Elliot Ackerman: “Green on Blue: A Novel” | Talks at Google


BEN BOYD: First off, on behalf
of Google and the Google Veterans Network, a big
thanks to everyone that came. You know, we’re in an
interesting company that’s full perks. I will argue that in
my personal experience, this [email protected] series
ranks towards the top. You just look at
the flow of just like pure intellectual
horsepower that kind of flows through and shares
their perspective on a topic that they’re
just wildly experienced in and I think it’s a
rare opportunity. And so, as I look at what
we’re going to talk about today and who we’re going
to talk about it with, this is again, of the
[email protected], this even is towards the top
of my personal list, both in terms of
the person that’s communicating the
message and the topic that we’re going to discuss. A few kind of logistical
things to start. The first off is my personal
introduction is, I’m Ben Boyd. I work with the Google
Veterans Network here. I’m also in a sales role on
the Google For Work team. And for those in the
room that don’t know and for those that are
going to be watching later, a little intro to what the
Google Veterans Network is. Google is a company that
is interested in bringing the whole person to work. For those that served, a
very big part of who you are is that experience. And today, we are a community
of about 1,000 people that’s split between direct
veterans and people that are supporters
and those that are just interested kind of the
topics that get surfaced. But at the end of the
day, it’s something that, for those that are
involved, is a huge value add. And kind of the reach of Google
as a supporter of the larger veteran efforts is
something that I think is worth bringing to light here. Second, in terms of
structure for today, we’re going to have a
bit of a conversation. I want to start real
quick by giving you a bit of an intro on Elliot. All I can say is that it’s
an absolute privilege, right? Elliot’s going to
speak on topics that I think everybody in
the room is interested in. This is, at a surface
level, it’s war. Beyond that it’s passion
and it’s betrayal it’s all of these
sorts of things. But when you hear
a message, it’s important to know who’s
communicating that message. And I think when it comes
to Elliot’s experience, it’s worth going over
a couple of things. Five deployments between
Iraq and Afghanistan. His Iraq deployment was
during the heaviest fighting that we had in Fallujah. His Afghanistan deployment was
on the special operation side in pursuit of the
most priority targets that we had an in that country. And I think that just presence
there and participation in that effort is
worthy of praise, right? But in true form, you’re
going to see a trend here. Elliot continues to kind of
go above and beyond this. Elliot has a Silver Star and
a Bronze Star with a V device. And so what that means
in civilian speak is that not only has he faced
the toughest environments and scenarios that you’re
going to find overseas, but he did in a
way that supersedes the expectation of how
one would deal with them. And I think what we can
pull from that is one, there is deep
expertise when it comes to what life on the ground
in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan is. And two, that like as a country
as a whole, we’re in debt and there’s a deep gratitude
for that sort of background. As he transitioned
out of that, I think Elliot’s going to
have this brand of just a serial contributor, right? He holds an advanced
degree from Tufts. He was selected as a
White House fellow. He’s a member of the Council
on Foreign Relations. He has committed himself to
writing and his publications and his work has
appeared in just, I mean you name, the first class
publication, “The New Yorker,” “The Atlantic,” “The Wall
Street Journal,” to name a few, and he’s there. And so, as we transition
from the intro of the person to the intro of the
book and what we’re here to speak of today, I
think that “Green on Blue” is, if you haven’t
read it yet, I’ll encourage you to pick up a
copy as you make your exit. But the story of young
Afghan orphan who– and the circumstances
of the environment that he’s a part of. And this is one that is
just, in this case, a war. As a personal
veteran, I think there is– what I’ve noticed
as the transition out, is that everybody’s
interested in it, but few have an opportunity
to really directly relate. And so we like,
reach for things that might give you an
opportunity to kind of better understand what the environment
and the circumstances were. And I think what we
have here and what we’ll talk to, touch
on later, and what he’ll read from in a
moment is just that. So with that said, I
will get to some talking and let’s give him a round of
applause and welcome Elliot. [APPLAUSE] So, I told him
earlier, we’re going to start by keeping
this light, right? We’re going to start with
a little bit about Elliot as a person, a little bit
about Elliot as an author. And then we’ll touch on the
topic in the book today. And so in true
Google fashion, I’m going to put him a little
bit on the spot here and we’re going to play
two truths and a lie. So I don’t know if you’re
familiar with this, but for those who
aren’t, we’re going to hear three
statements from Elliot, and I did give him about
30 seconds before we started, warning on this. So this is pretty fresh, right? You’re going to hear
three statements. Two of them are
going to be true. One of them is
going to be a lie. And then we’re going to
have Ms. Amy Carl guess as to which one is the lie. Is that fair? ELLIOT ACKERMAN: Sure. I’m forgetting my truths
for a moment and my lies. OK, so three things. First thing. My brother is an Olympic
wrestler and a mathematician. I once ran with
the Bulls in Spain. And my father used to race
Formula Four race cars. AMY CARL: I’m going
to pretend like it’s “Who Wants to be a
Millionaire” and I’m going to get the audience to vote. And then we’ll see how
I feel about their vote. OK, so who thinks that
the brother, wrestler, mathematician is the lie? OK. Who thinks the running with
the bulls in Spain is a lie? And who thinks the NASCAR
racing– I’m sorry, whoo, that was almost offensive. Formula One. I’m from Ohio, all right? All car racing is NASCAR. ELLIOT ACKERMAN: Some
of you voted twice. You think I’m telling two lies? BEN BOYD: What
have you got, Amy? AMY CARL: I actually
am also going to go with the bull
racing as the lie. ELLIOT ACKERMAN: No, I ran
with the bulls in Spain. Right when I got back from Iraq. BEN BOYD: I would have guessed
Formula Four because I don’t know what a Formula Four is. What’s the difference
between a One and a Four? ELLIOT ACKERMAN: It’s One right. And that’s actually the lie. My father was obsessed
with race car driving, but he never actually drove. So when I was younger, the one
day that we didn’t– the one Sunday we never went to church
is when the Indy 500 was on. BEN BOYD: And on that topic,
I’d love to again, kind of understand a little
bit more about you. So we’ve talked about father. We’ve talked about
the truth that is a brother that is an Olympic
wrestler and a mathematician. Go a little bit more
on your background and tell me a little
bit about those. What makes it unique and what
were those influences on you? ELLIOT ACKERMAN: I come from
a family that’s– I have one brother who’s two years older. We were always pretty
tight growing up. My mother is a novelist. So I grew up around books. BEN BOYD: So you read a little. ELLIOT ACKERMAN: Studied history
and literature at university. And yeah, I have this
very eclectic brother who is “Good Will Hunting”
smart mathematician. I mean, who
literally, when I was three years old in the back
of the Volvo, picking my nose and banging my GI Joes
together, he was five, saying, Dad, if x equals
3, and y is unknown– just in his blood. And he was a gifted wrestler
and wrestled in 2004 in Athens. So that’s my family
background at least. But no military in my family. BEN BOYD: No military. ELLIOT ACKERMAN:
I’m the only one. BEN BOYD: I understand there’s
a lot overseas time when you’re young as well. ELLIOT ACKERMAN:
Yeah, there was. So when I was nine years old–
I was born in Los Angeles and lived there
until I was nine. And then in a dramatic,
climactic switch or climate switch, we moved
from Los Angeles. BEN BOYD: For a
nine-year-old that move was climactic as well. ELLIOT ACKERMAN: Yeah,
it was climactic as well. But I have vivid memories
of, you know, at week number two of not seeing the
sun, asking when the hell I was going to get
out of this place. Then it wound up
being six years. So I stayed there till I
was 15 and then finished up high school in the States. BEN BOYD: What does
that do for you, right? So what kind of diversity
does that contribute? So traditionally, you come
from a fairly– most of us, myself included, come from
more or less a cookie cutter kind of American existence. But then you go to
college and that’s where you start developing
a little bit more deeper personality. What do you think– ELLIOT ACKERMAN: I
think some it kind of starts to get into the themes of
what drew me into the service. London is not that
much different. If you want to go
like one culture over, it’s about the closest
you can obviously get to being an American,
aside from going to Canada. And that’s up for debate. But I think about a lot it now
because I live in Istanbul. So I’m raising– I have
two small children. We have been raising them is
Istanbul, which is obviously, especially with everything
that is going on right now, a pretty dramatic shift
from life of the East Coast where we were before. But I think as a
young person, living in London, what was great was
it allowed me to travel widely through Europe, I think,
which just gave me enough of a slant view on what
it means to be an American, to kind of start to inspire
a bit of an appreciation. I think going into college,
I always I felt and was and am a fortunate
son of this country. I came from a good family. I got to go to Tufts
University, a great school. And I went and did ROTC in 1998. And so it was before 9/11. But I just sort of had this
sense that when I got out, I wanted a job where
whether I was good at my job or bad at my job,
really, really mattered. And I wanted a lot of
responsibility young. And I couldn’t think of anywhere
else where at 23 years old, they put me in
charge of 45 people. That was I got in the Marines as
an infantry platoon commander. And so that coupled with
just sort of a visceral sense of feeling like I should,
and was somewhat almost obligated to give something
back, led me into the Marines. But I had, sitting there
in 1998, joined the ROTC, I sort of had no idea what
the next decade would hold. Like you give me a
very nice introduction, my mother just says,
this is my son, Elliot. He’s like the Forest Gump
of the last 10 years. BEN BOYD: But I think there’s an
interesting point there, right? So 1998 is business as
usual in the service, right? And so 2001 strikes. You graduate college. I understand you got
your advanced degree in a compressed schedule,
so in five years. So talk to me about what the
world was as you were starting your Marine Corps career. ELLIOT ACKERMAN: Sure. I mean I remember viscerally
when 9/11 happened. And I was about a year out from
potentially graduating college, although I wound up doing dual
bachelor’s, master’s degree. I remember going into my senior
ROTC instructor and saying, I’m thinking about just
leaving school early, kind of very dramatically. And him saying, sit down,
whippersnapper, this thing’s going to go on for a long time. You should probably get
your college degree. But those first two years,
there was sort of a slow sea change taking place. And I remember reporting down
to Quantico to the basics school where Marine officers
go through training. And it was June of
2003 and the vibe there was very much this sense of like
the Persian Gulf War had just happened. And the captain’s who were our
instructors sort of being like, oh hey, guys, you all
just missed the war. We just missed it too. So sad, too bad. We got to get down to training. And I remember over
that summer slowly, these first lieutenants who were
kind of the junior officers who had been in the
invasion, they had just started trickling
back because they were going to now
become captains and instructors themselves. And then in August, I
remember August of 2003, there was this headline
in “The Marine Times” and it was headlines,
Marines Back To Iraq. And when we saw this, everyone,
including the captains was like, what are we going
to be doing in Iraq? I mean, we’re shock troops. This is occupation duty. The war is over, into that
winter and then in the spring and I was finishing my
infantry officer training in the spring when the
contractors were hung from the bridge in Fallujah. And within a week, sort of
all hell was breaking loose. An officer from the class
before us was killed. One of my buddies had to
go as a combat replacement. And there was this
very quick rotation within a couple
months of this idea that we were all going to war. And those of us who
were going weren’t going for occupation duty. We were going to fight. So I definitely do remember
that quick shift, which I think was a little bit
unique to that time because I think that
in subsequent years, we really bore down. Because as we were
talking a little bit, by 2005, 2006, 2007,
these wars were going and everybody knew
they were going to war. But for us, it was actually
a little bit of a process, of a realization, like wow,
I guess we’re going to war. BEN BOYD: Interesting. Interesting. You know, I’ll ask the
general question, right? I want to hear about
Elliot, the Marine, right? I want to hear about– I
mean, we’ve read the bio and we know that these valorous
awards are not something that are just given out. Tell us about, at a high level,
those experiences and kind of impact that they’ve had you
in the development as a person. ELLIOT ACKERMAN: I have a
very good friend of mine who has sort of always acted
as a Marine Corps big brother to me. And he’s been in Special
Operations for a long time. And he’s got more deployments
to Iraq and Afghanistan that I can count on both
of my hands, legitimately. And he still works
in those realms. And so one of the ways we
keep up is he’s a big runner. So he doesn’t like to sleep. So he’ll be like at
5:00 in the morning, we’ll go for a nice run. We’re buddies. So I get out of bed. I remember about probably six
months ago, I was in the States and we were meeting
up for a run. And we were sort of hoofing
our way up this hill. And just sort of
had been reminiscing about the war at a
very macro level, talking about ideas like PTSD. Do I have it? Do you have it? Who knows? What is it? What did it all mean? And a certain point, he
looked over at me and he said, you know, he said,
you know, Elliot, he’s like, the melancholy of it
all is that we grew up there. And I thought a lot about that. It’s like we did grow up there. I left for my first combat
deployment when I was 24. I came back from my
last one when I was 31. That was sort of the years where
you kind of grow up and become like the adult
you’re going to be. So something that’s
fascinated me too though is, so as much as
you know me and my buddy and so many others
have become completely defined by these experiences. When you start
reflecting on it, you realize there’s a whole
other side of that coin. And that the whole time you’re
having these experience, you’re very much engaged in
this sort of shadow dance with your adversary. And so I mean I
know intellectually, and again, it’s
something I’m very interested in in my writing,
that shadow dance has been going on with
Iraqis, with Afghans. And for every one of
us, there’s just as many of them who’ve been
exactly so defined. And being so defined, in many
respects, I have more in common with them than
many of the people that I’ve come home with, to. And what does that mean? So Yates has this great poem,
around the First World War. It’s called “An Irish
Airman Foresees His Death.” And the poem opens, “I know that
I shall meet my fate somewhere amongst the clouds above. Those that I fight
I do not hate. Those that I guard
I do not love. Nor law no duty bade me fight,
nor public men nor cheering crowds, but a lonely impulse of
delight drove me to this tumult in the clouds.” And so to me, that
poem has always been a little bit about
kind of that idea of, what are those things
that drive us to conflict. Like, what is that
lonely impulse of delight that so many
of us feel, whether or not we’re American, Iraqi,
Afghan, Syrian, what perpetuates these wars? And I do a lot of thinking
about that, I wrote a piece, I guess it was about a year ago. so I do a lot of writing on
the Syrian Civil War now. And I traveled down there
with a couple friends of mine who started basically
a research company, that they bid on government
contracts and NGO contracts. down in this city called
Gaziantep, which is in Turkey, but it’s a 45 minute
drive from Aleppo. And one of the fellows
who’s working for them is this guy named Abed,
who was a Syrian activist during the revolution’s
early days. And to give you
just a picture, Abed is the grand nephew
of the Nizar Qabbani. A famous poet laureate of Syria
who died in exile in London. He, before the
revolution, worked at the British consulate. He speaks English with a
perfect British accent, makes me sound
like gutter trash. And one day Abed came back
and he’d been basically doing interviews in this place
called the Akcakale, which is a refugee camp
500 meters from Syria where sometimes they
take incoming artillery. And he sat there with
me, we were saying down, kind of eating
dinner, drinking tea. And he was like, Elliot,
I was in Akcakale today. He’s like, and I met
this fellow and I think the two you should meet. And I was like, OK,
Abed, who’s the guy? What’s the deal? He’s like, well, he used to
fight for Al Qaeda in Iraq. He’s like, but bear with me. I think the two of you
would really get along. And so, OK. So we talked about it, and
basically the idea was like, I would go meet this guy and
do a story that was basically two vets from the
Iraq war sit down and have lunch but we fought
on different sides of the war. And then talking to Abed,
it was sort of this idea, how are we going to meet? I mean, we can’t really just
tell him that I was a Marine. Because this guy was still
an Islamist at the time. And at the time, I
had some affiliations with Jabat al Nusra, a
big fighting group there. And so then he was, the first
line of the story was, Abed and I agreed the night
before we’d lie and tell I’d been a journalist. And that was what we told him. But within about half
an hour of sitting down and he was sort of
telling me about fighting. You know, I felt like there was
a real sort of– we were very simpatico with one another. And I kind of dropped
my [INAUDIBLE] and I was like, hey, listen,
his name was [INAUDIBLE]. I wasn’t really there
as a journalist. I was there as a Marine. And he kind of looked
at me and smiled. And then we kept talking and it
turned into a six hour lunch. And then I’ll just relay
this, then I’ll finish. And for me one of the most
poignant points of that lunch was, Abed had been translating
between us the entire time as we were talking, drinking
tea, eating baklava, sort of reminiscing about our
wars and what they meant to us. And then after about three
hours, good old Abed, he says, listen I’ve got to
go to the bathroom. So all tea. So he gets up to
go to the bathroom. And now Abu Hasar and I are
sitting there, the two of us. And we had this very intense
conversation for three hours. And now we’re sitting
there like two teenagers on their first date. Like, we can’t
talk, everything’s really awkward all of a sudden. And so I had my notebook
where I was scribbling down our conversation. And I had an idea. I sort of took a squiggly
line and basically traced out on a page the Euphrates River. And he kind of saw
what I was doing and then he traced out the
sharp, tangential border between Iraq and Syria. Because he had run guns and
fighters across the border. That was one of his
responsibilities. And we started
writing in– I started writing in the names of places. And he could sort of see
where they were at on the map. And he took the pen from me and
started writing in the dates. And our hands were chasing
each other around the map much like the way we chased each
other around the country years ago. And the only thing that
we could communicate without an interpreter was
the place names and the dates. And we wrote those
dates down to see if we’d fought in the same
place at the same time. And hadn’t. BEN BOYD: Interesting. I want to transition
and I want to transition to– we’ve talked about the
upbringing and then the service experience. And let’s talk about as
an author a little bit. So you transitioned
out of the service. You got a stint as a
White House fellow. I’m sure you’re
writing throughout. What was that kind
of conversation, what was that decision point
that said, hey, this is me, I want to go, I
want to go all in? ELLIOT ACKERMAN: Sure. You know I mean, I always knew
that I was going to write. Again, it was something
that I grew up around. Even from early
days in the service, I felt like, I’m likely
going to write something about this some day but
I could never really get at the material. It was still going on. I didn’t have any type of
feeling of closure with it. And actually my last deployment
in Afghanistan in 2011, I’d made the decision that
I was going to come home. It almost certain sounds
trite to frame it in this way, but literally two days later,
I start writing the first scene that I ever that
ever really kind of took sort of fictionalizing
what I thought would be the beginnings of a story. And that was two days. So for me, it was
actually, I didn’t know what would enable
the writing to begin. But it was this hard decision
I made that the war is over for me now. And once I’d made
that decision, I think I had the mental space
to start trying to render it and other things in fiction. But I think even if
I hadn’t been writing about the war, if I’d been
writing about guys hanging out in Brooklyn or whatever, I
would’ve have been able to do it while I was in the military. My emotional space was too
occupied by that experience. BEN BOYD: What is- tell me
about the process of writing. I see you’re in Istanbul. I see like a balcony over the
Bosphorus and a cup of chai. I mean is this something
that just consumes you? Are you a like lock
yourself in a room and write or slow and steady
sort of approach here? ELLIOT ACKERMAN: Well I’m
definitely like cup of chai, looking at the
Bosphorus is always nice if you can figure that out. I think everyone has
a different process. For me, once I have an idea, I’m
definitely kind of a grinder. It’s probably the
military side of me. If I’m working on a new
project and it’s going well and I know where it’s going, I
write about 1,000 words a day. It’s kind of what I try to hit. And then if I’m revising, I
sort of set intermediary goals. I’m going to revise
these 30 pages today. And again, you have to sort
of have a lead on something that you’re working on. But for me, it’s
very much– I don’t work in spurts of inspiration. I actually know few
successful writers who do. Most will tell you,
it’s very workman-like BEN BOYD: Bit of a grind. ELLIOT ACKERMAN: Bit of a grind. And you know, when
you’re getting to the end and you’re sitting there
with a manuscript– I mean, when I’m at the
final stages of a manuscript, I lock myself in a
room, a quiet room, and I read it out loud
to myself with a pencil. And I do that multiple times,
just to get the rhythm right, the sentences right. So it’s a slog. BEN BOYD: Any mentors that
stick out to you here? ELLIOT ACKERMAN: Sure. I’ve had great mentors. My mother, who’s a novelist. I remember from a very young
age, sitting on her sofa as she sort of tore apart
my sixth grade papers. But you know, that matters. Teachers matter. I had a couple of
phenomenal English teachers in high school. And then later on as
you surround yourself with other writers
who inspire you. When I was in college, my
freshman creative writing teacher was Andre
Dubus, who wrote “The House of Sand and Fog,” if
you’re familiar with that book. It was made into a film. I remember him, he was
actually finishing that novel when he was sort of
adjuncting at Tufts and working carpentry
jobs on the side. I remember he would
come in just exhausted, sawdust still on his jeans. What are we talking
about today, guys? And then two years later, he was
this internationally acclaimed author with a movie. And for me, it was
always fun to just know that I had a window of him
when he was working hard. But so much of it is a struggle,
it’s a lot of struggle. As your working
through your material and trying to get it
out there in the world. BEN BOYD: Well, great. I want to give enough time to
talk about “Green on Blue.” So maybe I can just kind of pass
it to you for a few minutes. And maybe an intro to
the idea of the book and then we’d would
love to hear passages if you’re willing to share. ELLIOT ACKERMAN: Sure. Well, the title, “Green on Blue”
refers to the insider attacks in Afghanistan. So green is sort of
military short speak for friendly troops,
i.e. the Afghan soldiers and blue for American soldiers. So a green on blue
attack is when an Afghan soldier takes his
weapon and shoots his adviser and we’ve seen that as a trend. But in the novel, it
really sort of acts as a metaphor, this
idea of what happens when the cause that you fight
for threatens to destroy you. So I’m just going to
read just from beginning so you guys can get a sense
for what the book feels like. And this is basically
the opening page. “Many would call
me a dishonest man but I’ve always kept
faith with myself. There’s an honesty
in that I think. I am Ali’s brother. We are from a village
that no longer exists and our family was not
large or prosperous. The war that came
after the Russians but before the Americans
killed our parents. Of them, I have
only dim memories. There is my father’s
Kalashnikov, hidden in a wood
pile by the door, him cleaning it, working
oiled rags on its parts, and the smell of gun
metal, and feeling safe. There is my mother’s secret,
the one she shared with me. Once a month she’d count
out my father’s earnings from fighting in the
mountains or farming. She’d send me and Ali from
our village, [INAUDIBLE], to the large bazaar in
Orgun, a two day walk. The Orgun bazaar sold
everything, fine cooking oils and spices, candles
to light our home, and fabrics to
repair our clothes. My mother always entrusted
me with a special purchase. Before we left she would press
an extra coin in my hand, one she’d stolen from my father. Among the crowded
stalls of the bazaar, I would slip away from
my brother’s watchful eye and buy her a pack
of cigarettes, a vice forbidden to a woman. When we returned
home I would place the pack in her hiding spot, the
birch wood cradle where she’d rocked me and Ali as infants. Our mud-walled house was small,
two thatched roofed rooms with a courtyard between them. The cradle was kept in the
room I shared with Ali. My mother would never
get rid of the cradle. It was the one thing
that was truly hers. At night, after we
returned from the bazaar, she’d sneak into our room,
her small, sandaled feet gliding across the carpets
that lined the dirt floor. Her hand would
cup a candle, it’s smothered light casting shadows
on her young face, aging her. Her eyes, one brown
and the other green, a miracle or defect of birth,
shifted about the room. Carefully she would
lean over the cradle as she’d done before
taking us to nurse, she would run her fingers
between the blankets that once swaddled my brother and me, and
finding the pack I’d left her, she’d step into the courtyard. And I’d fall back asleep to
the faint smell of her tobacco just past my door. This secret made me
feel close to my mother. In the years since,
I’ve wondered why she entrusted me with it. At times, I’ve thought it was
because I was her favorite. But this isn’t why. The truth is, she recognized
in me, her own ability to deceive.” So, that’s the
opening of the novel. The whole book is told
in the first person, from the perspective of
Aziz, who you hear there. This is him as a
young Afghan boy. And the trajectory of
the novel basically follows him as he goes off to
fight with an Afghan militia. It’s always difficult to sort
of say where a book begins, because so much of the
process of writing a novel is you’re really groping
in the dark for the story. So oftentimes what starts
as the beginning winds up as the middle. The middle winds up as the end. The end winds up
as the beginning. But for me, in writing
the book too, you know, there sort of like– I’ll
just share an anecdote that I will keep coming back to. As has been mentioned,
when I was in Afghanistan, I served exclusively
in Special Operations. And as an adviser
to Afghan troops, so in many respects, my war
buddies or a few Americans, but many of them were Afghans. So these weren’t guys that
I, when the war was over, would really ever see again. But we’d done all the
things people have always done when they fight together. We’d fought together,
mourned friends together. We’d bled together. But trapped as they
were, in that country’s elliptical conflict,
they weren’t a bunch of guys I could, you
know, friend on Facebook, go get beers with at the
local VFW for a quarter or call long distance. So really for me, the
novel was an effort to render their world, kind of
as a last act of friendship. And for me it was
also a way to reckon with the loss of
that friendship. But when I think about
what that war was like, I often come back
to this one story, which was one of
the guys I advised was this guy named Ezak. And Ezak was this
Tajik tribal guy in Paktika province, which is
right on the border with South Waziristan and Pakistan, really
sort of a remote, bad place. Ezak had worked here
for about 10 years. And we lived on a firebase
that was basically about three football fields
up in the high desert. And about once
every two weeks, we would have what was
very grandly termed, our operational
planning meeting. But what it really
involved was me sort of bebopping
across the firebase into Ezak’s little hooch, which
was this sort of plywood hut. And I’d walk into his hooch. And Ezak would
be– he had this– I remember he has this
lumpy sofa in the corner that he was always
sort of reclining on. And I would kind of flop down
next to him on the lumpy sofa. There’d be a little plywood
table in front of us and he would go to
his dresser and he’d pull out a pack of smokes. get a pot of chai,
sit it on the dresser and we’d sit back, the two
of us kind to leaning there. And we’d look up
at the far wall. And on the far wall
there were two things. There was a map and
there was a calendar. So Ezak would, sort
of, cigarette in hand, would get up to the map. And he’d look at
it and I’d say, so, Esak, what do you
think we should do for the next couple weeks? And looking at the map, he
would sort of sit there, and he’d look up at one of the
villages right on the border. And he’d say, yeah, well,
you know, Mr. Elliot, we could go up Rarakaray. There’s always very good
hunting up in Rarakaray. So I’d say, all right. We’d get on the
trucks, load them up, 12 vehicles, about
120, 130 Afghans. We’d drive up to Rarakaray
over a couple of days, you know, 50-50 chance we would
get into a gun fight up there. We’d come back down. We would clean up
the trucks for a day, fix them up, give
the guys a day off. Inevitably I would come back
in for the operational planning meeting. Two weeks would have passed. I’d sit down on the
lumpy sofa with Ezak. Same thing, pack of smokes, pot
of chai, Ezak up at the map. All right, Ezak, hey, that was
a great op up in Rarakaray. You know, what are you
thinking about next? I mean, you know the
ground better than anyone . You’ve been here 10 years. And he’d look at the
map, stroke his chin and say, next village
south, you know, Mr. Elliot, we could
go to Mangratay. It’s always very good
hunting in Mangratay. And we’d do the same thing. Load up the trucks,
head up to Mangratay. And you know, the
conversation between us was never one where it was
like, you know, Mr. Elliot, if we go to Rarakaray, then
we hit them in Mangratay, we can run one last operation
in Malashay, seal the border, seal the border shut,
the war will be over. I can go back to my crops. You can get your
Master of Fine Arts, you know, write that novel
you keep talking about. Like it was not
that type of war. So what type of war was it? And for me, one of the
ambitions of the novel was to try to show that paradigm
that existed in Afghanistan. The one that existed
for Ezak, that kept his war being
fought for every reason but the ending of it. You know for a war that’s been
going on for over 30 years. But also the paradigm for us. It’s kept us at
war for 15 years. Because as much as Esak was
going village to village and had, in many respects
more in common with a beat cop than with like a General
Eisenhower figure. Yet, so sort of did
I in a lot of ways. I wasn’t sitting
there saying, hey, Esak, how are we going to win
the war in Paktika province? I, at that point, was a guy who
worked in special operations. I’d been doing this
work for years. It’s what defined me. I wanted to be on
the deployments where sort of the
action was thickest. That assured my promotion. And that was sort of
my incentive structure. So for me, a real
ambition of the book is to try to show that as
truly as I could and then let the reader determine
what they think of it. BEN BOYD: Part of
what I pulled out was, and you alluded
to it in the book, where you superimpose
this American way of life. It’s a timeline
and it’s discipline and it’s these results,
x results by y date. And then you drop that on
top of this kind of beat cop mentality in this very low
level way of life approach to it as opposed to, let’s get
something we can tag as a win and depart. I’d love to know what kind of,
on a couple of different levels maybe, and we’ll start
with the American citizens’ interpretation of the Afghan
community and population and partner network. I would love to
hear your thoughts on what you hope the
American citizen can pull out of this after reading, in
terms of their understanding of the Afghan community. ELLIOT ACKERMAN: Again,
I hope it sort of is able to render the
war as the Afghan saw it. And as I mentioned,
people behave according to their incentive structure. So for a fellow like
Ezak, if the war ended, it wouldn’t actually
be great for Ezak. All of his stature was derived
by his position in his tribe, in his community as the head
of one of these militias. So in many respects,
everything– wars build their– economies
build out around wars. And I don’t necessarily mean
like financial economies exclusively, although they
can often be part of it, but economies in
terms of where people stand socially,
people’s careers, and they build
out on both sides. And I think for us,
one of the things I’m hoping a reader might
take away from the book, and I think in fiction and
through story, oftentimes I don’t think good
work necessarily provides pedantic answers. I think it just frames questions
in ways that are honest and gives the reader
enough generous space to start asking themselves
those questions. So I think in many respects
one of the questions the book gets at is, why does
a war going for 30 years? Why does it go on for 15 years? Why are these wars,
do they go on in a way and why are they being
fought for every reason but the ending of them? Is that because we just can’t
get to that final peace treaty where we’ve achieved
our objectives or is it because
these wars are just starting to feed themselves? And if they are starting
to feed themselves, what is the economy
that’s creating that? And just trying to show that. And in many respects,
the paradigm that exists in the book
is one I saw play out in Afghanistan many times
over in different provinces, villages, districts. BEN BOYD: Interesting. Have you shared it
with any Afghans? ELLIOT ACKERMAN: A
few of my readers were Afghans, folks I knew in
Kabul who were checking it. There’s a lot of
Afghan slang in it, to make sure that I had gotten
that all right, Pashto slang. They are folks who frankly,
their English is not at a level where they’re really
appreciating literary fiction. They can kind of get by on it. So I would say the
first Afghan reader who read who was someone who
was a literary person was Khaled Hosseini who read it
in [? Tablurbit ?] So we were glad when
he liked the book. BEN BOYD: OK. I’m interested in kind of
on this topic of feedback that you’ve had since. Do you feel like you have
accomplished the objectives that you set out to in
terms of just posing those tough questions? Do you feel like
in retrospect you would course correct any way? ELLIOT ACKERMAN: You mean
like rewrite the book? BEN BOYD: In terms of kind of
how you’re– in terms of really getting at how you
poll those questions. ELLIOT ACKERMAN: Yeah,
I mean I sort of hate to frame in terms
of like, there’s an objective to be achieved. I mean, it’s art. You’re telling story. If people read the book
and they feel something, that’s all I care about. In so many ways, I think
one of things that’s interesting about writing
a novel in particular, because it’s very much
rooted in emotional is that you’ve had
this incredibly– I’ve had a very intimate experience
with that book for a long time. For a long, long
time was a thing that I would hold like this. And only the closest
people were allowed to read it as it was in draft
and give me their opinions. I had to really think
about all of those opinions and how I would incorporate
them into the story or whether they merited the
incorporating in the story. And the book comes out and
you throw it out to the world. And everybody can
read it and everybody can have their opinion. And people see
things in the book that you didn’t even
know were in the book, And that makes you
think about– because so much of these stories get
written by your subconscious. So again, I don’t know
if there’s an objective. I think the objective
of all art is to basically transfer your
emotion into another person through some type of
medium, whether it’s visual or through story. So if somebody reads the
book and they feel something, then that’s a good thing. BEN BOYD: That’s great. That’s great. We as a society, I think this
is one of the many outlets that we have to kind of hear
the message of specifically kind of these global
war on terror efforts. I think the one that we just
consume at the quicker pace is a lot of the
Hollywood renditions. And I think this
year especially, until recently the
lead box office was in terms of sales was
the “American Sniper.” And we had “Lone
Survivor” before that. Can you tell us a little
bit about your– share some thoughts in terms
of how good of a job those are communicating and what
messages they’re passing on? ELLIOT ACKERMAN: Well,
it’s a lot of Seals. BEN BOYD: If there
was a marketing effort to be had for the
military community, do what the Seals do. ELLIOT ACKERMAN: They
seemed to have nailed that. Without getting into like the
relative, sort of which one I think is good, which one I
didn’t like, which one I walked out of, I think it’s a good
thing that these movies are– the fact that these
movies are doing well shows that there is, I think,
an appetite in the country for people to reflect
back on these wars and what they meant and try
to understand what they meant. And I think that’s a good thing. I’m glad. BEN BOYD: What would
you caution a viewer? What would you
tell somebody going in that might have that
thirst and that interest in understanding, but not
have a direct relationship? ELLIOT ACKERMAN: I
think sometimes it’s the undercurrent is
kind of like, well, is that what it was like? Is “American Sniper”
what it was like? No one can tell
you what it’s like because everyone’s
experience in the wars has been very, very different. I had a very diverse military
experience from being in Iraq, to being in Afghanistan,
to being in different parts of Afghanistan. And so I’m just very
leery of someone who feels like they
have to true experience. Everyone has a right
to their experience. BEN BOYD: So I want to give
the audience an opportunity to participate. We have a mic. So based off the
discussion, would love to hear maybe some
thoughts and some things we’d like to do hear. AUDIENCE: My name’s Mike. I’m interested in
hearing a little bit about your transition. It looks like it was kind of a
model, successful transition. What advice you have for
the flood of new veterans and people getting out of
the military right now. ELLIOT ACKERMAN: Sure, thanks. I don’t know if it was
a model transition. I think it’s like, everybody
struggles when you get out to figure out what the next
thing is going to be once you are leaving and how you’re
going to basically repurpose yourself. Because I think for
anybody, where we often derive our happiness
is from what we feel is our purpose in life. And whether that’s
defined as simply as I work a job and that
job– or as conventionally as I work a job. That job puts food on the table. My kids get to go to school. They get opportunities
because of that. That’s a good purpose. I think something that can
be a challenge for vets is that for those of us
who have gone and served, particularly in the
wars, you come out and you’re maybe 20 years old. You go right into the war. It’s a very intense purpose. You’re surrounded by
your best friends. You have an objective
that can oftentimes seem at least somewhat
clear at face value. Hold an output
from patrols here. So coming back and
repurposing yourself can sometimes feel disorienting. But it’s what we
sort of have to do. It’s kind of like the last
steps or the last mission is figuring out
what that purpose is going to be that carries
you on into your life. And for me it’s writing. And I think that one thing it
seems this generation of vets is doing a good job
amongst each other with, is sort of being the
support network that’s helping each other
achieve that last purpose, that final sense of purpose. So I don’t know, I feel
very lucky to be part of this generation of vets. We seem to be a
pretty good group. BEN BOYD: I think
it’s a good question and I think it’s one that
we discussed and we really tried to prioritize
as the veterans network internal to Google. We certainly dabble and try
to have a positive influence in some of the
recruiting efforts and some internal things. But I think a big
part of what we do is just the support of
the external community. Once a year, kind
of our big bang is, 20 plus offices
throughout the country, we do a Help A Hero
Get Hired events. We bring a bunch of folks that
have recently transitioned. We sit them down. We help them kind of
translate their resume of what they did in
the service to what can be read and
understood and digested from a potential
hiring position. Would love to, on that kind of
topic of advice for somebody that’s trying to really
package what they did. And when the tangible
skill sets might not be directly transferable,
what’s your advice in helping people think
through what they can do to communicate their value ELLIOT ACKERMAN: I don’t know
if I have any neat advice aside from have a personal
narrative of kind of what your experience was, what it was
to you, who you are as a person and be able to tell that
story with a certain level of consistency, I think helps. Because I can imagine
some of those things don’t necessarily– if you
were an infantry squad leader, the level of
responsibility you’ve had might not necessarily translate
across the pages easily. But hopefully, too,
I would tell someone, try to plug in with other
vets because no one’s going to take care of vets
better than other vets. And so if you can be at least
getting your entry experience at a place where some
of that is understood, I would look for
those opportunities. BEN BOYD: Yes, and like
you said, highlighting that core competency. You can’t train that
discipline and that work ethic and all those sorts of
things that just kind of come with somebody that has earned
the position of squad leader in an infantry, in
an infantry platoon. I think there’s something
to be said for that. AUDIENCE: Elliot,
nice to meet you. My name is Will. I haven’t served and but I
have family members and friends that have. If you had the microphone
at our company-wide meeting later this afternoon
that’s broadcast to 50,000 Googlers
across the world, I’m curious, what would be the
two or three things that you would want people that
live in a relatively comfortable environment as you
can see here to think about, whether it’s about
the experience you had or misperceptions that
99% of the country has who’s not enlisted or
issues with veterans affairs. But what would be the two
or three bullet points that you would want to
communicate to a wide audience. ELLIOT ACKERMAN: I think
a couple bullet points that I would communicate
about these wars is and the experience of
them is, every time the US has gone to war, it has
been under a certain construct. So the Second World War was
a national mobilization, funded by war bonds. The Vietnam War was a
war typified by sort of the draft and conscription. These wars have been fought
with an all volunteer military and funded largely
through deficit spending. And that construct
that we put in place has made it so unless
you are in the military, you don’t really feel the war. And it’s led to
a system where we have wars that can perpetuate. There’s a discussion
right now, a debate about whether or not we’re going
to be putting troops back into Iraq to fight ISIS. And for most people
it’s a debate that’s completely ancillary
to their personal lives because if you’re not
affiliated with the military, you don’t have to
feel that pain. And I don’t know, if
that’s the new framework, we’re probably going to have
wars that go on a lot longer. We probably won’t feel
the wars in the same way. Is that the type of
country we want to live in? Is that how we think we want to
be projecting ourselves abroad? I’m not going to sit here
and claim that I necessarily have that answer. But I think it’s
something that’s going on beneath the surface
that many Americans might not be recognizing, is how
we’ve sort of transformed. And how we project force says
a lot about us as a country. And it’s a conversation, I
think, that’s worth having. So I don’t know if that was
two or three sharp PowerPoint bullets, but it’s something
I think about a lot. BEN BOYD: We can get two
more before the meeting this afternoon. ELLIOT ACKERMAN:
OK, you let me know. BEN BOYD: Well, great. So I’m going to pose
the final question and open it back up to
you to cover anything that you think we
might not have touched on that you think the book
could be a good vehicle to communicate. ELLIOT ACKERMAN: I
hate that question. BEN BOYD: You don’t
like fast balls. That’s what we’re throwing here. ELLIOT ACKERMAN: What
we haven’t talked about. I believe in books. I think books matter. I think as much as the world
has gone more to YouTube and has gone to film and
gone to other things, I think that books matter. And I think that there’s
a lot of great literature that has come out
about these wars and that I know is coming
out on the horizon. And I hope people read it. And I feel like they are. I think that’s a
good thing and that’s happened kind of
for each generation. BEN BOYD: Elliot,
sir, much appreciated. Absolute pleasure. ELLIOT ACKERMAN: Pleasure. [APPLAUSE]

One thought on “Elliot Ackerman: “Green on Blue: A Novel” | Talks at Google

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *