‘Places and Names’ confronts conflict – both personal and military

Now a journalist, Elliot Ackerman reflects on five tours of duty as a Marine in Iraq and Afghanistan with honesty and compassion.

Courtesy of Penguin Random House
“Places and Names: On War, Revolution, and Returning” by Elliot Ackerman, Penguin Press, 256 pp.

Elliot Ackerman’s memoir, “Places and Names: On War, Revolution, and Returning,” isn’t a glorification of war, by any stretch. Instead, it’s an attempt to make sense of something that can never be explained, to grapple with ghosts, and to try to adjust to the idea that, as horrible as war is, its hyperadrenalized environment can make ordinary life feel dull.

During his five tours of duty as a Marine in Iraq and Afghanistan, Ackerman witnessed death, cruelty, courage, betrayal, and many other primal, scarring circumstances of life in a war zone. He was awarded a Silver Star, a Purple Heart, and a Bronze Star for Valor. Since leaving the Marines, he’s written three well-received novels that each deal with war or political upheaval. (Click here for an interview with the author.) 

“Places and Names” details his travels around the Mideast between 2013 and 2016, when he filed dispatches for The New Yorker, Esquire, and other publications. These trips sparked numerous flashbacks to Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Harrowing moments dot the author’s travels. Ackerman misses being near the action, much as he dreads reliving the horrors he witnessed in battle. 

Early in the book, he tags along with a friend who is visiting a humanitarian aid agency in southern Turkey, near the Syrian border. There, he befriends a Syrian revolutionary named Abed and becomes acquainted with an Islamic fundamentalist named Abu Hassar, who smuggled fighters and weapons from Syria into Iraq from 2005 to 2008 before being jailed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. 

Three years later, in 2011, President Assad freed Abu Hassar and other jihadists. Ackerman explains why: “Assad had hoped the jihadists would fight against him; a regime under siege by radical Islamists is more likely to garner international support than a regime under siege by democratic activists.” 

In the first encounter with Abu Hassar, Ackerman introduces himself as a journalist because he’s reluctant to say he fought as a U.S. Marine. Eventually, Ackerman tells Abu Hassar that he, too, fought in Iraq. They sketch a map and then mark off their postings, several of which overlap in geography. They are relieved that they didn’t directly attack one another, and despite the incongruity of the situation, they share a bond of having fought in the same war. 

Ackerman, as he does throughout the book, sees both the details and broader meaning of his encounters, writing, “For a moment we sit, three veterans from three different sides of a war that has no end in sight. Not the Syrian Civil War, or the Iraq War, but a larger regional conflict. ... Maybe [Abu Hassar], like me, has become tired of learning the ways we are different.” 

Toward the end of the book, Ackerman describes his 2016 visit to the burned-out city of Fallujah, where 12 years earlier he had led 46 men into a monthlong fight at close range at the height of the Iraq War. He returns to the street where many of his men died. He writes: “I try to imagine this place differently, not as a battlefield but as a community of homes and businesses. ... My eyes cast out in specific directions, searching for hard-fought neighborhoods and alleyways, for unrepaired scars on the buildings. I am searching for the marks we left behind. I see them everywhere, commingled with the marks left by others. They have become the city, both battlefield and home.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to ‘Places and Names’ confronts conflict – both personal and military
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today