MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
When he was 24 years old, Elliot Ackerman found himself in the thick of the biggest battle the Marine Corps had fought in in decades - Fallujah, Iraq. The year was 2004, and Ackerman was commanding a rifle platoon. He eventually served five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and then, in 2011, with a Silver Star and a Purple Heart to his name, he took off his uniform for good. But Ackerman would soon return to the Middle East to wrestle with all he had seen, not as a soldier but as a writer.
ELLIOT ACKERMAN: I was drawn back to wanting to have an experience that would be as meaningful as ones that I had had before. I had always felt and still feel like I want to have a life driven by purpose.
KELLY: Elliott Ackerman writes about his wars in his new memoir, "Places And Names." It documents his now decade-plus trying to make sense of the wider wars and turmoil in the region.
ACKERMAN: If the experience is at the center of a circle, it's me trying to stand at every single point on the circumference of that circle to look at that experience from all angles, from the person I was when I was 24, to the person I became as a writer, to meeting with the people I fought against. A significant threat of this book is a friendship I made with a person who was a member of al-Qaida in Iraq, who fought in Al Anbar Province. And so in many respects, the journey of the book is sort of this circular journey around this circumference, you know, and then right at the middle of it are these combat experience.
KELLY: And that's really the way you thought of it, was you in a circle and - in the middle of the circle and turning and seeing it from all the vantage points?
ACKERMAN: No, it's actually the way I'm thinking about it right now.
ACKERMAN: I think...
KELLY: It would have been a great organizing principle of the book...
ACKERMAN: But I....
KELLY: ...Had you thought of it that...
ACKERMAN: But I think it's true. I'm always just trying to look at it from every angle.
KELLY: Let me ask you about the fighter for al-Qaida in Iraq, a man named Abu Hassar. Why did you want to meet him?
ACKERMAN: Well, I was working in southern Turkey. And so my friend Abed (ph) shows up one day, and he says to me - he says, you know, I was down in a Chalkero (ph) refugee camp today, and I met this guy who I think you should meet. He fought for al-Qaida in Iraq, but I think the two of you would really get along. So I'm sort of up for anything. I said, ok, well, let's go meet with him.
So the idea of the meeting was basically two veterans of the Iraq war sit down to talk about the war, but we fought on opposite sides. And that meeting was basically a bet on my part that, you know, the experiences I had had fighting were the defining experiences of my young life. And that whole time you're fighting, you're engaged in sort of a shadow dance because your partner is someone you never see and you never meet. And I had a curiosity about, you know, who I was doing that dance with. And my bet was that he would have a similar curiosity about me. And what other underlying antipathy might have existed would have been overcome by our mutual curiosity about one another.
KELLY: But just to underscore how surreal this meeting and this lunch must've been, you are a former Marine Corps - commanded a rifle platoon in Fallujah. You're sitting at lunch with Mr. al-Qaida in Iraq. You two do not speak a mutual language, right? He doesn't speak English; you don't really speak Arabic.
KELLY: And at one point, you bring out your notebook, and you turn it to a clean page, and you start to draw. And I wonder if you would just read us where you write about this in the book.
KELLY: I'm going to turn you to Page 27.
(Reading) First, I sketch out a long, oscillating ribbon, running the top left to the bottom right of the page - the Euphrates. Abu Hassar quickly recognizes this. He takes the pencil from my hand and draws the straight borderline between Iraq and Syria, one that cuts through a tabletop of hardpan desert. Along the border he's made, I write a single name - Al-Qa'im (ph). Next to that name, Abu Hassar writes - 06, period, 2005. I nod back and write 09, period, 2004. I travel farther down the Euphrates and write another name and another date. Our hands now chase each other's around the map, mimicking the way we'd once chased each other around this country.
KELLY: Was that something you'd planned to do before lunch, or it just occurred to you?
ACKERMAN: No. What wound up happening was we had this conversation, and the entire time my friend Abed is translating for us. And at a certain point, Abed, exhausted by translating, excused himself to take a break. And as intensely as we'd been speaking suddenly, Abu Hassar and I are sitting across the table from one another, and we can't talk. And we are as awkward as two 13-year-olds on their first date, kind of looking at our hands and staring around.
And so we started drawing this map. And in that interaction, you know, what occurred to me was that this language of places and names and the dates was a language that we shared, and frankly, it was one my friend Abed couldn't have translated even if he wanted to.
KELLY: You fought the same war...
KELLY: ...Just different sides. I'm going to ask you about another moment. This was in Erbil, in northern Iraq. You - I mean, you fought in two wars - Iraq and Afghanistan - that didn't really have a frontline, and you write that you wanted to see one. So in 2014, as ISIS forces are sweeping through Iraq, you arrange to go to Erbil, where Kurdish fighters are trying to hold a frontline, trying to hold off the advance of ISIS. And what did you find?
ACKERMAN: I found what I think you always find in wars, when you actually go right up to the frontline, and you see what is, you know, holding back the hordes or keeping all civilization from collapsing are just a handful of people with some rusty, old rifles.
KELLY: Did it also get you thinking about what it means to win a war, like the war that the U.S. has been involved in in Iraq?
ACKERMAN: Well, I think you realize, when you look historically, that, you know, these binary concepts of winning and losing wars - that's actually the outlier. There are just as many wars that lead to these interminable quagmires as there are wars, like our prototypical wars that we all look to, sort of our American horror story, which is the Second World War, which was very clear. And there was a beginning, there was an end, and there was a reconstruction afterwards. But if anything, that is actually the outlier case. And usually wars just sort of fizzle on.
KELLY: It also prompts the question of - as you look at the Middle East now, to what extent it's all one war?
ACKERMAN: I think it's absolutely all one war, and I think that's been one of the things and one of the reasons that I wrote this book and came back, was this intuitive understanding that whatever we announced in Iraq when we left in 2011, you know, that it wasn't over, that it's still not over today, as we're sitting here - it's still playing out. And one of the things that's been difficult, I think, for my generation of veterans is that because the wars haven't ended, every single one of us who've left the war have had to basically make a separate peace, had - to a certain point - say, you know what? I've done my last deployment. I know other people are going to be deploying. But I'm finished.
KELLY: And what does that sound like? Is it, my war is over?
ACKERMAN: I can remember many occasions talking with friends of mine, saying, you know, we wish - you know, we wish this was even like Vietnam, when it was just sort of - it was over, or the Second World War, where it was over, and we would all go on and go to business school or do whatever we were going to do next, and it was clear there was no choice to be made; this was done.
And for this generation of veterans, I think that's been complicated because every single one of us has had to look at someone we know and care about and say, I know you're going on the next deployment, but I'm not; I'm done. And declaring that separate peace I think can be very, very complicated; I know it was complicated for me.
KELLY: Elliot Ackerman, thank you.
ACKERMAN: Yeah. Thanks for having me.
KELLY: His new book is "Places And Names: On War, Revolution And Returning."
(SOUNDBITE OF SEBASTIEN TELLIER'S "FANTINO")
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