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The Fifth Act: America's End in Afghanistan


The Fifth Act: America's End in Afghanistan

Nearly a year has passed since the United States’ controversial withdrawal from Afghanistan, after two decades of war in that troubled land. There will be many in-depth analyses of that engagement and its precipitous conclusion, but few of them will possess the immediacy of Elliot Ackerman’s THE FIFTH ACT. It’s both an intensely personal memoir of Ackerman’s service there, and a dramatic account of his improvised efforts to extricate Afghans from the country amid the collapse of the government and the return to power of the Taliban.

When Ackerman (PLACES AND NAMES: On War, Revolution, and Returning) left with his wife and young children for an Italian vacation, he never imagined he’d spend many hours of what otherwise would have been family time on what seems at times like a ludicrously small effort when weighed against the magnitude of the crisis. And so, five days after the fall of Kabul, Ackerman finds himself in Rome, attempting to negotiate the safe passage of four minibuses bearing 109 Afghanis, including the family of his former translator now living in Texas, as they approach an airport entrance identified on a map only as “Unnamed Gate” and manned by Afghan paramilitaries.

"Ackerman brings to bear his skills as a narrate a tale that’s as suspenseful as any thriller. He seamlessly blends these scenes with quotidian family moments..."

In a flurry of phone, text and email conversations with an assortment of contacts from his military career (he served five combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan before working for the CIA as a paramilitary case officer, planning actions like the one that recently killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri) and others previously unknown to him, Ackerman and his band of associates pull on every string available to chart a safe path for the fleeing Afghans out of the reach of the Taliban. In one of the most difficult, he’s required to seek a favor from Jack, a Marine comrade and friend of nearly 20 years. Ackerman shares the difficult story of their parting, when he finally made the decision to walk away from the war in 2011.

The book’s several other rescue stories are similarly fraught, and in telling them, Ackerman brings to bear his skills as a storyteller (he’s written or co-written five novels since 2015, and he has a sixth coming next year) to narrate a tale that’s as suspenseful as any thriller. He seamlessly blends these scenes with quotidian family moments --- a description of his nine-year-old son’s session at a Roman “gladiator school” and recollections of his own military service, among them his lingering regrets over a decision he made following the loss of one of his platoon members in 2008. “I wondered then --- and have wondered since --- who absolves us of such regrets.”

Without sacrificing the intimacy of these reflections, Ackerman is also intent on making some broader points. While he indicts the Biden administration for “an exceptional degree of incompetence” in connection with the evacuation, especially after the suicide bombing at Kabul International Airport that killed 13 American service members, he’s careful to share the blame for the “many fatal mistakes in our Afghan tragedy” --- the foundation of which was George Bush’s decision to begin the war in Iraq, and continuing through the Obama surge and drawdown to the flawed peace agreement negotiated by the Trump administration in 2020.

All of these errors, in different ways, were manifestations of the “social construct” that sustained what Ackerman calls a “new type of war, one that is ahistorical --- and seemingly without end.” In order to maintain that first-of-its-kind effort, America’s leaders chose to embark on this “protracted conflict with an all-volunteer military that was funded through deficit spending” and made possible by almost total disengagement of the American people, as we quickly returned to our daily pursuits after September 11, 2001.

Along with concerns about the politicization of the US military, and the growing divide between our “professional soldiering class” and the vast majority of civilians with no connection to it, Ackerman also has some harsh words for the polarized political culture in which these decisions are made: “Our passions are being inflamed and manipulated for profit by a political-industrial complex that feeds off our basest fears of one another.” Pointing to the furor over the 2020 presidential election, he’s ultimately concerned that “when bad behaviors become habits, the worst outcomes become inevitabilities.”

Over its 20-year span, the war in Afghanistan cost the lives of 2,461 American soldiers and added some $2 trillion to our national debt. THE FIFTH ACT presents only a small slice of this story, but it’s indispensable reading for anyone who wants to think seriously about these questions before our country makes the decision whether or not to go to war the inevitable next time.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on August 12, 2022

The Fifth Act: America's End in Afghanistan
by Elliot Ackerman

  • Publication Date: August 9, 2022
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press
  • ISBN-10: 0593492048
  • ISBN-13: 9780593492048