TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. On this Veterans Day, my guest is Elliot Ackerman, a very brave former Marine and intelligence officer who has become a very reflective and elegant writer about war and its consequences. He was awarded a Silver Star for leading a platoon in one of the worst battles of the war in Iraq, the Battle of Fallujah, during urban house-to-house combat. The citation said his contagious combat leadership and ability to instill this type of dedication is the stuff of legends.
In his memoir, "Places And Names," he writes about what was going on in his mind during that battle, when his men took a lot of lives while losing members of their own platoon. In a New York Times review of the memoir, Anne Barnard described it as a classic meditation on war and how it compels and resists our efforts to order it with meaning. Ackerman did five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and was nearly killed toward the end of his final tour. He wonders if he was drawn to war because he couldn't find meaning outside of it.
Ackerman has also written novels and has been published in The New Yorker and written op-ed pieces for The Washington Post and The New York Times. Recently, he's written about the end of the war in Afghanistan and how the pandemic and the January 6 insurrection remind him of war.
His new novel, "2034," imagines what war might be like in the future, when America is unlikely to have the military superiority we've assumed it would always have. It's about a war with China in 2034 that expands into a world war. It was co-written with NATO's former supreme allied commander, Admiral James Stavridis.
Elliot Ackerman, welcome to FRESH AIR. Do you have anything special that you do or any special people you talk to or memories you return to on Veterans Day?
ELLIOT ACKERMAN: Oh, well, thanks for having me, first of all. You know, as - particularly as a Marine and a veteran of the Fallujah battle, which was - which began on November 9, 2004, this sort of week in November is kind of like the High Holidays for veterans. So it just sort of kind of rolls out over the week. And it's usually a time just for kind of, you know, old friends. We all reach out to each other, whether we're seeing each other at, you know, Marine Corps Birthday Balls or for a drink or swapping text messages. So I wouldn't say there's a particular person that I am touching base with, but I'd say it's sort of an extended group of folks, you know, many of whom I haven't seen in years and years. But we always find each other during this week.
GROSS: When the Taliban took over after the collapse of the Afghan government and the withdrawal of American troops, did you feel like the war was in vain? I mean, you nearly died in the war toward the end of your final tour. You know many men who never came back
ACKERMAN: Politically, much of what we tried to do was in vain, sure. And I've never felt any complication about that. But the war for me, I think - you know, I experienced it so closely for so long, and it's lived with me up to this day, that it's - I experience it much more personally. And so to me, the personal aspect of that is not in vain. And so to be specific with that, if I were to say that the war was in vain, that would mean I felt that my, you know, being in certain battles or being in certain places and making certain decisions that affected my life, the outcome of my comrades lives, that that was all in vain. And I've never felt that was in vain. I'm glad I was there, and I would go back and I would do it all again. And I've felt, frankly, very grateful to have been there with my - you know, with my friends and grateful for all the things we were able to do for one another.
GROSS: What are some of the positive outcomes that you think of?
ACKERMAN: War's sort of an interesting animal. You know, I think we all walk through life with, like, a certain aperture of what we experience. You know, one side of the aperture is the good we experience. On the other side of the aperture is the bad that we experience. And I think what war does - and frequently, you know, early on, because many people experience it when they're young - is it sort of flings open your aperture. And so you experience and see, you know, the absolute, most extreme forms of depravity that human beings are capable of on one end of the spectrum. And on the other end of the spectrum in war, you see sometimes the absolute, most noble, heroic and selfless acts that people are capable of performing. And I don't know whether or not that's necessarily a good thing or a bad thing, but it's certainly how I've experienced wars. I feel like at a relatively young age, it kind of just threw open my aperture.
GROSS: You write that you were fascinated by war by the time you were 6. And in your teens, you watched the Spielberg HBO series "Band Of Brothers" and really loved it. What fascinated you about war before you became a part of it?
ACKERMAN: You know, war has an allure that I think is just hardwired into humanity. I've always believed that, you know, being anti-war - it's sort of like being anti-hurricane or anti-tornado, you know? Whereas one is a destructive force of nature, the other is a destructive force of human nature. So there is just something hardwired into us.
I mean, you mentioned, you know, Steven Spielberg's series or - you know, I grew up also watching movies like "Platoon" or films like "Full Metal Jacket," which are actually movies - bits of culture that the authorial intent was to be anti-war. But they - I could tell you every Marine has seen, for instance, the movie "Full Metal Jacket," which is - you know, the subject of that movie is the Marine Corps - and has experienced it as something that gets them, you know, excited about being Marines and excited about the prospect of fighting a war. So it's often consumed as being pro-war.
So I think my fascination with war, I don't know, it was just something that was hardwired into me. And I think it's very difficult to tell war stories that are anti-war or pro-war. Actually, I think you can't even tell a war story. I think the only thing you can really do is show a war story, and people will come away from it with what they will.
GROSS: Did war feel anything like what you imagined it would feel like?
ACKERMAN: I think the thing that's often not conveyed in film is that when you're in war, you don't really see war. You actually - you - it's more that you hear it. So the sense that you're engaging with most is your sense of hearing. So, you know, it's very rare to see the person who's shooting at you. You hear the person who's shooting at you. So that might be a very kind of tactical answer to that question, but that was probably one of the things that surprised me the most, was how little you actually see and how everything your experience is often experienced through sound.
GROSS: And the sound is sometimes really loud, like ear-shattering loud.
ACKERMAN: Ear-shattering loud or - the thing I think that's scarier than something that sounds very, very loud is something that sounds very, very close.
GROSS: So your hearing became really attuned.
ACKERMAN: Yeah, it becomes very attuned. And your sense of time also warps. And the - to this day, the most intense engagements that I was involved in, I still have a hard time locating them on a timeline, meaning, you know, oh, this moment took 10 minutes, and this moment took seven minutes. They just sort of blur into this, you know, miasma, where maybe three minutes felt like two hours, and then two hours felt like 15 minutes. So time does very weird things in combat.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. My guest is Elliot Ackerman, a former Marine and intelligence officer. His memoir is called "Places And Names." His new novel is called "2034." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Elliot Ackerman. He's a former Marine and intelligence officer who served five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He received the Silver Star, the Bronze Star for valor and the Purple Heart. His memoir about the consequences of war is called "Places And Names." His new novel, "2034," imagines a world war that begins in 2034 between the U.S. and China.
In your memoir, "Places And Names," you have a section - it's the last chapter of the book - in which you quote from the long citation when you were awarded a Silver Star for bravery. And so you juxtapose excerpts of that citation with what was actually going through your mind at the time of the Battle of Fallujah, which is what earned you the citation. You were leading a platoon in urban combat in the early days of the Iraq War. And there's an excerpt I'd like you to read. This kind of is a back-to-back version of the citation and what's going through your mind.
ACKERMAN: You may or may not be interested, but this chapter actually was originally not in the book.
GROSS: Oh, why not?
ACKERMAN: Well, I finished the book, and I handed it to my editor, Scott Moyers, at Penguin Press. And he read it. And he was very happy with the book and said, you know, we're excited to publish this, Elliot. And he wrote me a note. I feel like I would just be remiss if I didn't tell you that nowhere in the book do you, you know, mentioned what happened around your Silver Star. And I feel like I would be remiss if I didn't tell you that I feel like it would be a better book if you could find a way to write about that. And, you know, he was right. I hadn't put in there 'cause I didn't really know how to write about those events.
And I had never written about - I mean, "Places And Names" is my fifth book, and I hadn't really written about earning the Silver Star because I think one of the things that often isn't obvious for people who haven't written up medals - and, you know, I've written up Marines for medals for valor - is that oftentimes you're, you know, you're honoring a person for, you know, what in many respects is probably some of the worst days of their life or the worst moments of their life because they only hand out the medals when things go really wrong. There's a citation usually that's no more than a page, which is what they read out when they give you the award. And it's very compact. But to actually get the person the award, you have to write these very lengthy summaries of actions in great detail of everything that happened, really making their case of why the person deserves the award.
So having - I've been through it myself, and I had the one that was written up for me, and I always felt that there were just these things missing because, as you'll hear, it's written in very sort of stilted language. And even with my own father, I'd always kind of wanted to like, you know, I knew he was probably - I wanted to fill in the gaps. And so when my editor said, if you could figure out how to write about it, you know, as I thought it over, I was like, maybe this is how I can write about it. Maybe this document is like the kind of the key, the Rosetta Stone for how I could talk about this stuff.
GROSS: And before you do the reading, let me just quote one more line from the citation for your Silver Star. "Lieutenant Ackerman's heroic actions during this period" - the Battle of Fallujah - "reflect a level of bravery, composure under fire and combat leadership that is beyond expectations." So would you read the excerpt of the citation along with what you were thinking during the battle?
ACKERMAN: Sure. Sure. It begins with part of the citation. I think you'll be able to tell the portions where I'm filling in the gaps.
(Reading) During the course of the fighting in Fallujah, his platoon to casualties without the slightest degradation of motivation, professionalism or effectiveness. I can't take it anymore, one of the Marines tells me. We're four days into the battle. His squad leader said he needed to talk to me. He said, I keep thinking about my daughter. Every time I go into a house, I think about her. He is crying, and the other Marines are watching. And I know that fear is contagious. Do you want me to get you out of here, I ask. He keeps muttering that he can't take it. Twenty minutes later, I'm loading him into an Amtrak that will drive him out of Fallujah alongside wounded Marines. He and Pratt (ph), another Marine in the platoon, are married to a set of sisters. Pratt says he'll never speak to him again.
GROSS: How did you know whether to send this Marine away - because he was so afraid and fear is contagious or that you really needed to keep him in the platoon during this battle?
ACKERMAN: You know, before I ever set foot in front of a rifle platoon, I had trained for the better part of six years if you count, you know, all the time I did in college, all the summer trainings I did in college, all the training I did after college in Quantico. And the Marine Corps does an exceptional job training you and preparing you for moments like this, you know, to include classes on psychology, what they call killology (ph) in the Marine Corps, sort of the, you know, the science of the mind and how it deals with killing and understanding, you know, how - frankly, how fear works, and that as I mentioned there, it is contagious.
So when that happened, I, you know, I knew from my training and from all the conversations we had about this, that, you know this, I got to get this Marine - first of all, for the sake of this Marine, I need to probably get him off the line. And I need to do it in a way that segregates him from everybody else. The part that was a little more complicated is, as I mentioned, this one Marine, he and another Marine in the platoon were engaged to - or married to - they were married to a set of sisters. And so they were actually, you know, they were family.
And probably the textbook answer at that moment was to bring the whole platoon together at a quiet time and explain, listen, you know, this Marine who we had to evacuate, he is a casualty - as though he'd been shot or anything else - and he needed to be evacuated. And you can't judge him. You can't, you know, you need to give him the space. You need to understand that he did nothing shameful. He is a psychological casualty of war. And frankly, that was probably the textbook answer. But I also knew that there was something very personal about that Marine saying I'm done and I'm leaving.
You know, at that point in the battle, you know, we were down - we'd started with 46 of us. We were down to 21 of us. And the leadership of our platoon had basically been decapitated. I was the platoon commander, and I was still in my position, but my second-in-command, my platoon sergeant, had been shot in the head. We had three squad leaders. Of those three squad leaders, two had been evacuated as casualties. And of our fire team leaders, four out of the six had also been evacuated. And to see, in the context of all of that, one Marine basically raise his hand and say, I'm leaving you guys 'cause I can't take anymore, I could just look in their faces, and I could see what a personal betrayal that was.
And maybe I was wrong. Maybe I was right. But in that moment, I sort of decided, you know what? Everyone's going to keep doing their job, and I'm not going to tell the Marines what they're supposed to think about this because there's a certain portion, even in this scenario, of their souls that is theirs. And it's not my job to tell them how they're supposed to feel about this. It's - you know, they're allowed to feel how they want to about it. That was not something I had, you know, been prepared for in Quantico.
GROSS: How did you think of this Marine who said, I can't take it anymore? Did you think of him as a coward or, as you described, as a psychological casualty of war?
ACKERMAN: I thought about it, I think, in two terms. I could recognize that he was a psychological casualty of war, but I couldn't deny the fact, you know, as a - again, as a young lieutenant trying to hold the platoon together, he was actually one of the NCOs, a non-commissioned officer, so a leader in the platoon. And he was letting me down and saying, I know you need me right now, and you need me to lead the younger Marines, but I am not capable of doing that, so I'm walking away. So, you know, there's a duality there. You know, you can - you feel the - you can feel the betrayal, and it does feel like a betrayal, but you also know the reason for the betrayal. So it's - you know, it's tough. These aren't simple - there's no simple answers to this stuff.
GROSS: He said he just kept thinking about his daughter. When you became a father, did you see this Marine differently?
ACKERMAN: Yeah, that's a really important observation. Yes, I did. And more than that, you know, I had my first child right at the end of my time in the service, so I only did one deployment as a father. I saw him differently, but I will tell you this. I saw every single Marine that I had served with who had a family completely differently. You know, when I'm in my, you know, mid-to-late-20s or even into my 30s, and I'm taking certain risks, you know, I know that if something happens to me, yes, you know, my family will be brokenhearted and my girlfriend, later fiancee, will be brokenhearted. But, you know - but it's a whole different level of loss when it is a child that loses a parent, and you can only understand that when you are a parent yourself.
And it also made me frankly view the wars differently. You know, the children that I would see on the battlefield, you know, you can't help - once you become a parent, you just see them differently. You see them as though they're your own child. So it caused me to experience war very, very differently, and in retrospect, it caused me to look at many of the Marines I served with who had families and think about the risks they were taking. And to this day, I'm just overwhelmed by them. Like, my God, how are you running into that building or, you know, getting through that ambush, knowing that you had a 7-year-old and a 5-year-old at home?
GROSS: I'd like you to read another passage from your memoir, "Places And Names." And this, again, is a passage in which you're juxtaposing the citation on your Silver Star along with what you were thinking during the Battle of Fallujah in Iraq, for which you were awarded the Silver Star leading a platoon.
ACKERMAN: So the part I'm going to read begins with the citation.
(Reading) From his exposed position on the roof, he worked the tank section like an extension of himself, directing main gun and heavy-caliber rounds into the enemy formations and positions from as close as 20 meters. The enemy continued to try and close with and flank his position, and it was repeatedly cut down by his fires. And what I'm thinking is, when I come home, more often than you might expect, a stranger will ask me if I ever killed anyone. And the citation reads, his actions that morning dealt a tremendous blow to the enemy in both the sheer number of enemy personnel killed, as well as demonstrating to them that massing for an attack would prove deadly. But what I'm thinking is, for a long time, I didn't know how to answer the question if I ever killed anyone. A friend of mine took to saying, if I did, you paid me to, which eventually I also took to saying. But the first person who asks me is my cousin, and she is 6 years old.
GROSS: What did you say to your cousin?
ACKERMAN: I think I told her it was complicated and that I loved her.
GROSS: All right, let's take another break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Elliot Ackerman, a former Marine and intelligence officer. His memoir is called "Places And Names." His new novel is called "2034." We'll be right back after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Elliot Ackerman, a former Marine and intelligence officer who served five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He received the Silver Star, the Bronze Star for valor and the Purple Heart. His memoir about the consequences of war is called "Places And Names." His new novel, "2034," imagines a world war that begins between the U.S. and China in 2034, when the U.S. has lost its military superiority. It was co-written with Admiral Jim Stavridis, a former supreme allied commander at NATO.
One of the things you've written, and I think it was about the Battle of Fallujah - was when you ordered, you know, fire against a group of insurgents, and there was a cloud of smoke, and they were just kind of lying on the ground, like, crumpled - that it sometimes felt more like murder. And I'm wondering why you use that word and where the line is for you between, you know, killing in war and murder. It seems like something you've thought about.
ACKERMAN: Sure. Well, I think in that section, it's a part of the book, and it's - you know, it's - it was when we called in, you know, say, a fire mission of mortar rounds on a group of troops. And, you know, we - I could see exactly where they were. I knew exactly how to call it in (ph). And when the smoke cleared, you know, they looked like a bunch of wet rags in the street. And it was that - you know, probably the premeditation of it is what made it feel more murderous, and that we sat there for a long time, and I knew they couldn't see us and I knew exactly where they were. And I knew that my job, you know, was to kill them before they killed me.
To your question, what is the difference between that and actual murder, it's a very straightforward answer. It's the state. You know, war is state-sanctioned murder. So when someone asks you, well, did you kill someone over there, kind of as - and the people who've asked me that question have often asked - you know, ask me that, frankly, with - I mean, it might sound odd to say, but with good intention. Like, they're trying to make a connection with me. These are not people trying to offend. They're trying to connect. And the reason my response - well, if I did, you paid me to - it's because the state, meaning you - you were the ones who sent me. That's what makes this different.
But when you think about war, you know, contradiction is hard-wired into war 'cause why do we go to war? We go to war to protect the state or, put another way, to protect our civilization. And really, any civilization - one of the bedrock tenets that it's built upon that kind of keeps us from just being savages is the rule in a myriad of cultures of thou shalt not kill. So the contradiction built into war is that we engage in state-sanctioned killing in order to preserve the state or to preserve our civilization that, in many respects, is built around respect for core values like thou shalt not kill. And that latent contradiction that exists in war is also one of the variables, I think, that adds to war's latent insanity. War feels a little insane when you're in it.
GROSS: Did you feel like you were personally risking insanity at any point if the contradictions are so insane?
ACKERMAN: I don't feel like I was risking my own insanity. But if you look at, you know, the literature, the film, the culture that comes out of war, you know, they're oftentimes stories that are really dealing with ideas of people pushed sort of to the brink of their sanity and whole civilizations pushed to the brink of dissolution in the same way.
GROSS: So, you know, you were awarded for bravery. Did bravery have, like, meaning for you? Do you know what I mean? Do you think, I'm brave, or do you just, like, do what you need to do?
ACKERMAN: Well, bravery's not an emotion, right? So, I mean, I don't know about you, Terry. Like, I've never - I never felt brave. I've never woke up and been like, I feel really brave today. It's not an emotion (laughter).
But if you're like me, maybe you felt fear before. I've certainly felt fear. I know exactly what that feels like. That being said, I've seen people - Marines, civilians, journalists - I've seen them do some really brave things in my life. You know, I've seen Marines - I've seen them running across the road. Their buddy gets shot on the road, and the next guy runs off and drags that guy out of the road. Like, what makes, you know, Marine run after his friend? It's not - with the emotion, it's not bravery. There's something else that you feel in that moment. And if I were to put a word on it, I would say it's love. You know, you love each other. That's why you do these things.
But there is sort of a tough irony in war that is not always obvious when you start the journey, which is that, you know, you begin with a group of folks. As you're preparing to go to war, you train together. You get to know one another. You become each other's very best friends. You know, in the military, we use sort of more clinical terms like unit cohesion or esprit de corps to describe this. But what you're really doing is you are forming those bonds of love that you need to have to cohere as a unit so you can do one thing - accomplish the mission. And you are taught in the military that the mission always comes first 'cause you - some of you are going to get killed trying to accomplish that mission.
And this is sort of the bitter irony, is that if you're in any type of leadership position, giving orders, whether from the - from a corporal up to a general, at a certain point, you might find yourself at a moment of consequence where you have to make a decision in order to accomplish the mission in which you are ordering your friends, these people - in my case, it was Marines - who you love to certainly get wounded and sometimes get killed. And so really, the central dilemma in war is that you have to ultimately oftentimes destroy the very thing that you love. And that can lead to a lot of attendant heartbreak. And we all know what heartbreak looks like for veterans who come home from war. And I would posit that your heart can't break unless you are in love.
GROSS: How did you handle the fear?
ACKERMAN: You compartmentalize it. And I remember saying to my Marines in certain moments - maybe there'd be, like, a lull in the fighting. Everyone would be talking about something, or I would kind of act - like, you know, let's stop talking about this right now, you know. We have a job to do. Guys, I promise you, we will have the rest of our lives to sit around and talk about everything that just happened. And I think that your - you know, in the moment, your imagination and thinking about the things, you know, you have to put all that somewhere else. You have to put it up on a shelf and not think about all of the things that could happen to you in the next, you know, on the next mission or the next day. And then when it's over, you can take it all apart and think about it again.
GROSS: You've written novels, so you have a vivid imagination. Was it hard to stop - to try to turn off your imagination when you needed to?
ACKERMAN: No, because I think I'm decent at compartmentalizing parts of my life. And I think for veterans, sometimes what's difficult is, you know, if you come home and you are still compartmentalizing, I think that can be a challenge because at a certain point, you need to live a fully integrated life. And you need to know how to take these experiences - as I said before, you know, take this sort of experience you've had where you've seen the aperture of life kind of flung open and you need to understand how to live with that, you know, how to know that, you know, you've been in situations where maybe you've had to, you know, kill people or do really tough things, but at the same time, know that you can be a, you know, a loving husband or, you know, the type of father that a little child looks at and sees how gentle they are. You know, you need to be able to live across this spectrum and be a fully integrated person again and stop compartmentalizing.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Elliot Ackerman, a former Marine and intelligence officer. His memoir is called "Places And Names." His new novel is called "2034." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Elliot Ackerman, a former Marine and intelligence officer who served five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He received the Silver Star, the Bronze Star for Valor and the Purple Heart. His memoir about the consequences of war is called "Places And Names." His new novel, "2034," imagines a world war that begins as war between the U.S. and China in 2034 when the U.S. has lost its military superiority.
You saved your bloodstained uniform from the Battle of Fallujah filled with holes, which I imagine was from wear and tear and - what? - fences and bullets - bullet holes.
ACKERMAN: It was from - a grenade exploded nearby me, so I got some shrapnel in my back, so it had holes in it from that and from wear and tear. And, you know, we spent about a month fighting that battle, and they kind of took us off the line. And I'd basically - you know, no one had taken a shower or anything like that. We were all pretty filthy. And I remember they trotted us into these big mobile showers. And you take off your uniform, and there's this moment like, what am I - you know, I don't want to throw this - I don't want to throw this away. A lot of Marines are just throwing out their uniforms. I don't want to throw this away. So I just kind of put it in the back bottom of my pack when they handed me a fresh uniform, and I kept it. And I sort of have never really understood, you know, what am I supposed to do with this thing?
So, you know, I have some memorabilia from the wars and from my life that, you know, I know I'll probably pass on. You know, like, I have my war watch that I'm sitting here wearing right now, and, you know, I'll probably give that to my son. And, you know, I have my medals that have, you know, been nicely mounted and they're in a little frame. And I'll probably give those to my daughter. You know, the - but, you know, what do I do with this, like, bloodstained, you know, filthy, torn up uniform? Like, I don't want to throw it away, but I don't have anyone to give it to. So it just sort of sits in my closet.
GROSS: You served five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. So before redeploying each time, what questions did you ask yourself about whether you wanted to re-up or not?
ACKERMAN: You know, I just - you know, first of all, there are a lot of people who've done many more tours than I did. So for me, it always felt like just sort of there was this natural progression. It was sort of like, you know, how could I not? How did I not want to keep going back? It was very difficult to say no. I think that's sort of been one of the costs of these forever wars is that - I've sat around with my friends on many occasions and I'm like, you know, God, I wish this was like - even like Vietnam and just, you know, where we could say, well, it's over. And, you know, now we're all going to go to graduate school and get on with our lives. But it was sort of the war's always been there for, you know, 20 years now, you know, beckoning us back.
GROSS: Your whole adult life.
ACKERMAN: My whole adult life. I went back to Fallujah in 2016, 12 years after the battle, and the war was still going on.
GROSS: So what questions did you ask yourself when you would redeploy?
ACKERMAN: I wouldn't - I don't think there were a lot of really deep questions I was asking myself. This was just who I was at that point in my life. You know, I was - there was a war going on. All of my friends, we were fighting it. And you'd come home and you'd get some time off and you do your training and you'd be told there's an opening at this other unit that's, you know, a good unit, that they're going to Afghanistan. And do you want to go? And these are the guys who are going. And you're like, yeah, I'll go. It's sort of like in - it'd be like coming from World War II. You know, you fought in Guadalcanal. You came back to the base and they're like, listen, you know, we're going to Saipan next. Are you coming? Of course I'm coming.
GROSS: You were almost killed toward the end of your last deployment. An IED exploded right in front of your tank? Car?
ACKERMAN: My - yeah, my - the truck I was in.
GROSS: OK. Did - what went through your mind? I mean, you'd survived five deployments. You were at the end of the fifth. I think it's everybody's worst nightmare, like, you go through the whole thing and then you, like, die right before it's over. You die at the last minute.
ACKERMAN: I was a new father at that point, and these wars had been going on for a long time. And I don't think - I'll only speak for myself, but I think many others might say this, you know, if you ask me why I was in these wars, I wouldn't, you know, have told you or sung an aria to you about how I was convinced my being there was going to, you know, solve all of the woes of the Afghan people.
You know, I was there because I was, you know, a professional small S soldier and this is what I did. And and I enjoyed it and it was exciting. And I got a real sense of purpose out of it. You know, that's what I would tell you why I was there, but at a certain point, at least for me, it started to feel kind of gratuitous. And I was like, you know, like, I don't want to - I just like - I don't want to get killed doing this. And I feel like maybe there are other things I want to do with my life. And that is what caused me eventually to, you know, get out.
And - but the thing that's so difficult about, I think, getting out has been difficult for many veterans I know who I speak to is that in order to do that, you have to look at all your friends - and these are, you know, like, your best friends, the people you grew up with because - and all of you grew up in this war together - and say, I'm done. Yeah, the next one, you're going on that one on your own. You know, I'm sort of declaring this, you know, this separate peace. And that's tough. And in my case, you know, it puts a strain on certain friendships and, you know, it was difficult to walk away.
GROSS: Yeah. But when you have that image in your mind of your friends and fellow marines that you'd be walking away from, did you also - were you able to counteract that with the image of your wife and young daughter who you needed to be there for?
ACKERMAN: Yeah. Yes, of course. But, you know, it's not like when it's over - it's not like you get to always decide when it's over for you, you know. And I walked away. You know, I have friends who, you know, of mine who died after I walked away and I went to their funerals, you know, and that's tough.
GROSS: Yeah. Well, let me reintroduce you here. My guest is Elliot Ackerman, a former Marine and intelligence officer. His memoir is called "Places And Names." His new novel is called "2034." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Elliot Ackerman, a former Marine and intelligence officer who served five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He received the Silver Star, the Bronze Star for Valor and the Purple Heart. His memoir about the consequences of war is called "Places And Names." His new novel, "2034," imagines a world war that begins with war between the U.S. and China in 2034.
You've asked yourself if you were drawn to war because you couldn't find meaning outside of it. Can you expand on that? I mean, you started going to war when you were in your late teens or early 20s.
ACKERMAN: Yeah, my early 20s. You know, this kind of gets back to this idea of, you know, the aperture that war gives you. So listen, like, I think that - and I think we could probably agree on this - that for any person to be happy, they have to have a sense of purpose, right? And so a very benign sense of purpose would be, let's say, you know, there's a man, he works a job, that job puts food on the table for his family. He watches his children grow, and they get a better education than he did and have more opportunities than he did. And from that work, that gives that person their sense of purpose. Well, when you go to war at a relatively young age, I would argue you sort of develop a kind of dysfunctional relationship with purpose.
So you're in your late teens or early 20s, and let's say you're in Afghanistan and you have to hold a mountain outpost or you're in Iraq and you have to secure however many city blocks. And you have this, at least at the tactical level, like, a pretty clear mission. And you are trying to accomplish that mission with a group of people who are probably going to wind up being some of the very best friends you've ever had in your life. So if purpose - right? - is this drug that induces happiness, you at a very young age, you are, like, freebasing the crystal meth of purpose. Like, there is nothing more intense than this sense of purpose that you're having every day. And you do that for a while and you go back to these wars, and you fortify those friendships. But at a certain point, you know, the war ends for you and you come home. And when you come home years later, you know, you have to find your happiness. You have to repurpose yourself.
And so you look out there, you look around and, you know, maybe you're going to go back to college or maybe you're going to get a job at Home Depot or you're going to sell real estate. Whatever you're going to do, you're going to repurpose yourself. And when you look at those options, you know, if you've been again doing this, you know, crystal meth of purpose, well, none of those are that intense. You know, it's sort of more like the Coors Light of purpose. And you realize that you're going to spend the rest of your life sitting on your front porch drinking Coors Light, and a certain depression sets in. And so, you know, people talk a lot about, like, PTSD and, you know, and there's a type that, you know, people suffer really intense, you know, flashbacks and nightmares and, like, that's a very real thing. So what I'm saying is not to be dismissive of that.
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ACKERMAN: But there is this other type of PTSD that I would kind of correlate with just this purposelessness, you know, this inability to find meaning outside of the war.
GROSS: I'm hearing your dog in the background. What kind of dog is it?
ACKERMAN: It's a Norwich Terrier - very, very ferocious. They actually call them - the terriers, they call them terrorists.
GROSS: OK. Say hi for me (laughter).
ACKERMAN: I will.
GROSS: Well, how do you think writing about having served as a Marine affects your ability to integrate that part of your life into the chapter of your life that you're living now? Because you're talking about having to, like, disassociate to compartmentalize different parts of yourself. But I think maybe writing is a way of kind of keeping the different parts of yourself integrated.
ACKERMAN: Well, because I'm not really writing about the war. Now, you know, you might think I'm saying that tongue in cheek or laughing based off of what I just read you. And clearly I, you know, I am writing about the wars. But I'm really using the wars to write about other things. You know, I, you know, lots of my writing, I think, is, yes, that the war is there. But what - you know, I'm writing about friendship. I'm writing about politics. I'm writing about, you know, where America is today, our country, I mean, all of this. So yes, I do engage with, you know, the war and international affairs and things like that in my writing. But I'm oftentimes - I find, you know, the place I'm coming to is I'm writing about other subjects as well.
GROSS: I'd like to end this Veterans Day interview by asking you to share a memory of one of your fellow Marines who did not make it back.
ACKERMAN: One of the Marines I served with who was pretty legendary in the Marines Special Operations and the Raider community is a guy named Master Sergeant Aaron Torian. Everyone called him T. And I was lucky enough to work with T in 2008 in Afghanistan. And we had planned a series of helicopter raids into a valley that the Taliban were occupying. And in order to do these raids, we had to basically build a helicopter landing zone in our remote firebase. And T was in charge of the entire Afghan labor force we'd hired to do this. And it was the night before these raids were supposed to go off, and these helicopters were going to land. The landing zone wasn't done.
And T, he was 6'3", 220 pounds. He, you know, he used to play football. And he was one of these guys who, when 9/11 happened, basically quit what he was doing and enlisted. And I remember walking out of our firebase, and the sun was setting. And I was in a panic that this landing zone wasn't going to be finished. And I remember seeing T out there with a shovel with these hundred Afghans, you know, digging in the last parts of the landing zone. And when I went and checked on it, I could tell by his progress that this thing was actually - he was going to get it done in the nick of time.
And I just remember we're in the Hindu Kush, and the sun was setting. And he saw me checking on him. And he had this - he had a neckerchief tied over his face. He kind of looked like a cross between, you know, Billy the Kid and Achilles. And I just remember him looking up at me and, you know, holding the shovel in the air triumphantly that he had gotten it done. And six years after that, he was killed in Afghanistan in Helmand Province by an IED.
And the last time I saw him was about six months before he was killed. And he and his wife and his kids had come by my house in Washington just to have lunch because he was deploying. And, you know, I saw him on the front step. I, you know, I gave him a big hug. And I said, please don't get killed over there. I'll be so mad at you. And he just hugged me back, and that was the last time I ever saw him.
GROSS: Well, I'm sorry for your loss and for, you know, all the losses you suffered of fellow Marines and Afghan people too who you became close to. Thank you for being so reflective about the experience of war and the complications and paradoxes and consequences of war. I really appreciate you speaking to us today. And thank you for your writing.
ACKERMAN: Yeah. Thank you, Terry. Thanks for having me on. I enjoyed the conversation.
GROSS: Elliot Ackerman is a writer, journalist and former Marine and intelligence officer. His memoir is called "Places And Names." His new novel about a war with China that expands into world war is called "2034."
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FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
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