'I Write To Understand What I Think': A Veteran Turns To Words After War

Jun 7, 2019
Originally published on June 8, 2019 4:28 pm

Two weeks into the fight for Fallujah, Elliot Ackerman's company commander told him he was both the luckiest and the unluckiest lieutenant he'd ever met. The luckiest — because right out of the gate, Ackerman was in the thick of the biggest battle the Marine Corps had experienced in decades. And the unluckiest — because everything he ever did after that would seem inconsequential.

That was back in 2004. Ackerman eventually served five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, duty for which he was awarded the Silver Star, the Bronze Star for Valor and the Purple Heart. As it turned out, his commander was kind of right. Ackerman writes about his wars — and the years he has spent trying to make sense of the wider wars and turmoil in the Mideast — in his new memoir, Places and Names.

"I was drawn back to wanting to have an experience that would be as meaningful as ones that I had had before," Ackerman explains. "I had always felt — and still feel — like I want to have a life driven by purpose. My purpose evolved into being a writer."


Interview Highlights

On understanding the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East as "all one war"

Whatever we announced in Iraq when we left in 2011 ... it's still not over today as we're sitting here. It is still playing out. And one of the things that's been difficult, I think, for my generation of veterans is that because the wars haven't ended, every single one of us who've left the war have had to basically make a separate peace ... [to] say, "You know what? I've done my last deployment. I know other people are going to continue to be deploying but I'm finished." ...

Every single one of us has had to look at someone we know and care about and say, 'I know you're going on the next deployment but I'm not. I'm done.' -

It's basically deciding that you've finished your time — you're not going to reenlist, or if you're an officer you're going to resign your commission, and you've decided that you are going to move on. ...

Every single one of us has had to look at someone we know and care about and say, "I know you're going on the next deployment but I'm not. I'm done." And declaring that separate peace I think can be very, very complicated. I know it was complicated for me.

On making sense of his combat experience by writing fiction and nonfiction

I write to understand what I think. So if you look in this memoir, a lot of it is grappling with what these experiences mean. ... If the experience is at the center of a circle, it's me trying to stand at every single point on the circumference of that circle to look at that experience from all angles — from the person I was when I was 24 to the person I became as a writer to meeting with the people I fought against ... [to] the perspective of a Syrian activist in that country's revolution. So in many respects the journey of the book is sort of this circular journey around this circumference and then right at the middle of it are these combat experiences.

Elliot Ackerman is also the author of the novels Dark at the Crossing and Waiting for Eden. He's pictured above during a TV taping in Milan in March 2016.
Antonio Calanni / AP

On developing a friendship with Abu Hassar, who fought for al-Qaida in Iraq

The idea of the meeting was basically two veterans of the Iraq war sit down to talk about the war — but we fought on opposite sides. And at first I didn't tell him that I had been in Iraq as a Marine ... because we didn't think he would meet with me. ... So we sit down and we start talking. We build a rapport and ... [when I eventually told] him I'd been a Marine, he sort of smiled and laughed and said, "That's what I thought."

That meeting was basically a bet on my part. ... The experiences I had had fighting were the defining experiences of my young life — my 20s and my early 30s. And that whole time you're fighting, it's like a dance and you're engaged in ... let's call it a shadow dance because your partner is someone you never see and you never meet. I had a curiosity about, you know, who I was doing that dance with? And my bet was that he would have a similar curiosity about me. And what other underlying antipathy might have existed would have been overcome by our mutual curiosity about one another.

On how he connected with Abu Hassar while Ackerman's friend took a break from translating their conversation

Suddenly Abu Hassar and I are sitting across the table from one another and we can't talk. We are as awkward as two 13-year-olds on their first date — kind of looking at our hands and staring around. So we started drawing this map [of the locations where and dates when they'd fought during the war]. And in that interaction what occurred to me was that this language of places and names and the dates was a language that we shared.

On going to Irbil in northern Iraq in 2014 to see the front line where Kurdish fighters were holding off the advance of ISIS

I found what I think you always find in wars when you actually go right up to the front line: You see [that] what is holding back the hordes, or keeping all civilization from collapsing, are just a handful of people with some rusty old rifles. You would think there would be a more robust presence there — but at the same time, [you're] not surprised that there isn't. ... All that energy sort of fizzles out in the last moment and you wind up with this handful of old Iraqi fighters with some secondhand weapons who are the front line against ISIS.

On "winning" wars

I think you realize, when you look historically, that these binary concepts of winning and losing wars — it's actually the outlier. There are just as many wars that lead to these interminable quagmires as there are wars like ... the second world war which was very clear: There was a beginning, there was an end, and there was a reconstruction afterwards. But if anything, that is actually the outlier case and usually wars just sort of fizzle on.

Noah Caldwell and Jolie Myers produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

When he was 24 years old, Elliot Ackerman found himself in the thick of the biggest battle the Marine Corps had fought in in decades - Fallujah, Iraq. The year was 2004, and Ackerman was commanding a rifle platoon. He eventually served five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and then, in 2011, with a Silver Star and a Purple Heart to his name, he took off his uniform for good. But Ackerman would soon return to the Middle East to wrestle with all he had seen, not as a soldier but as a writer.

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: I was drawn back to wanting to have an experience that would be as meaningful as ones that I had had before. I had always felt and still feel like I want to have a life driven by purpose.

KELLY: Elliott Ackerman writes about his wars in his new memoir, "Places And Names." It documents his now decade-plus trying to make sense of the wider wars and turmoil in the region.

ACKERMAN: If the experience is at the center of a circle, it's me trying to stand at every single point on the circumference of that circle to look at that experience from all angles, from the person I was when I was 24, to the person I became as a writer, to meeting with the people I fought against. A significant threat of this book is a friendship I made with a person who was a member of al-Qaida in Iraq, who fought in Al Anbar Province. And so in many respects, the journey of the book is sort of this circular journey around this circumference, you know, and then right at the middle of it are these combat experience.

KELLY: And that's really the way you thought of it, was you in a circle and - in the middle of the circle and turning and seeing it from all the vantage points?

ACKERMAN: No, it's actually the way I'm thinking about it right now.

(LAUGHTER)

ACKERMAN: I think...

KELLY: It would have been a great organizing principle of the book...

ACKERMAN: But I....

KELLY: ...Had you thought of it that...

ACKERMAN: But I think it's true. I'm always just trying to look at it from every angle.

KELLY: Let me ask you about the fighter for al-Qaida in Iraq, a man named Abu Hassar. Why did you want to meet him?

ACKERMAN: Well, I was working in southern Turkey. And so my friend Abed (ph) shows up one day, and he says to me - he says, you know, I was down in a Chalkero (ph) refugee camp today, and I met this guy who I think you should meet. He fought for al-Qaida in Iraq, but I think the two of you would really get along. So I'm sort of up for anything. I said, ok, well, let's go meet with him.

So the idea of the meeting was basically two veterans of the Iraq war sit down to talk about the war, but we fought on opposite sides. And that meeting was basically a bet on my part that, you know, the experiences I had had fighting were the defining experiences of my young life. And that whole time you're fighting, you're engaged in sort of a shadow dance because your partner is someone you never see and you never meet. And I had a curiosity about, you know, who I was doing that dance with. And my bet was that he would have a similar curiosity about me. And what other underlying antipathy might have existed would have been overcome by our mutual curiosity about one another.

KELLY: But just to underscore how surreal this meeting and this lunch must've been, you are a former Marine Corps - commanded a rifle platoon in Fallujah. You're sitting at lunch with Mr. al-Qaida in Iraq. You two do not speak a mutual language, right? He doesn't speak English; you don't really speak Arabic.

ACKERMAN: No.

KELLY: And at one point, you bring out your notebook, and you turn it to a clean page, and you start to draw. And I wonder if you would just read us where you write about this in the book.

ACKERMAN: Sure.

KELLY: I'm going to turn you to Page 27.

ACKERMAN: Sure.

(Reading) First, I sketch out a long, oscillating ribbon, running the top left to the bottom right of the page - the Euphrates. Abu Hassar quickly recognizes this. He takes the pencil from my hand and draws the straight borderline between Iraq and Syria, one that cuts through a tabletop of hardpan desert. Along the border he's made, I write a single name - Al-Qa'im (ph). Next to that name, Abu Hassar writes - 06, period, 2005. I nod back and write 09, period, 2004. I travel farther down the Euphrates and write another name and another date. Our hands now chase each other's around the map, mimicking the way we'd once chased each other around this country.

KELLY: Was that something you'd planned to do before lunch, or it just occurred to you?

ACKERMAN: No. What wound up happening was we had this conversation, and the entire time my friend Abed is translating for us. And at a certain point, Abed, exhausted by translating, excused himself to take a break. And as intensely as we'd been speaking suddenly, Abu Hassar and I are sitting across the table from one another, and we can't talk. And we are as awkward as two 13-year-olds on their first date, kind of looking at our hands and staring around.

And so we started drawing this map. And in that interaction, you know, what occurred to me was that this language of places and names and the dates was a language that we shared, and frankly, it was one my friend Abed couldn't have translated even if he wanted to.

KELLY: You fought the same war...

ACKERMAN: Right.

KELLY: ...Just different sides. I'm going to ask you about another moment. This was in Erbil, in northern Iraq. You - I mean, you fought in two wars - Iraq and Afghanistan - that didn't really have a frontline, and you write that you wanted to see one. So in 2014, as ISIS forces are sweeping through Iraq, you arrange to go to Erbil, where Kurdish fighters are trying to hold a frontline, trying to hold off the advance of ISIS. And what did you find?

ACKERMAN: I found what I think you always find in wars, when you actually go right up to the frontline, and you see what is, you know, holding back the hordes or keeping all civilization from collapsing are just a handful of people with some rusty, old rifles.

KELLY: Did it also get you thinking about what it means to win a war, like the war that the U.S. has been involved in in Iraq?

ACKERMAN: Well, I think you realize, when you look historically, that, you know, these binary concepts of winning and losing wars - that's actually the outlier. There are just as many wars that lead to these interminable quagmires as there are wars, like our prototypical wars that we all look to, sort of our American horror story, which is the Second World War, which was very clear. And there was a beginning, there was an end, and there was a reconstruction afterwards. But if anything, that is actually the outlier case. And usually wars just sort of fizzle on.

KELLY: It also prompts the question of - as you look at the Middle East now, to what extent it's all one war?

ACKERMAN: I think it's absolutely all one war, and I think that's been one of the things and one of the reasons that I wrote this book and came back, was this intuitive understanding that whatever we announced in Iraq when we left in 2011, you know, that it wasn't over, that it's still not over today, as we're sitting here - it's still playing out. And one of the things that's been difficult, I think, for my generation of veterans is that because the wars haven't ended, every single one of us who've left the war have had to basically make a separate peace, had - to a certain point - say, you know what? I've done my last deployment. I know other people are going to be deploying. But I'm finished.

KELLY: And what does that sound like? Is it, my war is over?

ACKERMAN: I can remember many occasions talking with friends of mine, saying, you know, we wish - you know, we wish this was even like Vietnam, when it was just sort of - it was over, or the Second World War, where it was over, and we would all go on and go to business school or do whatever we were going to do next, and it was clear there was no choice to be made; this was done.

And for this generation of veterans, I think that's been complicated because every single one of us has had to look at someone we know and care about and say, I know you're going on the next deployment, but I'm not; I'm done. And declaring that separate peace I think can be very, very complicated; I know it was complicated for me.

KELLY: Elliot Ackerman, thank you.

ACKERMAN: Yeah. Thanks for having me.

KELLY: His new book is "Places And Names: On War, Revolution And Returning."

(SOUNDBITE OF SEBASTIEN TELLIER'S "FANTINO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.