In a new book, writer and former Marine Elliot Ackerman, A03, F03, describes America’s chaotic departure from Afghanistan, and his own lessons from combat there
As Kabul fell to the Taliban in August last year, writer Elliot Ackerman was in Italy, on vacation with his family. Throughout the days and long into the nights, he was fielding calls and texts from friends and former colleagues—and sometimes strangers—all asking for help in getting their Afghan allies safely out of the country.
As he relates in his new book, The Fifth Act: America’s End in Afghanistan, the fall of Afghanistan was more than a geopolitical event to him—it was personal. Ackerman, A03, F03, had fought in Afghanistan as a Marine officer and paramilitary operative for the CIA, starting as a young man not long out of college. The ethos he learned in the Marines was clear: You don’t leave your people behind, be they the dead or wounded on the battlefield—or your allies as the enemy sweeps in.
In alternating sections of the book, Ackerman recounts his life as an infantry officer on combat missions against Taliban insurgents, the point when he decided to leave the military, and the scramble last year to coordinate efforts to get Afghans to the Kabul airport and onto planes out of the country.
Those days and nights in Italy in August were a study in contrast: on one hand, ease and comfort with his wife and children, and the other, “a digital Dunkirk, as everyone was trying to get colleagues of theirs out of Afghanistan,” says Ackerman, author and co-author of five novels.
He was on instant messaging apps Messenger and Signal, in group texts and chats, calling in favors from people he hadn’t been in touch with for years, urgently trying to help individuals and families desperate to get out, fearful of reprisals from the Taliban for siding with the U.S.
As Ackerman recounts his efforts, we are there with him, anxious to know if a busload of Afghan families will make it to the Unnamed Gate at the Kabul airport and be able to get the OK from Marines stationed there to proceed ahead.
“In many ways, the subtext of the entire evacuation is everyone’s trying to live up to this idea that we’re not going to leave anybody behind—all these Afghans who were our comrades, trying to build the country and keep it from falling into the hands of the Taliban,” Ackerman says.
In the book, he writes not just from the vantage point of what he and others did in 2021, but as a participant in the war. “I wanted to describe an experience I had where I really struggled with the idea of, did I make good on that ethos of leaving no one behind?” Ackerman says.
In one long section, he describes a mission in the Afghanistan countryside that he and his infantry troops embarked on in the late 2000s. As they were leaving a village, one of the vehicles in his convoy was hit by an improvised explosive, killing one of the crew.
Under heavy fire, the others retreated out of town, unable to retrieve the dead Marine. Ackerman was ordered by a superior officer, stationed far from the scene, to go back and get the body, but he deflected the order: He judged that more men would get killed and the effort would fail. In the end, another outfit, with better vehicles, went in later and retrieved the fallen Marine.
The Costs of War
The book is personal that way, giving insight into the American men and women who serve in the military. Readers get to know them as individuals.
“The Afghan and Iraqi wars were the defining experience of our youth,” Ackerman says. “Many Americans don’t know us—they’ve never met anyone like us. They have no one in their family who served or fought in Afghanistan or Iraq. And I hope that reading this book, they might just feel like they know all of us better and get a window into our world.”
Ackerman had signed up to serve in the military in the immediate post-9/11 days—a big change, as he says, from his days as a longhaired teenage skateboard punk.
“The military is a place where you get a lot of responsibility at a very young age. You make very intense and lifelong friendships, and I write about those friendships in the book and how they’ve evolved,” he says. “It’s also a place where you experience loss at a relatively young age, often and very acutely. By the time I was 30, I would bet I had as many dead friends as the average 85-year-old. That is formative in how you think about life.”
Ackerman takes the long view on the costs of war and how they are paid. The Civil War led to the first draft in America, and the first income tax in America to fund it, he notes. In World War II, there were massive bond drives and numbers of soldiers drafted.
But after the 9/11 attacks, “when we go to fight the war in Afghanistan, and later the war in Iraq, it was our all-volunteer military, almost a separate caste,” he says. “And we put the entire war on our national credit card—there was never a war tax.”
The result was a war “that goes on for two decades, because the American people are anesthetized to the cost of war,” he says. “That leads to very long wars that just drift and drift, and then come to cataclysmic ends.”
That end in Afghanistan is never far off in the book, as Ackerman describes in what feels like real time the increasingly frantic efforts to get local allies out, as the window of opportunity was closing. He recounts working on the evacuation efforts, most of which succeeded, even as he was taking two of his sons to gladiator lessons for kids outside of Rome. That made him think again about his years of military service—and the future.
“Thinking of one of my children serving, I would say that is one of the most conflicted moments I can imagine,” he says. “I would feel at the same time a huge amount of pride—and a huge amount of terror.”