Green on Blue: An Interview with Elliot Ackerman

Though in its fourteenth year, the war in Afghanistan is far from over. It has, however, come to an end for many veterans. As with much else, time and space are starting to foster reflection and introspection on the part of the war’s individual actors. Our nation is still coming to grips with what we’ve done, what we’ve failed to do, and what we aspire to see to completion. Part of understanding that means understanding our Afghan counterparts.

It has been said and seen by many advisors that the Afghans understand Americans far better than any American understands the Afghans. Some of the Afghan actors, both large and small, have had intimate daily contact with Americans for over a decade. They’ve shared meals, sought advice, planned and executed operations, built an army and mourned the loss of friends. On the American side, the experience has been more abbreviated. Soldiers rotate in for a year at a time, and then go home. Some return, others do not, their experience, while intense and personal, lacks the depth of their Afghan counterparts. The internal narrative of our Afghan counterparts is an enigma in the minds of many Americans.

The term “Green on Blue,” a reference to the phenomenon where Afghan soldiers turn their weapons on their advisors, speaks to this disconnect. While some of these attacks are certainly planned in advance and orchestrated — at least in part by the insurgency — just as many remain a puzzle of cultural and experiential understanding, or lack thereof. Green on Blue attacks come like a bolt from Afghanistan’s lapis sky. So does Elliot Ackerman’s novel by the same name.

Green on Blue is the story of an Afghan child born to war, scarred by conflict, and driven by his enculturated need to respond to violence with violence. Aziz is his name. If you’ve served in Afghanistan and worked with the Afghan National Army, the National Police, or even if you’ve come across men who seem to live normal lives, you have probably met him; though it is unlikely that you understand what motivates him, what drives him to act, or what he fears.

Ackerman deftly narrates Aziz’s story. It is a tale of violence, redemption, loss and survival. There are glimmers of hope along the way, but they rest deep in the shadows of deceit. Green on Blue offers a unique perspective on the elliptical state of conflict in Afghanistan and a sobering reminder of just how misunderstood the drivers of this conflict are by many.

The Strategy Bridge recently talked with Ackerman about his wartime experience and the book that was born of it. For veterans, the book presents kernels of their own experience, a glimpse of their “Green” counterparts in the mirror of their own mind. For those at home who have sent loved ones to war, or studied the problem from a distance, Green on Blue presents a new perspective, one that helps frame the experience of so many Americans and explain the drivers of a conflict whose depths we have yet to fully sound.

The Strategy Bridge:  First of all, thank you for taking time to talk with us. We’re excited to have you on The Bridge and think our readers stand to learn a great deal both from your book as well as from this interview.

We watched your Politics and Prose book launch and learned that you served in the Marine Corps as a rifle platoon leader, then later in Marine Corps Special Operations (MARSOC). Having seen war from those perspectives, what were the themes that carried through those experiences? What were the exceptions?

Elliot Ackerman:  When I served in the infantry, it was in Iraq and I primarily fought alongside American troops. But when I was in MARSOC, I worked exclusively as an advisor to Afghan troops, seeing much of the war from their vantage. This was a conflict being fought in their homes and that meant those soldiers had a more visceral connection to the toll it was taking on average Afghans.

When you went to war, what books did you take with you? What authors did you read that framed your own experience, your own view of the war?

I spent eight years going in and out of the war zones, so it’s difficult to cover eight years of reading in a single answer. But I can tell you the authors who’ve stuck with me the most, the ones I really admire: Conrad, Malraux, Greene, Hemingway, Styron, Naipaul, Camus, Mailer, Kapuściński, Herr, Caputo, many others. If we’re speaking specifically about literature where the subject matter is war, there are certainly books I read before going to fight which resonated with me in a different way when I re-visited them upon my return. Fields of Fire by Jim Webb is one. That book holds a very different resonance now than when I first read it at seventeen years old.

Aziz’s purposes for fighting seem rather transparent on the surface; he joins the Special Lashkar to meet familial obligations. Those of us who have served share a decision to join the military — our contemporaries are all volunteers. Aziz on the other hand seems to be compelled, faced with no alternative. The reasons we join and the reasons we continue to serve change over time. Do you think this is fundamentally different in Afghanistan?

We all have a choice. Even if you were drafted let’s say, in Vietnam, you still had a choice: You could go to Canada. You could desert. I do believe the fact that these most recent wars were all fought by professionals and volunteers on the American side makes them different, the participants having sought the experience as opposed to having had the experience thrust upon them. Still, there is always a choice. Green on Blue is a novel about Aziz’s choices, from his decision to fight to the decisions he makes once he is fighting. It’s a novel about how certain choices define us and how even the morally correct choice might destroy us.

Deceit and dishonesty play important roles in your novel; they drive the narrative and the actions of many of your characters. We’ve heard you say that you “set out to describe the war in miniature,” and we’re wondering if you think these attributes span all war, or if you felt that they were exceptionally present in the Afghan war?

I think there are parts of war which are universal: the killing for instance. Then there are parts that are specific to a conflict. I think the elliptical nature of the Afghan war makes it somewhat unique among America’s wars — it’s been going on for fifteen years for Christ’s sake and it doesn’t seem like it’s ending any time soon. Then again, Vietnam was an incredibly elliptical war which went on for a long time, so there’s some overlap there. When I say I wanted to tell the Afghan war in miniature, what I hoped to do was render a narrative where someone who knew nothing of Afghanistan could see the dynamics of violence, corruption, shifting-allegiances, which are the hallmarks of that war, but which in fairness have been the hallmarks of many other wars as well.

You served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. What drove you to write about Afghanistan, first?

You assume I haven’t written about Iraq.

Touché.  Wartime experiences can be defining in the lives of combatants. The wars of the last decade have illuminated the issues of Post-Traumatic Stress and the challenges so many troops face when coming home. Do you believe that the experience of war can make us better as individuals, as a nation?

I think there’s an argument to be made for post-traumatic growth. General James Mattis who I fought under when he commanded the First Marine Division in Iraq recently penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal about this. I think, in many ways, the recent American veteran experience has been pathologized among many of those who never served. Perhaps this is a reaction to the civil-military divide which exists. It seems there is some collective guilt we feel about how some serve and some don’t and so upon a service member’s return from war everyone wants to help, but you can’t help if there isn’t a problem, so everyone must have a problem, hence the veteran experience has been pathologized. Just a theory.

We’ve heard you refer to the war in Afghanistan as an “elliptical war.” What do you mean by that phrase? Do you see an end to the conflict in Afghanistan, or have demand, culture, and competing interests created a perpetual war cycle?

I guess I do refer to it as an ‘elliptical war’ because I used the phrase in my answer above. When I say that, I mean the war’s prosecution and the casus belli have become obtuse, unclear. We don’t know why we are fighting, or what we are fighting for. The war is no longer a means to achieve a stated political goal. It is being fought for financial gain, to settle old scores, for social advantage, basically for every reason but the ending of it. At one point during the writing of the novel, my publisher asked me to consider some different titles. They were concerned that no one would understand the title Green on Blue, perhaps the lay reader might assume the book to be about the painter Mark Rothko, or some such. Anyways, one of the titles we played around with, which I don’t like as a title but which I think matches the spirit of the book was: Every Reason but the End.

We often hear about the role that religion plays in this conflict, yet it seems to be oddly absent in your novel. Do you think we’ve overplayed the role of religion in the war in Afghanistan? Is it really a driver of the conflict, or is it presented by the west as an explanation, one that is actually hollow?

No, I don’t think we overplay the role of religion in the conflict. It plays an enormous role. The lack of religion in the novel is a point Tom Bissell brought up in his critique for The New York Time Book Review. He was completely on point to raise it. But it was also a choice I had to make as an author. I knew that if I waded into the religious aspects of the conflict, which can be extremely byzantine, and which vary widely from province to province, district to district, village to village, I’d create a narrative which was impenetrable to most readers. The same holds true for the details of tribal allegiance, something that is hugely important to Afghans. But if I bogged down the story with all the background of which tribe Aziz was from and which sub-tribe Commander Sabir, or Atal, or all the other characters were from it would create a book that was too disjointed, too cluttered. Much of writing is distilling a narrative down to its essential elements, knowing what to include and what to leave out to make the story the most true.

The title of your book, Green on Blue, has become a phrase that describes a tactical level event which has strategic impacts. It is after all, the relationship between the United States and Afghanistan that is the critical link to the outcome of the war, and it is manifested, played out in miniature if you will, in the relationship between Afghan soldiers and their American advisors. How do you think the lessons of honor and revenge in your novel relate at the strategic level to the relationship between Afghanistan and the US?

The idea of a green on blue serves as a metaphor in the novel. What happens when the cause you fight for threatens to destroy you? That’s Aziz’s journey and it’s one common to war but it’s also one which transcends war. It’s relevant to a marriage, to a friendship, to any way we as humans commit ourselves to one another and then see that commitment threatening to fragment our lives.

We’d like to move the conversation towards writing in more broad terms. The Strategy Bridge is affiliated with a new organization, The Military Writers Guild, which was built to encourage and support emerging and established writers in the national security space. As a successful, contemporary writer in that space, we’re hoping you can shed some light on the process and your path. When did you start writing and what purpose did it serve for you?

My mother is a novelist. I grew up around books, around writers, so for me it always felt very natural to write. It’s an impulse. I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t write. I studied history and literature at university then I went right into the Marines. Publishing fiction wasn’t something I thought to do while in the military. It didn’t seem to be the time or place for it. Then, once I decided to leave the service, I turned to writing full time.

What does your writing process look like? Where do you write?

I live in Istanbul and write in cafes mostly. I speak lousy Turkish so I can’t hear what everyone is saying around me, it’s like white noise. I like the energy that comes from being out. I hate offices, always have. When I’m really scrubbing a manuscript, I’ll go to the library and read the work out loud to myself so I can hear the sound of it, its rhythm. So I guess I’d say I write mostly out in cafes and I do some of my revising in libraries. Museums work for both, if you can find a quiet corner.

When you have begun a project, at what point do you share it? When do you seek feedback and who do you turn to for that?

I only seek feedback when I feel I can’t take the work any further on my own. I have a small circle of readers, people whose taste I respect and who I know love me enough to be brutally honest. They’d rather have a tough conversation with me than see me take crap work out in the world.

What are some tips or pitfalls you’d recommend military writers embrace or avoid?

Don’t be a military writer. Be a writer. When he accepted his Nobel Prize, William Faulkner said it is: “the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.” Tracing the topography of that heart is what we’re all doing through our subjects. If your subject happens to have something to do with the military, fine, but I think fine writing, the type that lasts, addresses that human heart in conflict with itself.

Tyrell Mayfield is a U.S. Air Force Political Affairs Strategist. He serves as an Editor for The Strategy Bridge, is a founding member of the Military Writers Guild, and is writing a book about Kabul. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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