Beast Fiction: How the Longest War Ate Its Children
In Green on Blue, his debut novel, Elliot Ackerman looks at the war in Afghanistan from the Afghan point of view. Read a passage from this extraordinary fiction.
Introduction by Atticus Lish:
Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue is considered noteworthy because it is told from the perspective of an Afghan, a stance that is unique in current veterans’ literature. But the book’s more important significance is that it is great art. This is due to: 1. the power and scope of its material: an analysis of Afghan society, third-world poverty, men’s and women’s differing roles and burdens, traditional honor, warlordism, revenge, violence, trauma and loss; 2. its design: a deftly crafted microcosm of the Afghan war; 3. its insights: flashes of truth studded throughout like sudden Caravaggio paintings (after a bombing, the wounded are described as “looking at their bodies with curiosity”); and 4. its language: a crewman’s night vision goggles emit “two coins of green demon light.”
In a work like this, we sense that the author’s extensive knowledge, experience and imagination have coalesced in his belly and been driven out of him by a surge of feeling, as a song, effectively shaped by a designing intelligence and sung in a consistent voice, one that he channels like a medium possessed by a spirit.
What possessed Ackerman? A highly accomplished military officer, after facing combat in conventional infantry units, he graduated to a Special Ops role in which he led a small group of American operators attached to a larger Afghan fighting force. With his Afghan allies, Ackerman experienced the same forceful process of bonding under fire common to all frontline soldiers. He says, “We saved each other’s lives.”
In their downtime from fighting, they bonded in another, equally primal, way: through talking. Ackerman cites his years of interaction with English-speaking Afghans as giving him his novel’s voice.
In Afghanistan, as in other societies where literacy rates are low, talking may take the form of oral storytelling. (Was this another form of training for the novelist-to-be?) In the excerpt below, we have a window into this activity as Ackerman may have experienced it. Here, the storyteller is Mumtaz, former mujahidin, and the listener is the young protagonist, Aziz. Mumtaz recounts memories from before the almost-uninterrupted war that has consumed Afghanistan since the Soviet invasion. He says, “The future is in the remembering.” He means the possibility of life without war.
In fact, this scene may express Ackerman’s prayer that his Afghan comrades will someday experience peace. They remain trapped in Afghanistan’s endless war, while, as an American, he has been free to leave Afghanistan and return to civilian life. Unable to forget his bond with them, Ackerman intended his book as a statement of solidarity to his wartime friends.
Any brotherhood forged in war is exclusive because it is hard-won. But by humanizing Afghans in his novel, Ackerman reminds us of another ancient truth: that all men are brothers. We are all one. There is no “other.” And this is one of the most persuasive arguments for settling conflict.
Evidently, when a voice speaks transcendentally through an artist, it may say even more than he intended. All readers should be glad that Ackerman gave himself to this one.
Excerpt from Green on Blue, a novel by Elliott Ackerman:
I spent most of my time with Mumtaz, leaving his compound only to gather firewood or, on occasion, to wander down to the bazaar in the hope that someone might mention to Atal that I’d been there. Mumtaz and I spent a great deal of time sipping tea, petting Iskander—who eventually allowed me to scratch him behind his clipped ears—and sharing stories.
Mumtaz’s enthusiasm for this last activity was unmatched. Each morning, as soon as I had loaded the stove with dry branches and stoked a good flame, I’d prop myself against my mattress and he’d begin. He told me of his family, stories that felt ancient, stories from before the war. He spoke of his father, who drove a truck, and how when he was a boy he’d accompanied him as far as Isfahan to the west, Lahore to the east, and Tashkent to the north. His father’s business had been prosperous and when Mumtaz was younger, he’d dreamt of building it into something larger than the work of a single man. Also he told me of his brother and how they would steal eggs from chicken coops like the one Iskander slept in and trade them for cigarettes in the bazaar.
After each story Mumtaz would make an appeal: Aziz, you’re still a young man. Know these stories so we can remember a way that is different than now. The future is in the remembering.
I’d nod back patiently. With each urging my affection for the old man grew.
Mumtaz also had war stories. He told these with a deep solemnity and only after dinner, in that quiet space before sleep when great truths fall from our mouths like ripe fruit from wind-shaken branches. He spoke of the war’s early days in Gomal, when educated and idealistic men fought the Russians.
We all had a future then, he said. We understood what it meant to sacrifice that small future for a bigger one. Such sacrifice is what it meant to be a mujahid and this is why all the mujahideen are now dead, even the living ones such as me are dead. Now the cause is war for advantage, war for profit, not a future.
But when he let go of the bitterness and told of the men he’d considered mujahideen, he spoke his words as if to rouse them from sleep and back to their youth. One night he crouched behind the stove as though laying in ambush behind a pine. He jumped forward, his words rushing breathlessly through him: From inside the forest, my brother and I shot off the RPGs. Then we charged the Russians. The tanks burned and in moments their armored column was nothing more than a string of charred metal and a mob of pale-faced boys crying for mercy, their cheeks stained by their blood and peach fuzz. We gave no quarter and that was just for we would’ve received none.
Mumtaz described in tall terms the gunships that were sent against his small band after the ambush. Two, he said excitedly, or was it three? No, it couldn’t have been three, because they always flew in pairs, so it must have been four. Those fools couldn’t find us. My brother and I hid the rest of the day near the border, behind a large boulder, where we’d often cache our weapons.
I wondered if this was the same boulder I’d used to hide my communication with Commander Sabir. It likely was. Little ever changed in a village or in a war like this. The best hiding spots and places for ambush were passed down like heirlooms.
When I awoke the morning after that story, Mumtaz was already up. He sat propped against the wall with Iskander spread across his lap. He alternated between tugging at his moustache and petting the burr-tangled coat on the dog’s stomach. He stared toward the cold stove in the room’s center, blankly.
I fed branches for the morning’s fire into the stove.
We’re almost out of wood, I said. I’ll gather some today.
But I needed to check my phone. It’d been nearly a week since I’d reported my arrival.
No need for that, replied Mumtaz still staring out toward nothing. Today it’s too cold outside. I think tomorrow will be warm. Go then.
Fine, tomorrow, I said.
I lit our fire and sat next to him in silence. The room gathered its heat. With it, Mumtaz’s frozen expression thawed. I haven’t remembered my brother in a long time, he said. His end didn’t come well. For him or for me, so the remembering is always difficult.
But you have many good memories of him, I answered, and thought of Ali, and all I would do so his end might not yet be a memory.
I do, he said. But, over the years, I’ve lost him in his end.
The two of us sat silently for a time. Our fire crackled down to embers and I crossed the room to fill the stove again. My movement jarred something in Mumtaz and he spoke, not to me but to an empty space, his unstable voice trying to land on something solid.
When my brother died, he said, it was not in the war we thought we fought. We were mujahideen and treated as heroes in this village, our battlefield achievements known by all, earning us honor, honor we became greedy for. This led to larger and more daring attacks. When the fighting slowed each winter, we’d grow impatient for it. The Russians stayed on their bases and it was difficult to strike at them. An informant of ours in Orgun, a man who like our father ran a trucking company, told us how in a few nights a Russian convoy would pass our village along the north road. Eager as we were, my brother and I asked few questions. The operation would be simple. After curfew we’d bury a mine in the road and in the morning, if the Russians didn’t show up, we’d remove it.
Some days later, in the darkness, my brother and I chipped a ditch out of the frozen earth and slid the mine in. We carefully repacked the crumbled soil and went home, giving the matter little thought, as if we’d planted a tree and casually wondered if it’d grow. We slept soundly and early the following morning, before the sun rose, we returned to either inspect our kill or to recover the mine. As we walked through the clear cold air, the snow on the distant hilltops glowed with firelight. The mine had struck and we approached the road riding on great gusts of enthusiasm. But still, our situation was uncertain. Who knew if the Russians had sent anyone to aid their convoy? Who knew if we’d come across any manic survivors? These were uncertainties we felt prepared for. We weren’t prepared for what we found. As we crested a last ridge and glimpsed our kill, we saw only the beginning of our terrible mistake.
Tilted against its side as if the carcass of a great steel beast was the truck, but it wasn’t Russian. It was civilian and full of lumber that now burned in a pyre, sparkling on the snow. We kept our distance but were close enough to feel the fire on our faces. We could see the cab and its white paint, which curled to scales against the heat, and then the steel beneath the paint that scorched to rust. Behind a shattered windshield, flames licked out an upright silhouette that burned with the dignity of one who met death immediately, without pain and shock, and through this absence seemed strangely alive. I can’t say how long we watched the pyre. When we left the sun still hadn’t risen but the silhouette had been consumed. On our journey home, we said nothing and tried to hide in our silence.
News of the attack spread through all the families of Gomal. The truck had been from our informant’s company and the dead driver had been his employee. Several days later, my father and our village’s spingaris were called to a jirga in Orgun to settle the matter. The deliberations were short, lasting but two days, and my father returned in ruin. The spingaris on both sides decreed that our father was responsible for our actions and that he must replace the destroyed truck and buy yet another to recoup the damaged cargo. In this our informant made out very well, for the first truck forced us to sell our home and the second wiped out my father’s accounts, eliminating him as a business competitor. That’s when we moved here.
Mumtaz waved his hands around the room and spat on his own floor. He put his finger in my face. That was not the worst of it, he said. The family of the driver was at the jirga. Instead of taking money for their son’s death, money my father no longer had, they chose badal against my brother, the eldest son, a life for a life. This broke my father. To honor Pashtunwali, the family hired a qatal to hunt down my brother. Now he would have to live on the run.
The day after my father returned, I stood with my brother in the morning’s dark cold and wished him good-bye. He didn’t tell my father he was going. He knew that the old man would do the honorable thing and try to protect him, so my brother did the honorable thing and left. Before he walked out our gate, I grabbed his arm and, full of a younger brother’s purpose, told him: That crook in Orgun will pay for what he’s done. We will have badal, and the truth will be known, and you will return.
My brother grabbed the back of my neck and pulled me close to him. The fourteen months between us always gave him a slit of insight I was yet to have, but now that slit split to a chasm. He looked at me and spoke as if from its other side: Your badal is to take none. Break that chain. Leave the war. Care for Father.
I protested, but he turned and walked out of our house and our village and south into the mountains whose ridges received him like the fingers of an outstretched hand.
I did as my brother asked. I cared for our father. I made him comfortable in this room and we tried to continue our life. Without the business we slipped into poverty, but my brother was alive and our imagined reunion kept us from the truest form of poverty, despair. But several months later, a visitor delivered that despair. The man arrived at our gate so early in the morning that he must have traveled through the night. He was a tall man, and skinny but for a pair of powerful hands. On one wrist he wore a digital watch. It was gold and hung loosely like a bracelet. On its screen, I saw the time. His watch ran eight hours fast, as if he’d reset the days, making our early morning his afternoon. Over his clothing, he wore a blue vest embroidered in gold braid and the running end of his turban dangled over its front. The turban was yellow, nearly matching the gold braid of his vest. It perched on his head, piled into a mound. Standing in the dust of our modest home, his elegance was nearly obscene.
We invited him to come inside, sit, and have tea with us, but he held up his palm, refusing. I don’t ask for hospitality, he said, only that you hear my message, which will free me of my duty. My father nodded and the man continued: A week ago your son was killed. The badal was sanctioned by the Orgun jirga of two months past. Your son is buried in the communal graves outside the Blue Mosque in Spin Boldak. If you go there and ask for the undertaker, he can help you arrange the body’s transport here. These are directions to the grave.
The man offered my father, who couldn’t read, a piece of paper the size of a banknote. My father’s hand shook as he took the paper.
And how is it that you have such knowledge of my son? he asked.
Badal is my duty, said the man. It is just that you be told of your son’s end.
My father ran his eyes over the man and his beautiful clothes, knowing that in front of him stood his son’s killer. Honorable men, he said, seem to be well compensated in matters of duty.
The qatal smiled, his lips rolling back to reveal gums that were pocked white as if with a coming sickness. Then he turned and left. My father clutched the note to his chest and he went back in the house where he lay on his sleeping mat and pulled his blanket over his tiny shoulders. We had no money to go to Spin Boldak and never would. My brother is still buried there.
Mumtaz looked toward the ceiling. His eyes had become loose with wetness. Still he spoke: My father died some weeks after that. I’ve been alone since. This was all a long time ago. So when I tell you my brother was killed in the war, you understand me. He was killed in the war that is always among us and sustains so many with its profits. His last wish for me was to escape that war and I have. There may be little to admire in my life. I am a poor man without a family, but the war has no hold on me.
I patted Mumtaz’s shoulder and told him: You are not so poor, old man. You have me to gather your firewood and I’ll be paying you a week’s rent for food and lodging.
Mumtaz rested his hand heavily on mine. He leaned back and took in my face with glassy eyes that hinted at both his grief and his age. He twirled the ends of his moustache to points and nodded. Tomorrow, he said, you’ll gather some more wood for us, but keep your money. You are right. I am not so poor as some.
Elliot Ackerman served five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan and is the recipient of the Silver Star, the Bronze Star for Valor, and the Purple Heart. A former White House Fellow, his essays and fiction have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, and Ecotone, among others. He currently lives in Istanbul and writes on the Syrian Civil War. Green on Blue is his first novel.
Atticus Lish is the author of two books, Preparation for the Next Life, a novel about a Chinese Muslim who immigrates illegally to the United States and the Iraq War veteran with whom she becomes involved; and Life Is With People, a series of drawings with captions. He's at work on a second novel, which will have a criminal theme.
From Green on Blue by Elliot Ackerman. Copyright Elliot Ackerman. Published by Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Reprinted by permission.