Review of “The Fifth Act: America’s End in Afghanistan”, by Elliot Ackerman

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Elliot Ackerman served for almost 10 years in the American wars. He was first a naval lieutenant during the battle of Fallujah, then a captain of naval special operations in Afghanistan and finally a CIA officer on the Afghan-Pakistani border. After leaving public service, he wrote several acclaimed books, including the novels “Green on Blue” and “Dark at the crossroads and memories”Places and Names: On War, Revolution and Return.” There is much to admire in his accomplishments in just 20 years. An unplanned life has virtues.

The Fifth Act: The End of the United States in Afghanistanis Ackerman’s latest book. The quality of the writing is on point. “Muzzle flashes flashed from the windows. Light and medium machine guns churned the air, kicking up whips of dust with their recoil. An RPG slammed into the bed of the Ford Ranger in front of us. From the first lines, sharp, cut sentences have the quality of simplicity: “The war has always been there, even if I don’t go there anymore. She is older than my children, who sleep in the next room. I learned to love him before I learned to love my wife, who places her body next to mine in bed. The war is ending — has been ending for some time. And it is disastrous. »

“The Fifth Act” depicts this ending from Ackerman’s perspective as he experienced it. The book is less a story of the final evacuation than a meditation on the meaning of the end for American combatants. He is part of a distinguished and growing literature of American veterans trying to understand the experience of those who served. Should war be a source of pride or shame? Are our leaders wise or stupid? Should they have tried harder to win or left earlier? Should we hate Afghans or love Afghans? Should we aspire to the warrior life that war has consecrated?

The book is divided into five acts. Each act’s chapters (called scenes) move between Italy, flashbacks to Ackerman’s deployments in Afghanistan, and analysis of why the war was lost and its impact on America. The common thread is Ackerman’s grueling remote effort to evacuate Afghans while vacationing in Italy with his family. The juxtaposition of the Italian vacation to the chaotic scenes of the Kabul evacuation is shocking — and familiar to hundreds of Americans who spent time in Afghanistan and then tried to do something to help during the evacuation. A clash has occurred between family life and the conflict zone, two worlds that were not meant to collide. In my own case, I was at home in California visiting my parents for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began, while trying to talk to Afghans, text with other Americans on WhatsApp, taking calls all night and trying to impose sentences in Pashto when suddenly awake.

In exploring the meaning of war, Ackerman revolves around what could have been done differently by himself and his colleagues on the battlefield and by our leaders in Washington, or as he puts it, the “should have and I could have.“He criticizes Washington – indeed furious that the evacuation of Afghans in danger has fallen so much into the hands of worried civilians. But he does not hunt scapegoats. As the book progresses, his reflections involve an inevitable tragedy that he and the army had to endure. I even have a feeling he could argue that his military generation endured what they were meant to endure. The book’s final quote is from Virgil, in “The Aeneid“Neither Hélène’s face nor Paris were at fault; But it was by the gods that this destruction was brought about.

A related theme is the dignity of Americans and Afghans who lived through the war. Ackerman paints both in warm light; they are fallible humans, not treacherous criminals. With one exception, every American helps Ackerman. One after another, the succession of Afghan convoys and families that he tries to evacuate fails to cross the crowd or is diverted. Time and time again, an American inside the airport tries to lend a hand. An Afghan whom Ackerman successfully helped enter the thread says on his cell phone: “For such help, for such mercy, for such service, I don’t know how to give thanks. But I’m grateful to everyone, to every person in America from the United States, because we never dreamed of such a thing. Their love. Their mercy. Thanks. Thank you for everything.” Through this message from an Afghan to all Americans, Ackerman suggests that good has happened, even as the wisdom of war is questioned.

Ackerman’s meetings with Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2007 to 2011, are particularly moving. Ackerman introduces him, dressed in his ceremonial uniform, watching from afar at the Arlington funeral of a Marine. Mullen later invites Ackerman to his office. The two don’t know each other. Mullen’s sole purpose, among all his other duties, is to ask Ackerman, “Are you okay?” It seems like you’ve been through a lot over the past few years and are still expanding a bit. I asked you here because it helps me to get an idea of ​​how you and those like you are doing. How are you all ? Mullen is one of many generals and admirals who participated in the controversial 2009 decision to send more US forces to Afghanistan. Its presence forces the reader to wonder how the choices of American leaders, good or bad, have not been divorced from compassion and kindness. Just like war itself.

The contribution of the “Fifth Act” to the understanding of war lies above all in passages of reflection and well-chosen quotations, such as the “I should have and I could have” or the line from “The Aeneid”. They give pause and provide a window into deeper reflection.

The line I like the most is in Act III at the end of Scene III. Following a difficult combat engagement in which a member of another team was killed, Ackerman told Navy Captain Garrett “Tubes” Lawton, “The longer this war goes on, the more I trust my judgment. , but the more I doubt my courage.” The passage is about the war and its end. Over time, American judgment on the war came into conflict with the courage to hold on. Today, we still wonder if our courage has weakened or if our judgment has improved.

The end of America in Afghanistan

Penguin Press. 288 pages. $27.

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