Elliot Ackerman’s “Places and Name: On War, Revolution, and Returning,” which was released by Penguin Press in June 2019, took me an initial push to overcome my own reading limitations, but I should have known what was coming.
Indeed, the title of this through-provoking ponderance on war and its effects on countries and the people who are involved should have warned me. Places and Name. People with names I have a hard to pronouncing, places strange to me, and groups and conflicts going back through time immaterial.
There are a few key characters, who reappear in Ackerman’s account, but you soon accept that you won’t know or understand the location and importance of everyone mentioned, and that’s OK.
What you do start to understand is the immense scale of the conflicts as well as the immense scale of time that has brought wars, revolutions and religion into a murderous clash. Some of the basic conflict points go back to the sins of the British empire, Lawrence of Arabia and lies and betrayal as they used groups to fight a proxy-war in their stead.
In the almost present, Ackerman spends time talking to both Kurdish and Turkish soldiers and again points out the danger of using another force as a proxy. The Kurdish soldiers fate is highlighted by a chapter that takes place while Ackerman visits the front lines.
Six men and a rusty machine gun are all that is holding back the enemy moving around in the distance. So much depends on one rusty machine gun. Yet, despite their allegiance and friendship with American troops, Ackerman repeats the phrase that most Americans know, and that the Kurdish people have long pledged, “we have no friends but the mountains.”
Ackerman has a gift for showing us the both the low and high view of the conflict and uses interviews and experiences with soldiers on all sides.
Abu Hassar fought for al-Qaeda and two chapters are dedicated to the meeting of the two past soldiers who fought across from each other on many occasions. Iraqi, Turkish, Kurdish, Syria, al-Qaeda, Marines, Seals, Quds, Afghanistan, Enemies, Friends, all are tied together by the common language of places and name. The places and the memories of tie together in one common language that everyone involved in a war can share.
If, like me, you are not closely connected to the military, Ackerman helps explain the struggles soldiers face after coming back from intense deployments. He points to “purpose” as one of the main struggles for those returning. When you leave a place that had you effectively “freebasing purpose” and return to a world where you are expected to get purpose from working at Home Depot, life pales and inner turmoil swirls.
“Places and Names” is an important book and one written in an unusual fashion. There are threads of a storyline, but Ackerman takes you on an emotional and factual journey through his life as a Marine, life in the Middle East before he was conceived, and brief glimpses into the future of wars and conflicts in a tumbling stack of chapters that often stand alone. The final chapter, an annotated “Summary of Action Report” further helps civilians like me understand the consequences, fear, and love that drive soldiers.
The future is hard to predict. Near the end of the book Sergeant Firaz Saleh Mohammad talks briefly with Ackerman and is asked what he thinks is going to happen:
“He shakes his head. ‘This? The future of all this, it cannot be predicted.’”