade in the United States.” Four of these are books: Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family, Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side, and Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed.
Garth Risk Hallberg is the author of A Field Guide to the North American Family: An Illustrated Novella, and is a contributor to The Millions….And what a year it was: the manic highs, the crushing lows and no creamy middle to hold them together. In this way, my reading life and my other life seemed to mirror each other in 2007, as I suppose they do every year. As a reader, I try not to pick up a book unless there’s a good chance I’m going to like it, but as an aspiring critic, I felt obliged to slog through a number of bad novels. And so my reading list for 2007 lacked balance. It’s easy to draw a line between the wheat and the chaff, but harder to say which of the two dozen or so books I loved were my favorites, so grateful was I for their mere existence.If pressed, I would have to say that my absolute greatest reading experience of the year was Howard’s End by E.M. Forster. Zadie Smith inspired me to read this book, and I can’t believe I waited this long. Forster’s style seems to me the perfect expression of democratic freedom. It allows “the passion” and “the prose” equal representation on the page, and seeks the common ground between them. Forster’s ironies, in writing about the Schlegel family, are of the warmest variety. I wish I could write like him.A close runner-up was Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detectives. It’s been years since I reacted this viscerally to a novel, as you’ll see if you read my review.Rounding out my top three was Helen De Witt’s first novel, The Last Samurai. Published in 2000 and then more or less forgotten about, The Last Samurai introduced me to one of my favorite characters of the year, a child prodigy named Ludo. Ludo’s gifts are ethical as much as they are intellectual, and I loved De Witt’s rigorous adherence to her own peculiar instincts; her refusal to craft a “shapely” novel in the M.F.A. style.Other favorite classics included Balzac’s Lost Illusions and Fielding’s Tom Jones – each the expression of a sui generis authorial temperament – and Anne Carson’s odd and arresting translation of the fragmentary lyrics of Sappho. Every year, I try to read at least one long, modernist novel from my beloved Wiemar period; in 2007, Hermann Broch’s The Sleepwalkers reminded me why. And from the American canon, I was smitten with Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men (essay) and Joseph Heller’s Something Happened (review).Three books by short-story writers whom I’d nominate for inclusion in the American canon: Excitability: Selected Stories by Diane Williams, Sylvia by Leonard Michaels (review), and Transactions in a Foreign Currency by Deborah Eisenberg, one of my favorite contemporary writers.Of the many (too many) new English-language novels I read, the best were Tom McCarthy’s stunningly original Remainder, Mark Binelli’s thoroughly entertaining Sacco & Vanzetti Must Die, Thomas Pynchon’s stunningly original, thoroughly entertaining, but unfocused Against the Day (review), Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke (review), and Don DeLillo’s Falling Man. This last book seemed to me unfairly written off upon its release. I taught an excerpt from it to undergraduates, and for me, DeLillo’s defamiliarized account of September 11 and its aftermath deepened with each rereading.The best book of journalism I read this year was Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower (review). And my two favorite new translations were Gregoire Brouillier’s memoir, The Mystery Guest (review), and Tatyana Tolstaya’s novel, The Slynx (review).Thanks for reading, everybody. See you in ’08!More from A Year in Reading 2007
Marshall N. Klimasewiski has two books, both published by W. W. Norton. The Cottagers, a novel, came out in 2006, and Tyrants, short stories, will be published in February. He teaches at Washington University in Saint Louis.I had the pleasure of hanging out with some ambitious and vivacious books in 2007 that I thought were splendid – All Aunt Hagar’s Children, The Looming Tower, The House of Mirth – but I’d rather talk about a relatively shy, delicate creature that crawled into my brain and has been quietly expanding there ever since. Peter Ho Davies’ The Welsh Girl is set at the end of World War II in a village (not quaint, not kooky, not grotesque either) in Wales where a German P. O. W. camp is hastily constructed and filled. For me, it was one of those thoroughly engrossing, exquisite “small” novels which vividly render an isolated environment and a small cast and yet are somehow constantly aware of the massive and, in this case, terrible history past the reach of the pub and the flock. It’s a book that feels best read under a small circle of lamplight in a dark room, and it knows it: “confinement” is a word important to it, and both a ship in a bottle and a slate tunnel are featured beautifully. I do love a novel that takes full advantage of the intimacy of the art form, and how unlikely that such a book could so powerfully address the value and wages of nationalism.More from A Year in Reading 2007
1. Transparency, if not objectivityIn December of 2001, I took my mother to see the first Lord of the Rings movie. Though it was my idea to see the film, it was her cash that purchased the ticket, and so she was not only baffled, but also irritated, when I had to leave the theater in tears a couple of minutes before the end credits.There was some precedent for this; I was the kid who cried at E.T. At Harry and the Hendersons. But I found it impossible to articulate to her, or even to myself, exactly what I found so upsetting about The Fellowship of the Ring’s climactic Hobbit-hunt. Was it the surround-sound thunder of the hordes of orcs? The bloodlust on their faces? The flash of spears through chests, the thwack of axes on armor, the pornography of violence? Or was it the fact of having allowed myself to be transported, for a couple of hours, to Middle Earth, when I’d been trying so hard since September to stay rooted in this one?In my mother’s car, afterward, I tried to describe what it had been like that morning in Washington. How I’d lingered outside the Kennedy Center a few minutes after the start of business at the dot-com where I was working, drinking in the richness of my coffee and the blueness of the day. How, when the “What-the-f–k?” email from my editor hit my inbox, I felt sure there had been an accident or mistake. How we gathered in the clips room to watch CNN, and how even the atheists among us kept saying “Oh, my God” when the second plane hit. How, when a phoned-in voice reported an explosion at the Pentagon, maybe a quarter-mile from where we stood, it seemed inevitable: everything we’d grown up counting on had ended for good.I tried to explain what it was like watching the debris cascade off the first flaming tower, telling myself it was helicopters pouring water, as on a forest fire. And then recognizing jumpers. Realizing I was seeing thousands of souls (twenty thousand I thought) being snuffed out. I tried to tell the woman who brought me into the world what it was like to walk home through streets silent save for the cell-phone calls that had made it through, and scanning the skies with a half-million others, convinced we were all about to die. But of course my mom had her own experience, and I couldn’t really put mine into words.Or maybe I didn’t want to. I still don’t like to talk about it, and I’m afraid as I type these sentences that writing about it, letting it out, will make me forget, or that my cadences will paper over the memories, replace what I felt then with what I know now. I’m terrified to let them go, all the people who died that day. And so I never say the date, or the numbers that have come to stand for it, and I never talk about it.I guess the strategy is working, because even now sometimes my heart will stop when I hear a plane coming in low overhead, or look out my kitchen window here in Brooklyn and see the towers of light reaching up toward forever. And because when I finished The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 last month, I cried as though I was back there in the parking lot of that movie theater. Or back there on the streets of D.C.2. Looking through the wreckageLawrence Wright’s Pulitzer-Prize winning book, which originated in The New Yorker, unfolds as a series of profiles. Like several other accounts of Al-Qaeda, it locates the origins of Islamist terrorism in an Egyptian writer named Sayyid Qutb. Though far from sympathetic to Qutb, Wright meticulously maps the coordinates of his radicalization: postwar American materialism, Egyptian corruption and repression, and a stern theological literalism. Qutb’s brand of Islamism is not treated as exceptional; rather, it is situated alongside Marxism and other religious fundamentalisms as a response to modernity.He was opposed not to modern technology but to the worship of science, which he believed had alienated humanity from natural harmony with creation. Only a complete rejection of rationalism and Western values offered the slim hope of the redemption of Islam.Wright extends the same imaginative inhabitation to each new figure he investigates. Qutb cedes the stage to fellow Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, one the most contemptible people I’ve ever had the misfortune to read about. And Al-Zawahiri gives way to Osama bin Laden (who, intriguingly, is the least interesting figure in the book), and to FBI agent John O’Neill, one of the first Americans to take him seriously.This character-driven approach has its virtues. Through the figure of Bin Laden, Wright delivers a comprehensive account of the history of modern Saudi Arabia, a culture which went from stallions to F-15s almost literally overnight. The profile of FBI investigator Ali Soufan reminds us of all the values that Qutb missed in his account of liberal democracy. And O’Neill’s story hints none too subtly at the extent of the CIA’s responsibility for the attacks of Sept. 11; the agency appears, however passively, to have shielded Al-Qaeda operatives from the FBI, in hopes of “flipping” one of them. As the book darts back and forth from Tora Bora to Washington, it develops the sickening propulsion of a thriller.And yet, as Wright’s novelistic talents and exhaustive reportage drive the book forward, the sweeping claims of the title remain unfulfilled. The extent of Al-Qaeda’s activities in post-USSR Afghanistan and Pakistan remain as obscure as its origins in Saudi Arabia and Egypt are clear. And despite bin Laden’s stated agenda, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the history of terrorism associated with it, appear only as tangents to the story Wright wants to tell. Thus his portrayal of Al-Qaeda seems incomplete.Which doesn’t mean it’s not damning. Al-Qaeda, as The Looming Tower presents it, is a far cry from Sayyid Qutb’s Islamism. Al-Zawahiri and bin Laden have created neither an intellectual movement nor a political platform nor a set of theological propositions nor a proper ideology. Al-Qaeda is instead a form of nihilist scream therapy, a sexually dysfunctional death-cult. The President’s frequent equation of Islamist terrorism and Nazism comes to seem narrowly accurate; a cloud of Freudian self-hatred envelops the leaders of each group. More broadly, though, the comparison begs the questions that matter. For example: What about all those followers?3. “No justice, no peace”In essence, Lawrence Wright has written the definitive Great-Man history of Al-Qaeda, and in so doing has provided a valuable service. We need faces for our evil, as we need them for our grief. But to say of The Looming Tower that there is no better book on Al-Qaeda may be a way of saying that we need more books on Al-Qaeda.Those books would do well to resist the organization’s skillful manipulations of mass media, which posit bin Laden and al-Zawahiri as world-historical figures. In reality – and I say this with all spleen intended – bin Laden and al-Zawahiri would be nothing more than an inept and morally bankrupt cable-access act, were it not for the legions of young men they and their henchmen have persuaded to die for them. Like Wright, I’m intrigued that these two privileged men would choose to live as outlaw demagogues. But I’m far more interested in the psychology of the converts who end up hijacking planes and blowing up women and children in Baghdad squares… if only because I want to believe they can be reached.Students of history will remind us that Al-Qaeda has presided over fewer deaths, at this point, than have many heads of state. And were we to succeed in regarding human lives as digits on a printout, removed from context and connection, the events of September 11 might become commensurable with the other tragedies that surround us. But The Looming Tower does demand that we make a distinction…that we rationalists stop imagining that Al-Qaeda can be explained away. According to the book, Al-Qaeda’s ascetics, rejecting Islam’s intellectual and mystical legacies (and thus fully two-thirds of its theological content) have arrived at a hatred of life. I don’t mean “our way of life.” (However serious they may once have been, Al-Qaeda’s political grievances have decayed into afterthoughts). I mean life in all its variety: pleasure, anxiety, grief, frivolity… For bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri, being-in-the-world is some kind of hoax being perpetrated on mankind by a (paradoxically) omniperfect God. It is the duty of the faithful not to be taken in by God’s creation, but rather to reject the world and everything in it, and to kill anyone who gets in the way. This is the farthest mankind can fall.And so for someone like me, committed to Wittgenstein’s idea that the existence of anything at all is miraculous, The Looming Tower presents a bracing challenge. The malice and madness portrayed in this book aren’t special effects. They’re real, they’re here, and if we value life, we’re going to have to find smarter ways to fight them than conforming to caricatures of Western imperialism, or speechifying mistily about “hearts and minds.” We’re going to have to find a way to be their opposite.