Mapping the mayhem

In the Eliad, Priam, the last king of Troy, sneaks into Achilles’ camp to plead for the body of his son Hector, who has been slain in battle. The legend foreshadows one of the core principles of the US Marine Corps: leave no man behind. It also informs Elliot Ackerman’s The Fifth Act, which – laid out in scenes and acts – mirrors the structure of a Greek tragedy, with the action taking place over the period of a single week. It tells the story of how, during the chaotic US “fighting retreat” from Kabul in August 2021, the writer, a former Marine, desperately tried to extract Afghan interpreters and others who had served with the US military and diplomatic corps. The Afghans, Hector, were of course alive – but Ackerman knew that they were as good as unlike dead if they failed to escape, as the Taliban were expected to seek out all those he regarded as traitors and enemies.

Dozens of former American and British soldiers, as well as clients, were doing the same. As President Ashraf Ghani fled in a private plane and the Taliban seized power, television pictures showed an evacuation flight taking off with several Afghans clinging to the wings. They plunged to their deaths, in a disturbing echo of the images of people falling from the Twin Towers in New York on 9/11, the event that triggered the US’s doomed adventure in Afghanistan. It should not have come to this. But even as it planned for the departure of its final soldiers, the Biden administration catastrophically abandoned the Afghan government in the very hope of shoring it up. “In the months before Kabul’s fall, while there’s still an opportunity to significantly expedite the visa process, or even begin a wider evacuation, the Biden administration does neither, fearing that an evacuation will only precipitate the Afghan government’s collapse”, Ackerman writes. Three months before the Taliban takeover I had dinner in Kabul with several senior Afghan officials, who railed against western governments for withdrawing their diplomatic staff. They argued that it signaled to the Taliban a lack of faith in the Afghan administration. They had a point. Still, everyone at that dinner managed to get out. Many of those lower down the food chain of American patronage did not.

Ackerman served five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, and retired from active duty a decade ago. Since then he has written five novels and a memoir, Places and Names: On war, revolution, and returning (2019). The short scenes of his latest book go back and forth between the confusion in Kabul, Ackerman’s attempts to rescue Afghans while on holiday with his family in Italy, and his memories of the war both as a Marine and a CIA paramilitary officer. The location of his holiday contributions to the classical theme. In the prologue he fields calls from Kabul while touring the Colosseum with his three children. “They complained about all the walking”, he writes. “They are too young to appreciate the ruins of an expired empire.” Every call he receives reinforces the idea that the once mighty American empire is also breathing its last. No one seems to be in charge. He begs favorites from old comrades who are still serving and can open the gate to the airport for a bus full of Afghans whose escape he is trying to co-ordinate. News of his success with one busload spreads, and congressmen start to contact him to ask if he can extract the families of their constituents. Even Admiral Mike Mullen, a retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, calls on Ackerman to help save a US embassy staff member and his family – less a sign of Ackerman’s importance than of the dysfunction of the US military and government at this moment of national humiliation.

In a dramatic twist in the midst of this mayhem, a bomb set by the Islamic State group, which is even more extreme than the Taliban, exploded at the airport killing thirteen US soldiers and 170 Afghans. By then hundreds of desperate people were crowding round the perimeter, many standing in a sewerage ditch or trying to hand children over the barbed wire. Many Afghans saw what happened next as final proof of the perfidy of the US military: a drone strike that was meant to take out the bombers killed an Afghan who had worked for a US-sponsored aid organization and his children. “The ultimate disaster that unfolds in Afghanistan is the accumulation of hundreds of bad decisions over two decades”, writes Ackerman.

Like many former soldiers he views his relationship with his “band of brothers” as the most intense and significant of his life. He tells the story of Momez, a Marine under his command who was killed in a Taliban ambush. Despite the Marine principle, Ackerman had reluctantly decided not to dispatch others to collect the body, judging that they would also be killed. Later his superior officer told him his decision was wrong. Such disapproval is as nothing compared to that of his own conscience. “To have lived when others have died means to question why”, he writes. Survival itself becomes a dilemma, “one that traps you between guilt and death”. Moral injury is not only personal, but also national. As Ackerman tries to behave honorably towards the Afghans he fought with, his country is cutting and running, and not for the first time. He begins to understand the bitterness of Vietnam veterans who had seen their war’s last act. “They knew my war hadn’t ended. They knew what was coming: betrayal. Of our allies, of our values, and of every American who was asked to make promises to the Afghans only to end up like this, scraping together an evacuation.”

The stories of the evacuation attempts, told partly in WhatsApp messages, are extraordinarily affecting: I found myself counting the people in one photo taken at the airport to check that all ten he was trying to save had made it. But Ackerman doubts that many of his fellow Americans would care much about the messy end of a complicated, morally dubious military campaign that had long faded from the national consciousness. He avers that Americans are disassociated because theirs is a volunteer, not a conscript, army, and because the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were paid out of deficit spending and not a specific tax war. His compatriots continue to believe in American exceptionalism and the myths of the Second World War: “We still expect to be the good guys; we expect there to be a beginning, a middle and an end; and we expect that the war is over when the troops come home.” Ackerman, by contrast, remains haunted by what he saw and what he did. “Every person who has fought in these wars and left them has had to declare the war over for themselves”, he writes. Peace never arrived for us at a negotiating table or a surrender ceremony. There has been no single peace; Rather, there have been tens of thousands of separate peace deals that each of us who walked away from the war had to negotiate with our own conscience.”

For Afghans, of course, there is no beginning, middle or end. They have endured war since the Soviet invasion of 1979, and while the Taliban claims to have brought peace, the Islamic State group continues to bomb mosques and other targets weekly, and members of the Taliban regularly beat, imprison and kill their opponents. I have visited Afghanistan twice since the Taliban takeover. On one occasion we drove out to Wardak province, along a road the Americans funded, punctuated by bumpy, broken strips of tarmac where the Taliban had set roadside bombs during the war. On either side rocky hilltops were adorned with ragged flags, fluttering on tall sticks above dozens of graveyards. A Taliban fighter took us to see where his brother, who had been killed fighting the Americans, was buried. He walked slowly up the hill and stood for a long time praying in front of the grave. His sense of sorrow and loss was as deep as that of any US Marine. But maybe victors are less prone to soul-searching than the defeated. Whether he wrestled with moral injury and the travails of his conscience, I could not tell.

Lindsey Hilsum is International Editor for Channel 4 News. Her most recent book is In Extremis: The life of war correspondent Marie Colvin2018

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