by: Elliot Ackerman
Elliot Ackerman served for nearly 10 years in America’s wars. He was first a Marine lieutenant in the Battle of Fallujah, then a Marine Special Operations captain in Afghanistan and finally a CIA officer on the Afghan-Pakistan border. After leaving public service, he wrote several acclaimed books, including the novels “Green on Blue” and “Dark at the Crossing” and the memoir “Places and Names: On War, Revolution, and Returning.” There is much to admire in his achievements over a mere 20 years. An unplanned life has virtues.
“The Fifth Act: American’s End in Afghanistan” is Ackerman’s newest book. The quality of the writing stands out. “Muzzle flashes winked from the windows. Light and medium machine guns knotted the air, swirling up whippets of dust with their recoil. An RPG slammed into the bed of the Ford Ranger in front of us.” From the opening lines, clean, clipped sentences have the quality of simplicity: “The war has always been there, even though I don’t go to it anymore. It is older than my children, who sleep in the room next door. I learned to love it before I learned to love my wife, who fits her body beside mine in the bed. The war is ending — has been ending for some time. And it is disastrous.”
“The Fifth Act” describes that ending from Ackerman’s perspective as he lived through it. The book is less a history of the final evacuation than a meditation on the meaning of the end for America’s fighting men and women. It is part of a distinguished and growing literature by American veterans trying to understand the experience of those who served. Should the war be a source of pride or shame? Are our leaders wise or fools? Should they have tried harder to win or left earlier? Should we hate the Afghans or love the Afghans? Should we long for the warrior life that the war enshrined?