The Rumpus Interview with Elliot Ackerman

By

Elliot Ackerman did not write the book he was supposed to write. As a decorated officer who did five deployments with the United States Marine Corps, a veteran of the Second Battle of Fallujah and a recipient of the Silver Star for courage under fire, no doubt his life would make for a compelling memoir. He wouldn’t even have to mention his time in special operations or the CIA or as a journalist in Iraq and Syria. But he writes fiction—a forgivable vice—and not autobiographical fiction either, though it’s undoutedly a worthy genre (Celine, O’Brien, Proust, Joyce).

Instead, he did something much more unexpected. His novel, Green on Blue, is told from the perspective of Aziz, an Afghan boy turned soldier, and it offers a clear-eyed view of the difficult choices faced by Afghans caught up in a murky and seemingly endless war. “The militants fought to protect us from the Americans,” says Aziz, “and the Americans fought to protect us from the militants, and being so protected, life was very dangerous.” Ackerman’s book offers us not only a powerful new voice, but also a new way to think about a war that has been going on so long that it’s all too easy to become callous to its human costs.

***

The Rumpus: Of all the fiction being produced by the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, yours makes what is probably the most startling leap with its choice of narrator. Why did you choose to write from Aziz’s perspective?

Elliot Ackerman: I spent a lot of time in Afghanistan, serving exclusively as an advisor to Afghan military units. The dedication is “For Ali and Big Cheese, who were my friends.” These were two Afghan soldiers I was pretty tight with.

As an advisor, I went to war with these guys, fought alongside them. Coming home, my war buddies weren’t guys I could find on Facebook, or call up to get beers with at the local VFW, they were trapped in Afghanistan’s elliptical conflict. I’m never going to hear from those guys again. So I wanted to create a rendering of their world. To try to show how they lived and how they made their decisions.

I came home and I saw the way Afghans are portrayed: they’re corrupt, they steal money, they’ll stab you in the back, they’re all high on opium all the time.

None of the nuance ever gets conveyed. So I wanted to take an action which, when you first hear about it, sounds completely reprehensible—a ‘green on blue’ attack, an Afghan soldier trained by Americans shoots him in the back. You see it in the media all the time. I wanted to roll that back and take the reader on a journey such that, by the time that action is happening at the end of the book, not only will you see why he does that at the end, but you will actually see why he couldn’t do anything else.

Rumpus: “Many would call me a dishonest man, but I’ve always kept faith with myself.”

Ackerman: The opening line is in many ways the theme of the book. If you look at him from the outside, you’d say he’s dishonest by the end of the book. He’s betrayed people, he’s killed, taken money. But if you look at a separate code, you see who he’s keeping faith with. Himself. His brother.

Rumpus: With Pashtunwali.

Ackerman: For me, Pashtunwali works because it’s a very clear social code. Badal (revenge), nang (personal honor), melmastia (hospitality). These are tenets that are quoted ad infinitum in Afghanistan. So at the opening of the book when Aziz’s brother is badly injured in a Taliban-backed bombing, he tries to find some redemption in the code that he lives by. He thinks that through revenge he can somehow restore his brother’s honor, that it will somehow make him whole.

Rumpus: It’s an incredibly tragic story arc.

Ackerman: By the end of the book, Aziz essentially becomes the thing that he hates. When he goes back to his brother, after all he’s sacrificed, he wants to come and tell him, “I have done all this for you.” And he looks at his brother, and realizes that all his brother wants is for him to be okay, for Aziz to transcend the world that they’re trapped in. So the only way Aziz can make his brother feel as if he’s transcended that world is to lie. So the title of the novel, Green on Blue, really becomes a metaphor: what happens when all you’ve fought for comes back to destroy you. That’s Aziz’s journey.

Rumpus: Now, your own journey is somewhat unusual.

Ackerman: Born in LA, grew up in London, graduated high school in DC. Went to college in Boston, at Tufts, and started doing ROTC. I studied History and Literature, and then I got into a Bachelor’s-Master’s program at the Fletcher School, which had a graduate school for International Affairs. Then I got commissioned in ‘03, which as you know was an interesting year to get commissioned into the Marines.

Rumpus: So you made the decision before 9/11?

Ackerman: Yeah. I made the decision in 1998. Then in ‘03 I graduated, went into the Corps, became an infantry officer. My very first deployment was the big Fallujah deployment of ‘04.

Rumpus: The Second Battle of Fallujah, which was some of the heaviest urban combat we’ve faced since Hue City in Vietnam.

Ackerman: Right. I came back in ‘05; my infantry battalion got deployed for Hurricane Katrina, in New Orleans. So we did a month in New Orleans. It was a real juxtaposition. Nine months ago you were in Iraq, fighting an urban war, now you’re in New Orleans handing out bottles of water to displaced citizens. Then I did a MEU [Marine Expeditionary Unit] deployment to the Mediterranean in ‘06 which was when Israel invaded Lebanon and they evacuated all the Americans out of Beirut. We were involved in that evacuation. And when we came back, I went over to MARSOC [Marine Special Operations Command].

Rumpus: So you’re like a smart Forrest Gump. You were there for everything.

Ackerman: In terms of timing? Yeah. It was bizarre. I went to MARSOC as they were standing it up. We were the first guys to organize Marine Special Operations Teams, which was very interesting. The Special Forces guys we worked with would look at it and be like, “Yo man, this is awesome. This is like being a Green Beret in the 1950s, you guys are building this from the ground up,” and I was like, “Yeah, I guess—but it’s also a huge pain in the ass.” The Green Berets in the 1950s were not a bunch of happy guys.

I went to Afghanistan in ‘08 and my team advised a battalion of seven hundred Afghan Commandos near the Iranian border. Our mission was basically capture/kill ops against senior Taliban leaders. So we did that for eight months, fighting alongside those guys, and then one of my Marine Corps big brothers who’d left Second Force Reconnaissance Company to go to CIA Ground Branch, he calls me up and says, “Hey man, you should come over to the Branch. It’s a great place to work.” So I jumped ship out of MARSOC and went over to Ground Branch, which was sort of the same type of work, training and advising indigenous troops, and going after mainly senior al Qaeda leadership, raids and things like that. I did that for a couple years. And then I just got to the point where I was like, you know, I’m 31. I’m young enough to do something else, and is this the only thing I want to do in my life? Because I’ve been doing this for a long time—and I love it—but I’m looking down the tunnel of my life and I’m like, This isn’t the only thing I want to do. And that’s when I really started writing. I always knew I would write about these experiences, but it was in that moment I thought, I’m going to start trying. And I literally started the next day.

Rumpus: You made the decision to start writing, but you didn’t start with this book.

Ackerman: The very first thing I wrote was an autobiographical scene that was at the Fallujah battle. For the first seven days of the battle we fought north to south through the city, and it was bloody, and it was really hard fighting, and the mission was get to the end of the city, which was five kilometers long. So we bypassed guys who were holed up in houses so we could get to the end of the city—for political reasons. They wanted to say the Marines had cleared the city.

And there was always this question, after guys had been shot at and hurt in my platoon, like, “Hey sir, what are we going to do when we get to the south side of the city? There’s still a lot of bad guys back there. What are we going to do about them?” So the first scene I wrote was a sort of reenactment of one of those conversations on a rooftop after a platoon has been really chewed up and their leadership is gone and there’s the question of what are we going to do now and how do you take a bunch of guys who have been ripped to shreds in the service of getting to the south side of the city, and turn them around and go back, and redo what they just did.

Rumpus: Guys that you’re really close with.

Ackerman: Right. When you’re in the Marine Corps, the first thing that’s drilled into your head is, “The mission comes first.” Mission before the men. Mission before the men. You’ve probably heard this old trope: “Mission first, Marines always.” How’s that work if you’ve got to take a hill and you know half of your Marines are going to be killed? How is it “Marines always”? And that’s the tension that’s inherent in the military.

So you take that concept. I saw in war, I saw a lot of guys do very heroic, brave things, running out in the street when their buddy’s been gunned down. Like, this guy just got shot. If you run out to get him, there’s no reason you won’t get shot too. So why do people do that? Why do people show that type of courage? Well, you’ve got fear on the one side, but what’s the opposite of fear? It’s not courage. Courage is not an emotion. You never feel brave. The opposite of fear is love. Guys do that because they love each other. So, on the one hand, to have a platoon of guys do their job and be effective in combat, you have to bond them together with actual love. So as a leader your job is to build cohesion among a group of guys and to actually love them. You end up falling in love with your Marines.

On the flip side, the mission comes first. So if you boil your job down to its essentials, your job is to build this group of guys who love each other, to lead them, to put the mission first, and then to destroy this thing that you love.

I saw that play out in my experience. I got orders to do things where I knew a bunch of guys were going to get hurt doing it. And how do I destroy the thing I love?

So that was in my head for a long long time, and I started trying to write out themes that tell that story.

Rumpus: How’d you start writing this specific novel?

Ackerman: I wrote it mostly on my White House Fellowship. I did that and I did a political startup, trying to get a third-party candidate to run. So I wrote the book on airplanes and in hotels. And a little later a couple guys started a research firm on the Turkish-Syrian border to bid on contracts for NGOs inside Syria, and they asked me if I wanted to do it with them? I was like, “This is my access into this world. Something’s going to happen here.” They put up their own capital to start the thing. I was sort of helping them with the research, but I was also the driver, I’d go get the milk. Whatever. And I started living there, and just being on the Turkish-Syrian border, seeing the ideological dispossession of these activists who have washed up as refugees in Turkey, guys who had these very noble goals and watched their country turn into a failed state. It’s a powerful thing to be sitting with these guys, well-educated, thoughtful Syrians who are saying, “I wish we’d never done it. I wish we’d left Assad in there,” and then later are like, “You have to support the Free Army.” You can see that conflict they have about what they started, and what does that do to a person? You can never go home, but you can’t quite bring yourself to completely reject the noble ideals of how you wanted to change the country.

That part of the world, it’s alive. It’s kicking. Every four weeks there’ll be huge protests in Taksim Square. It’s such a gnarly juxtaposition. I did this piece for the New Yorker where I went down to the Istanbul LBGT Pride event. It’s the biggest one in the Middle East, and to stand there by the statue of the Republic, watching these drag queens and these Saudi women in hijabs on vacation taking photos, it’s like, “What is going on here?” I imagine it’s kind of how Europe felt in the 1930s. This political live wire.

Rumpus: How do you capture that in fiction?

Ackerman: In terms of my writing I definitely think of it more in terms of the politics as an emotive force. You’re there for a variety of reasons in what can be pretty incredible situations, but they offer profound insights into the human condition. You want to talk about understanding how people behave. Go down to Katrina, after the hurricane, see how people are behaving. It’ll give you an insight into how people are operating at the extremes of their emotions. And when you see stuff like that—in Katrina or Iraq or Afghanistan or wherever you are—these stories will not be denied. They have to be told. It leaves you thinking deeply about how anyone behaves under that kind of pressure and within the boundaries of their society. That interests me, how any group of people, if you transplant them into a situation that is serious enough, how their morality will bend. And not necessarily in an evil way.

Rumpus: One of the things I really liked about your book is that it stays true to the constraint. When we talk about the war, politically, we tend to talk about it in the broad sweep of the decade plus and where we are now, which might not have all that much to do with the decisions before an American Marine in Sangin province, let alone the local Afghans. So we see an American character, but we only see him in terms of how he affects the world of the book.

Ackerman: There’s only one American in the book and he’s actually not a totally essential character. I tried to render the war in miniature. There’s one tribal elder, one village, one tribal militia, and I wanted to show that dynamic, and also the incentive structure. People behave according to their incentive structure. I’m not trying to paint an entire war. I’m trying to paint an incentive structure that drives so much of the war. But I honestly don’t think of the book as a war novel. It really minimizes it, I think. The themes of war literature are universal themes.

Rumpus: This is my frustration. What is it that separates war literature from the rest of literature?

Ackerman: Nothing.

Rumpus: Exactly.

Ackerman: Is it a war novel because it’s got a couple battle scenes? It’s a novel. I get asked by people, “Do you ever think you’re not going to write about war?” A friend once said to me, “Tim O’Brien, yeah he’s great, but he’s only got that one note he hits.” I don’t know if I buy that, but even if it’s true, I think that’s a narrow-minded way to look not just at literature, but at war.

I just imagine somebody going up to Toni Morrison like, “Hey, Toni, you ever think about writing something not about being black in America?” Or, “James Joyce, loved Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Thinking of writing something a little less Irish next time?” People have their themes. But what they’re all writing about, if you pay attention, is what it’s like to be a human being. And people have been finding that in different ways. So I find it a little bit minimizing to be lumped that way.

Rumpus: There’s an expectation, for war writing by a veteran, that the work will be in some way autobiographical.

Ackerman: That’s one of the things I like about this. You can’t.

Rumpus: Though it’s hardly unrelated to your experience.

Ackerman: For me writing, it’s like I’m standing in a field covered with really dry, high grass. I need to make a fire, and I do that by banging two things together, trying to make a spark. Usually, those two things are things that happened to me. They could be totally unrelated to what I’m writing about.

I get labeled now as a journalist, which is amusing to me.

Rumpus: Because you write articles for news magazines. Seems reasonable.

Ackerman: I was joking with Peter van Agtmael, the photographer, I’m like, “I’m not a journalist.” “Then what are you?” he asks. And I’m like, “I don’t know. I write these pieces that are like, I was in so-and-so, thinking about this one time. This reminded me of—”

I feel like there’s this hard line between fiction and nonfiction writers. People do their research in all sorts of ways. I find my research tends to be more experiential. What I’m working on now comes out of spending a lot of time on the Syrian border and talking to folks who fought in the Syrian revolution and hanging out in that milieu. That’s my research. And I’m writing non-fiction pieces about it, which for me is a way of processing it. It’s not that strange. A lot of people did this: Graham Greene, Paul Theroux, Hemingway. That’s how everybody used to do it. So it’s kind of funny to me that this model has fallen out of fashion and it’s like, “You write journalism? Then write a nonfiction book. You’re a fiction writer? Do fiction.” Those seem too rigid.

Rumpus: Those guys you mentioned are pretty good models for a writer. Who are your other literary influences?

Ackerman: For me it’s really anybody who’s written heavily from the position of the other. We’ve talked about Bill Cheng. There’s Harriet Beecher Stowe. William Styron. When I was first writing this book I was heavily reading Heart of Darkness, just because there’s that journey into the unknown. And I was reading Andre Malroux, Man’s Fate. Then there are writers who I admire who write in a political space, who are able to write about politics without it being didactic.

I think there’s an interesting conversation to be had about what the role of literature is when people write very far from their experience and into somebody else’s.

Look, I wrote this book as a last act of friendship to these Afghan soldiers who were my friends. Those guys, their story is never going to get told, so I wanted to write about the architecture of the world that they live in. Trying to render that world, to me, is the important part.

Rumpus: And you also end up looking at the people who get injured and discarded along the way.

Ackerman: In the book I wanted to throw up the scaffolding, the incentive structure, bring the reader into it. We all have that scaffolding up around us, but when it’s such a different experience from ours, a different code.

Rumpus: We think it’s very strange.

Ackerman: But we have our own strange codes.

Rumpus: We were just talking about the paradoxical Marine ethos.

Ackerman: Right. In all my writing, I’ve very interested in how people have the ideals of their behavior, and how they try to live up to those ideals, and how they move forward and make decisions. And that’s the only way to have any kind of sympathy—to understand where they’re coming from.


Phil Klay is a Marine Corps veteran and a graduate of the MFA program at Hunter College. He is the author of the short story collection Redeployment. More from this author →