The war in Afghanistan, begun by the Soviets and taken up in the last decade by the U.S., is the historical setting in which Elliot Ackerman places his novel, Green on Blue. The title, as Ackerman notes, is U.S. Military slang for Afghan on American killings, green representing Afghan Army soldiers, blue representing American soldiers. Ackerman, a Marine, a veteran of five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, dedicates the book to “two Afghan soldiers who, consumed by their war, will likely never have a chance to read it.”
“Consumed by their war…” Words carefully chosen, no doubt, and indicative, certainly, of the experience of the novel’s protagonist who, like the two soldiers, has never experienced his country at peace. It is a thread that runs through every story I’ve read or heard from combat veterans—yes, they were aware of being involved in a larger, even world-wide conflict, but only at the margins. Flags, Great Crusades, history-in-the-making—their war, the microcosm enveloping themselves and their comrades was all consuming, all that really mattered. Among its accomplishments, Green on Blue, Ackerman’s outstanding debut novel, perfectly captures this all-too-human limitation.
To give a sense of the story’s scope, were you to imagine the whole of the thirty-six year war painted on a canvas as large as Picasso’s Guernica, the tale Ackerman tells might occupy a square millimeter. Yet it is as large and tragic as the whole. Its force lies not in the historical sweep of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, or Shacochis’ The Woman Who Lost Her Soul, but, as with Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, in its account of the impact of the war on a small, ever shrinking group of characters, and, finally, on one, the narrator, Aziz. And, like Remarque’s Paul Bäumer, Aziz stands in for the many. Where Remarque’s protagonist is a German, what Ackerman has done, and done remarkably well, is to create a narrator-witness who is not an American, but an Afghan, a boy whose life is gathered into the maw of this endless war.
“Many would call me a dishonest man,” Aziz tells us in the book’s first sentence, “but I’ve always kept faith with myself. There is an honesty in that, I think.” He is signaling his audience to pay attention. Then, “I am Ali’s brother. We are from a village that no longer exists.” Thirty-five words into the story and already you, the reader, know that you are making your way into a tragedy.
Aziz, and his older brother, Ali, are off gathering pine nuts when Taliban gunmen drive into their small village and lay it waste, killing the boys’ parents. Ali assures Aziz he will look after him, and they go off to make a life in the city of Orgun, a two-day walk from their village. Then, one day, a terrorist, Gazan, sets off a bomb, maiming Ali. Aziz, now in charge of his brother, is approached by a man who makes an offer; enlist in the Special Lashkar, a militia funded by the Americans in order to fight Gazan, and not only will he be able to fulfill badal (revenge as familial obligation) and restore his brother’s nang (honor), but his brother will receive the best medical care available. Aziz agrees, signs up, and is taken to a kind of boot camp where he meets Commander Sabir, the scarred, charismatic leader of the Special Lashkar, about whom he will learn that, “to be his friend is as dangerous as to be his enemy.” In time, Commander Sabir gives him a special mission. While on this mission, Aziz makes an inadvertent discovery about the nature of the conflict between the Special Lashkar and Gazan: This isn’t war at all, but commerce, just with a lot of shooting and death.
Ackerman’s prose mostly is spare, plain, with ample use of the declarative. Then the plainness gives way to the lyrical: “We ran after him, out the candy-striped gate and down the dusty hilltop that wore our firebase like a crown.” Unusual similes roll into supporting metaphors: “At the base of the range, our convoy slowed to a crawl…continued south…and traversed the uneven ground to a wet ravine that rolled out like a sloppy tongue…into the ravine’s mouth…and was swallowed by the mountain.” There is plenty of war imagery: “Yar ate in bursts and spoke in bullets.” “Fear’s knife slid into my chest. The unknown promise of violence had become known. It was painless.” “The pop, pop, pop of rifles…the hollow buzz, buzz of rounds coming back…the heavy crump of a grenade….”
Some of Aziz’s vocabulary will be unfamiliar to the average Westerner. Most of these—shalwar kameez, hanzeer, others—are words you don’t have to know; the incurious can simply pass them by. A few—naan, for instance—may be remotely familiar, and phrases such as “…offered you melmastia under Pashtunwali” and “korma of stewed beef or goat…in the style of a chalow” can partially be gleaned from context. But for the ‘Just-Gotta-Know’ reader, you’ll just have to look it up. Which makes the reading experience richer, of course. Which, or so I’d bet, is what the author had in mind.
A conundrum lies in the voice the author has chosen for Aziz. Largely without formal education and, by book’s end, about twenty, the voice that tells the story is mature and sophisticated, as if we are hearing Aziz’s older self reflecting back on these events. At times he slips into the cadences of a storyteller from a culture in which the oral tradition still thrives. It is easy to imagine him telling his tale to a group around a campfire, around a stove. No one looking away to check his smartphone. Once in a while, Ackerman’s prose recalled the style of a book I’d read in the seventies, The Way of a Pilgrim. Written in the nineteenth century, a classic of Russian Orthodox spirituality, the book is the account of one man’s spiritual journey. By journey, I mean a sort of quiet purposeful drive, an inner quest. In The Way of a Pilgrim, the narrator’s quest is to understand what St. Paul meant by his urging to “pray without ceasing.” Important to the understanding of Aziz is that he is also on a quest, and that it is transformative. For him, honor-seeking revenge shares space with a willingness to do whatever he must to guarantee the continuation of his brother’s medical care. To accomplish this requires that he keep faith with himself—that is, that he be willing to see things as they are and do what must be done. It is precisely that willingness that lights his path.
The journey from childlike sensibility to that of the cool cynic intent on survival is at the center of this novel. Still early in the story, Aziz ruefully hints at what is to come. Remembering a moment of reflection at the end of a long day of training exercises, he tells the reader, “My mind wandered, and with it the haze seemed to clear—my mother’s secret, her brown and green eyes, my father’s rifle hidden in the woodpile, what Gazan took from Ali—it all appeared vividly. My life as a soldier loomed, through the haze returning. That winter, had I seen the future as clearly as the past, I might have run away.”
By the last page, Aziz has morphed into a man, not the man he might have become, but the sort that, in the beginning, he despised. There is never the moment when Aziz becomes this other man—it happens in increments—yet there is the sense that not only did he recognize what was happening to him, he invited it. Ali’s presence, so strong in the beginning, becomes wraith-like. Likewise Aziz’s interests expand beyond his brother’s welfare. Through mind-bending duplicities and betrayals by the players in his war, Aziz discovers not so much a larger purpose as a career opportunity. Aziz the naïve boy, seeker of badal and nang becomes Aziz-the-pragmatist.
Running beneath the narrative is the story of America at its best—idealistic, seeing a problem, rushing in with money and materiel in order to fix it. And America at its worst—arrogant, naïve, and easily bored, what Phil Klay’s chaplin, in the story “Prayer in the Furnace” describes as “Gluttonous, fat, oversexed, overconsuming materialist home, where we’re too lazy to see our own faults.” “(A)s I thought of all the ways one could be killed in this war,” Aziz tells us, “and of all those who could do it, I couldn’t think of a single way to die which wasn’t green on blue. The American’s had a hand in creating all of it.”
This turning the mirror toward the reader is a bold move. In 1519, Martin Luther issued his Meditation On Christ’s Passion in which he declared to his followers that the Jews were not entirely to blame for the death of Jesus. You are guilty, too, he told them. “(W)hen you see the nails piercing Christ’s hands, you can be certain that it is your work…You crucified him.” When, at the Consequence Magazine/Words After War “Tip Of The Spear” forum in New York on November 14, 2014, Ackerman was asked, “Did you kill anyone?” he quoted Michael Pitre (author of Fives and Twenty-Fives), “Well, if I did, you paid me to do it.”
If Aziz’s story is more than fiction—that is, if Ackerman’s purpose, as it surely is, is to represent reality, then a Luther-like question is implicit: Who is responsible for this? If American tax dollars makes such things possible, then I am. If you, reader, are an American, then you are, too. This is not America bashing. Ackerman doesn’t do that. Read his articles in The New Republic and The New Yorker. You’ll find no apologies, no sentimentality, just a burn to write from the truth of his experience, a voice reminiscent of Karl Marlantes in What It’s Like To Go To War, and Tim O’Brien The Things They Carried. You don’t find apologies in Green on Blue, either. Ackerman’s novel is neither pro-war nor anti-war, but it is a story that seems to ask America-the-Naïve, America-the-Endlessly-Adolescent, who still marches off to war certain that God and the Right are on our side, to grow up.
Finally, while only the author can say for sure, I’m rather certain that Green on Blue, in part, is intended to be subversive; that is, forcing the reader to look beyond the easy “them and us” rhetoric and into the heart of the collateral darkness inevitably created, and left behind, by our wars of liberation.