Eleanor Wachtel in conversation with ex-Marine Elliot Ackerman about grief and modern warfare

WaitingForEden

Elliot Ackerman is a novelist and an ex-Marine who was an active duty officer for eight years, including five tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. He also spent three years as a journalist in Syria, covering that country’s civil war.

Recently I listened to his interview with Eleanor Wachtel on CBC’s Writers & Company, where he talked about his latest novel, Waiting for Eden. Novelists can reach people like me who aren’t always well-informed about current political events, because they present these events at a personal level; that is, they appeal to readers’ desire for characters and their stories. In this way a huge, often faraway event can be made real.

Wachtel’s entire interview with Ackerman was hugely moving, but the part that got me hooked—because it was heartbreaking—was the five-minute reading Ackerman gave from Waiting for Eden.

The passage he read is written from the point of view of a young, inexperienced nurse who is working at a veterans’ hospital. It is Christmas Day, and she is alone on duty on the floor where an injured soldier, sent back from Afghanistan three years earlier, is being tended. This man, Eden—reduced from a 220-pound soldier to a 70-pound multiple amputee—also has terrible burns and can’t speak or hear. None of the doctors expect him to survive.

The nurse is at her desk monitoring Eden’s vital signs. It seems awful to her that he’s lying there, not being allowed to die. She doesn’t plan to go to his room. She doesn’t want to see that being in the bed that she can’t think of as either living or dead.

However, at some point, “knowing she was spending her Christmas with him, and his with her, and that this might be his last Christmas,” she is compelled to go to him. She unplugs the small Christmas tree from her desk (it’s a tree with lights, like the ones Snoopy put on his doghouse) and takes it with her to Eden’s room.

When she first goes in, she looks around him, not at him. But when she opens the blinds, she can see him in a way she hadn’t before. She can see “. . . the white of his linens, the little pink stains where pieces of him had stuck against them . . . the great hollows of his wounds . . . ” The intricate, awful details continue, and Elliot closes the description with this: “His eyes blinked at her, unprotected by lashes, and she could see where they were rheumy without rest and soapy with pain, and how they teared against his pillow, always.”

I felt as though I could scarcely bear what I heard in this five-minute reading, yet Ackerman’s writing was so exquisite I knew I had to read the book.

As a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Ackerman had much to say about the reasons why these wars go on and on. He spoke about what he sees as the role of the American military in international wars. Also, he spoke frankly about his personal motivation to participate in a war—and what he’s come to learn about the nature of grief.

Commenting on the seventeen years of  war in Afghanistan, and the even longer Vietnam War, Ackerman said that wars are “shape-shifting entities”—they don’t usually continue for the same reasons they were begun. According to Ackerman, American leaders as far back as Kennedy knew the Vietnam War couldn’t be won, yet they kept it going for both domestic and international political reasons.

Then there is the role of grief in maintaining wars. As a journalist, Ackerman understood the Syrians’ desire for democratic reforms. They believed their cause was undeniably a good one, so their protests had to have a positive outcome. Instead, their country was destroyed. Elliot says, “You have people who have lost so much—they can just never be made whole. And that will keep a war going for a long, long time.”

Return to Eden is largely an examination of the nature of grief. Ackerman talked about the “narrative arc of grief”—that it’s a process we move through, and we eventually get over things. He said it’s just not true. Sometimes we just keep enduring the loss. Waiting. Waiting as Eden does in the hospital, as his wife Mary does in “holding faith” with Eden.

Part of the interview was about Ackerman’s background—he lived with his family in London between the ages of nine and fifteen, and he believes this gave him a “slant” view of what being an American means. Wachtel was subtly questioning whether it is possible to be proud of being an American in today’s political climate. But Ackerman’s response was firmly idealistic.

He still believes there is a “responsibility that comes with being an American. He said, “We’re a nation that all aspires to a collective ideal. We’re all immigrants. We all come here because we opt into this ideal of what it means to be an American.” According to Ackerman, the American ideal is to strive for perfection, to strive for a “more perfect union,” even though the ideal is never realized. He said that when people ask what it’s like to be an American, what they’re really asking is what it’s like to live in a society that’s idea-based as opposed to race-based or ethnically-based.

What kept him motivated when he was still on active duty? Ackerman said that when it comes to specific wars, people like himself are motivated to fight for personal reasons, not ideological ones. “I’m a Marine, it’s my job. I’m taking care of my buddies.”

Yet he has never stopped thinking about the reasons for wars, and the morality of them. He spoke passionately about what he sees as the moral hazard in modern wars. Why are wars so difficult to end? As mentioned above, it’s partly because of the grief and losses that the populations involved have endured. But it’s also because of the “outsiders” who are trying to intervene—including the US. The American military is fighting, but the American people as a whole are not engaged with the wars the US is fighting. These wars are fought solely by volunteers and funded by deficit spending. There is no incentive for the country as a whole to discuss the morality and financial aspects of war.

Ackerman mentioned “a modest proposal” he’s written about: he would like to see an American military where ten percent of the combat units would be draftees. Critically, these draftees would come solely from families in the US who file in the top income tax bracket. Ackerman knows this would never happen; yet his point is that if the wealthy elite segment of the American population had a personal interest in the overseas wars their military fights, politicians would have incentives for ending them.

War has influenced Ackerman’s views of both luck and grief. He commented that many people see their luck as something that is preordained. He sees luck as a totally random thing whose role is underrated. He described being shot at—and missed—and said that made the nature of luck very clear to him.

As for grief, he said it was the birth of his daughter that made him understand the enormity of personal loss. When Wachtel questioned him about why he left the military, he said a major reason was to be with his daughter. But also, he felt it was time to have a new purpose in life, and for him that meant writing novels.

Was it difficult for Ackerman to leave the military? He said, “You have to find another purpose. In life, we all derive our happiness from a sense of purpose.” He went on to say, “In the military there is a very clear and intense sense of purpose. . .  you see this with a lot of athletes, artists who’ve achieved early success—anyone who’s been up to the summit—you have to then reckon with the descent.”

To me, these words were inspiring. They reminded me that we can all be multi-faceted. We can embrace change, find a new purpose, and have the courage to believe we can reinvent ourselves.

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