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

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Elliot Ackerman served for nearly 10 years in America’s wars. He was first a Marine lieutenant in the Battle of Fallujah, then a Marine Special Operations captain in Afghanistan and finally a CIA officer on the Afghan-Pakistan border. After leaving public service, he wrote several acclaimed books, including the novels “Green on Blue” and “Dark at the Crossing” and the memoir “Places and Names: On War, Revolution, and Returning. ” There is much to admire in his achievements over a mere 20 years. An unplanned life has virtues.

“The Fifth Act: American’s End in Afghanistan” is Ackerman’s newest book. The quality of the writing stands out. “Muzzle flashes winked from the windows. Light and medium machine guns knotted the air, swirling up whippets of dust with their recoil. An RPG slammed into the bed of the Ford Ranger in front of us. ” From the opening lines, clean, clipped sentences have the quality of simplicity: “The war has always been there, even though I don’t go to it anymore. It is older than my children, who sleep in the room next door. I learned to love it before I learned to love my wife, who fits her body beside mine in the bed. The war is ending – has been ending for some time. And it is disastrous. “

“The Fifth Act” describes that ending from Ackerman’s perspective as he lived through it. The book is less a history of the final evacuation than a meditation on the meaning of the end for America’s fighting men and women. It is part of a distinguished and growing literature by American veterans trying to understand the experience of those who served. Should the war be a source of pride or shame? Are our leaders wise or fools? Should they have tried harder to win or left earlier? Should we hate the Afghans or love the Afghans? Should we long for the warrior life that the war enshrined?

The book is broken into five acts. The chapters within each act (called scenes) shift among Italy, flashbacks of Ackerman’s deployments to Afghanistan, and analysis of why the war was lost and its impact on America. The consistent thread is Ackerman’s exhausting remote effort to evacuate Afghans while vacationing in Italy with his family. The juxtaposition of Italian vacation against the chaotic scenes of the Kabul evacuation is jarring – and familiar to hundreds of Americans who spent time in Afghanistan and then tried to do something to help during the evacuation. A clash occurred between family life and conflict zone, two worlds that weren’t supposed to meet. 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, texting with other Americans over WhatsApp, taking calls all night and trying to force out sentences in Pashto when suddenly awakened.

In exploring the meaning of the war, Ackerman circles around what could have been done differently by himself and his colleagues on the battlefield and by our leaders in Washington, or as he says, the “should’ve and could’ves.“He is critical of Washington – indeed irate that the evacuation of endangered Afghans fell so much into the hands of concerned civilians. But he is not hunting for scapegoats. As the book progresses, his reflections imply unavoidable tragedy that he and the military had to endure. I even get the sense that he might argue that his military generation endured what they were supposed to endure. The concluding quote of the book is from Virgil, in “The Aeneid”: “Not Helen’s face, nor Paris was in fault; But by the gods was this destruction brought. “

A connected theme is the worthiness of the Americans and Afghans who experienced the war. Ackerman paints both in a warm light; they are fallible humans, not treacherous criminals. With one exception, every American helps Ackerman. One after the other, the succession of Afghan convoys and families he is trying to evacuate cannot get through the crowds or are turned aside. Time after time an American inside the airport tries to lend a hand. An Afghan whom Ackerman successfully helps to enter the wire says over his cellphone: “For such a help, for such a mercy, for such a service, I have no idea how to thank. But I’m thankful of everyone, of every single person of US America, because we never dreamed such a thing. Their love. Their mercy. Thank you. Thank you for everything. ” Through this message from an Afghan to all Americans, Ackerman suggests that good occurred, even if the wisdom of the war stands in question.

Ackerman’s encounters with Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2007 to 2011, are especially moving. Ackerman introduces him, clad in his dress uniform, watching the Arlington funeral of a Marine from afar. Mullen later invites Ackerman to his office. The two do not know each other. Mullen’s sole purpose, among all his other duties, is to ask Ackerman: “Are you all right? It sounds like you’ve been through a lot these past years and are still deploying quite a bit. I asked you here because it’s helpful for me to have a sense of how you and those like you are doing. How are all of you holding up? ” Mullen is one of several generals and admirals who were part of the controversial 2009 decision to send more US forces to Afghanistan. His presence forces the reader to consider how the choices of US leaders, right or wrong, were not divorced from compassion and kindness. Just like the war itself.

“The Fifth Act’s” contribution to understanding the war lies foremost in passages of reflection and well-chosen quotes, such as the “should’ve and could’ves” or the line from “The Aeneid.” They give pause and offer a window into deeper thought.

The line that I value most is in Act III at the end of Scene III. Following a difficult combat engagement in which a member of a fellow team was killed, Ackerman tells Marine Capt. Garrett “Tubes” Lawton, “The longer this war goes on, the more I trust my judgment but the more I doubt my courage.” The passage bears on the war and its end. Over time, America’s judgment about the war came into conflict with the courage to stick it out. Today we are still wondering if our courage faltered or our judgment improved.

America’s End in Afghanistan

Penguin Press. 288 pp. $ 27.

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