‘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.”

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