Guest author and U.S. Navy veteran Brandon Caro reviews Elliot Ackerman’s newly released novel, Green on Blue.
There are two ways in which our new generation of war veteran authors are evaluated by their peers. I know this, because I am one of them.
First off, we want to know about the grit. Did they see combat? How much or how little? Was he a rear echelon guy or infantry or special forces? Did he deploy to both theaters of conflict, Iraq and Afghanistan, or to just one or the other? Did he win any awards? If so, what were they?
Secondly, and more importantly, we want to know if they can write. Does he possess the acumen to recreate visualizations of far flung places and austere living conditions? Does she understand about character development, dramatic tension, irony? Are they able to effectively bring the non-veteran reader into the situation without weighing down the prose too much with jargon and acronyms that require explanation?
Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, in the aggregate, are not an erudite bunch. It is rare to encounter that unique combination of both significant combat experience and literary capacity.
But Elliot Ackerman, with his Silver Star from the Battle of Fallujah and subsequent Bronze Star for Valor from multiple deployments with Marine Corps Special Operations Command (MARSOC) to Afghanistan–not to mention his brief tenure as a CIA Tactical Case Officer–coupled with his powerful debut novel, Green on Blue, appears to be the genuine article.
Ackerman’s novel is an outlier among the fresh crop of OEF/OIF veteran works of fiction (Phil Klay’s Redeployment and Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds) in that it is told from the perspective of the enemy; in this case, an Afghan National Army soldier gone rogue.
Our protagonist, Aziz, is conscripted into the ANA’s Special Lashkar unit in order to pay for his brother’s hospital bill while he convalesces from a lower extremity amputation caused by a mortar strike on their village. In accordance with Pashtunwali, the code of ethics for Aziz’s people, the Pashtuns, he has sworn to take badal (revenge) for his brother’s injury and restore his family’s nang (honor). Rumor has it that the Taliban warlord Gazan is responsible.
The narrative moves quickly and mercilessly through Aziz’s recruitment and training process, to his first combat mission and his first blood. We learn that Commander Sabrir, leader of the Special Lashkar, is intent on establishing a firebase in the distant village of Gomal. However, when the village elders come together for a shura to discuss the proposition, one of them, Atal, expresses concern that a firebase will only bring the war closer to home for them and they want no part of it. Commander Sabrir tries to persuade the elders that a firebase will keep the village safe from Gazan’s mortar attacks, but he is overruled.
The firebase means construction contracts and construction contracts mean money. American money. Mr. Jack, an American advisor who makes fleeting appearances and seems to be in business separately with all the different players, is the one with the money.
If there’s one point that Green on Blue drives home with unparalleled clarity, it’s that no two parties are on the same page. There are schemes, betrayals and double crosses, all of which are both surprising and unsurprising.
The title, Green on Blue, takes its name from a strike tactic in which a trainee–in this case, a member of the Afghan Security Forces–turns his weapon on his advisor, usually an American or Coalition Forces service member. The attacks are particularly corrosive to the overall mission of training the Afghans to take total control of the fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda because they undermine trust between mentor and protege. Ackerman reminds us constantly that trust is not a thing that should be given or received lightly, especially in wartime Afghanistan.
The voice Ackerman employs is that of a non-native English speaker. This affected prose style makes it easy for the reader to sink down into the boots of a young Pashtun warrior on a quest for badal, as the plot thickens and perceived enemies become strange bedfellows.
Militants accused men of being informants and beheaded them in front of their families. Americans accused men of being militants and disappeared them in the night on helicopters. The militants fought to protect us from the Americans and the Americans fought to protect us from the militants, and being so protected, life was very dangerous.
Ethical ambiguities abound; Green on Blue’s moral complexity is its greatest asset.
The compassion Ackerman displays for his subject is curious given his background as a leader of Marines–a position in which the supremacy of American life on the battlefield must be observed at all costs. It is not the virtue of a warrior to consider his enemy’s plight. But Ackerman, a decorated warrior, has drafted a world in which the reader has little choice but to experience the humiliation, marginalization and contempt which have defined Aziz’s life for as long as he can remember; to empathize with the enemy.
My reading was biased, however. As a former advisor to the Afghan National Army, myself, and an 8404 Fleet Marine Force Navy Corpsman (combat medic), I also believe inherently in the supremacy of American life on the battlefield, and am, hence, unable to empathize with any perpetrator of a Green on Blue.
War is not simple, things are not as they seem. More will be revealed, and each new revelation will reinforce these basic truths. Elliot Ackerman’s novel Green on Blue forces us to look at the other side of the coin, and to confront the unpleasant nature of our own prejudice.
Brandon Caro served as a Navy corpsman (combat medic) in Afghanistan from November 2006 to November 2007. A resident of Brooklyn, he is finishing his first novel, which is based on his experiences in Afghanistan.