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Ackerman's 'Fifth Act' focuses on the final week of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan


It's almost been one year since the Taliban took over Afghanistan again and the U.S. military pulled out of the country. And Marine Corps veteran Elliot Ackerman was watching all the chaos from a distance.

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: In Italy, of all places, about as far away from the fall of Kabul as you can get.

MARTIN: He was on a long-planned vacation with his wife and young kids. But he couldn't tear himself away from what was happening. Ackerman had deployed to Afghanistan multiple times. He felt bound to America's Afghan allies. And when the U.S. announced it was leaving, those Afghans were desperate to get out. He lay awake at night, glued to his cellphone.

ACKERMAN: My entire network was lighting up. And it had become, quickly, a crowdsourced evacuation, with each person playing their part. Whether some people were trying to raise money for charter flights - other people were arranging the buses that would transport evacuees from various pickup points in Kabul into the airport.

MARTIN: Ackerman was key because he knew Marines who were inside the airport manning those gates, deciding who could come in and who could not.

ACKERMAN: So when people were calling me saying, hey; can you get this person out? You know, they would say, maybe we can get them on the third bus - that is, if there is a third bus, if we can keep running these evacuations. So it was, in many respects, this sort of modern-day's, crowdsourced "Schindler's List" that you were watching in this rush over those two weeks to get people into the airport and get people flown out.

MARTIN: Elliot Ackerman writes about all this in his new book. It is called "The Fifth Act: America's End In Afghanistan."

Was there a point when you and your network could step out of just the logistics that you were managing to question why it was falling on you to be doing this?

ACKERMAN: I think everyone was very much focused on the task at hand because the stakes were obviously very high, you know? You've got the photographs of the people who are trying to get out and their families. You know, and these aren't people at a certain point any of us knew. The only family that I got out who I had a direct, personal connection to was my interpreter. He has since moved to the U.S. But his family was still there. And we were able to get his family out. But everyone else, these were strangers. And they were strangers for most of us. So in that moment, you know, you can't really step away. But there were certainly little interludes. And my wife, in the book, she kind of almost comes off like a Greek chorus and this sort of - the conscience of the book saying, you know, why are you all having to do this? You know, why are the people who left the wars 10 years ago now being sucked in to try - to finish them?

MARTIN: Would you go so far as to describe America's exodus from Afghanistan as a betrayal?

ACKERMAN: You know, Rachel, the word I have used has been collapse. I think it was a collapse of American morals. You know, we made these promises, and we fell short. It was a collapse of American competence. I mean, listen; despite the heroic efforts of those who were at the airport - and their efforts were truly heroic. So I'm not questioning their competence. But I would question the competence of decision-making that put us into this position, where our back was up against a wall with this August 31 withdrawal date that we couldn't seem to move. It was a collapse of hierarchy because as the war was ending in those days, I found myself on text chains and phone calls with retired four-star generals and admirals - some of whom had command of the entire war - to senior officials, because no one could get anyone out because of the craziness. And because, for a brief window, the team that I was working with was having some success, we found ourselves sort of in this collapsed hierarchy, all working together. And that was surreal for me at times.

MARTIN: You write in the book about how it's impossible to really separate yourself from the experience of war. Can you try to explain what it feels like and looks like in your subconscious? I imagine it still lives there.

ACKERMAN: Well, Rachel, people have sometimes asked me, how do you think the wars changed you? And I've never known how to answer that question because, you know, the wars, in so many ways, made me. I don't know kind of how to unbraid it out of kind of the knots that are me. But, you know, the friendships that I have there, the memories that I have from that time, of course, I think about. And this is a time when I was growing up. I mean, I grew up there in the war. I - you know, I entered the service and started that - sort of that training pipeline at 17 years old. And as you see in the book, too, those friendships have projected out because as Kabul was falling, so many of the people I'm working with, you know, these are folks who've also transitioned. They've ended the wars themselves. And we're all still friends. But then there's this moment where kind of that entire network gets activated. And we know we need to go back and do our best to try to get as many people out as we can, to try to, you know, make something right out of this. So the war is kind of always there in me.

MARTIN: As a country, we build these memorials to wars. You have spent some time thinking about what an appropriate memorial would look like to these particular American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And I found your description of this very moving. Would you mind recounting it?

ACKERMAN: I started thinking about it with regards to the recent passage of the Global War on Terrorism Memorial Act, which has gone through Congress, to authorize a memorial to these wars. But the global war on terrorism isn't over yet. So it's actually interesting. For the first time to as a country, we will be trying to make a memorial to a war that we are still technically fighting. But it got me thinking that - how would you make a memorial to a forever war? And that got me thinking, well, maybe what would be more appropriate is instead of erecting all these memorials upward, maybe we should dig downward, kind of like the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial. And I imagined a war memorial that would look almost like this sloping granite rock sort of descending downward conically, like something from Dante. And we would get rid of all the memorials to each specific war. And we would just have one American war memorial. And it would begin with the names. The first name, Crispus Attucks, who was killed with the Boston Massacre. And we would just list them all chronologically, digging ourselves deeper and deeper and deeper. So we have more than a million war dead at this point in our country's history. And every time we fund a new war, we would just add the names going down and down into the earth. And then, in my imagination of this war memorial, when you got to the very last name, there would be a desk and a pen. And Congress would pass a law that before any troop deployment, the president - he or she - would have to come down to the war memorial. And that pen would be the only pen that could be used to sign that troop deployment. They would have to walk by all of the war dead before they would need to do that. And then we wouldn't have to have any more debates about war memorials. We'd just know what we did every time we fought a war. We'd just add the names.

MARTIN: Elliot Ackerman. His new book is called "The Fifth Act: America's End In Afghanistan." Elliot, thank you so much.

ACKERMAN: Thanks for having me, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF LONDON GRAMMAR SONG, "HEY NOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.