Veteran Elliot Ackerman’s Stories From the Battlefield

Walter Isaacson sits down with former U.S. marine Elliot Ackerman, a decorated veteran who spent five tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. He’s captured stories from the battlefield in his new memoir, “Places and Names: On War, Revolution and Returning.”

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: As a decorated marine veteran, Elliot Ackerman served five tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. He’s brought back with him stories both of heroism and the surprising and more mundane realities that are usually left out of the Hollywood epics. He spoke to our Walter Isaacson about his new memoir, “Places and Names on War, Revolution, and Returning.”

WALTER ISAACSON: Elliot, welcome to the show.


ISAACSON: Congratulations on this memoir. You go back and you find people who are fighting on the other side from you when you’re a lieutenant in the Marine Corps, and you find people who are fighting for different factions. What did you learn from them?

ACKERMAN: I think what I learned was there were lots of areas where there were real similarities, so at a certain point I sat down with a foreign member of al Qaeda when we stuck up our friendship and had a number of meetings afterwards. And there was a curiosity about one another. When were you most afraid? What was the most difficult thing about fighting us? We asked each other those questions. And those were areas where we had lots of overlap. We had fought in the same places and we had been in the country at the same time. But ultimately, there were some areas where there wasn’t overlap and most of those areas were ideological. My one friend Abu Hassar who I write about in the book, he still believes in it, here’s to a strand of Islam which is pretty radical, the one that I don’t subscribe to. And he looks at my vision of the world and can’t relate to it as well. So there’s areas of overlap and then there’s areas where there isn’t as much common ground. But I think it shouldn’t necessarily be surprising that it’s the veterans of these wars who, at the end, are the ones who start to try to reach out to one another.

ISAACSON: There’s a wonderful scene where you’re drawing the Euphrates River, is it, and you’re showing the bend and you made marks, I was here, I was here, I fought here. And you figured out where you may have overlapped.

ACKERMAN: Well, the first time we sat down, there was a moment where my friend who have come with who was Syrian, and he actually been an activist, a non-violent activist in the revolution, he was translating for us. And he ended up translating for us for about three hours and then he needed a break. And so suddenly it was myself and Abu Hassar and we couldn’t talk to one other. And so it sort of like it became as awkward. It’s like two (INAUDIBLE) on their first date like looking at my hands. And so we sketched this diagonal line across the page where he recognized Euphrates, and then he wrote the name of a place and handed me the — and a number next to it. And he handed me a pencil and I realized what he was doing. And I put a number next to his number then he wrote a place to the number and I put a number next to his number. And sort of as we once chased each other around the country, our hands were chasing each other around this map, and we were trying to see if the numbers, meaning the dates, lined up in these places. And what I realized in that moment was that that was a language of places and names that even if my friend Abed, who was translating for us, had been there, he wouldn’t have been able to translate. And that was a common language that Abu Hassar and I shared.

ISAACSON: And you call your memoir “Places and Names.” Is that from that?

ACKERMAN: It is from that but it’s also from I think a whole breadth of writing about the wartime experience that really is trying to distill down what going to war is in a way that’s devoid of the rhetoric of ideology, all of the slashes, what is the truth of this experience? And it’s often been said that at the end of the day, the only thing you can say about the experience and the only truth of the experience are the places, the dates, the names where people fought and that’s the only thing that is really just devoid of all the grand rhetoric that often accompanies war.

ISAACSON: Don’t other wars have not only that grand rhetoric but that deep meaning, compared to these 20 years now of wars we have been fighting in the Middle East where we’re still struggling to find what was the meaning of these?

ACKERMAN: Yes. So I think in the past, we’ve had wars that have had at least a clearer beginning, middle and end. And one of the things that’s been unique about these forever wars, as they’ve been termed, or I would say our 9/11 wars, is that they haven’t ended. And that’s put the people who fought in them in an interesting position. And what I mean by that is that for each person who has left the wars like I have, at a certain point you’ve had to declare your own separate piece and say the war is over for me, so there hasn’t been a surrender ceremony on a battleship or even helicopters taking off from the roof of the embassy in Saigon, for Vietnam. For us, each of us who’s left is that to t a certain point, frankly turn to your friends who are still deploying and say, hey, guys, like this is the last one for me, I’m leaving. And that’s a complicated decision.

ISAACSON: You got the silver star for your fighting in the Second Battle of Fallujah. And yet throughout your memoir, you hardly talk about it. And then at the very end, there is a citation you get and you annotate it and describe it. Why did you do it that way?

ACKERMAN: When I had read that summary of action in the past, I always felt it was incomplete. It was incomplete of the many humanizing moments of what went on during the battle.

ISAACSON: Give me an example of that.

ACKERMAN: For instance, you know, there is a part where they talk about a situation where I had to go run out and coordinate with a pair of tanks that were trying to shoot at insurgent positions. It’s very difficult for tanks to see. I ran out to the tanks. On the back of the tanks, they have a little phone. They call it the grunt phone and it’s basically just a receiver. So you make the run of your life out into the street, and you can see the bullets impacting on a tank. It’s like you’re sliding into home plate. You get there. You get to the grump phone. You’re crouched behind this tank. And you can hear the bullet impacts on the tank, and you’re trying to tell these tankers where to shoot. I took that grunt phone and I pull it to my ear. And do you know what I heard? Britney Spears. Baby hit me one more time. Because the tankers would play on their internal communication system. They weren’t talking to each other. They were playing music. And later on, the tank commander said, “Oh, yes, sir, we keep the music going so everybody in the tank stays very frossty, very cool.” And so the surreality of being in a fire fight, taking the grunt phone to your ear and hearing Britney Spears, that’s never going to make it into an official word citation. But I want people to know that because that is just true as anything else. But I’d say also one of the overarching things that never gets in there, too, is the complexity of any of these awards. And then just remembering the wars, whether there’s an award associated to it or not, I’d say you’re often being honored for what is, in some respects, the worst day of your life. Because they only hand out these awards when everything goes wrong. When everything goes right, you’re just doing your job and there’s no need to hand out the awards. So there’s a real duality to that experience.

ISAACSON: What causes courage?

ACKERMAN: Courage isn’t an emotion.

ISAACSON: What causes bravery?

ACKERMAN: Well, fear is an emotion. So people say courage is the opposite of fear, but that’s not really true. So I know what it feels like to be afraid. I’ve been afraid many times in my life. But I’ve never felt brave, I’ve never felt courage. So I’ve seen marines do incredibly brave things for one another. And it’s always actually out of love. Love is the opposite of fear. The reason people are able to successfully conquer their fears is out of love for one another. But there is this interesting paradox, an obvious that exists in war, which is a group of people get together, they have to go to war. They train for months and months. They form these bonds. In the military, we call it esprit de corps, cohesion, whatever you want to call it. And that cohesion basically, those bonds of friendship of camaraderie, they’re basically just another word for love. So you build these bonds of love so that you can go to war. And you’re going to war and you have to complete a mission. The reason you’re there is to accomplish a mission. And the mission always comes first. It comes before the men, because otherwise you wouldn’t even go on the mission. So you’ve got a group of people who have been trained, who love one another, who have to achieve a mission. And ultimately, they’re sacrificed to achieve the mission. It’s sort of the nature of war at the end of the day, particularly at the higher ends, is that you have to go out and sacrifice the thing you love. You have to destroy the very thing you love. And then you come back, and often times people feel this sense of heartbreak. But your heart can’t break unless you’re in love.

ISAACSON: You fought in the 9/11 wars, [13:45:00] meaning Iraq and then Afghanistan. That sort of melds in history and in your book into what I would call the Arab Spring wars, like Syria. Does the United States have either the ability or the awareness of being involved in this situation?

ACKERMAN: You know, I think one of the things that we as Americans often do is we believe we are the central actors, the protagonist in every single story and that’s obviously gotten us into a lot of trouble in the past. And when I’ve spent time in Iraq, Syria, Turkey, it’s very clear on the ground that we are not the central actors. The central actors are obviously the people who live there who are trying to determine the future of their own countries. And we as Americans, are ancillary actors, much as the Iranians are, much as the Russians are. And we have a part to play but not the central part to play. Because we as Americans often believe that there is just sort of this policy alchemy that if we can just get it right, all these issues will be solved. And they’re not necessarily for us to solve and they’re for these people to solve for themselves. And we can play an important supporting role but a supporting role nevertheless.

ISAACSON: You came from a wealthy family. Your father is a financier, your mother was great novelist and writer, you have a brother I think is a math mathematician and a wrestler. And yet you enlisted. Why?

ACKERMAN: I think it’s three reasons. First was I wanted a job where whether I was good at my job or bad at my job mattered. I think otherwise I wanted responsibility at a relatively young age. I grew up overseas for part of my youth, at least. And I think being an outsider looking at America just gave me an appreciation I might not have otherwise had so maybe I wanted to give something back. And lastly, I always had an innate interest in the military. I was that kid who never stopped playing with his G.I. Joes. And sort of a confluence of those three things led me to join the Marine Corps.

ISAACSON: So you joined the Marines and you also became part of the Special Forces there, right?


ISAACSON: So describe that.

ACKERMAN: When I joined the Marines, I went into the infantry, which is what one usually would do. And then I had the opportunity after three years to go into Marine Special Operations where I served in Afghanistan as an adviser to Afghan troops. So a small team of about a dozen marines with about 700 or 800 Afghans and then the Afghans we advised were part of an Afghan commando battalion. And our mission was to run, capture, kill operations against senior Taliban leadership in Western Afghanistan.

ISAACSON: And you said that when you killed somebody in war, it felt like murder. What do you mean by that?

ACKERMAN: I wrote that specifically about fighting in Fallujah. In one case where we had moved very deep into the city, and we basically set up an ambush. And the sun came up one morning and we saw a group of insurgents who were basically walking to the front line and we initiated our ambush. They weren’t expecting it. In those moments, that’s what it is, that’s the nature of war. The nature of war — and Klauswitz said it in the 18th Century. The nature of war is slaughter. Lest you ever be confused about that, that’s what it is at the end of the day.

ISAACSON: And you think it would be useful for at least most Americans to have the potential or possibility of being exposed to that before we go to war again?

ACKERMAN: I think it would actually be the quickest way to bring us to peace. I think these wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have gone on for 18 years, they haven’t gone on for 18 years because we haven’t been able to find the exact calibration of policies to bring it to an end. They’ve gone on for 18 years because we’ve allowed them to go on for 18 years. Imagine in this country, we just finished a few months ago the furor over this college admissions scandal where we saw what, elite families, in this country would be willing to do the lengths they would be willing to go to to get their children into college. Imagine if those same families of elites had a child who’s eligible for the draft. Even in those 1 in 20 chance that that child would be draft into the U.S. military, do you think we would still be fighting an 18-year war in Afghanistan, or do you think we would be flirting with the idea of going to war in Iran? It would be far more difficult to continue these forever wars and to engage in wars in the future. So when I say I support a draft, I don’t support a draft for the militarization of America, I support it for the demilitarization of American society.

ISAACSON: How would you structure it?

ACKERMAN: People often assume that a draft means everyone who serves in the military is conscripted and it’s never been that way. It’s always been a percentage. In fact, the majority of people who fought in Vietnam were not actually draftees. They were volunteers. So a draft could be as little as 10 percent, 5 percent of the U.S. Military. But having a limited component would have a significant result in all Americans feeling like they had some skin in the game, if there was the potential that they themselves or their child could be drafted, but it wouldn’t necessarily diminish the overall effectiveness of the Armed Forces. Another criticism that has come up in the past, and you particularly saw it with Vietnam, was this idea that people with names, people who were elected, who were well-connected will be able to find some type of deferment and way to get out of the draft. And I think that’s worth looking at. And so I would suggest that people who are drafted only be allowed to go into — sent to combat arms, meaning the infantry tanks would be men and women because women can serve in every single capacity in the U.S. Military now. And furthermore, that the people who would be eligible for the draft would be children whose families register in the top income bracket of this country. So you wouldn’t wind up with a war like Vietnam where only people who have a lower socioeconomic status were drafted, where people who were wealthy were able to get out of the draft, student deferments or well-connected podiatrists, for instance.

ISAACSON: In your novels and in your memoir, you talked about a sense of purpose. When you left the military, did you feel for a while that there was even in your life no longer the exact feeling of purpose?

ACKERMAN: One of the things the military does is it gives you a very acute and clear sense of purpose. And I think all of us to be happy in life, we need to have a purpose. So to give you like a very basic example, there’s a man, he works a job, a job puts food on the table for his family, sees his family grow. They then get a better education than him. That gives him his purpose and from that he directs his happiness. When you go off to the wars at 19, 20-years-old, you develop a dysfunctional relationship with purpose because it’s so intense. You have a mission. Let’s say it’s to secure mountain top in Afghanistan or a few city blocks in Baghdad, and you’re trying to achieve that mission with a group of of people who will probably become some of your very best friends. So a purpose is this drug that induces happiness at 19 and 20-years-old and you’re sort of free basing the crystal meth, the purpose. Like there is nothing more intense than what you are going to do. And you do that for two years, three years, four years, however long you’re going to do it, and eventually you have to come home. When you come home, you have to repurpose yourself. So maybe you’re going to go back to college, maybe you’ll get a job at Home Depot or sell real estate, whatever you’re going to do. And you look at the various things you can do and the various purposes and there not that crystal meth, the purpose, they’re like Coors Light. And you realize that you’re going to spend the rest of your life basically sitting on your front porch drinking Coors Light and a certain depression sets in. And there are people who have acute PTSD, flashbacks, nightmares, things like that and this is a very real thing. There’s a far greater swath of people I know who pressed with something much more insidiousness is that type of purposelessness. And for myself coming back, I needed to repurpose myself. I did that by becoming a writer, becoming a journalist and that’s allowed me to channel that energy into something positive. But I think for anyone, when you feel as though you’ve reached the summit of something, you then have to reckon with the dissent.

ISAACSON: You take your kids occasionally and I think on July 4th, to walk through Arlington Cemetery, right? Do you want them to join the military? Do you feel it would be important for them?

ACKERMAN: I don’t. I want them to do whatever they want to do. I want them to be free and unencumbered by any experiences that I’ve had and to live their lives. What I do do, though, is I want them to know who I am. I tell them stories and I tell them stories about my friends. This is how I honor my friends, particularly my friends in Arlington, because in my mind my kids know the stories. If they know about Dozambech, or Dan Malcolm, or Arian Torian. And they remember those stories. They remember going there with me. Maybe they’ll tell their kids and then my friends could live.

ISAACSON: Elliot, thank you for joining us.

ACKERMAN: Thanks for having me.

ISAACSON: Appreciate it.

About This Episode EXPAND

Eduardo Bhatia and Christiane Amanpour discuss the resignation of Puerto Rico’s governor. Margaret MacMillan and Sarah Lyall join the program to unpack the week’s events in the United Kingdom. Former U.S. marine Elliot Ackerman sits down with Walter Isaacson to discuss stories from the battlefield and his new memoir, “Places and Names: On War, Revolution and Returning.”