US Central Command Public Affairs
It has been almost a year since the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan and the US military withdrew from the country.
As the withdrawal unfolded, Marine Corps veteran Elliot Ackerman watched the chaos from a distance. He was on a family vacation in Italy but couldn’t tear himself away from what was happening.
Ackerman had deployed to Afghanistan several times. He felt connected to America’s Afghan allies, so when the United States announced their departure and those same Afghans were desperate to get out, he stayed up at night, glued to his phone.
“My whole network was lighting up and it quickly became a participatory evacuation, with each person playing their part,” Ackerman said. morning edition.
“Some people were trying to raise funds for charter flights, others were organizing the buses that would transport evacuees from various pick-up points in Kabul to the airport.”
Ackerman was key because he knew the Marines who were inside the airport, who guarded those gates and decided who could enter and who could not. He recounts this experience in his new book, The Fifth Act: The End of America in Afghanistan.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Alyssa Schukar/Alyssa Schukar Photography LLC
On mobilization to help Afghans evacuate
Everyone was very focused on the task at hand, because the stakes are obviously very high. You know, you have the pictures of people trying to get out and their families, [because] these aren’t people any of us knew – the only family I had that I had a direct personal connection to was my interpreter. He has since moved to the United States, but his family was still there and we were able to get his family out. But all the others were strangers and they were strangers to most of us. So at that point you can’t really walk away.
But there were certainly little interludes. And my wife, in the book, she comes off almost like a Greek choir conscience from the book, saying, you know, ‘Why do you all have to do this? Why are the people who left the wars 10 years ago now sucked in to try and finish them?”
On his vision of the American exit from Afghanistan
I think it’s a breakdown of American morals that we made those promises and failed to deliver. It was a collapse of American competence. I mean, look, despite the heroic efforts of those who were at the airport — and our efforts were truly heroic, so I’m not questioning their competence — but I would question the decision-making competence that got us put in this position where our back was against a wall with this August 31st withdrawal date that we couldn’t seem to move.
It was a breakdown of the hierarchy, for as the war was winding down around this time, I found myself on chain texts and phone calls with retired four-star generals and admirals, some of whom had commanded the entire war, because no one could take anyone out. because of madness. And because, for a brief window, the team I was working with was successful, we found ourselves serving in this collapsed hierarchy all working together. And it was sometimes surreal for me.
On how it is impossible to truly separate from the experience of war
People have sometimes asked me, “Elliot, how do you think the war has changed you?” and I never knew how to answer this question. Because the war in many ways made me. I don’t know how to untie it from the knots that I am. But the friendships I have there, the memories I have of that time, of course I think about it and that’s when I was growing up. I mean, I grew up there during the war.
I entered the service and started this training pipeline at age 17. And as you see in the book, those friendships spread because Kabul was falling, so many of the people I work with, they’re people who transitioned as well. They ended the wars themselves and we are still friends.
Apu Gomes/AFP via Getty Images
On what a proper memorial for these particular American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq would look like
I started thinking about this in regards to the recent passage of the Global War on Terrorism Memorial Site Act, which was passed by Congress to authorize a memorial to those wars. But the global war on terror isn’t over yet, so it’s really interesting.
For the first time as a country, we will try to make a memorial to a war that we are technically still fighting. But it got me thinking, how would you make a memorial for an eternal war? And that made me think, maybe what would be more appropriate instead of erecting all these memorials up, maybe we should dig down, kind of like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial .
And I imagined a war memorial that would look almost like the sloping granite rock, kind of a conical descent like something out of Dante, and we’d get rid of all the memorials from each specific war and we’d just have a single American war memorial.
It would start with names, the first being Crispus Attucks, who was killed in the Boston Massacre. And we would just list them all in chronological order as we dig deeper and deeper. So we have over a million war dead at this point in our country’s history. And every time we fund a new war, we just add the names that go down and down into the earth. And then, in my imagination of this war memorial, when you come to the last name, there would be a desk and a pen. And Congress would pass a law that before any troop deployments, the president – him or her – would have to go to the war memorial and that pen would be the only pen that could be used to sign troop deployments.
They should walk past all the war dead before they have to do that. And then we wouldn’t need to have war memorial debates anymore – we’d just know what we did every time we fought a war, we’d just add the names.
This story was produced and edited for radio by Lisa Weiner and Reena Advani. It was adapted for the web by Reena Advani.