A Soldier Reckons with the Forever Wars

In his new memoir, National Book Award finalist and former Marine officer Elliot Ackerman, A03, F03, explores how ongoing wars have ravaged the Middle East—and haunt his own life
A large group of Marine Special Operations fighters pose with their weapons in an Afghan courtyard in 2008. Author Elliot Ackerman talks war, glory, and coming home in his new book Places and Names: On War, Revolution, and Returning.
Elliot Ackerman, sixth from left in the second row, with his Marine Special Operations team in Afghanistan in 2008.
July 22, 2019

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A former Marine officer, Elliot Ackerman, A03, F03, writes powerful fiction about the region in which he once fought—like his second novel, Dark at the Crossing, a psychological and political thriller set on the Syrian border, which was a National Book Award finalist in 2017.

His latest book explores much of the same emotional and physical terrain, but sticks to his own story and those of people he’s met. Based on writing he’s done for The New Yorker, The Atlantic and The New Republic, the book conveys both the allure of war and its devastating consequences.

“Unlike my novels, this was a book that for a while I didn’t know I was writing,” said Ackerman, who served five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, earning a Silver Star, a Bronze Star for Valor, and a Purple Heart. He thought he was filing separate magazine assignments, “but at a certain point, I realized I was not just writing these independent pieces, I was writing something that had a much larger narrative arc to it. They were all connected.”

The result, which includes new and reworked material, is Places and Names: On War, Revolution, and Returning, published in June. The volume’s title refers to a scene in which Ackerman meets with a former fighter for al-Qaida in Iraq. At a loss for a way to connect when their translator leaves the table, Ackerman draws a map of Iraq, and he and his former enemy start wordlessly marking the dates and places where they fought.

“Our hands now chase each other’s around the map, mimicking the way we’d once chased each other around this country,” Ackerman writes. “[W]e have many places that overlap, nearly all of them, but we don’t have a single date that does. ... I think we are both grateful, or at least I am.” 

Ackerman spoke recently with Tufts Now about that meeting, the glamour of battle, and the way war defines and haunts its participants.

Tufts Now: Early in the book, you meet with Abu Hassar, who fought for al-Qaida in Iraq. Why did you want to meet a former adversary, and what was it like to do that?

Elliot Ackerman: I wanted to meet him because he had been defined by war, just as I had been defined, even though we had fought on opposite sides. To fully understand my experience, I needed “The danger is that the seduction of war may cause you to never stop fighting,” said Elliot Ackerman.to reach out and understand him. I intuited that he might feel the same way, and there would be a shared curiosity about one another.

We connected through my friend Abed, a former democracy activist from Damascus who was working with an American friend of mine in southern Turkey, where I was staying. The idea of the meeting was simple—basically, two veterans of the war sit down and have a cup of tea.

I said to Abed, “Should we tell him that a former Marine Special Operator wants to meet him on the Syrian border?” We decided that might not go over well, so we said, “Let’s sit down and tell him I was in Iraq as a journalist and see how it goes.” Within half an hour, we’d struck up a bit of a rapport and I was able to tell him, and he kind of smiled and said, “I thought so.”

You write about the three of you—an al-Qaida fighter, a democracy activist from Syria, and yourself—as veterans of a regional war from different sides.

For Abed, the defining event of his life was the revolution in Syria, an attempt to bring democratic reforms to an authoritarian regime. In some ways that mirrored the defining event of my life, which was fighting in twin wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that ostensibly were also an attempt to bring about democratic reforms. Obviously, Abed and I had very different experiences and methods—I was a Marine and he was an activist—but that doesn’t negate the fact that we’d both spent time engaged in conflicts that for better or worse were about the spread of democracy in the Middle East.

The two of us, Abed and myself, had by then seen those efforts go off the rails and had this very conflicted relationship with the defining experience of our lives.

Then we were sitting there with Abu Hassar, who was the force who undermined our efforts in many ways, because he had fought with these radical Islamist groups. Unlike Abed, my connection with Abu Hassar was this one of places and names and the very specifics of where we had fought.

Part of your story is about crafting a new life from the ruins of war, which both you and Abed were starting to do. Yet you miss being at war and fear you will find civilian life boring. You write, “If purpose is the drug that induces happiness, there are few stronger doses than the wartime experience.” Can anything else match the power of that experience?

A central part of coming home is repurposing yourself and figuring out what is going to give you meaning in your life after you’ve had such an intense experience. Whether wartime veterans or veterans of revolutions, when it ends many have to reckon with the wreckage of their experience and how to find meaning afterwards. Any time you reach the summit, you have to reckon with the descent.

You chose to leave the Marines while the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were still being fought. Why did you decide not to redeploy?

I think it’s a very complicated choice that everyone has to make. Those who leave wish we had the clarity of a surrender ceremony or at least a withdrawal. That hasn’t been the case in these wars, so in order to leave them, you have to make your separate peace and say, this next deployment, I’m not going to go on.

It’s often complex, because your friends are going on that next deployment. For me, it came down to the idea that being in the military wasn’t the only thing I wanted to do with my life. There were other things I wanted to do, both professionally and personally. It was time to move on.

In the book you wonder if some young member of the Islamic State is “glamorizing his appointment with history,” and your friend Abed, the former activist, says, “Sadly, it’s something we all have in common.” Is war glamorous to you?

There’s a seductiveness to war. There’s a seduction that exists in the imagery around war. Films like Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket—they’re anti-war films, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen Marines watching them and cheering at certain scenes.

There’s a great quote by the photographer Timothy Page, one of the iconic war photographers of the Vietnam era. He basically says—I’m summarizing—“You can’t take the glamour out of war. It’s like trying to take the glamour out of rock and roll, or the sex out of the Rolling Stones. It’s just there.” I think there’s something to it. The glamour, the excitement, is hardwired.

Is there a danger to that?

Sure, there’s a certain complexity to that. In the book I mention the Sirens in The Odyssey. We all know the story when Odysseus is coming back from the Trojan Wars with his crew and he’s sailing past the island of the Sirens, and the sea nymphs are calling out to him.

He tells his crew to stick wax in their ears so they won’t hear it and be drawn off their ship to their deaths. He tells them to lash him to the mast. He wants to hear the Sirens’ song without being destroyed by it.

When we think about that myth, we think these Sirens—these beautiful women—must be calling the crew to come and have some amorous relationship with them. But if you read the text, what they’re singing of is war, and man’s glory in war. The idea is they’re trying to seduce the crew back to war when they’re trying to get home. The danger is that the seduction of war may cause you to never stop fighting.

This book originally did not include anything about your involvement in the Second Battle of Fallujah, for which you earned the Silver Star. But then you rewrote the official summary of your actions that day, splicing vivid, sometimes painful memories into the formal account, and made it the book’s last chapter. Why?

The funny thing about these types of awards is that they only hand them out when everything goes wrong and it’s a really bad day. For certain medals, you are honored for what oftentimes can be the worst day of your life. It can be the worst day and the best day, the thing you’re most proud of but also feel the most regret about.

That goes for the entire wartime experience. And it’s not just the American experience. I look at my friend Abed, who speaks with great pride of his role in the Syrian uprising in 2011 and 2012, yet there is also a sadness around that experience. He can never go home, and he’s seen that very same home more or less destroyed. How do all of us make sense of experiences like that?

Heather Stephenson can be reached at heather.stephenson@tufts.edu.

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