Eliot Ackerman was awarded the Silver Star, Bronze Medal for Valor and Purple Heart for his military service.Huger Foote/Penguin Random House hide caption
Huger Foote/Penguin Random House
Veteran Marine and intelligence officer Elliott Ackerman served five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and earned the Silver Star Medal for leading a platoon inThe Battle of Fallujahin Iraq. For him, Veterans Day is a time for reconnection.
"Especially as a Marine and a veteran of the Battle of Fallujah, which began on November 9, 2004, this week in November is kind of like the big holiday for veterans," says Ackerman. "It kind of rolls out during the week and it's usually just a time with old friends, we all reach out to each other... We always find each other during that week."
In his 2019 memoir, Places and names,Ackerman reflected on his military service and the years he spent afterward trying to make sense of the wars he fought in. He says the intensity of combat has fundamentally changed the way he experiences things.
"We all go through life with a certain diaphragm of what we experience: one side of the diaphragm is the good we experience, and the other side of the diaphragm is the bad," he says. "And I think what war does ... is it kind of opens you up."
Ackerman says that during his struggle he saw "the absolute, most extreme forms of depravity that humans are capable of" — as well as "the absolute, most noble, heroic and selfless acts that humans are capable of."
After leaving the service, Ackerman turned to writing as a way to adjust to life outside the confines of war. He co-authored, with former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Admiral James Stavridis, the recent novel,2034,which depicts a world war starting with a conflict between the United States and China. At the heart of the novel is the fact that the United States can no longer claim the military supremacy it once assumed it had in the world.
“What Admiral James Stavridis and I did2034was trying to imagine what it would look like if we were involved in a war where many of our technology platforms and our legacy platforms that we've relied on for many, many years were rendered irrelevant,” says Ackerman.
Highlights from the interview
To the fascination of war
War has a fascination that I think is just connected to humanity. I've always thought that being against war is like being against a hurricane or a tornado. While one is a destructive force of nature, the other is a destructive force of human nature. So there is just something connected in us. ...
I grew up watching movies likePlatoor movie likeFull metal jacket, ... [where] the author's intent was to be anti-war, but I could tell you that any Marine has seen e.g. the movieFull metal jacket. The theme of this movie is the Marine Corps, and it's something that makes them excited to be Marines and excited about the prospect of fighting. Therefore, it is often consumed as pro-war. So I think my fascination with war was just something that was hardwired into me. And I think it's very difficult to tell war stories that are actually anti- or pro-war. 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 walk away from it with whatever they want.
About how war is more about what you hear than what you see
When you're at war, you don't really see war. It's more that you hear it. So the sense you engage with the most is your sense of hearing. It is very rare that you see the person who shoots you, you hear the person who shoots you. ... It was probably one of the things that surprised me the most, was how little you actually see and how everything you experience is often experienced through sound. ... What I find scarier than something that's too loud is something that sounds too close. ...
[Your hearing] becomes highly tuned and your sense of time becomes distorted as well. And to this day, the most intense engagements I've been involved in, I still have trouble locating them on a timeline, ie. this moment lasted 10 minutes and this moment seven minutes. They just blur into this miasma where maybe three minutes feels like two hours and then two hours feels like 15 minutes. So time does very strange things in battle.
About how becoming a father changed him as a Marine
I had my first child right at the end of my time in the service. I only had one mission as a father. ... I saw every Marine I had served with and had a completely different family. When I'm in my mid-late 20s or even 30s, and I take certain risks, I know that if something happens to me, well, my family will fall apart, and my boyfriend, and later my fiance, you will be crushed. But it is a completely different level of loss when a child loses a parent, and you can only understand that when you are a parent yourself. And it honestly made me look at wars differently, the guys that I would see on the battlefield. Once you become a parent, you see them differently, you see them as your own child. So it made me experience war very, very differently.
On the difference between killing and killing in war
It is a very clear answer: It is the state. War is state-sanctioned murder. So when someone asks you, "So, did you kill someone there?" ... These are not people trying to offend. They are trying to connect. And the reason I answer with, "If I did, you paid me," is because the "state," [which is] you, are the ones who sent me. That's what makes it different.
But when you think about war, the contradiction is hard-wired into war, because why do we go to war? We go to war to protect the state. Or in another way, to protect our culture. And really [in] every culture, one of the basic principles that it's built on, that keeps us from just being wild, is the rule in countless cultures of "thou shalt not kill." So the contradiction built into war is that we engage in state-sanctioned killing to preserve our state or culture, which in many ways is based on respect for core values like "thou shalt not kill" and the latent contradiction that exists in war is also one of the variables that I believe contributes to the insanity associated with wars. War feels a little crazy when you're in it.
With the award of the Silver Star for bravery
I never woke up and [said] "I feel really brave today." ... But if you're like me, you might have felt scared before. I definitely felt fear. I know exactly how that feels. That said, I've seen people, Marines, civilians, journalists, I've seen them do some really brave things in my life. I've seen Marines run across the street, their buddy gets shot in the street, and the next one runs and pulls him off the street. So what makes a Marine run after his buddy? What is the feeling? That is not bravery. There is something else you feel at that moment. If I had to say one word, I would say it's love. You love each other. That's why you do these things.
But there is a cruel irony in war that is not always apparent when you start the journey, which is that you start with a group of people as you prepare to go to war, you train together, you get to know each other , you become each other's best friends. In the military we use more clinical terms like "unit cohesion" or "esprit de corps" to describe this, but what you're really doing is you're creating these bonds of love that you have to bond as a unit so that you can do one thing: complete the mission. And you are taught in the military that the mission always comes first because some of you will be killed trying to accomplish that mission. And it's a bit of a bitter irony that if you're in any kind of leadership position, giving orders from corporal to general, at some point you may find yourself in a moment where you'll have to make a decision to complete the mission that you command your friends, the people, in my case, the marines you love, sure to be hurt, sometimes killed. And so really the central dilemma in war is that you must often end up destroying what you love. And that can lead to a lot of subsequent breakouts. And we all know the frustration of veterans coming home from war. And I will say that your heart cannot be broken if you are not in love.
In the struggle to find meaning and purpose outside of war
I think... to be happy you have to have a sense of purpose, right? ... Well, when you go to war at a relatively young age, I would say you develop a kind of dysfunctional relationship with purpose. So you're in your late teens, early 20s, and let's say you're in Afghanistan and you have to man a mountain outpost, or you're in Iraq and you have to secure as many city blocks as you able to. And you have this, at least on a tactical level, as a pretty clear mission, and you're trying to accomplish that mission with a group of people who will probably end up being some of the best friends you'll ever have in your life. So if the purpose is the happy substance, at a very young age you freely base the crystal method with purpose. There is nothing more intense than the sense of purpose you have every day. And you do that for a while, and you go back to those wars and strengthen those friendships.
But at some point the war ends for you and you go home. And when you come home, years later, you have to find your happiness, you have to redefine yourself. And so you look out there, you look around, and 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 do, you will redefine yourself. And when you look at those options, if you've done the crystal target method before, well, none of those [options] are that intense. It's more like Coors Light in purpose. And you realize you're going to spend the rest of your life sitting on your front porch drinking Coors Light. And some depression shows up. People talk a lot about PTSD, and there's a guy where people suffer from really intense flashbacks and nightmares, and it's a very real thing. So what I'm saying is not to dismiss it, but there's this other type of PTSD that I would kind of relate to just that, this meaninglessness, this inability to find meaning outside of the war.
Amy Salit and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio for this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Petra Mayer adapted it for the web.