What is wrong with the world?
July 21, 2014 11:50 AM   Subscribe

With the recent events in Ukraine and Gaza lately, I've been feeling upset as to what our world has become, and where we as a race are headed. I'd like to understand how we got here. Can you share your favorite books, and explainers that illuminate the history of the Middle East conflicts, as well as that of Russia and Ukraine.

This mindless violence and killing is getting to me. I would really like to understand the history of how and why these wars are still going on.

Ideally, I'd like books (and to an extent well written explainers online) that look at the these specific regions and/or conflicts:

Gaza and Palestine and Israel
USSR, Russia, Ukraine and Eastern-Europe

Any other books that look at the historical events leading upto the recent conflicts in the news are also welcome.
posted by rippersid to Society & Culture (22 answers total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
I found this "I/P 101" from Vox to be very well written and easy to understand.
posted by jbickers at 12:05 PM on July 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

Six Days of War: June 1967 and the making of the modern middle east by Oren is a terrific, well written book for a) setting the stage for the current conflict and b) giving one the startling realization that the crucible in which much of the current and past Israeli leadership was born in occurred at that time. (Also, frankly, you'll want to endless jeer at the hypocrisy of the modern Republican leadership and their support of Israel.)

I liked The Looming Tower, even though it's about the path towards 9/11, because it also gave a good sense of the history of the region. I'm unaware of any particular criticism of that book and its accuracy, so I put forth that recommendation with caution. I did walk away from both books with a good understanding of how much of the conflict in the region is rooted in natural resources and how, before Israel and other political events of the 20th century, most of the conflict in the region was directed at each other.

I've recommended this in AskMe before, and I can't do it enough: Postwar by Tony Judt. He relentlessly explores how WWII/I affected the historical tide of Europe - which is good, because so much of the conflict we're seeing is deeply rooted in history - and then delves into the aftermath. This includes Israel and Russia, and the exploration of how Cold War politics affected what we are seeing today. Unlike the other two books it's quite dense, but worth it.
posted by barchan at 12:19 PM on July 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

This may help you feel a bit better. tl;dr: This generation didn't invent senseless violence, and we may in fact be seeing less of it than ever before.
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:25 PM on July 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

Who Hates Whom. Great book, very accessible. (Written before the current Ukraine/Russia conflict.)
posted by Melismata at 12:30 PM on July 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Jerusalem by Simon Sebag Montefiore does a good job (as far as I can tell) of showing how the city and what it stands for has changed hands and been reinvented again and again throughout history, and how multilayered and often ill-founded modern conceptions of the history/holiness/background of the various key sites may be.
posted by runincircles at 12:30 PM on July 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

I found Tariq Ali's The Clash of Fundamentalisms to be an excellent resource for understanding the history of the Muslim world/the Middle East. It doesn't cover Russia or Ukraine though.
posted by number9dream at 12:31 PM on July 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

I liked Righteous Victims for an understanding of the frustrating and complex history behind the Israel/Palestine issue. Morris is Israeli, and upfront about approaching it from that perspective, but generally even-handed. For a more Palestinian perspective, perhaps Edward Said?

Not about either conflict specifically, but about sectarian and ethnic conflict more generally, War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning does a nice job of explaining exactly that - why people engaged in long-term struggles become so invested in violence and conflict.
posted by chbrooks at 12:32 PM on July 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

The best book I know of on the conflict in the Middle East is Thomas Friedman's From Beirut to Jerusalem. The beginning is devastating. I thought it was a great overview. One of the interesting conclusions he drew towards the end is that it is going to be a significant challenge for Israel to be both Jewish and democratic in the future because the Arab population has a significantly higher birth rate than Israeli Jews. I highly recommend.
posted by kat518 at 12:33 PM on July 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

For Israel/Palestine, the book I have found to be the most enlightening is Walled.

Anything by Edward Said will be helpful, too.
posted by janey47 at 12:33 PM on July 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

In the longer-term scale, the world is becoming less violent. It may be hard to believe this with our easy access to up-to-the-minute pictures of every current conflict, but it's true. Check out Stephen Pinker's book The Better Angels of Our Nature
posted by the jam at 12:52 PM on July 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

So Tessler's history of the I/P conflict is generally thought of to be the absolute best. Its a tome though.

I'd actually caution against anyone reading Said as an introduction. Most of his scholarly writings won't help you understand the conflict and his op-eds are going to be very dated as he talks a lot about stuff that happened in the week or month before. Its a nice time capsule though.

Also Oren was the Israeli Ambassador to the US, so just keep that in mind when reading his scholarship.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 1:06 PM on July 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

A bit old, but still useful to get a different, on-the-ground perspective.

Give War a Chance

All the Trouble in the World
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:58 PM on July 21, 2014

I recently read Ari Shavit's My Promised Land, which is a liberal-Israeli take on just what factors have shaped Israel's internal and external tensions; large parts of it are reworkings of his columns, and it's organized by historical chronology, focusing on individual incidents and actors through the entire twentieth century.
posted by jackbishop at 2:12 PM on July 21, 2014

This Land Is Mine is a cheeky little animation by Nina Paley that gives a super-quick rundown of the battles and wars over Israel/Canaan/the Levant. That first link includes details of the various actors portrayed, noting where details were fibbed.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:30 PM on July 21, 2014

The Limits of Partnership: US-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century is a very good book about, er, US-Russian relations in the twenty-first century (although the book also discusses relations during the 1990s).

For a general overview of the history of the Middle East, try A History of the Modern Middle East by William Cleveland and Martin Bunton. This book is commonly used in history and political science courses on the subject.
posted by obscure simpsons reference at 2:36 PM on July 21, 2014

Not directly on topic but recall we are living in the least violent time in human history. Not saying there's not a lot still wrong but the idea of "it's so much worse than it used to be" is quite false. Any individual's chance of being injured or killed by another human (or a nation or state) is vastly lower today than ever in history.
posted by BrooksCooper at 3:46 PM on July 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder looks at the Ukraine, Poland and other lands fought over by Stalin and Hitler between 1933 and 1945. The amount of suffering and death made it a very tough read for me, but it certainly gave me some background on the history of Ukraine.
posted by Azara at 4:00 PM on July 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

For a very brief, quick rundown of Iraq, Iran & Syria, I like the NYT's Middle Eastern Primer, along with this bullet-point list of contradicting alliances.
posted by invisible ink at 5:24 PM on July 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Can't link cause on phone but armageddon averted:the collapse of the Soviet union by Stephen Kotkin is excellent.
posted by smoke at 5:40 PM on July 21, 2014

For a good primer on conflicts in the Middle East, I enjoyed Slate's The Middle East Friendship Chart.
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 8:55 AM on July 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Seconding The Better Angels of Our Nature: it's well written, well researched, and apt to make you feel a little bit better about the world.

We read Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Confict back when I took a course on Middle Eastern politics in college in 2006. The course itself was somewhat biased towards Palestine (I'm also somewhat biased towards Palestine, if that matters), but I found the book to be quite balanced. It did make it easy to understand how difficult the conflict in Gaza actually is, and why there hasn't been any resolution.
posted by therumsgone at 9:08 PM on July 22, 2014

Robert Fisk. His columns are good and collected in The Age of the Warrior. His excellent memoir, The Great War for Civilization, tells the story of his career as a foreign correspondent covering the Middle East. Pity the Nation looks specifically at Lebanon.

I have also enjoyed Egyptian feminist Nawal El Saadawi. Although she may not answer your immediate questions, she has made an amazing contribution to Arab feminism.

Sometimes I find personal accounts the most helpful, so with that in mind, I also share some work and commentary by a good friend who has a unique perspective on Afghanistan.

My friend Nikolai is a veteran of the Russian army who fought in Afghanistan. After his involvement he began questioning the war, and subsequently moved to Japan, and then Canada. As a result he has done a lot of thinking about the subsequent Canadian action in Afghanistan, and how both of these wars were justified by the respective governments in very similar terms.

This is an excellent long interview with Nikolai, and this is a longer article Nikolai co-wrote about the parallels he sees, and it includes summaries and snippets about conflict through the regions you mention, and how they have been rationalized.
posted by chapps at 10:43 PM on July 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

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