End of the 'Forever' War

Two book titles about the 'forever' war

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On the anniversary of the fall of Kabul, two new memoirs, one by a novelist, offer three different perspectives about the chaotic end of the “forever” war.

Matters of faith

“Always Faithful,” a title borrowed from the Marine Corps’ motto (the Latin Semper Fidelis, or “Semper Fi” to Marines), has a long but informative subtitle: “A Story of the War in Afghanistan, the Fall of Kabul, and the Unshakable Bond Between a Marine and an Interpreter” explains most of the dual memoir’s straightforward, conventional narrative – except for the segments in which Maj. Tom Schueman, USMC, and Zainullah Zaki describe coming of age in the U.S. and in Afghanistan, respectively. (They share writing credit with Russell Worth Parker, a retired Marine.)

Plus, you could add a phrase to the end of the subtitle:“As Illustrated by the Efforts of the Marine to Help His Friend Get the Heck Out When Official U.S. Immigration Procedures Fail.” (For the Iraqi portion of the quagmire in U.S. diplomacy, consider “Baghdad Underground Railroad: Saving American Allies in Iraq (2021)” by former Army colonel Steve Miska.)

But back to the two boys.

In Illinois, Tom has “a hippie mom turned Chicago cop” and a father in a Georgia prison. At 14 he is “born again” as a Christian. In high school he is 6 feet 2, weighs 140, a once-hopeful athlete who goes from “starting every game to riding the bench.” He is 15 on Sept. 11, 2001.

In Asadabad, “Zak,” a Muslim, is one of nine children in a four-room house “built of stone from the mountains” on the family farm 115 miles east of Kabul. From age 5 he lives under harsh Taliban rule, and “there has never been a day in my life untouched by war.” He is 11 on Sept. 11, 2001.

At Marine Corps Base Quantico at age 22, Tom finds “music in the thunder of weapons firing on a range” at The Basic School and in hand-to-hand combat training, “where the aggression that fueled my unwillingness to lose was no longer an aberration, but an asset.” His persistence will pay off during firefights in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Zak listens to a teacher who suggests “you must learn about the world and how it sees us if you want to get anywhere in life,” and his English-language skills land the native Pashtun speaker a job with the Americans. He discovers they do “not seem to eat vegetables,” and Marines speak “another kind of English” with a new-to-Zak word used in myriad forms: “fuck.”

Nine years after 9/11, Tom and Zak meet at FOB Inkerman in Sangin District, one a lieutenant and one an
interpreter, both assigned to 3 rd  Battalion, 5th Marines. Zak soon steps out of his translation role and charges a Talib, hitting him “like an American football player.” Tom says “Zak ran to the sound of guns in a way that would have made a Marine infantry instructor smile.” The lieutenant finds he can “share thoughts with {Zak} that I could not easily expose to the men I led, who needed me to be strong at all times.” For him, Zak is a constant in “unrelentingly violent” Sangin, where 25 of the 3/5 Marines die and 184 are wounded in three and a half months – during which Tom’s platoon kills “25 Taliban for every Marine the platoon lost.”

When Tom departs Afghanistan the first time, Zak and Tom wave farewell as the Osprey takes off. Zak cares not “about the sand that flew in my eyes.” A decade later both men are concerned about another flight, this one from chaotic Kabul in August 2021. By now Zak is a father in love with the woman he met at the wedding his parents arranged. Tom is a father in love with the woman he has married for a second time. Zak’s work with Americans will likely mean more harm; he is already the victim of pancreatic poisoning, courtesy of the Taliban. He contacts Tom, who is aghast at Zak’s five years of applying to the U.S. for a Special Immigration Visa (SIV), a process that requires 14 steps and contact with six agencies.

For Tom, the “always” in Semper Fi is an absolute. He enlists friends and opens up to the news media about Zak’s plight. “It is my wish,” Zak says, “that no other parent would ever know the fear of stepping into the dark streets of a dying city with their children.” Finally, Tom’s phone calls and Zak’s family’s miles of walks to Hamid Karzi International Airport are fruitive. Today, Tom – founder of the nonprofit Patrol Base Abbate – is on active duty. Zak is a construction worker in Texas,and his endeavor toward American citizenship is not over; his application for an SIV was denied in March. If another application fails, he officially must seek asylum. Is the anguish, worthwhile?

Yes, Zak says. “Even a chance at the American dream always is.”

Curtain call

Given his output, writer and former Marine captain Elliot Ackerman could start his own Book-of-the-Year-Club. “The Fifth Act: America’s End in Afghanistan,” is his eighth title since “Green on Blue,” a fictional Afghan orphan’s tale, was published and praised in 2016. His second novel, “Dark at the Crossing” (2017) is a National Book Award finalist. (If you read only one of his novels, try 2018’s “Waiting for Eden,” about a “not alive, not dead” Marine in a hospital’s burn unit.) In nonfiction, his “Places and Names” (2019) is a journalistic memoir in which he revisits the scene of the grime in the Middle East and his service in Iraq, where he merits a Silver Star. (In Afghanistan, the Marine gets a chewing out.)  Besides writing books, Ackerman is a contributor to national publications, and themes in his periodical pieces also appear in this volume.

He is prolific.

He is also prodigious. “The Fifth Act” brings both a novelist’s and a reporter’s skills to 288 pages that display Ackerman’s literary prowess and his societal acumen. The book is a memoir, an elegy, a report, an analysis, a promise, and a plea – with photographs, 26 of the 55 images by the author. (Alas, none is captioned on the page it appears.)

And Ackerman takes “The Fifth” to heart by providing more personal details than in his earlier books. He opens up about a still-haunting decision he makes while leading Marines near Shewan in 2008. “Each of us carries the weight of certain regrets,” he says later. He also describes being a father of three and a husband. The Ackerman family’s holiday in Italy frames the narrative, which alternately takes you to Washington, D.C. (lunch with the Afghan ambassador to the U.S.), Virginia (private conversation with the Joint Chiefs of Staff chair), Maryland, New York, North Carolina – and significantly, Afghanistan during a pivotal week in August 2021, when the author is volunteering to help Afghans get inside airport gates and onto planes leaving Kabul.

He is not at Hamid Karzai International Airport, but he places a reader there in what feels like real time. The tension is in the texts and calls between “veterans, journalists and activists” who feel responsible for aiding frightened people – including friends – who worked with U.S. troops during 20 years of war.

The contrasts in locations in “The Fifth Act” present a “psychic disconnect” to those on the ground but not those holding the book, thanks to Ack’s (a nickname) knack. In one memorable setting, Ackerman and his wife are dining on the rooftop of Hotel Danieli, overlooking the Grand Canal in Venice, when he takes a call from Marine veteran Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) – who is “controversially” in frantic Kabul with another House of Representatives member, Army veteran Peter Meijer (R-Mich.).

“If you need anything,” Moulton tells Ackerman, “I might be able to help.” Moulton is another individual who
offers independent support for evacuees. Exasperatingly, Ackerman’s wife (her name is not provided) points out that the U.S. government, not individuals, ought to be in control of the evacuations.

“It’s just poignant,” she tells her husband, “to see all of you trying to finish this, with so little help. It’s a total
collapse.” As her spouse says, it’s a “botched” evacuation effort following years of “blunders” in Afghanistan, starting when the Iraq-focused Bush administration “was laying an architecture that would sustain 20 years of war.” (Each side betrayed the other, Ackerman says. The Afghans siphoned U.S. aid, traded opium, and permitted “incompetence in their high command {that} bordered on negligence.”)

His wife’s choice of “collapse” is apt, says Ackerman, and encompasses “a collapse of our country’s competence as we’ve unconditionally lost a 20-year war, but also a collapse of time, space and hierarchy.”
That span-place-system warp in “The Fifth Act” feels immediate and urgent. Ackerman left Afghanistan in 2011, “not sure whether we were winning or losing,” but 2021 tugs him – and a reader – back into the war womb. “No matter how far my life progressed beyond the war . . . the war always had its hold over me, calling me back.” The siren’s call is the conduit to the introspection.

For example, citing a news-making Washington Post report in 2019 about the disinformation delivered by the Pentagon during the fighting in Afghanistan, Ackerman applauds how “the press can expose duplicity.”  But he wonders about “societal duplicity,” in which American civilization lacks “the resolve to look in the mirror and ask ourselves how we got here and whether we’re willing to change so that it never happens again?” The man who “loved” his work as a Marine contemplates the military-civilian divide, with its “military caste,” a “professional soldier class, one that is increasingly closed off, insular, and subject to living in its own atomized reality – just like the rest of America does.”

Part of the blame for the division, he says, is the “political-industrial complex” (borrowing from Eisenhower), which “has led us into a paradigm of perpetual campaigns in which our political class needs divisive issues to fight over more than it needs solutions to the issues themselves.” The author’s blatant assessments of the issues occur mostly in the book’s Act 5, the usual place for resolution in
classic playwrighting structure. He warns that divisiveness is destructive. “Our experiment in democracy has worked when it appeals to the best of us, as opposed to the worst.”

On that note, and lest two of the words in the book’s subtitle – “America’s End” – prove at worst to be literal and/or prophetic, perhaps the persuasive “The Fifth Act” can motivate American readers to help make the U.S. safe for democracy.

Huffman’s book reviews received the Military Reporters and Editors’ 2018 award for commentary. He serves on the board of Student Veterans of America and co-edited “The End of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (Marine Corps University Press, 2012)