Early in his new memoir “Places and Names: On War, Revolution, and Returning,” Elliot Ackerman describes himself sitting in a cafe on the Turkish-Syria border, sharing baklava with a man named Abu Hassar.
A decade or so prior, the two men had fought on opposing sides: Ackerman as a Marine Corps officer; Hassar with al-Qaida. Poignantly, they find themselves at one point huddled together over a hand-drawn map, sketching out a timeline of how their war histories intersect.
Ackerman, 39, is now well established as a novelist of conflict. His critically praised 2015 debut novel, “Green on Blue,” tells the story of two brothers in Afghanistan caught up in, as Ackerman puts it, “a war that started feeding on itself.” “Dark at the Crossing,” a 2017 National Book Award finalist, accesses detail from Ackerman's time spent as a journalist on the border of Turkey and Syria to draw the world of three characters on the outskirts of the Syrian civil war. A third novel, “Waiting for Eden,” published in 2018, tells the story of a marriage, and a Marine physically destroyed in battle who continues to cling to life.
“In some ways, if you were to read the novels, you would see a map of these novels in this book of nonfiction,” Ackerman said. “They're in conversation with each other.”
Ackerman spoke with Military.com ahead of the June 11 release of “Places and Names.” Some responses have been edited for length.
Q: When the opportunity came to meet with Abu Hassar, this former enemy — was there any hesitation on your part?
A: I had been looking for him for a long time before I ever found him. I was pretty much aware there was an underlying gamble that I was making in us meeting. And that gamble was that my twenties and some of my thirties have been defined by these wars. And when you're fighting these wars, there's a dance, sort of like a shadow dance. And your partner is this shadow, and you never know who they are. But you're dancing with them. And I knew that I had this curiosity about who was this person? Who were these people who defined me? And the gamble was, all the curiosity I had about him, he would also have about me. And that curiosity would create the space for us to sit down and talk. And we're still in touch, on the margins.
Q: No kidding.
A: If there's one thing I believe, it's that we are all more similar than we are different. And we spend our whole life obsessing over these differences that really, in the grand scheme of things, are pretty inconsequential. And the older you get, the more you realize that they are inconsequential. So there are a million places where Abu Hassar and I overlap. We overlap on these wars. We're both fathers. We're the same age. Sadly, we seem to exist in a cultural moment where all we can do is obsess over and fetishize our differences. And to me, that's antithetical to what all art is. In my work, I try to home in on the ways we are all similar.
Q: So, how do we get there from here?
A: I think one of the ways we're able to do that is through art, in so much as, what I would posit is what all art does is there's a process of emotional transference … every time that happens, what's being asserted is that we have a shared humanity. And I think that's an incredibly optimistic act. When I say that I want to focus on the ways we're similar, and we're far more similar than we are different, I think one of the ways you do that is by that level of engagement. I hope the person that will read these books will be the person that has the least level of engagement and has never thought of these topics before in their life, and will find their way across one of these books, read it, feel something and, through whatever they felt, become more engaged.
Q: In your chapter “A Prayer for Austin Tice,” you talk about the pull that brings so many combat veterans back to the places they fought. What is that pull?
A: In the book, I write, it's “It.” The “It” is one of these experiences that's so large that you lose yourself in it, you become insignificant next to it. It's also the way I think world events have played out too, in that the wars ended but they didn't really end. I remember when Fallujah fell to the Islamic State [in 2014]. There are still things happening there that are directly related to the events you participated in. So if the call to go back was there, that only amplifies the call. Many, many people were coming back; it was unfinished to them. That desire was still there. And in some respects it took a little while, because I think people had to come home from the war, try to reapply themselves to something. And I think many tried and found whatever they had tried to reapply themselves to didn't hold them in the same way the war had held them. They find themselves saying, “What if I just went back?”
Q: In the final chapter, you annotate your Silver Star citation [received for valor in the 2004 Battle of Fallujah] to create an account of that battle. How did that come about?
A: I turned in the book, and that chapter wasn't in it. It wasn't written. And my editor said … “There is clearly something that you're not giving us in this book, that you're dancing around, and people will read this and they're going to know that you're not talking about it, that you're holding this thing back.” I thought about it, and I didn't know how to write about all that stuff just straightforward, and I knew that I had this document. And I thought, maybe this document will allow me to talk about it. And to talk about the things that aren't in the document. Which I think is what ultimately happened, which are the things I was more interested in getting into, more than the factual retelling of events. I felt very fortunate that I had that document as a tool. It felt like a key to get into the parts of that experience that I felt were the most worth writing about.
Q: What do you wish the U.S. would learn from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan?
A: All throughout history, going to war has been existentially unconscionable for us. We've begun righteous wars and gotten sucked into them, and they have been difficult to sustain. This is the first time we've ever gone to war where the construct is funding the wars through deficit spending, and we fight them with an all-volunteer military. So we have, through that construct, anaesthetized our entire society to the war. So is it any surprise that these wars are now 18 years old? This is the first year and the first time ever that an American can enlist and go fight in a war that is older than they are. So I think we need to take a really hard look in the mirror and ask ourselves, why has this happened, and do we think it's right? And if we don't, what are we going to do to stop it?
Q: Are you making an argument for some kind of national service?
A: Yes. I think we need to take another hard look at what national public service would look like without compromising the effectiveness of our military. And we also need to look at how we fund our wars — whether or not funding them without any taxation is the right thing to do. You'll see these “feel-good” pieces in Stars and Stripes about a father and son meeting on deployment in Kunar province, Afghanistan. Something is wrong if that's a feel-good story. So we've got to stop that. Because I think what's going to happen is, it might not be the physical cost of these wars … it's going to skew our nation's relationship with war. We're rattling our sabers against Iran as we have recently, and no one's paying attention. Because if we go to war it will be like the last one, where it wasn't my kid and nobody taxed me. Then you get into a bigger war, and you're going to have a real problem. It's too easy to go to war and, when it's easy to go to war, it's very, very dangerous.
Places and Names is available now from Penguin Press.
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