Does Ackerman really think Abed’s grass-roots Syrian movement parallels the United States’ ocean-crossing, false-pretext invasion of Iraq? I doubt it, based on the other things he writes. And whose “democratic ideals” were at work in Iraq — American grunts’? Decision makers’? Ackerman doesn’t clarify.
Mostly, though, he deftly evokes resonances and contrasts. As Syrians process their war, he processes his. He seeks out old comforts to recapture a sense of safety (in his case, skateboarding). He metabolizes death differently when he first witnesses it as a parent, “with the same eyes that looked at my daughter.” He recalls shaving his beard after combat to reveal a self both new and old, like a rebel fighter I once saw leaving Syria with a tanned face and a pale, newly exposed chin.
He meets a self-described jihadi, Abu Hassar, who fought Americans like him in Iraq. Across the language barrier, they pore over a map of Iraq, tracing “places and names” they both know: Haditha, Hit, Falluja. They share, as does Abed, the irreplaceably intense feeling — through the ups and downs of what began as a greater enterprise — that you would do anything for your comrades.
Like a trail of bread crumbs pointing to a destination it doesn’t quite reach, Ackerman’s account offers clues to the complex relation between his wars and Syria’s. It’s not just that his Iraq mission was ill conceived and, unlike Abed’s homegrown revolution, a foreign adventure. The Iraq war was precisely the reason the United States had such a poor hand to play in Syria, and the American “wake of destruction” set the stage for the Islamic State’s takeover of swaths of Iraq and Syria.
But Ackerman’s business is “show, don’t tell”; rather than declare these points, he reveals some in snatches of conversation. He tells the jihadi the Iraq war was “a bad idea,” though he felt compelled to join. As President Obama weighed striking Syrian government forces after a 2013 chemical attack, a veteran tells Ackerman that if Marines were sent to Syria, he’d protest the way John Kerry did over Vietnam, but “on the other hand, someone’s got to stop what’s going on over there.” Ackerman touches on Iraq hangover as a factor holding Obama back.
A year later, when the Islamic State takes over Falluja and veterans ask, “Was it all a waste?,” Ackerman can’t engage his emotions. “Instead,” he writes, “a memory”: gearing up for Falluja, the stillness inside the armored vehicle, and then, “the back ramp drops.” He is in combat, as if it were today.
This episode, the defining horror and high point of his life, is detailed again in the last chapter, a recognition that it can’t really be integrated into narrative or analysis. He interrupts the orderly official praise of his Silver Star citation with his chaotic impressions at each moment: memories of comrades who died, he believes, in his place; the strangeness of enemy fighters up close; the admission, startling from a Marine, that “when we killed them it felt like murder.” We are left with the puzzle of how he and others — Americans, Syrians, Iraqis — can function, sometimes heroically, amid such terror.