Why I enlisted to join America’s foreign wars

Elliot Ackerman explains why he then quit to write fiction grounded in conflict

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The Independent US

Every two weeks at Shkin firebase, a remote outpost in south-eastern Afghanistan, Commander Issaq and I would hold “the operational planning meeting”. This was five years ago, when I served in special operations as an advisor to Issaq’s militia of nearly 300 Tajik tribesmen. Among American troops, Shkin was darkly referred to as “the end of the line”,  the last of a series of outposts along the border with Pakistan. Built on a high desert plain where winds chilled by the looming peaks of the Hindu Kush spilled down on us incessantly, our home was about the size of two football pitches, fenced in with a combination of dirt walls, sandbags, and wire. When the operational planning meeting came around,I would lace up my boots and plod across the base to the small plywood shack that had been Issaq’s home since he quit his work as a tenant farmer eight years earlier, having discovered his knack for soldiering.

These meetings always adhered to a similar routine, for I was only one of many Americans who had rotated through Shkin as an advisor. Issaq would invite me into his Spartan quarters, where there was a bed, a small wooden table, and a sofa fitting two people – I guess you’d call it a loveseat. He would offer me chai and lay out a pack of cigarettes. Sitting side by side, we would look at two things that hung on the far wall: a map and a calendar.

“So,” I’d ask,  “where do you want to plan our next mission?”

Issaq knew this rugged, violent corner of the country better than anyone and I relied on his counsel. Stepping up to the map, smoke in hand, he would inevitably point to one of the villages rife with Taliban along the border. “Mangritay,” he’d say, for example. “There’s always good hunting in Mangritay, Mr Elliot.”

We would then block out a few days on the calendar for a patrol, brief the men about our mission, load up a hundred or so soldiers in about a dozen pick-up trucks, and head off. Usually, the odds were 50-50 that we’d get into some sort of a gunfight. We would then return to our firebase, take a couple of days to clean and maintain vehicles beaten up from the patrol and give the soldiers a day off. Then, next thing I knew, I would once again be walking across the firebase to Issaq’s plywood hut for the next operational planning meeting. 

Pot of chai, pack of smokes, we would sit on the loveseat staring at the map and calendar in front of us. “So, Issaq,” I would begin again, “that was a good operation in Mangritay. Where do you think we should go next?”

He would stand, smoke in hand, again tracing the map’s contours with his finger. “We could go to Rarakaray,” he would say, pointing to the next village along the border. “There’s always good hunting in Rarakaray.” And off we would go.

In the months that I fought alongside Issaq, and in the years that I spent with other Afghan commanders, the conversation never went something like: “Mr Elliot, if we hit them in Mangritay and next in Rarakaray, we could run one more operation to Malakshay, shut the border to the Taliban, end the war, and bring peace to the province. Then I can go back to my crops and you can go back to the United States, perhaps get your Master of Fine Arts, finish that novel you’re always talking about.” 

Inhospitable terrain: flying from the Shkin firebase, a US Army Chinook helicopter transports a generator into the warzone of Paktika Province.

Winners, losers, frontlines, peace treaties: we didn’t speak of such things. It just wasn’t that type of a war.

So what type of a war was it?

Green-on-blue attacks – “green” being US military slang for Afghan forces, “blue” slang for its own – have become a hallmark of that war, an elliptical conflict fought for every reason other than an ending. The novel I wound up writing takes its title from these insider attacks. It is told from the perspective of a young Afghan soldier, and the idea of a green-on-blue attack serves as a metaphor. What happens when the cause you fight for threatens to destroy you? That is the journey taken by Aziz, the novel’s protagonist, as well as many of the other characters.

I started writing the novel a few months after my last tour in Afghanistan, nearly eight years after I left for my first tour, in Iraq. I was driven by a visceral need to tell this story, a story of imagination but also one inspired by the men and friends I had come to know as an advisor. I had returned from my wars, but my war buddies were not a bunch of guys I could keep up with on Facebook, call long distance, or get beers with at the local bar. They were Afghan soldiers. We had fought together, bled together, mourned friends together. And yet trapped as they were in Afghanistan’s endless conflict, I knew I would never see them again. To reckon with that loss, I wrote Green on Blue. I wanted to illuminate their world in a last act of friendship. 

I’ve never thought of Green on Blue as a war novel, at least not in the traditional sense. The book is about family, friendship, betrayal, the choices we make when doing right seems impossible. These themes are recognisable to anyone who’s sacrificed for what they love. When he received his Nobel Prize, William Faulkner said: “The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.” That conflict of the heart is fundamental to war, where in the name of humanity we break that most humane of laws: thou shalt not kill.

An Afghan day-labourer is frisked at the firebase entrance.

The son of a financier father and novelist mother, soldiering wasn’t the obvious path for me. Although I was that little boy who never stopped playing with GI Joes, it came as a surprise to many when I joined the Marines at 18 years old. I later received a commission as an officer, when I finished college in 2003, an interesting time, to put it mildly, with the invasion of Iraq that spring. I wanted a job with real responsibility, where my performance mattered. For better or worse, it mattered in the Marines – it mattered in terms of lives.

American foreign policy in the Middle East has been a succession of failures over the past 15 years. Often I’ve been asked why I volunteered for the military and then volunteered to return back to those admittedly muddled conflicts. As a university student, I lived near Memorial Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Inside that church, etched into the granite walls, are the names of all the Harvard men who died in America’s wars: the First World War, the Second World War, Korea, the lists envelop this sanctuary. Yet when it comes to Vietnam, the names are scant and the message is clear. Harvard’s men did not show up for that war. Yes, many took a principled stand and protested, but that came at a cost. Many other Americans, those without such educational opportunities and the luxury of protest, went to war regardless. And their officers were not the well-educated, were not those who enjoyed all of society’s advantages. Their officers were men like Lieutenant William Calley, who presided over the My Lai massacre in 1968, when up to 504 unarmed civilians were slaughtered by American forces. He was a college dropout who received his commission due to a relaxing in standards when the Army came up against a shortage of university-educated soldiers eligible for Officer Candidates School. It’s easy to imagine that if a better educated, better grounded officer – perhaps one of those absent Harvard men – had served in Calley’s place, there might not have been a My Lai.

Perhaps. Yet the idea of that perhaps made me feel as though the right thing for me to do – a well-educated military-aged male grounded in a good family – was to be present, regardless of the flawed policies, because those who had fewer choices would be fighting even if I chose to sit events out. In matters of war, everyone is entitled to their own logic, but this was mine. And it felt right.

Another question I have been asked often, and which relates to the former question, is: what was the greatest difference between fighting in Iraq versus Afghanistan?

After spending nearly a decade at war, I surprised many again by leaving the military to write fiction. When speaking about writing as it pertains to war and to my experience as a veteran, I am often asked: why not write a memoir or a book of narrative non-fiction about Afghanistan or Iraq? I don’t like this question. Would you ask a painter why he doesn’t give up brushes for a camera? I process the world through stories. Imagination is often the one way to understand experiences that are all too real.

Another question I have been asked often, and which relates to the former question, is: what was the greatest difference between fighting in Iraq versus Afghanistan? In Iraq, the war had only been going on for a few years. The conflict was a disruption to the status quo. Most Iraqi civilians desperately wondered when peace would return, when they might resume their normal lives. This was not the case in Afghanistan. The average life expectancy for an Afghan is 50 years. This means the generation currently dying was approximately 15 when the Soviet Union invaded in 1979. For Afghans who remember peace, it is a dim memory, and for most Afghans there is no memory at all. For most Afghans peace is not about returning to a condition that once was – for them peace is an act of imagination.

I used to talk about peace with an Afghan friend of mine, a soldier/interpreter who I worked closely with. He had learned English just across the border in Pakistan, in the refugee camps where he had grown up. His name was Aziz, but everyone called him the “Big Cheese”. He was the guy who could get you anything – a bootleg DVD of a yet-to-be-released Hollywood blockbuster, a bottle of Russian vodka, a gift for your wife from his uncle the gem dealer. 

Some nights the two of us would sit around our fire pit, enjoying a bit of quiet. Our voices seemed to echo off the Hindu Kush’s snow-covered peaks that glowed against the night sky. I once told him that the mountains reminded me of the Rockies. Then I started to talk about skiing. I described the resorts there, places such as Vail and Aspen. I explained how they had been founded by soldiers turned businessmen after the Second World War, how the Rockies had first been used to train for war and how these soldiers had returned, choosing to see that land differently. He was intrigued by the idea of a ski resort. He asked me about chair lifts, ski-in-ski-out restaurants, and how exactly ski shops made a killing off rentals. Soon he decided that with his connections on both sides of the border he might open a place, if the war ever ended. He would call it “Big Cheese Skis”. And if I came back and visited his resort, he’d have a room for me. Not for free, but at a discounted rate.  It was his idea of peace. Yet that is a story all of us are struggling to piece together, to believe possible. 

As for Issaq, he never knew peace in his own lifetime. He was killed two years ago fighting in a wisp of a village along that border he so often traced with his finger for me. That he was a hard man and practitioner of a violent trade, I grant you. But so was I. That was the nature of the wars our societies have created. If peace wasn’t a story we could tell, I thought, perhaps we could at least tell our own stories. Perhaps others could then understand them and with that understanding imagine things that, at this moment, our society cannot. 

‘Green on Blue’ by Elliot Ackerman (£9.99, Daunt Books) is out on Wednesday

From frontline to fiction

Leo Tolstoy

It was Tolstoy’s brother who persuaded him to join the Russian army in 1851, and four years later he saw active service (and caught an STD) in the Crimean War. In the army, Tolstoy began working on autobiographical stories such as ‘Childhood and Boyhood’. His novel War and Peace, published in 1869, charts the history of the French invasion of Russia, as well as the impact of the Napoleonic era on Tsarist society.

Joseph Heller

Heller joined the US Army Air Corps in 1942 when he was 19. Two years later he was sent to the Italian Front. He described war as “fun in the beginning” and on his return home said he “felt like a hero”. His famous novel Catch-22 is set during World War II and follows the life of Captain John Yossarian as he attempts to survive the madness of the war. 

Erich Maria Remarque

A German, Remarque was conscripted for World War I at the age of 18. Transferred to the trenches of France in June 1917, he was wounded by shrapnel the next month and repatriated to an army hospital. His novel All Quiet on the Western Front, written in 1928, describes the disillusionment of the common soldier – and was so unpopular with the Nazis that they retaliated by burning his books. 

Jaroslav Hašek

Drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army in February 1915, by 6 March, Hašek, a Czech,  had been hospitalised with rheumatism  and heart problems. Continuing with lighter  duties, he was given a medal for bravery at the battle of Sokal, before being captured by the Russians in September 1915. He then swapped sides and fought with the Czech Legions. His unfinished novel The Good Soldier Svejk is a satirical meditation on the futility of war. 

James Jones

Jones enlisted in the US Army in 1939 and served during World War II, first in Hawaii and later on Guadalcanal, where he was injured. Discharged in July 1944, his experiences of war inspired his work, and he wrote From Here to Eternity after witnessing the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour.