During an evening soiree in Washington, DC, at the turn of the 20th century, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. was once asked his opinion about a popular novelist of the day who, like Holmes himself, had been a veteran of the US Civil War. “Is he a soldier who writes,” a fellow party-goer wanted to know, “or a writer who soldiers?” Holmes became somber and rolled out one of his signature sphinx-like pronouncements, “If you'd ever been a soldier, madam, you'd know there's only one possible answer to that question.”
It's a question 21st-century readers are asking all over again. Virtually every book-season for the past decade has featured novels and short stories written by veterans of the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Books like Phil Klay's "Redeployment," Ben Fountain's "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk," or Kevin Powers' "The Yellow Birds," or Matt Gallagher's "Young Blood" and dozens more have attempted to transmute their authors' experiences on the front lines into reading experiences that will move a civilian population largely unaffected by those wars.
The War on Terror has spawned no rationing on the home front, yielded very little in the way of widely disseminated battlefield news footage, and of course prompted no general draft. To a degree unprecedented in US military history, it's fallen to the arts – fiction, popular nonfiction, and movie-making – to bring home the reality of long, complicated conflicts about which most Western readers know little.
Elliot Ackerman, author of the critically acclaimed novel "Green on Blue," served five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, earning a Silver Star, a Bronze Star for Valor, and a Purple Heart. His new novel, Dark at the Crossing, illuminates the Syrian Civil War, which Ackerman has been covering for years, but as with his previous book, the focus here is not on battles or governments but on the multifaceted and irresolute actions of a handful of individuals caught up in the chaos of six years of fighting against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
One such individual – the battered, hapless hero of "Dark at the Crossing" – is Haris Abadi, an Iraqi man but also a US citizen, a former interpreter for American Special Forces detachment team composed of “big beef-fed men with beards stained coppery brown around the lips from chewing tobacco,” a group in which he has a strange, special status, “Iraqi in a war against Iraqis, and American in a war against Americans.” In a series of well-deployed flashbacks, readers see the brutal incidents that served to disillusion Haris with his former employers (one of the book's best-drawn characters, a sergeant named Jim, looms over these segments). When the novel opens, Haris is seeking to enter Syria and fight “for a cause he thought was honest,” the struggle of the Syrian Free Army against Assad's regime.
Haris is robbed as he attempts to get himself smuggled across the border into Syria, and he drifts into the care of a personable Syrian refugee named Amir and his caustic, perceptive wife Daphne (“speaking the e with a Gallic accent, as though its pronunciation were a cherished ornament”). A complicated and somewhat desultory-feeling relationship springs up between Haris and Daphne as the three move deeper into the ramshackle world of Syrian resistance.
Ackerman can be a maddeningly uneven writer. His prose can swing from plodding to evocative in the span of a single paragraph, very likely a reflection of the contesting aims of telling a poignant individual story like that of Haris and also providing readers with a broader-perspective look at complex cataclysms like the Syrian Civil War. His book is studded with astringent poetic asides, as when Haris notices a group of refugee children: “They chased a dog whose ribs sucked at its sides, taunting it with sticks. When the dog got away, they taunted a child who was slower than the dog.” Or when characters are walking through a deceptively peaceful neighborhood at night: “The early moon silvered [tree] leaves, which had yet to turn in the late autumn, and the wind creaked through their branches.” Or a war-shelled town Haris passes through: “Scarves of mist slipped between buildings, and everywhere night lay thick in the streets.”
These moments are frequent and lovely, but pulling against them constantly are the larger societal stories Ackerman equally strongly wants to tell. These wide-canvas stories are as well-dramatized as the smaller, more personal triangle of Haris, Amir, and Daphne, but they often feel like they belong in a different book, perhaps the prize-winning nonfiction account of the Syrian Civil War that Ackerman will almost certainly write one day. The somewhat listless Bartleby-like Haris (who actually once or twice offers the refrain “I'd prefer not to”) is a weak hinge on which to hang so much of the book's plot – will there be a single reader who finds him more interesting than, for example, Daphne? – but the plot itself, pitched between headline-grabbing news stories and the ordinary people lost in their clamor, will keep readers engrossed to the final pages.