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Finding friendship in the wreckage of war and revolution

After his last deployment to Afghanistan, decorated Marine veteran and writer Elliot Ackerman went to report on the civil war in Syria. What he found was friendship and a shared disillusion over the hopes of revolution. In this essay, Ackerman explores the deep wounds and strong bonds forged by war.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Now to a NewsHour essay.

    Earlier in the week, we heard what it was like to live through the wave of terrorism in Turkey from Elliot Ackerman, a decorated Marine veteran in Iraq and Afghanistan, and author of the new novel "Green on Blue."

    Tonight, Ackerman examines the legacy of a revolution and the deep wounds, but often strong bonds forged by war.

    ELLIOT ACKERMAN, Author, "Green on Blue": Five years ago this past December, the Arab Spring started when a Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, poured a can of gasoline over his head and lit himself on fire.

    He was protesting a corrupt government official's seizure of his fruit cart and scales. In the months that followed across Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and, most disastrously, Syria, revolution spread.

    Today, there is no revolution left in the Arab world, only war. Yet, the revolutionaries remain. They are particularly prevalent among Syria's growing diaspora. When the Arab Spring began, I was in Afghanistan on my last deployment, ending combat service that had started in Iraq seven years before.

    And instead of returning home, I returned to the Middle East, writing about the conflict in Syria from Turkey's southern border. Working as a journalist, I believed at first that my experience as a Marine in America's unpopular wars would prove a liability when speaking to former revolutionaries.

    Slowly, thanks to close Syrian friends, what I found was quite the opposite. A bond existed between us. And this surprised me. One of these friends was Abed, an activist from Damascus now living in Southern Turkey.

    Proud as Abed was of his role as an organizer in the 2011 protests, he felt deeply conflicted about his participation. Abed believed in the revolution's ideals. He still did, yet he couldn't deny that the very forces of change he helped unleash created a power vacuum exploited by extremists like the Islamic State.

    Sipping tea or having dinner on any given night, Abed would begin by asserting that the revolution wasn't over, that, despite setbacks, hope still existed for democracy inside Syria. But by the time each evening drew to a close, he would often despair: "I wish we had never taken to the streets. I have destroyed my home."

    Abed's inability to reconcile what his revolution hoped to achieve with its outcome felt familiar to me. When it comes to America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I feel almost exactly the same conflict.

    In addition to rooting out al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan, and searching for WMD in Iraq, our nation sent me and countless others who volunteered to bring freedoms and democracy to those who had lived under violent, autocratic regimes for decades.

    Yes, it seems naive to say now, but that was one of the goals then. Just as the Syrian revolution resulted in a power vacuum filled by international jihadists, so, too, did the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    As my friendship with Abed grew, we began to speak about the parallel trajectories of our disillusionment, how high-minded ideals bogged down in the quagmire of Islamist dogma and sectarian bloodshed.

    After I had known Abed for about a year, he invited me to his wedding. The summer before the revolution, he had met a Swiss woman, a university student studying in Damascus. They would be married just outside Geneva at the Abbey Debeve along the banks of Lake Neuchatel.

    A few days before the ceremony, Abed called and asked if I would serve as his witness. We had become close, but his request was a surprise. Yet, when I arrived at the chapel, it made sense. The bride's family and friends filled the pews, but with Abed's family trapped in Damascus, I represented the entirety of the groom's party.

    As the wedding started, there were four of us, the maid of honor, the bride, Abed, and me, on a single pew. The civil ceremony was in French, which Abed does not speak, and his bride leaned toward him, quietly whispering a translation.

    As Abed struggled to understand his vows, he glanced over to me now and again, plaintively, as if apologizing that I cannot understand either.

    That a former American Marine should serve as the sole witness to a new life embarked upon by a former Syrian activist felt appropriate. My wars and his revolution had left a wake of destruction, forcing both of us to craft new lives from the wreckage.

    Sitting next to my friend, it didn't seem to matter that he couldn't understand the particulars of his vows. What mattered was the choice he had made, to start again.

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