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A former Marine details the chaotic exit from Afghanistan — and how we should mark it

This handout image shows a Marine passing out water to evacuees during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 22.
U.S. Central Command Public Affairs
This handout image shows a Marine passing out water to evacuees during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 22.

It's been almost a year since the Taliban took over Afghanistan again and the U.S. military pulled out of the country.

As the withdrawal unfolded, Marine Corps veteran Elliot Ackerman was watching the chaos from a distance. He was on a family vacation in Italy but couldn't tear himself away from what was happening.

Ackerman had deployed to Afghanistan multiple times. He felt bound to America's Afghan allies, so when the U.S. announced it was leaving and those same Afghans were desperate to get out, he lay awake at night, glued to his phone.

"My entire network was lighting up and it had become quickly a crowdsourced evacuation, with each person playing their part," Ackerman told Morning Edition.

''Some people were trying to raise money for charter flights, other people were arranging the buses that would transport evacuees from various pickup points in Kabul into the airport."

Ackerman was key because he knew Marines who were inside the airport, manning those gates and deciding who could come in and who could not. He writes about this experience in his new book, The Fifth Act: America's End in Afghanistan.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Elliot Ackerman, 41, deployed as a Marine to Afghanistan from 2008 to 2011 and trained Afghan Commando soldiers.
Alyssa Schukar / Alyssa Schukar Photography LLC
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Alyssa Schukar Photography LLC
Elliot Ackerman, 41, deployed as a Marine to Afghanistan from 2008 to 2011 and trained Afghan Commando soldiers.

Interview highlights


On mobilizing to help Afghans evacuate

Everyone was very much focused on the task at hand, because the stakes are obviously very high. You know, you've got the photographs of the people who are trying to get out and their families, [because] these aren't people any of us knew — the only family that I got out who I had a direct personal connection to was my interpreter. He has since moved to the U.S. but his family was still there and we were able to get his family out. But everyone else, these were strangers and they were strangers for most of us. So in that moment, you can't really step away.

But there were certainly little interludes. And my wife, in the book, she almost comes off like a Greek chorus conscience of the book, saying, you know, "Why are you all having to do this? Why are the people who left the wars 10 years ago now being sucked in to try to finish them?"

This image made available to AFP on August 20, 2021 by Human Rights Activist Omar Haidari, shows a U.S. Marine grabbing an infant over a fence of barbed wire during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Aug. 19, 2021.
/ Omar Haidari/AFP
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Omar Haidari/AFP
This image made available to AFP on August 20, 2021 by Human Rights Activist Omar Haidari, shows a U.S. Marine grabbing an infant over a fence of barbed wire during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Aug. 19, 2021.

On how he views America's exit from Afghanistan

I think it was a collapse of American morals that we made these promises and we fell short. It was a collapse of American competence. I mean, listen, despite the heroic efforts of those who were at the airport — and our efforts were truly heroic, so I'm not questioning their competence — but I would question the competence of decision-making that put us into this position where our back was up against a wall with this Aug. 31st withdrawal date that we couldn't seem to move.

It was a collapse of hierarchy, because as the war was ending in those days, I found myself on text chains and phone calls with retired four star generals and admirals, some of whom had commanded the entire war, because no one could get anyone out because of the craziness. And because, for a brief window, the team that I was working with was having some success, we found ourselves serving in this collapsed hierarchy all working together. And that was surreal for me at times.

On how it's impossible to really separate yourself from the experience of war

People have sometimes asked me, "Elliot, how do you think the war's changed you?" and I've never known how to answer that question. Because the war in so many ways made me. I don't know how to unbraid it out of the knots that are me. But the friendships that I have there, the memories that I have from that time, of course I think about and it's the time when I was growing up. I mean, I grew up there in the war.

I entered the service and started that training pipeline at 17 years old. And as you see in the book, those friendships have projected out because as Kabul was falling, so many of the people I'm working with, these are folks who've also transitioned. They've ended the wars themselves and we're all still friends.

A group of military families and veterans watch President Joe Biden's speech announcing that all troops are out of Afghanistan, on Aug. 31, 2021 in Long Beach California.
Apu Gomes / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
A group of military families and veterans watch President Joe Biden's speech announcing that all troops are out of Afghanistan, on Aug. 31, 2021 in Long Beach California.

On what an appropriate memorial would look like to these particular American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq

I started thinking about it with regards to the recent passage of the Global War on Terrorism Memorial Location Act, which has gone through Congress to authorize a memorial to these wars. But the global war on terrorism isn't over yet, so it's actually interesting.

For the first time as a country, we will be trying to make a memorial to a war that we are still technically fighting. But it got me thinking, how would you make a memorial to a forever war? And that got me thinking, well maybe what would be more appropriate instead of erecting all these memorials upward, maybe we should dig downward, kind of like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

And I imagined a war memorial that would look almost like the sloping granite rock, sort of descending downward conically like something from Dante, and we would get rid of all the memorials to each specific war and we would just have one American War Memorial.

Ackerman's book, <em>The Fifth Act: America's End in Afghanistan</em>.
/ Penguin Random House
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Penguin Random House
Ackerman's book, The Fifth Act: America's End in Afghanistan.

It would begin with the names, the first being Crispus Attucks, who was killed at the Boston Massacre. And we would just list them all chronologically digging ourselves deeper and deeper and deeper. So we have more than a million war dead at this point in our country's history. And every time we fund a new war, we just add the names going down and down into the earth. And then, in my imagination of this war memorial, when you got to the very last name, there would be a desk and a pen. And Congress would pass a law that before any troop deployment, the president — he or she — would have to come down to the war memorial and that pen would be the only pen that could be used to sign that troop deployments.

They would have to walk by all of the war dead before they would need to do that. And then we wouldn't have to have any more debates about war memorials — we would just know what we did every time we fought a war, we'd just add the names.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.