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A Marine veteran says the contradictions of war can make you feel insane

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. Veteran's Day is tomorrow, and today we feature interviews with and about veterans. Elliot Ackerman is a former Marine and intelligence officer who has become a reflective and elegant writer about war and its consequences. He was awarded a Silver Star for leading a platoon in one of the worst battles of the war in Iraq and the Battle of Fallujah, during urban house-to-house combat. The citation said his contagious combat leadership and ability to instill this type of dedication is the stuff of legends. In his memoir "Places And Names," he wrote about what was going on in his mind during the battle when his men took a lot of lives while losing members of their own platoon. In a New York Times review of the memoir, Anne Barnard described it as a classic meditation on war and how it compels and resists our efforts to order it with meaning.

Ackerman did five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and was nearly killed at the end of his final tour. Ackerman has also written several novels and has been published in The New Yorker and The Washington Post. He's also a contributing writer for The New York Times and The Atlantic. His most recent article in The Atlantic, titled "A Knife Fight In A Phone Booth," is about urban combat and what Israeli troops are likely to face in Gaza.

Terry spoke to Elliot Ackerman in 2021. He told her as a young man, he was fascinated by the depictions of war he saw in films and TV.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: Did war feel anything like what you imagined it would feel like?

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: I think the thing that's often not conveyed in film is that when you're in war, you don't really see war. You actually - it's more that you hear it. So the sense that you're engaging with most is your sense of hearing. So, you know, it's very rare to see the person who's shooting at you. You hear the person who's shooting at you. So that might be a very kind of tactical answer to that question, but that was probably one of the things that surprised me the most, was how little you actually see and how everything your experience - is often experienced through sound.

GROSS: And the sound was sometimes really loud, like ear-shattering loud.

ACKERMAN: Ear-shattering loud, or the thing I think that's scarier than something that sounds very, very loud is something that sounds very, very close.

GROSS: So your hearing became really attuned.

ACKERMAN: Yeah. It becomes very attuned. And your sense of time also warps. And the - to this day, the most intense engagements that I was involved in, I still have a hard time locating them on a timeline, meaning, you know, oh, this moment took 10 minutes, and this moment took seven minutes. They just sort of blur into this, you know, miasma where maybe three minutes felt like two hours, and then two hours felt like 15 minutes. So time does very weird things in combat.

GROSS: In your memoir, "Places And Names," you have a section - it's the last chapter of the book - in which you quote from the long citation when you were awarded a Silver Star for bravery. And so you juxtapose excerpts of that citation with what was actually going through your mind at the time of the Battle of Fallujah, which is what earned you the citation. You were leading a platoon in urban combat in the early days of the Iraq War. And there's an excerpt I'd like you to read. This kind of is a back-to-back version of the citation and what's going through your mind. And before you do the reading, let me just quote one more line from the citation for your Silver Star.

(Reading) Lieutenant Ackerman's heroic actions during this period, the Battle of Fallujah, reflect a level of bravery, composure under fire, and combat leadership that is beyond expectation.

So would you read the excerpt of the citation along with what you were thinking during the battle?

ACKERMAN: Sure. Sure. It begins with part of the citation. I think you'll be able to tell the portions where I'm filling in the gaps.

(Reading) During the course of the fighting in Fallujah, his platoon took casualties without the slightest degradation of motivation, professionalism or effectiveness. I can't take it anymore, one of the Marines tells me. We're four days into the battle. His squad leader said he needed to talk to me. He said, I keep thinking about my daughter. Every time I go into a house, I think about her. He is crying, and the other Marines are watching, and I know that fear is contagious. Do you want me to get you out of here, I ask. He keeps muttering that he can't take it. Twenty minutes later, I'm loading him into an amtrack that will drive him out of Fallujah alongside wounded Marines. He and Pratt, another Marine of the platoon, are married to a set of sisters. Pratt says he'll never speak to him again.

GROSS: How did you know whether to send this Marine away - because he was so afraid, and fear is contagious, or whether you really needed to keep him in the platoon during this battle?

ACKERMAN: You know, before I ever set foot in front of a rifle platoon, I had trained for the better part of six years, if you count, you know, all the time I did in college, all the summer trainings I did in college, all the training I did after college in Quantico. And the Marine Corps does an exceptional job training you and preparing you for moments like this - you know, to include classes on psychology, what they call killology (ph) in the Marine Corps, sort of the - you know, the science of the mind and how it deals with killing and understanding, you know, how - frankly, how fear works and that, as I mentioned there, it is contagious. So when that happened, I - you know, I knew from my training and from all the conversations we had about this that, you know, this - I got to get this - first of all, for the sake of this Marine, I need to probably get him off the line, and I need to do it in a way that segregates him from everybody else.

The part that was a little bit more complicated is, as I mentioned, this one Marine - he and another Marine in the platoon were engaged to - or married to a - they were married to a set of sisters. And so they were actually - you know, they were family. And probably the textbook answer at that moment was to bring the whole platoon together at a quiet time and explain, listen, you know, this Marine who we had to evacuate - he is a casualty, as though he'd been shot or anything else, and he needed to be evacuated. And you can't judge him. You can't - you know, you need to give him the space. You need to understand that he, you know, did nothing shameful. He is a psychological casualty of war.

Frankly, that was probably the textbook answer. But I also knew that there was something very personal about that Marine saying, I'm done, and I'm leaving. You know, at that point in the battle, you know, we were down - we'd started with 46 of us. We were down to 21 of us. And the leadership of our platoon had basically been decapitated. I was the platoon commander, and I was still in my position, but my second-in-command, my platoon sergeant, had been shot in the head. We had three squad leaders. Of those three squad leaders, two had been evacuated as casualties. And of our fire team leaders, four out of the six had also been evacuated.

And to see in the context of all of that, one Marine basically raise his hand and say, I'm leaving you guys 'cause I can't take it anymore - I could just look in their faces, and I could see what a personal betrayal that was. And maybe I was wrong, or maybe I was right, but in that moment, I sort of decided, you know what? Everyone's going to keep doing their job. And I'm not going to tell the Marines what they're supposed to think about this, because there's a certain portion, even in this scenario, of their souls that is theirs. And it's not my job to tell them how they're supposed to feel about this. It's - you know, they're allowed to feel how they want to about it. That was not something I had, you know, been prepared for in Quantico.

GROSS: How did you think of this Marine who said, I can't take it anymore? Did you think of him as a coward or as you described as a psychological casualty of war?

ACKERMAN: I thought about it, I think, in two terms. I could recognize that he was a psychological casualty of war, but I couldn't deny the fact, you know, as a - again, as a young lieutenant trying to hold the platoon together, he was actually one of the NCOs, a non-commissioned officer, so a leader in the platoon. And he was letting me down and saying, I know you need me right now, and you need me to lead the younger Marines, but I am not capable of doing that, so I'm walking away. So, you know, there's a duality there. You know, you can feel the betrayal, and it does feel like a betrayal, but you also know the reason for the betrayal. So it's - you know, it's tough. These aren't simple - there's no simple answers to this stuff.

GROSS: One of the things you've written - and I think it was about the Battle of Fallujah - was when you ordered, you know, fire against a group of insurgents, and there was a cloud of smoke, and they were just kind of lying on the ground, like, crumpled - that it sometimes felt more like murder. And I'm wondering why you use that word and where the line is for you between, you know, killing in war and murder. It seems like something you've thought about.

ACKERMAN: Sure. Well, I think in that section, it's a part of the book, and it's - you know, it's - it was when we called in, you know, say, a fire mission of mortar rounds on a group of troops. And, you know, we - I could see exactly where they were. I knew exactly how to call it in. And when the smoke cleared, you know, they looked like a bunch of wet rags in the street. And it was that - you know, probably the premeditation of it is what made it feel more murderous, and that we sat there for a long time, and I knew they couldn't see us and I knew exactly where they were. And I knew that my job, you know, was to kill them before they killed me.

To your question, what is the difference between that and actual murder, it's a very straightforward answer. It's the state. You know, war is state-sanctioned murder. So when someone asks you, well, did you kill someone over there, kind of as - and the people who've asked me that question have often asked - you know, ask me that, frankly, with - I mean, it might sound odd to say, but with good intention. Like, they're trying to make a connection with me. These are not people trying to offend. They're trying to connect. And the reason my response - well, if I did, you paid me to - it's because the state, meaning you - you were the ones who sent me. That's what makes this different.

But when you think about war, you know, contradiction is hard-wired into war 'cause why do we go to war? We go to war to protect the state or, put another way, to protect our civilization. And really, any civilization - one of the bedrock tenets that it's built upon that kind of keeps us from just being savages is the rule in a myriad of cultures of thou shalt not kill. So the contradiction built into war is that we engage in state-sanctioned killing in order to preserve the state or to preserve our civilization that, in many respects, is built around respect for core values like thou shalt not kill. And that latent contradiction that exists in war is also one of the variables, I think, that adds to war's latent insanity. War feels a little insane when you're in it.

MOSLEY: Elliot Ackerman, a former Marine and intelligence officer, speaking with Terry Gross in 2021. He's a contributing writer at The Atlantic and The New York Times. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOUIS SCLAVIS' "FETE FORAINE")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2021 interview with Elliot Ackerman, a former Marine and intelligence officer who served five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He received a Silver Star, the Bronze Star of Valor and the Purple Heart. He is the author of two memoirs and several novels.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: So, you know, you were awarded for bravery. Did bravery have, like, meaning for you? Do you know what I mean? Do you think, I'm brave, or do you just, like, do what you need to do?

ACKERMAN: Well, bravery's not an emotion, right? So, I mean, I don't know about you, Terry. Like, I've never - I never felt brave. I've never woke up and been like, I feel really brave today. It's not an emotion (laughter).

But if you're like me, maybe you felt fear before. I've certainly felt fear. I know exactly what that feels like. That being said, I've seen people - Marines, civilians, journalists - I've seen them do some really brave things in my life. You know, I've seen Marines - I've seen them running across the road. Their buddy gets shot on the road, and the next guy runs off and drags that guy out of the road. It's like, what makes, you know, a Marine run after his friend? It's not - what's the emotion? It's not bravery. There's something else that you feel in that moment, and if I were to put a word on it, I would say it's love. You know, you love each other. That's why you do these things.

But there is sort of a tough irony in war that is not always obvious when you start the journey, which is that, you know, you begin with a group of folks. As you're preparing to go to war, you train together. You get to know one another. You become each other's very best friends. You know, in the military, we use sort of more clinical terms like unit cohesion or esprit de corps to describe this. But what you're really doing is you are forming those bonds of love that you need to have to cohere as a unit so you can do one thing - accomplish the mission. And you are taught in the military that the mission always comes first 'cause you - some of you are going to get killed trying to accomplish that mission.

And this is sort of the bitter irony, is that if you're in any type of leadership position, giving orders, from a corporal up to a general, at a certain point, you might find yourself at a moment of consequence where you have to make a decision in order to accomplish the mission in which you are ordering your friends - these people - in my case, it was Marines - who you love, to certainly get wounded, sometimes get killed. And so really, the central dilemma in war is that you have to ultimately oftentimes destroy the very thing that you love. And that can lead to a lot of attendant heartbreak. And we all know what heartbreak looks like for veterans who come home from war. And I would posit that your heart can't break unless you are in love.

GROSS: You were almost killed toward the end of your last deployment. An IED exploded right in front of your tank? Car?

ACKERMAN: My - yeah, my - basically, the truck I was in.

GROSS: OK. Did - what went through your mind? I mean, you survived five deployments. You were at the end of the fifth. I think it's everybody's worst nightmare. Like, you go through the whole thing and then you, like, die right before it's over. You die at the last minute.

ACKERMAN: I was a new father at that point. And these wars have been going on for a long time. And I don't think - I only speak for myself, but I think many others might say this. You know, if you ask me why I was in these wars, I wouldn't, you know, have told you or sung an aria to you about how I was convinced my being there was going to, you know, solve all of the woes of the Afghan people. You know, I was there because I was, you know, a professional small-S soldier, and this is what I did. And I enjoyed it, and it was exciting. And I got a real sense of purpose out of it. You know, that's why I would tell you I was there.

But at a certain point, at least for me, it started to feel kind of gratuitous. And I was like, you know, like, I don't want to - I just, like - I don't want to get killed doing this. And I feel like maybe there are other things I want to do with my life. And that is what caused me eventually to, you know, get out. And - but the thing that's so difficult about, I think, getting out - and it's been difficult for many veterans I know who I speak to - is that in order to do that, you have to look at all your friends. And these are, you know, like, your best friends, the people you grew up with because - and all of you grew up in this war together - and say, I'm done. Yeah, the next one, you're going on that one on your own. You know, I'm sort of declaring this - you know, this separate peace. And that's tough. And in my case, you know, it puts strain on certain friendships. And, you know, it was difficult to walk away.

GROSS: I'd like to end this Veteran's Day interview by asking you to share a memory of one of your fellow Marines who did not make it back.

ACKERMAN: One of the Marines I served with who was pretty legendary in the Marines Special Operations and the Raider community is a guy named Master Sgt. Aaron Torian. Everyone called him T. And I was lucky enough to work with T in 2008 in Afghanistan. And we had planned a series of helicopter raids into a valley that the Taliban were occupying. And in order to do these raids, we had to basically build a helicopter landing zone in our remote firebase. And T was in charge of the entire Afghan labor force we'd hired to do this. And it was the night before these raids were supposed to go off. And these helicopters were going to land, and the landing zone wasn't done.

And T, he was 6'3", 220 pounds. He, you know, he used to play football. And he was one of these guys who, when 9/11 happened, basically quit what he was doing and enlisted. And I remember walking out of our firebase, and the sun was setting. And I was in a panic that this landing zone wasn't going to be finished. And I remember seeing T out there, you know, with a shovel with these hundred Afghans, you know, digging in the last parts of the landing zone. And when I went and checked on it, I could tell by his progress that this thing was actually - he was going to get it done in the nick of time.

And I just remember we're in the Hindu Kush, and the sun was setting. And he saw me checking on him. And he had this - he had a neckerchief tied over his face. He kind of looked like a cross between, you know, Billy the Kid and Achilles. And I just remember him looking up at me and, you know, holding the shovel in the air triumphantly that he had gotten it done. And six years after that, he was killed in Afghanistan in Helmand Province by an IED.

And the last time I saw him was about six months before he was killed. And he and his wife and his kids had come by my house in Washington just to have lunch because he was deploying. And, you know, I saw him on the front step. I - you know, I gave him a big hug. And I said, please don't get killed over there. I'll be so mad at you. And he just hugged me back, and that was the last time I ever saw him.

GROSS: Well, I'm sorry for your loss and for, you know, all the losses you suffered of fellow Marines and Afghan people, too, who you became close to. Thank you for being so reflective about the experience of war and the complications and paradoxes and consequences of war. I really appreciate you speaking to us today. And thank you for your writing.

ACKERMAN: Yeah, thank you, Terry. Thanks for having me on. I enjoyed the conversation.

MOSLEY: Elliot Ackerman is a former Marine and intelligence officer. His latest memoir is titled "Places And Names." And his latest novel is titled "Halcyon." After a break, fighting for democracy and freedom abroad and for civil rights at home, the Black American experience in World War II. And a review of the film "The Killer." I'm Tonya Mosley, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.