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Elliott Ackerman's view of war

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Writer, decorated Marine will read from his debut novel


Elliot Acerkman's new book.Elliot Ackerman will read from his debut novel “Green on Blue” ($17.99, Scribner) at Powell’s on Hawthorne at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 4, and will share his experience as a former Marine and recipient of the Silver Star, the Bronze Star for Valor and the Purple Heart. Today he lives in Turkey.

His novel is a “portrait in miniature” of the war in Afghanistan told from the point of view of an orphaned soldier named Aziz.

The Tribune caught up with Ackerman, a Los Angeles native, before his appearance here:

Tribune: When did you begin writing this book, and what motivated you?

Ackerman: I started writing this 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 Aziz’s story, a story of imagination but one inspired by the men and friends I’d come to know as a special operations adviser to Afghan soldiers. I’d 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 VFW. They were Afghan soldiers. We’d fought together, bled together, mourned friends together. And trapped as they were in Afghanistan’s elliptical conflict, I knew I’d never see them again. To reckon with that loss, I wrote this book to illumine their world in a last act of friendship.

Tribune: Can you tell our readers about your military experience and how it made telling the fictional story of Aziz and the other characters possible?

Ackerman: I joined the Marines at 18 and was commissioned as an officer straight out of college in 2003, five years later, an interesting time with the invasion of Iraq that spring. I was raised by a financier father and a novelist mother, and although I was that little boy who never stopped playing with G.I. Joes, the Marines wasn’t the obvious choice. I chose to serve because I didn’t want to spend my early 20s scouring spreadsheets at a bank or making photocopies at a law firm. For better or worse, I wanted a job with actual responsibility, where my performance really mattered, and it did in the Marines — it mattered in terms of lives.

Yet this novel is most certainly not my experience. It is informed by my understanding of the Afghan war. My ambition was to try to render that war in miniature, an incredibly complex conflict that’s been ongoing since 1979. I wanted to show the economies which surround war, the manner in which war elevates its participants — making them commanders, contractors, informants — and show how once those structures are in place war becomes a force which feeds on itself, often being fought for every reason but its end. I witnessed these dynamics first hand, but I had many readers, both Afghan and American, who helped me to correctly render many details that I might have forgotten or which were outside of my experience.

Tribune: Why did you decide to choose to have your novel narrated by an orphaned soldier?

Ackerman: One remarkable thing about Afghanistan is that it’s a country that has been at war for 37 years. The average life expectancy for an Afghan male is around 60. That means the generation of Afghans who are currently dying were in their early 20s when the Soviets invaded in 1979. They are the last Afghans who can remember their country at peace, none of the young people can. For this reason, peace in Afghanistan is not an act of returning to a previous state which everyone can remember. Instead, conjuring peace has become an act of sheer imagination. I think if we can imagine the war through another’s eyes then perhaps we can imagine peace as well.

Tribune: Readers learn how cycles of revenge and honor flow through Pashtun culture. The bombing that injures Ali is what drives Aziz and defense of nang (honor): their father’s death before that. Is this one of the reasons you refer to the war in Afghanistan as elliptical? What are some of the others reasons you call it elliptical?

Elliot AckermanAckerman: Many of those themes are addressed in the novel’s title. “Green on Blue” is slang for the ubiquitous Afghan-on-American killings which have become the hallmark of that war — green being U.S. military, shorthand for Afghan Army soldiers, blue its own. In the novel, the term serves as a metaphor for the journey taken by several of my characters. What happens when all you fight to protect threatens to destroy you? That’s Aziz’s story, the story of my Afghan friends who have been consumed by their war, and we Americans who have been consumed in much the same way.

Tribune: The reader understands the war much better reading only a few chapters in, and it’s told in a way that doesn’t seem to ask that we make moral judgments on the characters’ actions. So I think you succeed very well if that is one of your goals.

Ackerman: That’s kind of you to say. Thank you.

Tribune: Fiction seems to have succeeded where newspaper stories and radio reports have failed. Why do you suppose that is?

Ackerman: When he accepted his Nobel Prize, William Faulkner said it is “the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.” Tracing the topography of that heart is what most novelists are doing through their subjects. I think fine writing, the type that lasts, addresses that human heart in conflict with itself. Nowhere is that conflict more acute than in war when we abandon one of the fundamental rules of civilization: “Thou shalt not kill.” In effect, we abandoned our civilized selves so that we might do violence to defend our society and then, often impossibly, try to return to who we were before the killing. This is a conflict of the heart which fiction is well-suited to explore.

Tribune: I’m curious what your life is like in Istanbul. Do you live there full-time? What’s a normal day? Do you support yourself as a writer and journalist?

Ackerman: A normal day in Istanbul is much like any other. I’m usually at my desk all morning, working on whatever project I have going — book, essay, etc. — and then spend the evenings with my son and daughter, who are 3 and 5, respectively. The city has a large expat community of writers, journalists, filmmakers, photographers, etc. Many people who are doing creative work in the Middle East base themselves out of Istanbul. It is relatively cheap, beautiful, and Turkish Airways flies direct anywhere in the world pretty much. The politics have become quite difficult (there). Many of my Turkish friends who are journalists have been threatened with prison time. A few of their colleagues are in prison.

Tribune: I read that you’ve also covered the war in Syria for various publications. What do you think is our biggest misunderstanding about the Syrian war? In your opinion did President Obama’s foreign policy there fail to keep ISIS from flourishing?

Ackerman: The war in Syria and the war in Iraq are inextricably linked at this point. They are basically one and the same. Though I am critical of President Bush’s policies, I am also critical of President Obama’s. One might say that the great strategic mistake of the Bush Administration was putting the troops into Iraq. One could just as easily say that the great strategic mistake of the Obama Administration was pulling the troops out of Iraq. These wars are not over. They have never been over. And they will continue as long as we allow them to go on. I don’t know how this all ends, but I think that question is one which will define our age.

Tribune: I look forward to reading your next book. What are you working on next?

Ackerman: My next novel, “Dark at the Crossing,” will be published by Knopf in January 2017. It is a contemporary love story set on the Turkish border with Syria. I am also finishing a book of essays about the Syrian civil war.