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Green on Blue by Elliot Ackerman
A few years ago, Ben Fountain helped to start a phenomenon. His excellent novel Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk was one of the first novels to explore the war in Iraq through literature. Since then, a drumbeat of great novels about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has followed, many of them written by soldiers from those wars. One of the latest is Green on Blue by Elliot Ackerman, who served five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan and is the recipient of the Silver Star, the Bronze Star for Valor, and the Purple Heart.
Here, Ben Fountain offers his impressions of Ackerman's new novel:
"The militants fought to protect us from the Americans," says Aziz, the young Afghan narrator of Green on Blue, "and the Americans fought to protect us from the militants, and being so protected, life was very dangerous." Aziz would know better than many: first he loses his parents and his home to the war, then his cherished older brother is left permanently disabled by a bombing, a chain of events that leads Aziz to join the Special Lashkar, an indigenous army sponsored by the Americans to combat insurgents in the Afghan countryside. And so begins Aziz’s life as a soldier in a savage, complex war where the requisites of nang and badal honor and revenge, sometimes serve, and at other times clash with, the larger goals of the Americans and their Afghan allies and enemies.
War: one could do worse than define it as the collision of chaos theory with the law of unintended consequences. Aziz discovers that what he wants from the war isn’t nearly so simple and pure as it once seemed, and indeed, the war itself is gradually revealed to be ghabban, a racket, with the blond-haired, blue-eyed American soldier “Mr. Jack” providing the money and arms that keep the whole bloody business going. “Some wars only feed themselves,” says Atal, the sometime enemy, sometime ally of Aziz. “They cannot be won, only starved.”
If we want to understand anything about this war we’ve been fighting for thirteen years--a war that keeps spinning off greater and greater chaos, and more black consequence than even the most cynical pacifist might have predicted--then Ackerman’s unflinching novel is an excellent place to start. Part of the genius of this book is the sheer power of the storytelling, thanks to the immersive effect of Aziz’s voice and the keenness with which he observes and ponders all that comes his way. What we witness in Aziz is the wisdom of the survivor: clear-eyed, stony, unsparing. But perhaps the greater part of this novel’s genius lies in the grinding, almost inevitable logic of Aziz’s ultimate act, the fatal "green on blue" of the title. How could he do otherwise in a war with "no cause . . . at least none larger than oneself?" All the politicians’ cheerleading of the past thirteen years, the p.r., the fine and pious phrases that seek to sanitize the shedding of more and more blood, are shown for the fraud they are by the truths of Elliot Ackerman’s extraordinary novel.