Beerside Chat -> Places and Names
“He’s got a mission, the same as the other soldiers who have become his close friends. This soldier fights for that mission but also to protect these friends. This is a very potent type of purpose. If purpose is the drug that induces happiness, there are few stronger doses than the wartime experience. The soldier leaves home at a young age and begins taking this strongest drug, in effect freebasing the crystal meth of purpose. But eventually the war ends, the soldier returns home. He must reintegrate into society, find his happiness. Find a new purpose.” This excerpt from Marine veteran-turned-journalist Elliot Ackerman’s latest memoir, “Places and Names,” is simply one of the many profound observations he shares with his readers. Truth Well Brewed’s Book Club discussed this memoir in depth last Wednesday night. Interestingly enough, though, Ackerman returns to Iraq and Afghanistan for five more tours, as if retracing his steps, recalling his shots fired and reliving the Battle of Fallujah, ultimately remembering the places and those names he familiarized himself with, in the hope of shedding light on what his purpose was then and to give new life to that purpose now. Each chapter is a stitch, Ackerman threading his personal story and his wartime journey as a special operations officer, while interweaving his detached, reflective point-of-view. He adds his conversations with Abu Hassar, who fought opposite Ackerman for al-Qaeda, which undoubtedly encourages his readers to think about how they understand why or why not young men and women choose to be a U.S. Marine. TWB Book Club participants singled out Ackerman’s noticing “[a]fter twelve years, everything is unchanged” and his view that “winning battles was never the US military’s problem. The problem was always what came after, the rebuilding.” The group also highlighted Ackerman’s suggestion that combat reveals “a painful paradox.” It is this idea a Marine’s mission comes first to serve, such as succeeding to reach each phase line or each point of advance, before his/her fellow Marines’ lives, otherwise it is a failure: “This is the nature of war. If our lives took precedence, no hill would ever be taken, no building stormed or city seized, because some of us would die achieving this mission. The courage shown by many is essential to that success. It is a courage bred from love, from months spent training together, knowing each other’s families, suffering shoulder to shoulder. Becoming friends. These bonds, fully realized, inspire incredible sacrifice in service of one another. And in service of the mission. Therein lies the paradox.” And, of course, Ackerman’s epilogue is quite the finale, TWB Book Club agreed, a summary on the battle for Fallujah that is worth being reserved for the very end of “Places and Names,” which ends with Ackerman’s stitched thread carefully knotted.