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Former Marine talks about the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and how we should mark it

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In this handout image, a Marine distributes water to evacuees during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan on August 22.

U.S. Central Command Public Affairs


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In this handout image, a Marine distributes water to evacuees during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan on August 22.

U.S. Central Command Public Affairs

It has been almost a year since the Taliban took over Afghanistan again and the US military left the country.

As the retreat unfolded, Marine Corps veteran Elliot Ackerman watched the chaos from afar. He was on a family vacation in Italy, but could not tear himself away from what was happening.

Ackerman went to Afghanistan several times. He felt connected to America’s Afghan allies, so when the US announced its withdrawal and those same Afghans were desperate to get out, he stayed up at night glued to his phone.

“My entire network caught fire and it quickly turned into a crowdsourced evacuation with every person playing their part,” Ackerman said. morning edition.

“Someone tried to raise money for charter flights, others organized buses that would take evacuees from various collection points in Kabul to the airport.”

Ackerman was a key player because he knew the Marines who were at the airport, guarding the gates and deciding who could get in and who couldn’t. He writes about this experience in his new book, Act Five: America’s End in Afghanistan.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Elliot Ackerman, 41, served as a Marine in Afghanistan from 2008 to 2011 and trained Afghan commando soldiers.

Alyssa Schukar Photography LLC


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Alyssa Schukar Photography LLC


Elliot Ackerman, 41, served as a Marine in Afghanistan from 2008 to 2011 and trained Afghan commando soldiers.

Alyssa Schukar Photography LLC

Interview Highlights


On mobilization to help the Afghans in the evacuation

Everyone was very focused on the task at hand, because the stakes are obviously very high. You know you have pictures of people trying to get out and their families [because] these are not people that any of us knew – the only family with whom I had a direct personal connection was my translator. He has since moved to the US, but his family was still there and we were able to get his family out. But everyone else, they were strangers, and they were strangers to most of us. So at this point you really can’t move away.

But there were, of course, short breaks. And my wife, in the book, she almost comes off like a Greek choir, the conscientiousness of the book, saying, you know, “Why would you all do this? to try and finish them?”

This image shared with AFP on August 20, 2021 by human rights activist Omar Haidari shows a US Marine intercepting an infant through a barbed wire fence during an evacuation at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport on August 19, 2021.

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This image shared with AFP on August 20, 2021 by human rights activist Omar Haidari shows a US Marine intercepting an infant through a barbed wire fence during an evacuation at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport on August 19, 2021.

Omar Haidari/AFP

On how he feels about America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan

I think it was the downfall of American morals when we made those promises and didn’t live up to them. It was the collapse of American competence. I mean, look, despite the heroic efforts of those who were at the airport – and our efforts were truly heroic, so I’m not questioning their competence – but I would question the competence of the decision-makers that put us in this position with our back against the wall with this August 31st release date that we couldn’t seem to move.

It was the collapse of the hierarchy, because in the days when the war ended, I found myself in chains of texts and telephone conversations with retired four-star generals and admirals, some of whom commanded the entire war, because no one could get anyone out. because of the madness. And because the team I worked with had some success in a short amount of time, we found ourselves serving this collapsed hierarchy by working together. And it was sometimes surreal for me.

On how impossible it is to truly separate yourself from the experience of war

I have sometimes been asked, “Elliot, how do you think the war has changed you?” and I never knew how to answer that question. Because the war made me in many ways. I don’t know how to unweave it from the knots that I am. But the friendships that I have there, the memories that I have from that time, of course, I think about the time when I was growing up. I mean, I grew up there in the war.

I entered the service and began training at the age of 17. And as you can see in the book, that friendship was projected because when Kabul was falling, many of the people I work with also made the transition. They ended the wars themselves and we are still friends.

A group of military and veteran families watch as President Joe Biden announces the withdrawal of all troops from Afghanistan August 31, 2021 in Long Beach, California.

Apu Gomez/AFP via Getty Images


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Apu Gomez/AFP via Getty Images


A group of military and veteran families watch as President Joe Biden announces the withdrawal of all troops from Afghanistan August 31, 2021 in Long Beach, California.

Apu Gomez/AFP via Getty Images

On what an appropriate memorial to these specific American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq might look like

I started thinking about this in connection with the recent passage of the Global War on Terrorism Memorial Act, which passed through Congress to authorize a memorial to these wars. But the global war on terror isn’t over yet, so it’s really interesting.

For the first time as a nation, we will attempt to erect a monument to a war that technically we are still fighting. But it got me thinking, how would you make a monument to eternal war? And it made me think that instead of building all these memorials up, maybe we should dig down, like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

And I imagined a war memorial that would look almost like a sloping granite rock, sort of conically descending, like something from Dante, and we would get rid of all the monuments of each particular war, and we would have only one American war memorial. .


ackerman book, Act Five: America’s End in Afghanistan.

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Random penguin house

It will begin with names, the first of which will be Crispus Attax, who was killed in the Boston Massacre. And we just list them all in chronological order, digging ourselves deeper and deeper and deeper. Thus, at this point in the history of our country, more than a million people have died. And every time we fund a new war, we just add names that go further and further into the ground. And then, in my imagination of this war memorial, when you get to the very name, there will be a desk and a pen. And Congress will pass a law that before the entry of troops, the President – he or she – must go down to the war memorial, and this pen will be the only pen that can sign the entry of troops.

Before they need to do this, they will have to pass by all the dead in the war. And then we would no longer have to argue about war memorials – we would just know what we are doing every time we fought, just adding names.

This story was produced and edited for radio by Lisa Weiner and Rina Advani. It has been adapted for the web by Rina Advani.

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