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The Fifth Act: Elliot Ackerman on Afghanistan and the fall of Kabul
"We have a code in the US military, which is you leave no man behind. Everybody knows it and it's not unique to the US military. This is a code as old as war."
This week marks one year since the fall of Kabul. In his powerful and highly personal new book, The Fifth Act: America’s End in Afghanistan, Elliot Ackerman—Marine veteran, former CIA officer and White House fellow, prolific author of fiction and non-fiction and National Book Award finalist—revisits his own experience as a combat veteran, the sequence of events that led to America’s withdrawal, and his own involvement in rescuing Afghans left behind in the operation that became known as Digital Dunkirk. The result is part-memoir, part-history, part-analysis and a power rumination on war and humanity. (In full disclosure, Elliot is a friend and, as he writes about his book, we were both involved as collaborators with one of the rescues a year ago, where several marines heroically pulled a former Afghan interpreter and his pregnant wife to safety). In our conversation below, Elliot offers his thoughts on the Afghan war and how it came to end as it did, what that meant for veterans and how the Digital Dunkirk came together, America’s relationship to war and its allies, and why he is still hopeful about humanity and the United States of America.
Octavian Report: Why did you decide to write this book about Afghanistan now?
Elliot Ackerman: I had not been planning to write this book. Last summer with the situation in Afghanistan deteriorating extremely quickly, and then the fall of Kabul which was extremely dramatic, I still was not planning to write a book. Actually, my agent called me the first or second week of August to say we should try to do a paperback original of some of my writing about Afghanistan because so many people haven't been following the war over these years and they don't necessarily understand the context of what's going on. The vision of the book initially was a shorter 30,000 word paperback that would just talk about the politics of Afghanistan.
I then left on a family holiday. Then as you know, because you were involved in it, the situation continued to deteriorate and there was this massive evacuation over two weeks of everyone out at the airport that I became very much involved with along with many others. And then at the end of those two weeks, when I went back and said, "Well, I have this book I'm supposed to write," I realized that the shape of the book was going to be completely different. It wasn't going to be this collection of essays and ruminations about Afghanistan. It was going to be about these two weeks and everything that had happened in the context of this 20 year war.
OR: Why do you think there's been such a big misperception about Afghanistan? I remember right after the fall of Kabul, there were people who didn't even know we were still there. And then there were people who thought we had a much bigger presence. Why do you think there was such a lack of understanding?
Ackerman: Afghanistan started getting a little bit more into the news as Joe Biden became president because there was the question of what his Afghan policy would be, and maybe even before that, because Trump was trying to pull us out of Afghanistan. But if you look all the way back to 2018, before Trump had began his negotiations with the Taliban, there was a poll in advance of that year's midterm elections. 46% of Americans couldn't even say whether or not we were still at war in Afghanistan. So, it wasn't like they didn't care about Afghanistan or did care about Afghanistan. They just didn't even know. It had slipped so far out of our national consciousness.
The reason for that is anchored in the way we structured the war, both the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq, and really the war on terror. Right after 9/11, there was this question of, okay, America is now going to war so how are we going to go to war? What's the construct? If you look at every war that America has fought from the Revolution to the present day, it's always had to be fought in a construct. And what I mean by a construct is how do we sustain it in terms, broadly speaking, of blood and treasure, blood being personnel and treasure, how we fund it.
So, if you look at the American Revolution, much of the blood and treasure construct there was through French aid, both in terms of manpower and the material. If you look at the Civil War, it marks both the first income tax ever in the United States to sustain it, as well as the first draft. World War II: national mobilization and bond drives. Vietnam is characterized by a very unpopular draft. And then we arrive at the war on terror.
And when we look at the war on terror, the way we structured that war was our all-volunteer military. So there would be no draft, even though after 9/11 there was some conversation about it. There was a reliance on the National Guard for a little while, but that started to phase out as the all-volunteer force took over. And we wouldn't have a war tax. We would fund the war on terror through deficit spending. We put it into the national debt.
In fact, the last year that America passed a balanced budget was 2001. So, with that construct of an all-volunteer military and financing the war through deficit spending, the result is the American people are anesthetized to the war. Unless you have a family member who's serving or you're serving yourself, it doesn't touch you in any ways. So, American disinterest isn't because Americans are bad people or negligent people, it's just no one's asking anyone to pay attention. And that, combined with the duration of the war, which is also directly linked to and went on so long because of that construct made it was politically very easy to wage war, led is to when we're rolling into the fall of Kabul in 2021, people can't even remember that the war's still going on.
OR: What's the general feeling among veterans and active-duty servicemen about the war in general and how we left Afghanistan. I remember Obama called it the good war, as opposed to Iraq, but by the end it seems many people sort of conflated the two and started to say we never should have been in Afghanistan. How do people who served feel about that narrative?
Ackerman: Well, I don't purport to speak for all veterans.
OR: Yes, fair enough.
Ackerman: The variety of views you'll see among veterans mirror the variety of views you'll see among Americans. But as Kabul was falling, I was on the phone with a buddy of mine named Josh. We both served in Iraq at the same time, we both fought in Fallujah. He fought in the first battle, I fought in the second battle. We both served in the same Marine special operations unit in Afghanistan. He served in the unit after I did and he was later wounded, medically retired from the Marines. So, Josh and I are just talking as we're watching Kabul fall.
We had previously watched Fallujah fall in 2014 to the Islamic State. And we were asking why it was that when we watched Fallujah fall, our attitude was "Well, it's Iraq, them's the breaks. Iraq is a dysfunctional place. Who knows if the Islamic State will hold Fallujah." It wasn't nearly as difficult to watch as it was to watch Kabul fall. Watching Kabul fall, really, just felt so tragic to us and so upsetting.
So, he and I were talking, and we were trying to understand why we were having these two very different reactions to these two different wars we had fought in. And what we settled on was that the United States has only gone to war twice predicated on an attack against our homeland. The first time was Pearl Harbor in the Second World War. That was a generationally defining war. It defined a century and it was an unequivocal American victory ending on a battleship in Tokyo Bay.
The second time was 9/11. And that war for guys like me and Josh defined our lives. And we're watching a complete and total – unconditional in many ways – defeat, a humiliating defeat out at this airport in Kabul. I do think, generally speaking, the reaction to Afghanistan has been tougher for many veterans, in a way that Iraq hasn't. And there's also been this incredible irony of it inasmuch as the United States lost the war in Afghanistan unequivocally. We lost that war. It took 20 years and we lost.
I wouldn't go so far as to say we won the war in Iraq. But I don't think you can say that the United States unequivocally lost in Iraq. Saddam Hussein is gone: that was one of the objectives of the Iraq war. Obviously it was launched on faulty pretenses, but Iraq now has had multiple successful parliamentary elections and has done a decent job of fending off the Islamic State. So you have much more of a muddled outcome. But the one place where there's an unequivocal defeat is Afghanistan, which was supposed to be the good war and was the war where the causus belli was very clear, at least initially, but then obviously became much more muddled as the years went on.
OR: Your book is very poignant. The credo “no one left behind” is really an overarching theme in it and there are moments that I think will be quite surprising to civilians about how seriously that is taken by those in the military. It’s quite inspirational, but also at times quite wrenching as you struggle with decisions that most people would have seen as uncontroversial.
Ackerman: Yes, one of the themes that runs through the book is that we have a code in the US military, which is you leave no man behind. Everybody knows it and it's not unique to the US military. This is a code as old as war. It goes back to the Iliad when Hector is killed and his father Priam comes to Achilles' tent to beg for the dead body of his son because he is not going to leave his son in the enemy camp.
So, as Afghanistan is falling, for most people who fought there, you've fought alongside many of these Afghans who threw their lot in with the Afghan government and the US government, and the evacuation amounted to this massive exercise of leaving many people behind. And there's a moral cost to that which everyone experiences differently. I couldn't help but experience that. We were nationally breaking this code or at least calling into question our ability to adhere to it.
War is a political act, but it's fought in the human realm, in the personal realm. It is a constellation of very personal and dramatic stories. I had particularly one instance where I really struggled with decisions I had to make and with whether or not I had fulfilled the highest obligations of what it meant to leave no one behind. Specifically, as you allude to, the team I led was involved in an ambush. One of our team members was killed in that ambush and after we all got through the kill zone, his body was still in the town and we had to figure out how to get him. It was not as straightforward as all of us turning around and running back into that town, guns a-blazing. And the process of trying to get his body out, which took a while, was very fraught.
I made some decisions in that process to not go right back in that some people questioned and that I myself had questioned for many years, wishing I could have just charged back in there to get him. And so, when everything happened in Afghanistan last summer, it very predictably brought those memories to the surface for me all over again. And in the book, I interrogate my decision and do so in the context of everything that happened when our country left Afghanistan.
OR: How did the Digital Dunkirk come together so quickly?
Ackerman: Wars in America are no longer experienced as a generational event. Vietnam was a generationally-defining event. World War II was a generationally-defining event. 9/11 was a big event and everyone who's of a certain age can remember where they were on 9/11, but it wasn't a generationally-defining event. So, when I think of myself as a veteran, I don't think of myself as part of a lost generation, but I have always felt that I'm sort of like the lost part of a generation. I am part of this little subset, almost like a club, not a very big club, but it's a club.
So, when Afghanistan started collapsing all the people who are in this little lost part of our generation activated immediately. And we all knew we had people who needed to get out. And all of our phones were lighting up with friends of ours who were in Afghanistan who needed to get out. Friends of ours who had left Afghanistan and maybe were living in the United States, but who had family that needed to get out. And because we were all being asked for help we, I think very intuitively, turned to one another and said, "Do you know how to help?" And it became this crowdsourced event overlaid on the fact that there was no effective government capacity in place to deal with this evacuation. So, there was no office at the State Department you could call and in good conscience say to an Afghan family, "Oh, if you call this number or send an email here, someone's going to get back to you and they're going to help you." Yes, some of those numbers existed, but you knew that they would just get an empty line.
So, everybody activated and I think you saw the power of that activation in what has become known as a Digital Dunkirk. All wars are sort of the same, but they have their differences. That was something different. No American war has ended the way this war ended because no American war has ended with the degree of connectivity we have right now, when everyone being abandoned could reach out over Signal or WhatsApp and contact people in the United States or people around the world and try to get help.
OR: To me, the effort we were part of to get Shah [an Afghan interpreter] and his wife Forozan out was life-changing. People who read the book will obviously hear the story and the crazy sequence of events from my nephew Alexander seeing a post online to me calling you to you connecting with your former comrade Colonel Richardella at the airport, all of which had to come together precisely to rescue Shah. And I remember you went on CNN at the time and asked how is it that this is what has to happen for someone like Shah, who risked his life for America, to get out safely.
The most powerful thing to me was the fact that Lt. Col. Richardella, who sent out the Marines and himself went out and pulled over a dozen refugees inside to safety – talk about a true hero – happened to be the one in command at that moment. Because what I didn’t realize, actually, until I read your book, was that there were other people in his chain of command who would clearly not have made that same decision, who in fact had made decisions quite differently that led to US casualties. So as you’ve reflected on it, how much of who gets out and who doesn't get out of these situations do you think is just by its nature either random or based on highly personal decisions made by people like Chris Richardella?
Ackerman: It's a big question. Part of it goes all the way back to the nature of war. I remember being younger and training to go into the Marines and there was always this idea of you sweat in training so you don't bleed in war. That's true to a degree. But when you step onto a battlefield, the reality is the guys who live aren't the guys who are the best trained all the time or the smartest. It's just random. It's just dumb luck. Who lives, who dies, whether the bullet hits you or doesn't hit you, it's just random luck. So, that very hard and pragmatic understanding of luck is something I feel like I learned when I was younger in war and that now I'm much older and watching this evacuation out of Afghanistan, it only reinforces my sense of, yeah, it's just luck, just chance.
You talk about Shah. I just think it is an interesting example. You and I know one another outside of the context of the military. I was on vacation, you were on vacation. You called me about Shah. Because I'm a former Marine, I called old comrades of mine to see who were the Marine battalions at the gate, and just by total coincidence, not only was my old infantry battalion that I fought as part of in Iraq, the First Battalion of the Eighth Marine Regiment, was one of the two at the airport, but the commanding officer had been in the same class as me and was a friend in Quantico, Virginia almost 20 years ago. I knew him and got his phone number and I hadn't talked to him a long time. And he, as you know, was fantastic and eager to help and do whatever he could.
But the sequence of that all lining up is luck. It's just total luck. And to me, it gives me pause, because what are the odds that a person would be as lucky as Shah was? Pretty slim, and for most Afghans who are in similar circumstances to Shah, their luck didn't break as perfectly as his luck broke, so it's humbling.
OR: When people read your book, they'll also see that even with the Marines willing to help him, the actual operation of getting him through the gauntlet of the Taliban and into the airport was --
Ackerman: It was touch and go. It was very touch and go with him.
OR: When you read in your book, you talk a lot about is what comes out of Washington and then how it's received on the ground. You explain that when Obama said, "Well, we're leaving in 18 months," that people in Afghanistan said, "Well, the Taliban's not leaving, they're never leaving." Then you fast forward to Kabul and we in fact left and left all these people behind. And it's not the first time. We had the Kurds just recently. So wearing your hat as a national security analyst, do you think the US reputation at this point is irreparably damaged? Have we maybe rebounded a little with Ukraine?
Ackerman: I don't know that our reputation is irreparably damaged because I don't know that anything is ever irreparable, but I certainly think if you look at the last 30 to 40 years of American foreign policy, if I was not an American and I was partnering with the United States, I would certainly know that we have an imperfect track record when it comes to supporting our allies at difficult moments and that just because the US is your friend today, doesn't mean that they will necessarily stand with you for all time and in all circumstances. I think, yes, we've seen that play out with the Kurds and now in Afghanistan. So, with regards to Ukraine, if I'm Zelensky and the Ukrainians, yes, we're standing very strongly by the Ukrainians right now, but I would certainly, if I were him, be watching us carefully and I would not assume that support will always be there for all time under all conditions, because ultimately, you cannot understand American foreign policy unless you understand US domestic policy and US domestic policy always trumps foreign concerns. Politicians want to get re-elected, so if they feel like the domestic support doesn't exist for a particular foreign policy, odds are they will not adopt that foreign policy.
OR: Many people were upset about the fall of Kabul and then about Ukraine. But do you think it’s in the American character to eventually just lose interest or is there something going on right now that makes it worse?
Ackerman: Listen, it's been said by many people that we do not have the world's greatest attention span as a country. So, I think we can get very energized for short amounts of times, but oftentimes concentration and follow through, at least in terms of the national psyche, is something that we're not always great at doing over the long haul. People were very energized as Afghanistan was falling, it was an above the fold issue for a number of weeks and recently it's retreated. This isn't new. This happened at the end of the war with the Soviets and then all through the '90s Afghanistan wasn't an above the fold issue until September 11th.
Ukraine has been a leading story since February, but obviously there's a question of will it continue to be a leading story? Will Americans continue to be able to focus on it and prioritize on it? I don't necessarily think that's because we're a bad people. It's just because of the nature of American life. We have two oceans between us and these threats. And so oftentimes, it's very easy for us to be inwardly focused and that has become part of our national character too.
OR: During the Digital Dunkirk, my experience was that lots of people in the government, at the State Department and in the military, actually wanted to help and were sympathetic, but they seemed unable to do anything for people in Afghanistan. It was really the volunteers that were effective. You write in the book about how a former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs even had trouble getting people out. You’ve been in government, so I’m curious, how does this happen? Is is disorganization, apathy at the top, what?
Ackerman: Because it's a bureaucracy. The government is a bureaucracy, the military is a bureaucracy. Bureaucracies ossify. They can be very effective at doing the specific things that they're designed to do, but they often fail when it comes to adaptability. And bureaucracy also relies on authority. So if a bureaucrat doesn't have the appropriate authorities, they don't have the ability to act. And I think, what we saw particularly with the collapse of Afghanistan, was the authorities didn't want to just open up the floodgates for this evacuation. There was a desire to have it finish at a date certain. You were going to get some people out, but only a certain amount of people out and then it's going to be over.
So, the bureaucracy did what the bureaucracy was designed to do, which was to not respond. The thing that was very challenging was that we could all see in real time that the cost of that was all these people who were being left behind and who in many cases could not get out. For the fourteen US service members at the Abbey Gate and the hundreds of Afghans there, it ended tragically in death.
OR: How could we have done it differently?
Ackerman: Well, you go all the way back. There's the question of, should we have pulled out? The rhetoric coming out of the administration was: this war has gone on for 20 years. We need to end this war. We're against forever wars. Well, nobody's “for” forever wars. But define war. Define what it means to end a war. We still have troops in Iraq. Are we fighting a war in Iraq? We still have troops deployed in the Horn of Africa, in South Korea, in Europe. Are we still at war at those places?
And when you look in Afghanistan in the two years before 2021, it was very quiet. More service members in 2020, for example, died in training accidents in Camp Pendleton, California, which is four, than in all of Afghanistan. So is it worth having 10,000 American troops garrisoned in Afghanistan, a country that shares a border with China and Iran, for instance, as a land base for US interests? I frankly think it's worth 10,000 troops seeing as we keep about 40,000 on the Korean peninsula. Why not have this 10,000 sitting there?
But at a certain point, the strategic decision was made that it’s not worth it. We've got to bring these folks home because we have to end forever wars. I disagree with the strategic decision, but once the decision was made, the question is how do you go down to zero? I think the way to go down to zero effectively, at least politically effectively, was to create what Nixon called in Vietnam “the decent interval,” which is we pull out and the Afghan government will stay in place for some amount of time. Not totally unreasonable to think that they could reach some agreement with the Taliban, where the Taliban get integrated into the Afghan government. But even if they don't, and the Afghan government collapses, it will happen in two years after we leave, a year after we leave, six months after we leave. So, it's not seen as quite the debacle we experienced.
The problem was there was no decent interval. And the administration had gambled everything on there being a decent interval, so that the evacuation itself wouldn't fall to the US government because there would be no US government presence in Afghanistan to even run the evacuation. Once there was no decent interval, it was a fait accompli that you were going to have a complete debacle.
OR: Could we have gotten out the people really at risk?
Ackerman: We could have done a lot that we didn't do. Consistently in Afghanistan, particularly at the end, the American people were constantly being presented with this situation that we've got our backs against the wall. We’ve got to have everybody out by September 11th. Then we had everybody out by August 31st. Those were dates that we created. They were artificial dates. If we had our back against the wall, it was a wall of our own creation. So, at any given point, we could have said, "Listen, we're going to leave Kabul in our own good time. Yes, we're pulling people out, but conditions on the ground have changed. We're going to fly in elements of the 82nd airborne. They're going to seize HKIA [Harmid Karzai International Airport] and a perimeter out a mile, two miles, 10 miles outside of Kabul and we will leave when we feel comfortable leaving and those are the terms that you will accept, Taliban." We could have done that. We chose not to do that and I can say why I think we chose not to do that. But this idea that there was only one way that we could do it, and we had absolutely no options, it's a fallacy. We had a number of options. We were just unwilling to exercise those options.
OR: Can I challenge you on one thing? You said we unequivocally lost the war in Afghanistan. But what it sounds like you're saying is we left. We'd actually stabilized the country and given the initial war aims, wasn’t that instead a victory we chose to abandon? Is that really losing a war?
Ackerman: I'm an old Marine and in the Marine Corps, they teach you that the definition of war is the contest of two opposing wills. So, we had our will and the Taliban's will. I say we unequivocally lost because we lost the will of fight and we left. We still had the capability and the means to fight, but we lost the will to fight. If you look at something like the Japanese in the Second World war, there was probably still the will to fight. They lacked the means to fight by the end of the war. There was just nothing left. So yes, certainly different in that case. But I just say we unequivocally lost because we decided that we were going to leave and we were going to basically leave on whatever terms the Taliban decided to hand to us, so it's a loss.
Whereas when I look at an Iraq, we never completely left. We're still engaged there, it's been extremely messy, but it's not to me definitively in the loss column of American conflicts. In much the same way like Korea isn't.
OR: As you reflect on your experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, Digital Dunkirk, what happened, the way people reacted, the politics, do you feel better or worse about humanity than before you started this journey?
Ackerman: People will sometimes ask me, "Elliot, how do you think the war has changed you?" I've never known how to answer that question because the wars didn't change me. The wars made me. These are experiences that are so foundational to who I am, they're so braided into the firmament of my being. So I don't know if I can say, am I more or less optimistic about humanity based off of these experiences. I would more say these experiences inform how I understand the world and how I understand human nature. The one thing I would say is that when you go to war and when you experience war, it throws open the aperture of what you see human beings are capable of doing.
So, at the one extreme, and sadly, I’ve seen the extreme depravity and savagery and darkness humans are capable of engaging in. At the other extreme, I've been fortunate to see incredible acts of heroism, of love, of all that human beings are capable of sacrificing for one another. So, with that spectrum in mind, it just is how I walk through and experience the world. I hope that that informs my writing too.
OR: To return to Col. Richardella and all the people who made courageous decisions in contrast to others who did not, what do you think we can do to try to encourage that kind of heroism and kindness?
Ackerman: Well, you talk about the case of Shah or Afghans I served with: some of the most American people I've ever met are Afghans and Iraqi who have never set foot in the United States, never seen it with their own eyes. And how can that be? Because America has always been an idea. It's an aspiration and it's not an idea or an aspiration that people who hold blue, American passports get to claim solely as their own. It is an idea and an aspiration that is humanity's idea and aspiration and we've tried to create a society built around those ideals. Here we often do it imperfectly, but we're trying to do it. And that is worth applauding and there are still a lot of people who want to come here and participate in that.
What makes me the most optimistic? I look at people like Shah and like many of the others who did get out and who are now here. I have a lot of faith that these people are going to be incredible Americans. We've seen that in our history, with populations who've come from other countries, where we've engaged in wars that haven't worked out that well. So, that fills me with a lot of hope.
When you talk about people like Colonel Richardella and others who did what I consider very heroic things in these circumstances, and in other circumstances, I think it's empathy. Forgive me because I'm a Marine for quoting this to you, but during the Battle of Iwo Jima, it was famously said by Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal that "uncommon valor was a common virtue," that the empathy that resides within people that allows them to behave heroically is actually very common. It exists in so many people. What doesn't exist quite as often are the set of circumstances that allows them to tap into that empathy and to do something heroic.
But time and time again, I've been very honored to have brushed up against the Richardellas of the world and people who have done heroic things, who are just normal people. Someone once asked me, "What's combat like?" And one of the closest analogs I can make for someone who's never seen it is what do you think it would be like if you were driving late at night down a highway and there were very few cars out and you saw a four car pile up and people hurt trying to get out of their cars and they needed help. You'd probably pull off the side of the road and start trying to get people out of cars. That's what combat's like, everyone just doing what obviously needs to get done.
And last summer was a situation where I think that everyone was just doing what obviously needed to get done. These people needed to get out, they were going to be killed. They were asking for help. All of these people who were connected to them, through whatever their experience in Afghanistan was, were just doing what obviously needed to get done.
OR: Well, that's a great note to end on. Readers will find a lot more in the book. It's it's obviously really interesting to anybody who wants to understand Afghanistan and the Middle East, but it's also really powerful as a memoir of war and combat, which as you point out is really about human nature and the best and worst of it. It's a real achievement.
Ackerman: Thank you. I appreciate that.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.