Elliot Ackerman doesn’t fit the U.S. Marine stereotype.
It’s not for lack of credentials, or combat experience. In fact, Ackerman served five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a lieutenant, he led a rifle platoon in the Second Battle of Fallujah; he received a Silver Star.
Ackerman, slight and understated, is also an author, with several pieces of fiction to his credit, including one that was a finalist for the National Book Award.
A few weeks back I interviewed Ackerman about his latest book, a memoir titled “Places and Names,” as part of the Atlanta History Center’s Sidney Isenberg Lecture series.
“Places and Names” takes the reader along as Ackerman revisits the sites important to him during his time at war in the Middle East. Of course, many of those places remain in conflict. In the book and our conversation before the history center crowd, Ackerman impressively toggles between views of the big picture and of the powerful experience of a front-line soldier in one of the world’s most complicated places.
His insights are particularly relevant on this July Fourth weekend and amidst the current tensions between the United States and Iran.
Ackerman described both the demands and the impact of his time during the battle of Fallujah. He noted that the battle represents the most intense urban fighting for the Marine Corps since Viet Nam.
He described a conversation with his company commander as the battle was winding down.
“One of the lieutenants in my company was killed. We had others who were wounded,” Ackerman said. “Me, and the other rifle platoon commander who was left, he pulled the two of us aside.”
“He said ‘you two guys are both the luckiest and unluckiest lieutenants I’ve ever met. You’re the luckiest (because) right out the gate, this is what you’re involved in — the biggest urban battle the Marine Corps has fought since 1968. You’re the unluckiest because anything else you ever do in the Marine Corps is going to pale in comparison to this.’ And he was right.”
In another moment in Fallujah, Ackerman describes an incident at Highway 10, the crucial six-lane road that helped define the battle.
As Ackerman explained, Marine veterans of the battle will ask “Where were you and where did you cross Highway 10?”
At that site, Ackerman describes the wounding of a Marine, and a failed attempt by another to save him. Later the surviving Marine receives a medal. Ackerman notes his conflicting emotions at the medal ceremony.
“He said ‘I’m finding it really hard to reconcile the fact that getting this medal, a Bronze Star for valor, which is my greatest achievement as a Marine, is tied to my greatest failure,’” Ackerman said, noting that the other Marine bled to death. “In war your greatest achievements are linked to your greatest failure.”
The most compelling part of the book takes place at the border between Turkey and Syria, near a refugee camp for those fleeing the Syrian civil war. It is there that Ackerman’s friend and translator suggests that he meet a man named Abu Hassar.
A veteran of the Iraq war who fought with Al Qaeda, Abu Hassar meets Ackerman at a café. At first, Ackerman’s translator tells Abu Hassar he’s a journalist who covered the war.
“It didn’t seem like a good idea to say ‘I’ve got a friend who is a former Marine commando and he wants to meet you,’” Ackerman said.
The two talk, and eventually Ackerman reveals the truth about his role as a Marine.
“We’re asking each other these questions,” Ackerman said. “’When were you the most afraid? What was the most difficult thing about fighting us?’ And all these natural areas where you think we would have a curiosity.”
“We had been defined by one another.”
At one point, the translator has to briefly leave the conversation.
Ackerman and Abu Hassar communicate by drawing a map, with sites and dates of their service in an attempt to uncover whether if they’d ever faced each other in actual combat – and to connect with the common experience of front-line soldiers.
“(We) are kind of chasing each other around the map because what we’re trying to see is whether or not we have been in the same place at the same time fighting against one another,” Ackerman said. “I had more in common with Abu Hassar in many respects than a lot of folks I grew up with.”
The book includes Ackerman’s “Summary of Action” in Fallujah, the official Marine Corps account that resulted in the Silver Star. But in an insightful twist, Ackerman annotates the stilted military prose with his own emotions and accounts, creating a personal and remarkably compelling recollection of the battle.
In the audience question-and-answer period, Ackerman empathized with veterans who struggle upon returning to civilian life.
“There is nothing more intense than what you were doing all day long,” he said. “Maybe you’re 27 or 28 years old and it’s time to come home and is time to transition into your next stage of life.”
But it’s difficult to match the sense of purpose that so many combat veterans feel and be satisfied with a different life.
“I’ve known people who struggle with other types of PTSD. But I’ve seen many more people who have struggled with that sense of purposelessness.”
One member of the audience asked Ackerman if he thought the United States should reinstitute the military draft.
“It’s become too easy to go to war. Our relationship to war is becoming skewed,” he said. “We’re in a spot right now where I can imagine it would be very easy for us to sleepwalk into a war.”
So Ackerman, after a lot of soul searching, said he favors the draft – but he has his own format in mind.
“The only people who would be eligible for the draft would be people whose families registered in the top income tax bracket,” he said of his plan. “These are probably people who have got lots of political connections and are probably the people who could use real influence to make sure that there wasn’t a war.”
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