Elliot Ackerman served as a Marine infantry and special forces officer in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2003 to 2011, at the height of the War on Terror. In Afghanistan, he also worked as a combat advisor to an Afghan battalion tasked with capturing senior figures in the Taliban. Ackerman has parlayed his experiences into a remarkable debut novel, Green on Blue, which chronicles the short path of a young Afghan boy from powerless orphan to "important man." The book takes its title from the expression for military fratricide as applied to the war in Afghanistan, when a member of the Afghan Army (in a green uniform) attacks a US soldier (in a blue one). Set in a murky world of ever-shifting allegiances in the rural, mountainous region of Afghanistan near the Pakistan border, Ackerman's novel attempts to explain why these attacks occur.
I talked to Elliot to learn more about the inspiration for Green on Blue, his time in Afghanistan, and what he's working on now near the Turkish-Syrian border.
VICE: What motivated you to write Green on Blue?
Ackerman: When I was in Afghanistan, I spent all of my time as an advisor to Afghan soldiers. I fought alongside these soldiers, but after I left, I knew they weren't guys I could keep up with on Facebook or call and get a beer with. I frankly knew I was never going to see them again. I had this real desire to render their world and show the war as they saw it. The war in Afghanistan is presented heavily through the American experience, and Afghans are made nearly invisible or treated as props. So my goal was to write a novel completely from their perspective.
There's this thread of characterization when we talk about Afghanistan, that people are deceitful, embezzling money out of the country. Those things are true, but what I wanted to do was peel back the outer layers to trace why these things are happening. What is the morality from an Afghan perspective on why someone would embezzle money? Why would an Afghan soldier feel that he needed to commit a green on blue attack? I wanted to take this most deceitful action, a green on blue attack, and trace it back to its inception, so that by the time it occurs you may not agree with it, but you do understand.
How did the idea to write fiction about your experience in Afghanistan develop? Did you feel any apprehension about adopting the voice of an Afghan boy, rather than writing in your own voice?
I started writing six months after I came home. I wanted to try to put this dynamic I'd seen into a story, and I started groping around for what the best way to put it into a story was. I decided that it shouldn't be from an American perspective, because Americans are transient. At first, I thought I would have Aziz tell his story like Marlow [in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness]. Early drafts had him telling his story to an American after an opening scene in which he walks into his firebase announcing that [the American] Mr. Jack is dead. But as I went through iterations of the novel, I wondered why I felt the need to have Aziz tell the story to an American. I realized that I was scared to go whole hog and make Aziz's voice my voice; I felt I needed an American to let me do that. I got rid of that element, and decided the book would have to ride on the strength of the story and how I told it.
How did you develop the character of Mr. Jack? Can you tell me about creating that character as an ex-American in Afghanistan yourself?
One could criticize me by saying I created this American caricature who seems like a cardboard cutout. But I wanted to treat him how Afghans and Iraqis are treated in all other books about the war: as a caricature. If I am trying to be sincerely representing Aziz's viewpoint, Aziz sees Mr. Jack as the Other, and someone who wields great power. The idea that Aziz would honestly feel any empathy for Mr. Jack is not true. There are many Afghans I formed close relationships with, but I know a 19-year-old Afghan boy from a rural area like Aziz couldn't have felt further from me. I felt I had to keep that gulf.
It struck me how non-existent a presence the Afghan government was in Aziz's life, or any of the characters' lives—I don't think Hamid Karzai's name is mentioned once. How does this reflect what you were trying to convey about the nature of the war?
The story is set in a very remote part of Afghanistan, where the government has always had a difficult time establishing a presence. The war is very much a local war, valley-to-valley and village-to-village. My ambition was to try and render the dynamics of the wider conflict in miniature, with one village, one commander, and one militia, to lay out a reoccurring dynamic I saw.
What qualities that you developed in the military were helpful in writing a book?
I loathe giving you this answer: discipline. But being humbled is also something that you get used to in the military and while writing a book. In the military, people don't have to follow your orders—they'll let you know pretty quick if they don't like what you're doing, and as a writer, you have to open up drafts of your writing with tracked changes marked up all over it. I spend my days now [writing] completely alone, so a lot of it is very different, but what is similar is the idea that you are trying to make your ego subservient and humble yourself to some greater good. In the military that is the good of the people around you, and with writing it's that you have to consciously humble yourself and your ego to create good art.
Tell me about your work in Turkey now and reporting on the Syrian Civil War.
I am actually finishing a novel right now set on the Turkish-Syrian border, and have been doing reporting along the way. The working title is Dark at the Crossing, and it's a love story about a Syrian couple who are stranded on the Turkish side of the border. It's about the two of them and an Iraqi-American who wants to cross the border to fight with the Free Syrian Army, and is set during the rise of groups like the Islamic State. My research is immersive; I go to the place I'll be writing about and surround myself with the people who inform the narrative. What often comes out of that also is journalism and narrative non-fiction.
If Green on Blue were to be put on the syllabus of a literature class at West Point, what lessons do you hope it would teach this generation of soldiers?
I would hope they would take away a more nuanced understanding of the conflicts they are involved in. One thing I learned early on as a Marine is that war is not the realm of black and white. It is gray; there are no good guys or bad guys, and there are no victory parades today. You are often engaging in a practice that is an entity of its own, a war that exists as its own thing that needs to be fed. That's the nature of conflict today, including in Syria. I would hope they would take away the fact that they will probably be fighting against people just like them in many ways. Towards the end of a war, there are feelings of curiosity and even sympathy for someone you've fought against—you look around and everyone else has been defined by that same experience of that same war. In many respects you have more in common with them than the people at home.
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