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Places and Names: On War, Revolution, and Returning

Review

Places and Names: On War, Revolution, and Returning

It’s hard to square the picture of the mild-faced writer looking out from the back flap of his book with the knowledge that this same man served five combat tours over eight years in Iraq and Afghanistan, in the process earning a Silver Star, a Bronze Star for Valor, and a Purple Heart.

But Elliot Ackerman’s PLACES AND NAMES quickly dispels that feeling of cognitive dissonance. In its 18 loosely connected pieces, the battle-tested ex-Marine reveals his skills as a journalist and memoirist, as he probes for understanding in the ongoing cauldron of conflict that is the Middle East and engages with searing memories of his own combat experiences.

Ackerman’s book ranges as far back as November 2004, when he led a platoon of Marines into bloody hand-to-hand combat in the Second Battle of Fallujah in Iraq. Most of the entries, however, are concentrated in the period from 2013 to 2015, as he ventures to the borderland between Turkey and Syria, amid the Syrian civil war and the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS or Daesh, as it’s known in Arabic), and ventures back to Iraq. Though the book’s episodic pieces are dated by year and season, they’re presented without chronology. That fact, coupled with the complexity of the political and military landscape in which Ackerman dwells, presents challenges for readers not steeped in these subjects.

"In its 18 loosely connected pieces, the battle-tested ex-Marine reveals his skills as a journalist and memoirist, as he probes for understanding in the ongoing cauldron of conflict that is the Middle East and engages with searing memories of his own combat experiences."

In 2013, Ackerman settles into a villa in the Turkish town of Gaziantep, near the Syrian border, home to an organization run by an American named Matt, who’s working with international organizations providing humanitarian aid to victims of the Syrian conflict. From there (and later from Istanbul), he ranges into northern Syria, Turkey and Iraq, accompanied at times by an anti-Assad activist from Damascus named Abed, who becomes a close friend. Ackerman comes to view the two of them as “veterans of the same conflict, one in which democratic and high-minded ideals have bogged down in a quagmire of Islamist dogma and sectarian bloodshed.” Together they “reckon with the destruction our causes left in their wake and consider how to move on from the wreckage of our experience.”

Reflective of that process are Ackerman’s conversations with Abu Hassar, an acquaintance of Abed. He’s a former al-Qaeda fighter in Iraq and now an opponent of the Assad regime in Syria, who has spent three years in prison as a result of that opposition.

In a chilling piece entitled “A Thousand Discords,” Ackerman describes an encounter with Abu Hassar, in which his former nominal, if not actual, enemy coolly surveys the roiling conflicts of the Middle East, but then casually pivots to an apocalyptic vision that’s every bit as terrifying as the biblical Armageddon, only in this version the armies of Islam will emerge triumphant.

Though the journalism in pieces like that one is observant and informative, the sections of PLACES AND NAMES more accurately characterized as memoir are its most engrossing. Ackerman’s recollections of his experience in Fallujah, the subject of the book’s final two entries, provide its most gripping moments.

In “Back to the City,” he returns to the scene of some of the fiercest fighting there, observing that “visiting this city as a former Marine feels like walking through New Orleans if your name is Hurricane Katrina.” According to planners, Ackerman’s unit entered the battle facing an anticipated casualty rate of 70 percent, a prediction that turned out to be low.

Among the platoon’s members who didn’t survive was Dan Malcom, Ackerman’s close friend and frequent chess partner. He marks Malcolm’s passing by wearing a black steel bracelet bearing his friend’s name and the date of his death --- November 10, 2004 --- alongside a plastic bracelet made by his own three-year-old daughter. “If it weren’t for the steel bracelet, the plastic one wouldn’t exist,” he writes.

“A Summary of Action” intersperses Ackerman’s description of his Fallujah experience with excerpts from the Silver Star citation that honored him for “a level of bravery, composure under fire, and combat leadership that is beyond expectations.” His goal in fashioning the account was to provide “the kind of things that don’t make it into formal government documents, the personal reflections that fill the lines between them,” and he succeeds masterfully in that task.

The contrast between the often bloodless bureaucratic jargon of the citation and the sheer terror of Ackerman’s retelling is jarring. His is a collection of picture postcards from a trip to hell, focusing on the frantic first few days of the battle, in which he was wounded, followed by house-to-house engagement in a hostile urban environment that at times felt like “a month-long game of Russian roulette.” The vivid descriptions of how he and his comrades fought for survival on unimaginably perilous terrain are as close as one can come on the page to the reality of combat.

Though there’s heroism described on the pages of PLACES AND NAMES, the book’s tone is pensive. Even as he recognizes that “if purpose is the drug that induces happiness, there are few stronger doses than the wartime experience,” Ackerman is weary of battle and grateful to have survived. His verdict on the experience is that contradiction is “hardwired into war too: feeling fear to express courage, forfeiting freedoms to protect them, and, of course, killing for peace.”

With works of fiction like Kevin Powers’ THE YELLOW BIRDS and Phil Klay’s REDEPLOYMENT, and nonfiction that includes Sebastian Junger’s WAR, the seemingly endless conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan already have spawned an impressive body of literature. To that collection of excellence, add Elliot Ackerman’s unforgettable PLACES AND NAMES.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on June 14, 2019

Places and Names: On War, Revolution, and Returning
by Elliot Ackerman

  • Publication Date: June 11, 2019
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press
  • ISBN-10: 0525559965
  • ISBN-13: 9780525559962