Reckoning With Afghanistan's Toll In 'Green On Blue'
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have spawned a new generation of modern war literature. Several U.S. veterans have processed their combat experience by writing memoirs, poetry, political analysis and fiction. Former Marine Corps Captain Elliott Ackerman adds to that collection with his new novel. But instead of telling a war story from the perspective of an American soldier, Ackerman inhabits the voice of a young Afghan man named Aziz who joins an American-funded militia. He joins the war against the Taliban to save his brother, but in doing so, risks losing himself. Elliott Ackerman sets up the story.
ELLIOT ACKERMAN: The novel opens with Aziz and his brother Ali, and they're both very young, and they're living in a village in the southeast of Afghanistan. And their parents are killed in a raid, and the two brothers then go to a city named Orgun where they basically eek out a living, work at a marketplace. And then Ali, who's been taking care of Aziz, the younger brother, is horribly maimed in a bombing. And in order to keep Ali in the hospital, Aziz is then recruited into the special Ashgar (ph) to go fight, and his wages will keep his brother in the hospital. And what unfolds is you see the series of situations that Aziz is placed and the series of decisions he has to make in order to survive and sustain, you know, not only himself, but also his family and those he grows to care for.
MARTIN: There is an American soldier in this story, a character named Mr. Jack. You could have easily told this story or a version of it from the perspective of an American soldier. Why did you decide not to do that - to inhabit an Afghan voice instead?
ACKERMAN: I started writing this novel a few months after my last tour in Afghanistan. And I was driven by a visceral need to tell Aziz's story, which was one of imagination, but also inspired by the men - friends I'd come to know as an advisor to Afghan soldiers. We'd fought together, bled together, were friends together, but trapped as they were in their country's elliptical conflict, you know, I knew I was never going to see them again. So to reckon with that loss, you know, I wrote this book to try to illumine their world in a last act of friendship.
MARTIN: What does badal mean? This is a word that is integral to this story, and it's a theme that runs throughout and drives your characters.
ACKERMAN: Badal is part of a Pashtun ethnic code called Pashtunwali, which translates directly as the way of the Pashtuns. And Pashtunwali has various tenants within it. Badal is one, which means revenge; nang is another, which refers to one's personal honor. And, you know, these codes are extremely important to the Pashtus. And in many respects, they're more important than Islam. As the Afghans like to say, you know, we've only been Muslims for 600 years, but we've been Pashtuns forever.
MARTIN: This is, in many ways, a kind of morality tale. I don't think I'm giving too much away by saying that the general theme that emerges is about a self-serving nature of war, and this war in particular, the U.S. war in Afghanistan. And it's far more complicated than a battle between the Taliban and U.S.-funded Afghan militias. That is the dominant narrative about this war. But you're trying to dispel that to some degree, right?
ACKERMAN: Wars have economies. And I don't mean financial economies, although, that's often part of it. Why do people continue fighting these wars? There are financial incentives. There are incentives I saw in terms of the Afghans who I advised, particularly the commanders. You know, they held positions of esteem in their society and great authority because they led many of these units. And they weren't talking about ending the war. It was a just something they did. These economies of war don't only exist for the Afghans or the Iraqis. I mean, you know, they exist within our culture as well.
MARTIN: Was there a moment or an anecdote or a person who illustrated that for you in a real way during your experience?
ACKERMAN: There was a commander I advised named Ishaq (ph). And when I worked with Ishaq, you know, we had sort of an operational rhythm. And one of the things we would do is every two weeks, we would sit down and schedule our missions. And we would look at the calendar and at the map, and I would say, so Ishaq, you know, what do you want to do? Where do you want to head off to? And Ishaq, he'd been working in this same part of Afghanistan for five years, but lived there his whole life. You know, he would point at the map and say, well, you know, Mr. Elliott, we could go up to Mankrate (ph), this one village, and say, you know, there's always going hunting up in Mankrate. So we'd block off four days on the calendar. We would drive a patrol up to Mankrate. Fifty-fifty odds we'd get into a gun fight up there. Then we'd clean up our trucks, you know, rest and refit for a couple days.
Ishaq and I would be back in his office sitting on the lumpy sofa, sipping chai, smoking cigarettes. And, you know, we'd look at the map and the calendar, and Ishaq would stroke his face. And I'd say, where do you want to go Ishaq? He'd say we could go to Rahrakure (ph). You know, Mr. Elliott, there's always good hunting in Rahrakure. But the conversation was never, well, you know, Mr. Elliott, if we go to Mankarate, and we hit them in Rahrakure, we'll go one big push to Malakshe (ph). We'll get them across the border into Pakistan. The war will be over. I can go back to raising my crops. You and your can all, you know, go to business school or whatever you want to do. And then that's it. I mean, it's just - it wasn't that type of war.
MARTIN: What was in it for him?
ACKERMAN: For him, he was the leader of a 700-man strong Afghan militia unit that employed most of his tribe. He had more in common with being a beat cop as we think of it than being a soldier. But I think the important thing to point out, too, is so did I. I never felt that we were going to hit them in one village and then go to the next village and the war would be over. You know, why was I there? And, you know, I was there because this job, working in the military, being in special operations, it was my identity. It defined me. And those types of deployments, you know, insured my promotion through the ranks. You know, these are the reasons people continue to fight wars.
MARTIN: When you think about this idea of badal, revenge killings and the individual incentives that different people have for keeping war going, how do you think about this conflict? Do you think it will ever come to a natural kind of end?
ACKERMAN: I think and I hope that as a country, we've reached a point of reflection and a point of reckoning with what the last decade plus has meant. And I don't know whether or not it's going to end, but I hope as we think about the future, we do so as sentient and considerate beings because we've entered into a new framework of war. And it's important to understand and consider it in a the clear light of day.
MARTIN: Elliott Ackerman. His new novel is called "Green On Blue." He joined us from our studios in New York. Elliot, thanks so much for talking with us.
ACKERMAN: Thanks so much for having me.
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