PLACES AND NAMES
On War, Revolution, and Returning
By Elliot Ackerman
A decade after leading a platoon through the battle of Falluja in 2004, when Iraq gave American troops their most intense urban combat since Vietnam, Elliot Ackerman found himself knocking around the edges of another war.
“What I see is Syria,” he writes in his spare, beautiful memoir, “Places and Names: On War, Revolution, and Returning.” “What doggedly looks back is the last decade in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Ackerman, a Marine veteran turned novelist, falls in with others drawn to Syria’s war and its borderless churn: Syrian fighters and democracy activists, foreign humanitarian workers and journalists and a striking number of American veterans. Why are they there? The most honest answer comes from a fellow ex-Marine as they stroll past a raucous demonstration in Istanbul: “To be close to it.”
“It’s the same it many of us need to be close to,” Ackerman admits. Not necessarily a cause, or a specific battle, but “an experience so large that you shrink to insignificance in its presence. And that’s how you get lost in it.”
“Places and Names” is a classic meditation on war, how it compels and resists our efforts to order it with meaning. In simple, evocative sentences, with sparing but effective glances at poetry and art, he weaves memories of his deployments with his observations in and near Syria. He pulls off a literary account of war that is accessible to those who wonder “what it’s like” while ringing true to those who — each in his or her own way — already know.
I read the book as a fellow it-seeker, by chance and choice a denizen of the forever wars. Like Ackerman, I lived in Iraq during the first two years of American occupation and spent time in Afghanistan. I too rode into that battle of Falluja, reporting for The Boston Globe; like him I went back for more, mainly to Syria, after the Arab revolts. I’m a bit older than Ackerman, but my heart seizes when one of his wandering comrades calls war the place where “we grew up,” and in some ways, still live. But in Syria, as Ackerman puts it, “we watch in a different context — this isn’t our war.” I most wanted to know how he would unpack the complexity of this statement — since Syria’s war is different yet entwined with “ours” — and it leads to his only real false note.
“We are veterans of the same war,” Ackerman writes of his Syrian friend Abed, “the same disillusionment, one where high-minded democratic ideals left a wake of destruction.”
This equivalence doesn’t work. Abed is an idealistic Syrian civilian who protested for political freedoms. He sometimes regrets “his revolution” for the destructive forces it unleashed: not just the Syrian government’s scorched-earth brutality, but also Islamist extremist militias that claimed Abed’s banner only to sideline and repress activists like him.
Does Ackerman really think Abed’s grass-roots Syrian movement parallels the United States’ ocean-crossing, false-pretext invasion of Iraq? I doubt it, based on the other things he writes. And whose “democratic ideals” were at work in Iraq — American grunts’? Decision makers’? Ackerman doesn’t clarify.
Mostly, though, he deftly evokes resonances and contrasts. As Syrians process their war, he processes his. He seeks out old comforts to recapture a sense of safety (in his case, skateboarding). He metabolizes death differently when he first witnesses it as a parent, “with the same eyes that looked at my daughter.” He recalls shaving his beard after combat to reveal a self both new and old, like a rebel fighter I once saw leaving Syria with a tanned face and a pale, newly exposed chin.
He meets a self-described jihadi, Abu Hassar, who fought Americans like him in Iraq. Across the language barrier, they pore over a map of Iraq, tracing “places and names” they both know: Haditha, Hit, Falluja. They share, as does Abed, the irreplaceably intense feeling — through the ups and downs of what began as a greater enterprise — that you would do anything for your comrades.
Like a trail of bread crumbs pointing to a destination it doesn’t quite reach, Ackerman’s account offers clues to the complex relation between his wars and Syria’s. It’s not just that his Iraq mission was ill conceived and, unlike Abed’s homegrown revolution, a foreign adventure. The Iraq war was precisely the reason the United States had such a poor hand to play in Syria, and the American “wake of destruction” set the stage for the Islamic State’s takeover of swaths of Iraq and Syria.
But Ackerman’s business is “show, don’t tell”; rather than declare these points, he reveals some in snatches of conversation. He tells the jihadi the Iraq war was “a bad idea,” though he felt compelled to join. As President Obama weighed striking Syrian government forces after a 2013 chemical attack, a veteran tells Ackerman that if Marines were sent to Syria, he’d protest the way John Kerry did over Vietnam, but “on the other hand, someone’s got to stop what’s going on over there.” Ackerman touches on Iraq hangover as a factor holding Obama back.
A year later, when the Islamic State takes over Falluja and veterans ask, “Was it all a waste?,” Ackerman can’t engage his emotions. “Instead,” he writes, “a memory”: gearing up for Falluja, the stillness inside the armored vehicle, and then, “the back ramp drops.” He is in combat, as if it were today.
This episode, the defining horror and high point of his life, is detailed again in the last chapter, a recognition that it can’t really be integrated into narrative or analysis. He interrupts the orderly official praise of his Silver Star citation with his chaotic impressions at each moment: memories of comrades who died, he believes, in his place; the strangeness of enemy fighters up close; the admission, startling from a Marine, that “when we killed them it felt like murder.” We are left with the puzzle of how he and others — Americans, Syrians, Iraqis — can function, sometimes heroically, amid such terror.
So there is an honesty in keeping conclusions at arm’s length. This is a Marine’s-eye view. Marines aren’t supposed to talk politics. Their wars have not ended. And some things stay buried. Like the hill in Berlin, built of war rubble, that he and a mentor jog past as they avoid discussing their fight over Ackerman’s decision to leave the military.
Ackerman can’t decide what to do with his bloodstained Falluja uniform — wash? discard? — so it stays in his drawer, “an old, bloody and tattered rag.” (I recently managed to give my relatively intact Falluja sweater to Syrian refugees.)
He leaves his counterparts, too, without neat endings. We last see Abu Hassar, the ex-jihadi, as a laborer in Turkey, paying a smuggler who ferried his siblings to Europe. And then there is Abed, the unmoored activist. After his wedding in Switzerland, we see him trying to free some balloons tangled in a tree. He is carefully fixing this one, small, fixable thing.
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