Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

A Marine veteran says the contradictions of war can make you feel insane

Elliot Ackerman was awarded the Silver Star Medal, the Bronze Medal for Valor and the Purple Heart for his military service.
Huger Foote
Penguin Random House
Elliot Ackerman was awarded the Silver Star Medal, the Bronze Medal for Valor and the Purple Heart for his military service.

Marine veteran and intelligence officer Elliot Ackerman served five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and won the Silver Star Medal for leading a platoon in the Battle of Fallujah in Iraq. For him, Veterans Day is a time for reconnection.

"Particularly as a Marine and a veteran of the Fallujah battle, which began on Nov. 9, 2004, this week in November is kind of like the high holidays for veterans," Ackerman says. "It kind of rolls out over the week and it's usually a time just for old friends, we all reach out to each other. ... We always find each other during this week."

In his 2019 memoir, Places and Names, Ackerman reflected on his military service, and the years he spent afterwards, trying to make sense of the wars he fought in. He says the intensity of combat fundamentally changed how he experiences things.

"We all walk through life with a certain aperture of what we experience: One side of the aperture is the good we experience and the other side of the aperture is the bad," he says. "And I think what war does ... is it sort of flings open your aperture."

Ackerman says during his time in combat, he witnessed the "absolute, most extreme forms of depravity that human beings are capable of" — as well as "the absolute, most noble, heroic and selfless acts that people are capable of."

After leaving the service, Ackerman turned to writing as a way to adapt to life outside the extremes of war. He is the co-author, along with NATO's former supreme allied commander Adm. James Stavridis, of the recent novel, 2034, which imagines a world war that begins with a conflict between the U.S. and China. At the crux of the novel is the fact that the U.S. can no longer claim the military superiority it once assumed to hold in the world.

"What Adm. James Stavridis and I did in 2034 was to try to imagine what it would look like if we were engaged in a war where many of our technological platforms and our legacy platforms that we've relied on for many, many years, were proven to be irrelevant," Ackerman says.

Interview highlights

On the allure of war

War has an allure that I think is just hardwired into humanity. I've always believed that, being anti-war, it's sort of like being anti-hurricane or anti-tornado. Whereas one is a destructive force of nature, the other is a destructive force of human nature. So there is just something hardwired into us. ...

I grew up watching movies like Platoon or films like Full Metal Jacket, ... [where] the authorial intent was to be anti-war, but I could tell you every Marine has seen, for instance, the movie Full Metal Jacket. The subject of that movie is the Marine Corps, and it is something that gets them excited about being Marines and excited about the prospect of fighting a war. So it's often consumed as being pro-war. So I think my fascination with war was just something that was hardwired into me. And I think it's very difficult to tell war stories that are anti-war or pro-war, actually. I think you can't even tell a war story. I think the only thing you can really do is show a war story and people will come away from it with what they will.

On how war is more about what you hear than about what you see

When you're in war, you don't really see war. It's more that you hear it. So the sense that you're engaging with most is your sense of hearing. It's very rare to see the person who's shooting at you, you hear the person who's shooting at you. ... That was probably one of the things that surprised me the most was how little you actually see and how everything you experience is often experienced through sound. ... The thing I think that's scarier than something that's very loud is something that sounds very close. ...

[Your hearing] becomes very attuned and your sense of time also warps. And to this day, the most intense engagements that I was involved in, I still have a hard time locating them on a timeline, meaning, this moment took 10 minutes and this moment took seven minutes. They just sort of blur into this miasma, where maybe three minutes felt like two hours and then two hours felt like 15 minutes. So time does very weird things in combat.

On how becoming a father changed him as a Marine

I had my first child right at the end of my time in the service. I only had one deployment as a father. ... I saw every single marine that I had served with who had a family completely differently. When I'm in my mid-to-late 20s or even into my 30s and I'm taking certain risks, I know that if something happens to me, yes, my family will be brokenhearted and my girlfriend, and later fiancé, will be broken hearted. But it's a whole different level of loss when it is a child that loses a parent and you can only understand that when you are a parent yourself. And it also made me, frankly, view the wars differently, the children that I would see on the battlefield. Once you become a parent, you see them differently, you see them as though they're your own child. So it caused me to experience war very, very differently.

On the difference between murder and killing in war

It's a very straightforward answer: It's the state. War is state-sanctioned murder. So when someone asks you, "Well, did you kill someone over there?" ... These are not people trying to offend. They're trying to connect. And the reason I respond with, "If I did, you paid me to," it's because the "state," [which is] you, you are the ones who sent me. That's what makes this different.

What makes a Marine run after his friend? What's the emotion? It's not bravery. There's something else that you feel in that moment. If I were to put a word on it, I would say it's love.

But when you think about war, contradiction is hard-wired into war, because why do we go to war? We go to war to protect the state. Or put another way, to protect our civilization. And really [in] any civilization, one of the bedrock tenets that it's built upon, that kind of keeps us from just being savages, is the rule in myriad cultures of "thou shalt not kill." So the contradiction built into war is that we engage in state-sanctioned killing in order to preserve the state or to preserve our civilization that, in many respects, is built around respect for core values like "thou shalt not kill," and that latent contradiction that exists in war is also one of the variables I think that adds to wars-related insanity. War feels a little insane when you're in it.

On being awarded the Silver Star Medal for bravery

I never woke up and [said] "I feel really brave today." ... But if you're like me, maybe you felt fear before. I certainly felt fear. I know exactly what that feels like. That being said, I've seen people, Marines, civilians, journalists, I've seen them do some really brave things in my life. I've seen Marines running across the road, their buddy gets shot in the road and the next guy runs off and drags that guy out of the road. So what makes a Marine run after his friend? What's the emotion? It's not bravery. There's something else that you feel in that moment. If I were to put a word on it, I would say it's love. You love each other. That's why you do these things.

But there is sort of a tough irony in war that is not always obvious when you start the journey, which is that you begin with a group of folks as you're preparing to go to war, you train together, you get to know one another, you become each other's very best friends. In the military, we use sort of more clinical terms, like "unit cohesion" or "esprit de corps," to describe this, but what you're really doing is you are forming those bonds of love that you need to have to cohere as a unit so you can do one thing: accomplish the mission. And you are taught in the military that the mission always comes first, because some of you are going to get killed trying to accomplish that mission. And this is sort of the bitter irony is that if you're in any type of leadership position, giving orders from a corporal up to a general, at a certain point, you might find yourself at a moment of consequence where you have to make a decision in order to accomplish the mission, in which you are ordering your friends, these people, in my case, it was Marines who you love, to certainly get wounded, sometimes get killed. And so really, the central dilemma in war is that you have to ultimately oftentimes destroy the very thing that you love. And that can lead to a lot of attendant heartbreak. And we all know what heartbreak looks like for veterans who come home from war. And I would posit that your heart can't break unless you are in love.

On struggling to find meaning and purpose outside of war

I think that ... for any person to be happy, they have to have a sense of purpose, right? ... Well, when you go to war at a relatively young age, I would argue you sort of develop a kind of dysfunctional relationship with purpose. So you're in your late teens, early 20s, and let's say you're in Afghanistan and you have to hold a mountain outpost, or you're in Iraq and you have to secure however many city blocks. And you have this, at least at the tactical level, like a pretty clear mission, and you are trying to accomplish that mission with a group of people who are probably going to wind up being some of the very best friends you've ever had in your life. So if purpose is this drug that induces happiness, at a very young age, you are, like, freebasing the crystal meth of purpose. There is nothing more intense than this sense of purpose that you're having every day. And you do that for a while, and you go back to these wars and you fortify those friendships.

But at a certain point, the war ends for you, and you come home. And when you come home, years later, you have to find your happiness, you have to repurpose yourself. And so you look out there, you look around, and maybe you're going to go back to college or maybe you're going to get a job at Home Depot or you're going to sell real estate. Whatever you're going to do, you're going to repurpose yourself. And when you look at those options, if you've been, again, doing this crystal meth of purpose, well, none of those [options] are that intense. It's sort of more like the Coors Light of purpose. And you realize that you're going to spend the rest of your life sitting on your front porch, drinking Coors Light. And a certain depression sets in. People talk a lot about PTSD, and there's a type that people who suffer really intense flashbacks and nightmares, and that's a very real thing. So what I'm saying is not to be dismissive of that, but there is this other type of PTSD that I would kind of correlate with just this, this purposelessness, this inability to find meaning outside of the war.

Amy Salit and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Petra Mayer adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.