In a wide-ranging interview on the website The Browser, Martin Bell (above), the long-time BBC war correspondent who has covered more than a dozen conflicts, including the American war in Vietnam, discusses five of the most important books dealing with modern wars.
Bell’s list: Trusted Mole by Milos Stankovik, which deals with a British Army officer in the Bosnian War; Evelyn Waugh’s novel Scoop, a satirical look at newspapers and war correspondents; Joseph Conrad’s iconic novel, Heart of Darkness; Wilfred Owen’s Collected Poems, which include verses dealing with the poet’s experiences in World War I; and David Halberstam’s celebrated look at Vietnam War policymaking, The Best and the Brightest.
The Best and the Brightest, Bell says, “is an account of how the Americans got into this war. How brilliant people devised schemes that went against all common sense. One of them, of course, was [Secretary of Defense Robert] McNamara, who had been president of the Ford Motor Company. They thought that simply by the application of force and intelligence they could make things happen on the ground. But they didn’t understand.”
Bell says that when he was in Vietnam he “saw in 1967 and 1972 this massive application of fire power. But you don’t change people’s minds with fire power. You can, in fact, just alienate them. What Halberstam delivers is an account of how this happened.”
One of the reasons he chose Halberstam’s opus, Bell says, “is because I think it applies today to what the western powers are trying to do in Afghanistan. There are so many parallel structures – the massive application of fire power and not much understanding of the people. To the Afghans, we tend to be just another foreign invader, however well-intentioned. Which is why, like Vietnam, I think it’s an unwinnable war.”
A version of the interview was republished on Salon.com