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Places and Names Hardcover – 11 June 2019
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- Publisher : Penguin Press (11 June 2019)
- Language : English
- ISBN-10 : 0525559965
- ISBN-13 : 978-0525559962
- Dimensions : 15.75 x 2.39 x 23.67 cm
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There seems to be a trend towards putting previously-published articles from magazines into some kind of order, and then marketing as “an intensely personal book about the terrible lure of combat”. The Daddy of them all was Michael Herr’s ‘Dispatches’ from Vietnam, bruited as the ‘New Journalism’. The sub-title of this volume – ‘Dispatches of War’ is probably a deliberate echo. Frankly, I find earlier styles less mannered, more honest and more robust in their enquiry.
What Elliot Ackerman has going for him is an interesting personal back-story, good writing style and an eye for people. Clearly, there was indeed a lure of combat for this guy, although living in Turkey may seem edgy to residents of North America, yet pretty standard to a European! This year I read something very similar, but by a Muslim from Iran living in Germany. The latter also wrote good prose about Syria and Afghanistan, but with the same inability to grasp the agenda of others who actually live in the free fire zones.
At least Ackerman is clearly making the effort; and is light-years ahead of the majority of his compatriots. However, clearly to earn a crust he had to find ‘hooks’ in news stories that already engaged with readers on his own continent. This makes quite a lot of what is collected here seem dated. ‘A Prayer for Austin Tice’ is a good example, as are the various discussions on the 2009 desertion of Bowe Berghdal in Afghanistan. Embedded in this kind of stuff, there is an intelligent perspective on such matters, for instance, as the effect on the unit Berghdal deserted from, and the effect it had on unit deployment. What Ackerman cannot bring himself to do is criticise his own institutions. I am just flabbergasted at the way military operations of no strategic value were conducted just to get that one guy back.
The diversions to the author’s memories of skateboarding in London, and looking up old pals in Berlin, do protect the narrative from becoming too ‘samey’, but contribute zero to any development of perspective. None of this, of course, can deny, Ackerman’s combat experiences. I just wish I was reading about these instead. (more about that below.) I have encountered more real danger and different cultures on church missions than is manifest in this dipping over borders. The party piece of the volume is ‘The Fourth War’, which is an update of the old trope of former enemies chewing the fat in a time of peace. I appreciated the tacit recognition that they were not really ‘former’ enemies at all. No wonder they discussed the 1914 Christmas Truce on the Western Front in WW1 -which led to 4 more years of hell. However, the low point of the book is an article recounting how they do not meet up a second time. Here is my summary; ‘Is Abu in? - No, he’s got a job 2 hours away. - Oh.’ The actual second meeting is only a tiny bit more worthwhile, but smacks to me of hanging onto a meal ticket.
What added a star to this review is the last section. This is the formal citation report that got the author his ‘best’ medal. Initially, I thought this was utterly contrary to the quite attractive tone of the rest of the book. Then the author started making interpolations, turning the ‘officialese’ into heat, fear and blood. These short sections on what really took place are very effective; and conclude movingly. They have an emotional charge that is lacking in the rest of the book. After all, we care far more about what happens to us and ours than them and theirs.
It's not all harrowing combat experiences, though that's certainly there in the chapter on the Marine Corps ebgagement in Fallujah where Ackerman 'won' a citation for the Silver Star. There's also the human stories of meeting up with former 'enemies' to explore the ways in which they were used and abused by the political 'principalities and powers'.
At times, rightly so, this is bleak, awful and depressing. It's also thoughtful enough to make you wonder how this could be done any differently - and to come away with an admiration for the honour and professionalism of the military men and women who get sent into harm's way - sometimes for very mixed or dubious reasons.
Very readable if you are at all interested in the motivations, personality and psyche of soldiers in the 'war on terror'.
The book has a slightly impressionistic feel, jumping from the present to key moments in the author's past and reflecting on aspects of his life and the war experiences that have both shaped him and provide the on-going subject of his writing.
There is an elegiac quality to some chapters of his book as he travels back to places where he saw action, lost friends and makes new acquaintances – though he reflects that there can be no real closure for him in a war that is still being waged across the territories he himself fought over.
A veteran of the Iraq war, Afghanistan and now living in Turkey, his observations on the bewildering and fast-changing war between the would-be Islamic State and the various allied groups is illuminating – especially in light of the current US President's decision to withdraw from Syria.
The final chapter of the book is an annotated (and exciting) account of the actions in the Second Battle of Fallujah that led to Ackerman's citation for the Silver Star.
A sobering, but eloquent and reflective intimate account by an engaged and perceptive author.
From memories of US Marine ops in Fallujah to strange meetings with would-be enemies who turn out to have unexpected commonalities, this is a raw, haunting but also deeply thoughtful and human response to what is happening in the Middle East.
There is a clear intent to be objective of personal experience, but for me there is an intensive emotional element which has clarity. The “wreckage of experience” from the author is stamped on every page.
He tries to clear some ambiguities of political intent perhaps, but it always cloud over again. Incisive and impressive. A potted yet nevertheless clear précis of the political history of the past century.
Elliot Ackerman is conservative with words, and the old adage about “only write within personal experience” is so brutally true here.
There is a bleakness, an awfulness, but saying how it was for him, and countless men over history. A potted history yes, but nevertheless succinct and erudite, this is a highly engaging piece of writing. Riveting.