Q&A: A Marine veteran on finding meaning during – and after – war

Why We Wrote This

On a personal level, war and its motivations and meaning can be an impenetrable realm for civilians. Here, Elliot Ackerman, a Marine veteran and journalist, reveals his search for purpose during war and beyond. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Author Elliot Ackerman, who wrote "Waiting for Eden" and "Places and Names," is pictured here on Oct. 30, 2018, in Boston. Mr. Ackerman is a Marine veteran with five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Some of the world’s greatest literature is about war, its brutalities and heroics, and its consequences. Elliot Ackerman, who has been nominated for the National Book Award for his 2017 novel, “Dark at the Crossing,” is the Monitor’s guest at the Boston Book Festival Oct. 19. After five deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan with the Marines, the Silver Star recipient has traveled to Iraq, Syria, and Turkey as a journalist, seeking deeper insight into his own and America’s role in its “forever wars.” Here, he discusses his new memoir, “Places and Names,” finding meaning in war, and his post-military search for purpose and peace of mind. 

“There is, obviously, more to life than the battlefield,” says Mr. Ackerman. “However, in war, you see the entire spectrum of what we as humans are capable of, from the savagery we’re capable of inflicting to the sacrifices we’re capable of making. It’s all there – the entire spectrum of human emotional capacity. Ultimately, as a writer, [that has] become foundational whether I’m writing about war or not.”

Elliot Ackerman’s meditative memoir “Places and Names” distills his experiences during and after five deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan with the Marines. Since leaving the military, the Silver Star recipient has traveled to Iraq, Syria, and Turkey as a journalist, seeking deeper insight into his own and America’s role in its “forever wars.” In this email interview, Ackerman – nominated for the National Book Award for his 2017 novel “Dark at the Crossing” – discusses finding meaning in war and his post-military search for purpose and peace of mind.

After leaving the Marines, you met a former al-Qaeda jihadist in Turkey who fought in Iraq at the same time as you. He tells you “I regret none of the war.” You say, “I don’t regret my choice, but maybe I regret being asked to choose.” Have your questions about U.S. war policy affected how you see your combat experience?

When I reflect on the war, the U.S. cause isn’t central to how I feel. I didn’t join the Marines because I agreed with one set or another of U.S. policies. I joined because I wanted to serve my country. I did that and feel no regret about it. Actually, I feel a lot of pride about it. I feel pride for how my friends and I took care of each other in the wars. As a citizen, I regret that our leaders didn’t come up with better policies. I think every American at this point wishes we hadn’t gone into Iraq.

You write of friends lost in war, “I hope they’d think what we did for each other was worth it.” Does the absence of resolution in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars complicate the question of whether what occurred was “worth it”?

Perhaps it is difficult for people to understand, but at the ground level, war becomes very personal, even intimate. [Americans] often only hear about the policy debates or ideological debates. But for the people fighting, those debates often feel like abstractions; it’s about your friends and what you’re doing for each other every day. To say you regret the experience, or that it wasn’t worth it, is to say that you wish undone everything that happened. I don’t feel that way.

You write that war infuses troops with such an intense sense of purpose that some veterans later struggle to readjust to civilian life. How did you handle that change?

Simply put, I had to repurpose myself when I got out of the Marines. I found that purpose in becoming a writer and also in being a father. For many, though, it’s hard to figure out what you’re going to do next. We talk a lot about PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] in our society. There are, of course, types of PTSD which include flashbacks, night terrors – really dramatic symptoms. But there’s also another type of PTSD – one which is less intense, arguably more widespread, and particularly insidious: a drifting that many veterans struggle with when they come home, an inability to find that next purpose.

How have the internal creative process of writing and the external act of visiting conflict zones revealed for you a purpose beyond combat and influenced your work?

There is, obviously, more to life than the battlefield. However, in war, you see the entire spectrum of what we as humans are capable of, from the savagery we’re capable of inflicting to the sacrifices we’re capable of making. It’s all there – the entire spectrum of human emotional capacity. Ultimately, as a writer, [that has] become foundational whether I’m writing about war or not.

You describe a church in Berlin that has been left partially in ruins since it was bombed in World War II as “a reminder that remembrance and reconciliation are often one and the same.” Did writing a memoir help you reconcile your combat experience with a deeper understanding of war?

In my journalism (and in the book), I go back to some of the places where I fought. I’ve since been asked if that was cathartic, and the truth is: not really. Perhaps it would be cathartic if the wars weren’t still going on in those places – like how Vietnam vets return to a booming Ho Chi Minh City or World War II vets return to the beaches in France. But in places like Fallujah [in Iraq] or the Hindu Kush [mountain range in Afghanistan], the war is still going on, so returning feels more like the updating of an experience as opposed to the closure of an experience. And that gets to one of the things that’s been challenging in these “forever wars”: everyone who has returned [home] has ultimately had to make their own separate peace, declaring the war over for themselves even as it continues.

Interview has been edited and condensed.

If you’re in the Boston area, join us for a conversation with Monitor reporter Martin Kuz and author Elliot Ackerman at the Boston Book Festival, Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019.

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