Even Better than the Real Thing

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Elliot Ackerman, Green on Blue (New York: Scribner, 2015)

The centenary of WWI has produced a flurry of new works that consider the origins, prosecution, and legacies of the Great War. For anyone with an interest in war or this time period, the past couple of years have been a reader’s dream. What is striking about WWI was just how very modern it was. An underground organization called Unity or Death! produces an offshoot that is even more radical: The Black Hand. It enlists a nineteen year-old, Gavrilo Princip, to carry out a terrorist attack that ends up killing the heir to the Habsburg throne and unleashes a war that by 1916 many observers thought might last forever. If one considers the origins of many current conflicts in the Middle East, the birth of the Soviet Union, and the rise of fascism as both a militarized form of mourning and expression of anger over the WWI settlements, it might not be too much of a stretch to suggest that those observers might have been right.

We are, of course, currently living through what the journalist Dexter Filkins has somberly dubbed “the forever war.” How are we to understand out present moment? Given the ever-burgeoning literature on analyzing wars past and present, it stands to reason that readers like me who are interested in these topics would have a somewhat firm grasp on the clashes of yesterday and today. Yet every time I read a newspaper report about conflicts from around the world, I am stunned. War, at its base, is organized groups of human beings inflicting premeditated violence upon one another. How is this possible? Why is it so frequent? How well can history answer these questions? When confronted with the ambient violence of the world that is the daily news, I am confronted with the limits of history.

Due to the norms and forms of historical writing, the limits of history become visible as limits of representation. Historians’ truth claims are bound by the documentary record. What we can say absolutely depends on what others said before us—and on whether or not they bothered to note it down somehow. This is not to attack historians but rather to point out the explanatory limits of the discipline with regard to what is one of its chief objects of analysis. A number of impressively skilled historians have explained the origins of war through the careful analysis of war plans, economic incentives, territorial rivalries, ideological differences, the politics of prestige, and the quirks of statesmen. Doubtlessly, these are crucial factors to consider in understanding how wars come into being. However, to my mind, they do not fully explain how warriors come into being. That is to say, they do not provide an adequate account of how ordinary people transform their will to commit acts of violence they would ordinarily consider inhumane. Interestingly, it is in fiction that we may find truth about war and warriors.

In his book The Drowned and the Saved, the brilliant Italian Jewish Holocaust survivor Primo Levi asks the question, “Have we—we who have returned—been able to understand and make others understand our experience?” As an answer, he suggests that the human desire to simplify, to arrange people, thoughts, and actions into neat moral categories, is understandable but perverts the complexity and ambiguity of human experience. Reality, especially in times of crisis, is not black and white but exists in what he calls “the gray zone.” It is this gray zone that is so elegantly brought to life in Elliot Ackerman’s new novel Green on Blue.

Ackerman is also a man who has, in a sense, “returned” and attempted to convey his experience. A decorated Marine Corps Special Operations officer who served five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, including a stint as the head of a 700-man Afghan battalion that sought to capture Taliban leaders, his novel is astonishing for the narrative perspective it adopts. Rather than telling the story of the current war in Afghanistan through semi-autobiographical fiction like many of the great war novels—Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Barbusse’s Under Fire, Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, O’Brien’s The Things They Carried—Ackerman reverses the perspective and tells the entire story through the eyes of an Afghan boy named Aziz whose life is irrevocably changed by the wars in his land.

Aziz and his brother Ali were left orphaned by “the war that came after the Russians but before the Americans.” Their village obliterated, they eked out a living with other orphans, begging and doing odd jobs in the market town. By their fourth year alone, things took a drastic turn for the worse as yet another war came: “Americans accused men of being militants and disappeared them in the night on helicopters. The militants fought to protect us from the Americans and the Americans fought to protect us from the militants, and being so protected, life was very dangerous.” When Ali is gravely wounded by a rocket attack by the warlord Gazan, Aziz is recruited to join the Special Lashkar, an American-backed Afghan unit, that will allow him to get his badal (revenge) and regain his family’s nang (honor). Thus, Aziz quickly goes from being a child to a soldier and becomes that awful hybrid of modern conflict: a child soldier.

Ackerman is sparing with Aziz’ introspection about his life in the Special Lashkar, during which he learns about the dirty dealings of his ferocious Commander Sabir and the motivations of his fellow fighters. However, it is in the small exchanges of dialogue that Ackerman is able to convey the tragedy of Afghanistan’s recent history and how it has affected the Afghani cultural psyche. The near endless war-making in the country since the Soviet invasion in 1979 has produced generations of people whose normal condition is war. In an exchange with Mumtaz, a benevolent village elder, Aziz is told stories of Mumtaz’s carefree childhood and his father’s thriving trucking business. Mumtaz implores Aziz to remember these stories: “Aziz, you’re still a young man. Know these stories so we can remember a way that is different than now. The future is in the remembering.”

The stories, however, prove insufficient to resist the force of circumstance, as we observe the young Aziz lose his innocence and settle into a role that is at once tragic and completely understandable. It is the power of Ackerman’s writing that makes Aziz’s initial choice to take up a life of arms and the ensuing transformations due to that choice utterly believable. Ackerman has performed a colossal act of empathy with this novel. For such sparse prose, there is an intimacy to this work that gives us a glimpse into the particular motivations for war of an Afghani, a boy, a villager, a poor person. We also understand Aziz’s motivations from the universal perspective: Aziz loves his brother Ali. Given all of this, the opening lines of the novel are poignant: “Many would call me a dishonest man, but I’ve always kept faith with myself. There is an honesty in that, I think.” War, like life, is complicated. Ackerman understands this deeply, and, as such, Green on Blue unfolds in shades of gray.

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