5 books that dads will love

With its near 500-page count and robust endnotes, The Achilles Trap: Saddam Hussein, the C.I.A., and the Origins of America’s Invasion of Iraq might at first glance scare off readers who haven’t sniffed a textbook in years. But thanks to Steve Coll’s crisp and dynamic prose, what’s between the covers feels little like an academic tome.

Despite appearances, The Achilles Trap is not really an Iraq War book (just as Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower is not really a 9/11 book). Yes, you get there eventually, but Coll, like Wright, has more to say about the years leading up to that cataclysm. The narrative details Saddam’s upbringing, rise to power and entrenchment as a key strongman in the Middle East, sometimes allied with the United States and sometimes its biggest pain in the ass—and sometimes both at the same time.

In the two decades since the American invasion of Iraq began, Saddam Hussein has become a sort of caricature. Here, Coll reintroduces the dictator to an audience that has either forgotten his nuances or never knew them. There is unimaginable cruelty, family drama and even comedy—like when Saddam sets out on a career as a historical romance novelist just a few years before his death.

Coll, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Ghost Wars and a longtime journalist for The New Yorker and The Washington Post, has a special combination of mostly unrelated skill sets that eludes so many narrative nonfiction writers: He’s a groundbreaking reporter and researcher who is able to uncover new information in a tightly wound arena, but also a deft stylist with a natural gift for both narrative structure and fluent yet surprising writing. Like a baseball player who can both pitch and hit with the best, the rare union places Coll at or near the apex of the craft.

Detailing Saddam’s own cruelty does not mean Coll lets the U.S. off the hook, though. Sprinkled among what is at times a tense political thriller are scenes of astounding myopia, hubris, miscommunication, dark hypocrisy, betrayal, stupidity, cruelty and violence of our own. Though the events of The Achilles Trap concluded 20 years ago, there are few better roadmaps to where American foreign policy in the Middle East has ended up today.

Literature

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