Journalist and former Marine Elliot Ackerman on U.S. military in Afghanistan

FAN Editor

In this episode of Intelligence Matters, host Michael Morell speaks with journalist and former Marine Elliot Ackerman about his new book The Fifth Act: America’s End in Afghanistan. Ackerman reflects on the impact of the war in Afghanistan for a generation of veterans and argues the veterans of the war deserve a memorial. 


Mobilizing America for “War on Terror”: “When 9/11 occurs and America again mobilizes to go to war, it needs a construct to sustain this war on terror. So what is the construct? The construct is the blood that comes from our all-volunteer military and the treasure is our national deficit. We put the cost of the wars on our national credit card. If you look at the deficit today, about a quarter of our national deficit is the bill for the wars on terror. The last year the United States passed a balanced budget was in 2001, which is not a coincidence.”

Afghanistan war veterans reflecting on end of war: “The difference between my generation of veterans for such a long time and the Vietnam guys was the Vietnam guys had seen the end and we hadn’t seen the end yet. Yes, we’ve been fighting for over 20 years, but we hadn’t seen the end of the war. And what they knew and what I feel like I’ve learned at the end of seeing how Afghanistan ended, was they knew there was a betrayal coming and we hadn’t come to it yet.”

Afghanistan war memorial? “In the legislation that would authorize this war memorial, I would have a provision that at its bottom, wherever that last name was, there would be a desk and a pen. And by law, that pen would be the only pen by which the president of the United States could sign a deployment order for troops. He or she would have to come down whenever they wanted to send troops to a new country, and they’d have to sign it right there at that desk after having walked by all of the names of America’s war dead. And that would be our single American War Memorial.”

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PRODUCER: Paulina Smolinski

MICHAEL MORELL: Elliot, thanks for joining us and congratulations on your new book, The Fifth Act: America’s End in Afghanistan. It hit the bookstores last month. It’s great to have you with us. 

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: Thanks so much for having me.

MICHAEL MORELL: Elliot, I want to start by saying that a good friend of mine told me about your book a couple of weeks ago and I ordered it. I sat down on a Sunday morning to start reading, and I finished it in one sitting. The book is that compelling. I’ll go even further and say that I think The Fifth Act  is among the best books about war that I’ve ever read. A list of the powerful stories that it tells and the images and the emotions that it evokes is pages long for me. My high bar for war books has always been Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. And for me The Fifth Act  is very, very close to that bar. So huge congratulations.

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: Thank you. I appreciate that.

MICHAEL MORELL: So enough of the platitudes. Let me kick off by asking you what the book is about. Obviously, America’s end in Afghanistan, but how do you tell the story? Explain the structure to the listeners.

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: Obviously the structure is implied in the title of the book. The genesis of that title or its inception was during those chaotic two weeks around the fall of Kabul last year. And in addition to being a novelist, I also work as a journalist. And a friend of mine reached out and asked if I would contribute 500 words to a series of sort of quick essays she was gathering about the end of Afghanistan. And when confronted with this idea of trying to summarize 20 years of war in 500 words, I was saying ‘how can I plausibly do this?’ And she just sort of sighed and said, ‘people haven’t been paying attention for a long time and they see what’s happening and they don’t understand it. They just know that it’s a tragedy.’ And it was her use of that word tragedy that got me thinking of a structure, how do you wrap your head around this 20 year war? And if you look at tragedies, back from Shakespeare and even before to the ancients, tragedies are typically told in five acts. And so with that scaffolding, the five acts being the presidencies of Bush, Obama, Trump, Biden, and then this fifth act, the denouement, which is the Taliban, that at least gave me a way to think about things politically. And then I wrote my 500 word essay and then found myself like so many others sucked into this two, three week long crowdsourced evacuation from Afghanistan as our allies were desperately reaching out for help. So the book also tells the story of five distinct evacuations that I was involved in. All five had a different outcome, some good, some not as good. 

The last component of the book, thematically speaking for me was kind of running through all of this was this sort of thematic undercurrent, which is as everyone was struggling to get people out and to try to make good in these frantic three weeks. What it seemed like we were all trying to make good on was this concept that any of us who served are very familiar with. This concept of, what does it mean to leave no one behind? What does it mean to live up to that ideal? And we were all in those days trying to live up to some semblance of that ideal, knowing that we weren’t going to, knowing full well that many people were going to be left behind. But trying to live up to it. 

It’s an ideal that is not unique to the US military, it’s really one that is as old as war. You go all the way back to The Iliad, I mean, Homer. How does The Iliad end? One of the final scenes in The Iliad is after Achilles kills Hector, he drags Hector’s mangled body back to his camp. King Priam of the Trojans sneaks into Achilles camp and begs for the body of his son. Why does he do this? Well because we don’t leave anyone behind. And so that theme, which is, I think for me, very present in this effort to get our Afghan allies out. And I wanted to also reach back in the book into my own past and sort of wrestle with a time when I was fighting in Afghanistan where I questioned whether or not I had made good on that ideal of leaving no one behind, specifically an ambush that I was involved in which one of my comrades was killed. And we had a very hard time getting his body back. Because that memory during the end of the Afghan war really resurfaced for me. And if I was going to tell the story of what the end of the Afghan war was like, I also needed to tell that story as well, because it was just so present in my consciousness. Those ideas are in the book, it’s the shape of the book.

MICHAEL MORELL: Elliot, you’re sharply critical of a number of policy decisions related to or that affected the course of the Afghan war and its end and each of the last four administrations share the blame in the way you tell the story. And all of those resonated with me, by the way. And I’m wondering what you would label as the key mistake of each of those four administrations. How do you think about that?

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: I would say upfront that I think that we’re talking about a 20 year war across four presidential administrations and two parties. It would be a tragedy as we look back on Afghanistan, if any of this gets bogged down in the types of partisan recriminations that are de rigueur in American political life.

MICHAEL MORELL: Great point.

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: I think if we look back at the beginning of the war and the Bush administration, two obvious strategic mistakes, where you can imagine a different outcome to the war. That would have been if obviously we got bin Laden very early on. I want to say it’s a strategic mistake, it’s just an opportunity missed because that would have changed particularly the emotional stakes of the war. It would have been far easier for us to say we accomplished the mission within nine months of 9/11 if Osama bin Laden was dead. But that didn’t happen. I think very early on in the Bush administration, and just in the American psyche, there is a conflation between the Taliban and Al Qaeda, which affects our strategic thinking later down the road. These are two groups that are not the same. They are obviously allied with one another, but they do have different objectives in Afghanistan. I think that conflation made it very difficult for us in 2002 or 2003 as the Afghan government was standing up, to imagine or even want to engage in policies in which we could have co-opted elements of the Taliban and made the Taliban not quite so fertile for co-option by the Pakistanis, which becomes a real problem for us later. 

And then the most obvious one is in the Bush administration the decision to invade Iraq. That decision is made at a time when things seem as though they are going well in Afghanistan. But we critically take our eyes off the ball. We go invade Iraq. And really not until the Obama administration is Afghanistan once again resourced in the way that it should have been resourced five years before.

When we look at the strategic mistake of the Obama administration, it’s the nature of the surge. He gave a speech in 2009 at West Point announcing that surge. And in the same speech that he announces the surge, he also announces the date of the withdrawal, undercutting the surge. That is the key strategic mistake of the Obama administration, is it’s a surge that never really has the legs that it needs, because we are always about to leave Afghanistan. 

I think if we look at the Trump administration, it is the decision made around the Doha agreement, the decision to negotiate directly with the Taliban and to cut out our Afghan partners in a way that undercuts the Afghan government and that administration. A flawed administration, not without its problems, but we certainly precipitated its decline by negotiating unilaterally with the Taliban. And then if we look at the Joe Biden administration, the strategic mistake in the Biden administration is continuing the policies of the Trump administration. The series of mistakes that were made between April of 2021, the announcement of the withdrawal, and then the way that we see Afghanistan’s endgame, at least for NATO. 

With the Biden administration, to me, it seems so much of this is captured by a strategic miscalculation. There was a belief that there would be a decent interval between the withdrawal of U.S. forces and whatever the end game was going to be between the government of Afghanistan, of the Taliban, and when that decent interval didn’t occur and we didn’t get it, there was no contingency plan in place.

MICHAEL MORELL: Elliot, I’d love to pick up some points from the narrative of the book and ask you about them. And the first that comes to mind for me is, for you personally, what ties together the two parts of the book? One is your time spent fighting and advising in Afghanistan. And the second is your family vacation in August of 2021. What links those for you? What binds them together for you? 

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: If a reader picks up the book, they’ll note that the book toggles around quite a bit in time. So the chapters will go from scenes in Afghanistan of combat in 2008 to the summer of 2021. When the fall of Kabul happens and this evacuation is taking place, I happened to be on a long planned family holiday with my wife and our four children in Italy, of all places, which is about as far away from Afghanistan as you can get. And the reason it felt important to me to make those scenes of my family’s vacation as as vivid as any scenes in the war is, because I wanted to show the psychic dislocation that I was experiencing. Which I imagine, many of my colleagues and comrades, veterans, journalists, and others were experiencing as the war ended. 

Because the evacuation, so much of it was ending in this crowdsourced, ad hoc way, many of us were psychologically being sucked back to a war we had thought we’d left a long time ago, to where we were ten years ago. And that has a real personal impact, too. For me, my wife didn’t know me during the wars. My children didn’t know me during the war. And they were given just this brief window into what my life might have been like back then. But then also seeing friends of ours who existed in our social life, my children’s uncles, who they know Daddy was in the Marines or at CIA with them, but they never had seen them in this light. And for a brief window they were able to see it. I wanted to show how that affects a family.

MICHAEL MORELL: I found that the parable that Sherrie Weston, the president of Sesame Street Workshop, sent to you in an email to be really powerful. And I’m wondering if you can talk about that in the context of why she shared that with you and then if you can actually share that parable with us.

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: Sherrie is a remarkable woman. And I think one of the reasons I very much wanted to write about her, too, was this was not only an effort that was containing military members and veterans. There were many other people who had been involved in Afghanistan and many of whom brought in a different and in some way refreshingly non cynical view of the country. I just bring that up because sometimes.  I’ll speak for myself. But as a veteran, you could feel a little bit just beaten down by trying to see something good out of Afghanistan. And so with regards to Sherrie, who had been very active in launching Sesame Street programming that was very popular in Afghanistan. Programming that was targeted at children, but also young girls. She was seeing all of those efforts collapse as well. 

And as we were trying to get people out, she sent me this parable. And it’s basically the story- an old man is walking down a beach and the beach is littered with starfish that have washed up on the high tide. But now that it’s low tide, they’re stranded in the sand. And this child is running around picking up the starfish and throwing them one at a time back in the ocean. And the old man basically says, ‘what are you doing?’ He says, ‘Well, I’m trying to save these starfish.’ The old man looks down the beach and sees that there’s thousands of them littering the beach. And he said, ‘there’s no way you can possibly save these starfish or make any type of difference for them.’ And the little boy reaches down and he picks up one starfish, throws it in the ocean and says, ‘I made a difference for that one.’ She just told me that story at a particularly tough moment when it seemed like there was no way to make any type of meaningful difference, sneaking Afghans into the airport in batches of, two to six to when it trickled down to almost nobody.

MICHAEL MORELL: You know what struck me when I read that was that, of course, Sherry’s right about aid work in general, and then what you were particularly doing at that moment. But it’s not true of war, right? Where there needs to be a clear strategic objective with a well-defined approach to deliver a strategic gain. So that struck me as well in reading that parable.

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: I think it’s very tough in a war to sort of hold these two ideas in your mind at the same time, the one being often the sense of futility one can have about the larger mission, the strategic mission, if it’s going well. If it’s a fundamentally sound concept, that can often get really muddy and muddled in the way that it did in Afghanistan over many, many years. So on one side of your brain, you know that there’s this broader strategic mission that you’re fighting the war over, but then you’re also fighting for these very specific reasons. When I served in uniform, it was for my friends, the guys on my team. We were on a very specific tactical mission. And how do you sort of reconcile those two? I think I’ve always thought of that as a profound question.

MICHAEL MORELL: You’ve  referenced this earlier, Elliot, but there’s a point in the story where you’re in command of an operation and you have to make a very tough decision. There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that you made the right decision, but it required disobeying a direct order. And I want you to talk a little bit more about the incident and what happened. You talked a little bit about how it fits the broader story. But I’m wondering if it’s a metaphor for anything else in the war as well.

ELLIOT ACKERMAN:  The incident I write about in the book was my special operations teams when I served in the Marine Corps, along with our Afghan partners who were Afghan commandos, were ambushed in a town in western Afghanistan. And one of our team members was killed in that ambush. The Humvee he was in took a direct hit and had a lot of ammunition in the back, it lit on fire. And we coming out of that ambush as a team were were pretty bloodied. And about every one of our vehicles was towing another vehicle. And we weren’t in a good position to go back and recover his body, though we were ordered to go back and recover his body. And so I had a disagreement with someone senior to me in the chain of command about whether or not that was the right thing to do. My assessment was that if we went back to try to get his body, certainly some of us were going to get hurt. I thought likely someone else was going to get killed. But I would be lying to you if I didn’t tell you that even today, I very much wish there was a narrative, a world that existed, where we all got back in the trucks and we were the ones that went and got him out. But that wasn’t the decision that was made.

Ultimately that night another team, our sister team, in fact, was able to come back. They were rested and in full strength and they were able to get his body out. But I’ve often thought about – I was the mission commander. So was ultimately the decision I made to say that we weren’t going to go get him out. And that it’s something I thought about for years. And then as this evacuation was occurring in Afghanistan, it was a decision I started thinking about a lot more. And because so much of what we were trying to do was in the spirit of not leaving people behind. It’s this question, what does it mean to fulfill that moral obligation? And there’s no easy answer to that. And I think every single one of us who’s participated in the war, to some degree or another, asks whether or not we fulfilled our moral obligations.

MICHAEL MORELL: A little essay on the perceptions that we all have of millennials and a great little essay on how that perception fits or does not fit right with the 20 years of war in Afghanistan and the all volunteer army. Can you share that with us?

ELLIOT ACKERMAN:  I think people often forget that America’s longest war was fought by millennials who volunteered. So this perception of all millennials being superficial, lazy doesn’t necessarily hold true. But I think it’s also important to keep what I just said in conversation with the fact that, unlike many of, most of America’s prior wars, the Vietnam War, the Second World War, the First World War, those wars were generationally defining events. My parents are of the Vietnam generation, the greatest generation from World War II, the lost generation from the First World War.  The war on terror was not a generationally defining event. It did not define the millennial generation or Gen X, who are probably the two generations that did most of the fighting in these wars. I’ve often thought it would sort of be nice to be part of a generation that is defined by its war, to be part of the lost generation, for instance. And I never felt like I was part of the lost generation. I have always felt like I was the lost part of a generation in that these wars were a very specific experience by a certain segment of our generation. And I think that is something that is concerning in American life, that wars are no longer experienced generationally. They should be,  they certainly merit that.

MICHAEL MORELL: I was really struck by your observation that Afghanistan and Iraq, for that matter, were wars that the American public in general did not have to pay for. Can you walk us through that narrative and then talk about its consequences, talk about why that matters? I think this is profound.

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: Every war that America has fought since the revolution has needed a construct to sustain it and to sustain it, broadly speaking, in two terms.  Blood, who’s going to fight the war. And treasure, how are we going to pay for it? For instance, the American Civil War, the first draft in the United States is a byproduct of the American Civil War. There’s the blood. And the first income tax in the United States is also a byproduct of the American civil war. We look at the Second World War. That’s a war characterized by war bond drives and a national mobilization. We look at the Vietnam War. There’s a very unpopular draft in that war, which eventually leads to an antiwar movement that ends the war. So when 9/11 occurs and America again mobilizes to go to war, it needs a construct to sustain this war on terror. So what is the construct? The construct is that the blood comes from our all volunteer military and the treasure is our national deficit. We put the cost of the wars on our national credit card. If you look at the deficit today, about a quarter of our national deficit is the bill for the wars on terror. The last year the United States passed a balanced budget was in 2001, which is not a coincidence. 

But the result of this construct, the all volunteer military in a war paid through our deficit where there’s no war tax, is the American people are anesthetized to the costs of war. And as a society, to me, if there’s one lesson to take out of the war on terror that is really unique to this war, because there are many lessons that that rhyme with other wars and we can make comparisons to Vietnam. But if there’s one that’s really pretty unique. It’s the way our country has fought these wars. And we should ask ourselves going forward, because there will certainly be another war. Is this the right construct for our country or does it lead us into very complicated and I would argue negative moral waters? And I think it’s concerning for a democracy to wage war this way.

MICHAEL MORELL: And you also talk about the implication of the separation of those who actually fought in the war from the rest of society, which I think is also important.

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: It’s because the construct by which we fight the war in which the American people are anesthetized to the cost of the war obviously creates a civil military divide. As we were talking about before, these wars weren’t generationally defining, but they certainly defined my life and the lives of my many friends who fought these wars alongside me. But that creates a massive divide in our country. We should sit here at the end of these wars and ask, what is the state of play, particularly vis a vis the U.S. military and the society it serves after 20 years of a forever war. And to me, it’s very concerning. The state of play right now in the United States is you have a large standing military and you have a country that has extremely dysfunctional internal politics. 

And if we look back in history. From Caesar’s Rome to Napoleon’s France, when you combine dysfunctional domestic politics and a large standing military, democracy doesn’t last long. And at the end of the war in Afghanistan. And there are certain flashpoint moments. I write a little bit about someone named Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Schiller, who made some very strong statements in uniform about the way the war ended. There are some of these moments that I just found very concerning as a citizen to watch where you could see that type of resentment in the military bubbling up, not everywhere, but you could see it bubbling up in ways that were alarming and I think should alarm all citizens. But again, another offshoot of this military divide is too few citizens are fluent in the culture of the U.S. military. So you can have these developments occurring in the military, but everyday citizens don’t necessarily know what they mean. They don’t know the difference between a retired lieutenant colonel saying something or an active duty one saying it. Same thing with retired flag officers speaking on CNN versus active duty ones. And because there isn’t that fluency, it makes us even more susceptible to the military sort of playing a concerning role in our dysfunctional domestic politics.

MICHAEL MORELL: When I read that part of the book, I thought very hard about my own role as a former intelligence officer talking about domestic politics over the last several years. It really got my attention. You mentioned Vietnam a minute ago. I wonder if you could share in your view the similarities, the differences between Afghanistan and Vietnam.

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: We can certainly talk about the strategic similarities that exist. We talked a little bit before about the difference between the Taliban and Al Qaeda. I think there is an analogy one can make between Vietnam and Afghanistan with that regard in so much as in Vietnam, we all know the history, that Vietnam was fought because of domino theory and our belief at the time that we couldn’t afford to allow Vietnam to become communist because that would allow the spread of transnational communism, which was a threat to the United States. But in hindsight, we have since recognized that, yes, although the North Vietnamese were communist, for the Vietnamese, this wasn’t a war of international communism, it was a war of national liberation. And we as Americans didn’t understand that soon enough. And it’s one of the reasons we lost the war, because we didn’t understand who we were fighting against. 

I would argue in Afghanistan that conflation of the Taliban with Al Qaeda very early on. For Al Qaeda this was obviously a war of transnational terrorism, international terrorism. And for the Taliban, although they were sympathetic to Al Qaeda’s goals, much more central was this is a war of national liberation for Afghans. That’s an area where there’s political overlap. 

On a personal note, I very much grew up in the shadow of the Vietnam War. So as I was in my teens and twenties, heading into a career in the military, trying to understand what war was, I looked back at the Vietnam generation and feel very fortunate that I know and count a number of Vietnam veterans to be to be friends and to have been mentors to me as I grew up and came through the ranks. However, I always did notice a little bit of a schism that existed, at least that I perceive between my generation of veterans and the Vietnam veterans. And I would sort of characterize it as I always felt they looked at us with a little bit of skepticism and a ‘what’s wrong with you guys? Why do you keep volunteering for these wars that go on and on and on?’ Because a number of them were draftees. Or if they weren’t draftees, they were serving in the context of a drafted military. So that was sort of a schism that I felt existed. And I frankly felt they were much more disillusioned than my generation of veterans were. And I always concluded this is because these are people who grew up in the 1950s, an era where there were lots of illusions about America. And that because I didn’t grow up in an era with so many illusions, I therefore wasn’t as disillusioned when I saw the ugly side of war. 

Last summer as Afghanistan collapsed, what felt to me like a profound realization was I realized that my entire relationship with the Vietnam vets had been misinformed. I’d been wrong about my diagnosis of what that schism was. The schism wasn’t the skepticism that they had toward our generation of veterans being volunteers, and they weren’t more disillusioned because they grew up in the 1950s. The difference between my generation of veterans for such a long time and the Vietnam guys was the Vietnam guys had seen the end and we hadn’t seen the end yet. Yes, we’ve been fighting over 20 years, but we hadn’t seen the end of the war. And what they knew and what I feel like I’ve learned at the end of seeing how Afghanistan ended, was they knew there was a betrayal coming and we hadn’t come to it yet. And so the distance between us, was really they understood something I didn’t understand, which is how this thing was eventually going to end. And I have since looked at my relationship with a number of Vietnam veterans very, very differently than I had once before.

MICHAEL MORELL: Elliot, one last question. Can you share with us your image? You actually have a drawing in the book. Your image of what a war memorial in Washington, D.C. should look like and why?

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: One of the things that’s unique about the war on terror is even as the Afghan war has ended, the war on terror goes on. And recently, Congress passed legislation to authorize the global war on terrorism memorial. And it poses an interesting question. One of the challenges in passing the legislation was there had to be exemptions because you are typically not allowed to create a war memorial to a war that is ongoing. But we have done that in the Global War on Terrorism Memorial, although it has not been designed or built yet. And so it has posed this question: How do you create a memorial to a war that hasn’t finished yet and may not finish in the near future?

So it’s caused me just to think about war memorials in the National Mall. One thing I didn’t realize is that the proliferation of war memorials on our National Mall is actually a relatively recent occurrence. The first real war memorial that we see on the Mall is actually the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which opened on the Mall in the early 1980s. We’ve since seen the Korean War Memorial, the Second World War Memorial. And it begs this question, ‘should our National Mall become littered with war memorials? Is that what we should be honoring?’ And so as I was thinking about that question, about the global war on terrorism memorial and the politics that go into where do you place these memorials. 

I sort of came to the conclusion that what I would like to see if I had all the power in the world for a day, would be the elimination of all of these different war memorials and the creation of a single war memorial, which I would call the American War Memorial. And in my vision of it, it would sort of look a little bit like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It would begin with a black granite wall that slopes downward, except in my mind, it would sort of begin to spiral downward, almost like something out of Dante. And on that wall would be the names of all of America’s war dead, more than a million, chronologically listed to begin with, Crispus Attucks, a free black man killed at the Boston Massacre. And it will continue to descend downward. And as we fought wars, we would no longer have to have these debates about what the war memorial would be, because we would just add to the names. And I think digging down is appropriate because, again, we won’t have to debate whose war memorial gets in the way of who’s. And one thing you learn how to do in the military is to dig. 

So we would just add the names and add the names. And then in the legislation that would authorize this war memorial, I would have a provision that at its bottom, wherever that last name was, there would be a desk and a pen. And by law, that pen would be the only pen by which the president of the United States could sign a deployment order for troops. He or she would have to come down whenever they wanted to send troops to a new country, and they’d have to sign it right there at that desk after having walked by all of the names of America’s war dead. And that would be our single American War Memorial.

MICHAEL MORELL: The book is The Fifth Act. America’s End Afghanistan. The author is Elliot Ackerman. Elliot, thank you so much for joining us.

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: Thank you for having me, Michael.

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