5 Novels That Explain Everything You Need to Know About U.S. Foreign Policy


U.S. foreign policy is a complicated game. Between drone strikes, continued presence in the middle east, gun-running in Mexico, and a host of other issues, it's easy to feel like you're on a rickety carnival ride where you can't tell which way is up.

Here are five novels that, whether written with that intention or not, can be seen as parables for the current state of U.S. foreign affairs. Reach for one of these the next time you feel lost in the funhouse.

1. The Trial

While many of Kafka's surrealist texts have eery parallels to today's political and social atmosphere, The Trial is the height of absurdist literary depictions of real-life legal proceedings that are often more surreal than surrealist artwork. The book tells the story of a character known only as K. who finds himself caught in a justice system that's much more "system" than "justice." K. never discovers what he's being charged with and is eventually executed for a probably-nonexistant crime. Thanks to policies created by Bush and continued by Obama, hundreds of foreign nationals find themselves in similar situations today. Through the process of extraordinary rendition, people who have never been formally accused of (let alone charged with) a crime can end up being imprisoned, tortured or worse in prisons throughout the world. And out of 166 people currently held in Guantánamo Bay, only 6 have been charged with crimes, and there's no available information on why the remaining 160 are being held. Prisoners in Guantánamo are often given no indication of why they're being imprisoned and have no opportunity to contest their detention. Around half have been cleared for release, but their freedom is denied them by order of the Obama administration. As U.S. foreign and domestic policy becomes increasingly more, ahem, Kafka-esque, the novel has only gained relevance.

2. If He Hollers Let Him Go

Himes' 1945 novel about a Black shipyard worker during World War II paints a vivid picture of wartime exploitation of the disadvantaged. The main character, Bob Jones, is used as a simple cog in the war machine with no thanks given for the vital role he plays in supporting the fight against the Nazis. Throughout the novel, Himes' protagonist indulges in a series of increasingly disturbing violent thoughts, and is offered no psychological help of any kind. This situation is replicated to this day in a pattern of military neglect of veteran's psychological health, often with tragic results. Today, the socioeconomically disadvantaged are still used as stepping stones for American imperialism. A 2008 study found that "An important predictor to military service in the general population is family income." That is, the less money your family makes, the more likely you are to join, leaving the 1% to reap the benefits of everyone else's service.

3. Transition

Another novel dealing with the repercussions of an institutionalized regime of kidnapping and torture. Banks spins a sci-fi tale of a multi-universe-spanning organization known only as "the Concern." Operating in secret, with no transparency or even an acknowledgement to the general public that they exist, the Concern functions as a massive police state, taking people from their homes and moving them to hidden locations where they're tortured by members of the Concern's private police force. Part of the story is told from the viewpoint of a torturer known only as "the Philosopher," exploring the psychological impact of carrying out immoral orders. Released in 2009, Transition was probably meant as an allegory for the Bush and Blair regimes, but Obama has shown no interest in alleviating the worst excesses of the Bush administration, and in some cases has made things significantly worse. Banks' novel contains valuable insights into the consequences of a globalized police state operating in secret with no accountability. 

4. Spook Country

The second part of a trilogy exploring the connections between government and bussiness interests, Spook Country stands on its own as a powerful indictment of elite crimes in the post-9/11 world. Government agents, military contractors and computer geeks work together on a shadowy project tracking the movements of a particular cargo ship. Although sometimes veering into sci-fi territory, Gibson's novel is a chilling and believable look at the main motivator of global conflict in the 21st century — greed. 

5. Slaughterhouse-Five

Written more than forty years ago, Vonnegut's breakthrough novel still stands as one of the greatest analyses of the human condition in Western literature. But it's also relevant as a look into the way war is waged by the great powers. Vonnegut was captured by German forces during World War II and witnessed firsthand the firebombing of the city of Dresden by Allied forces. Dresden was a completely civilian city of no strategic or military import, and the firebombing killed more people than the nuclear bombs dropped on either Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Vonnegut graphically displays the brutality of all wars, even wars fought with the noblest intentions. The book also serves as a stark reminder that the U.S. has long been in the business of the indiscriminate killing of civilians, and that wars carried out "for the good of the people" always have tragic, long-lasting consequences on the affected populations.