Although a veteran of several combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Elliot Ackerman departs from expectation in his debut novel, “Green on Blue.” Rather than tell us a camouflaged version of his time as a Marine, he delivers this story as a young, orphaned Afghan named Aziz.
“I am Ali’s brother.” That short line on the first page defines Aziz and his choices. That relationship is the only true bond that survives his tale of continuous betrayals. When Ali is crippled by a bomb, Aziz is recruited into soldiering in exchange for his brother’s medical care and the promise of vengeance. He is flown to a valley where the only business is war, America’s distant attempt to engineer peace there serving only to manufacture violence.
“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,” Aziz tells us.
Two Pashto words, “nang” (honor) and “badal” (vengeance), are repeated in the book, but these motivations are slowly bled of any true zeal. This is a story about survival in a starved land that requires physical opponents to maintain its sorrows and feed its hungers.
“Green on Blue” is written almost as an allegory, and its symbols can feel heavy: a goldfish trapped in a bowl, fed by an Afghan commander who, in turn, awaits fish food from an American; a magpie made to sing by soldiers striking its cage. The story is a game of single, representative characters, each one constant, defined by dependency of one kind or another. And we are dependent on Aziz.
There is only one point of view, and this absolute confinement to the narrator’s voice and perspective is Ackerman’s most important commitment. He never breaks this rule, and he keeps the novel uncluttered by information, history or description. He writes as if Aziz had simply kept a diary — no quotation marks and no leaps into the past or views into the future. In a life shaved to bare essentials, Aziz tells his story without embellishment. We see what he sees, know what he knows, all of it framed in his plain language. This is a work of observation by a narrator who is paying attention. The other characters are explored only by his witness, allowing us to be repeatedly surprised as events unfold.
The story reads quickly, and comparisons can be drawn with “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and even “Slumdog Millionaire.” The tale is spare, unsophisticated and simple, despite its exploration of a complex conflict. Unlike memoir or fiction stenciled from experience from an American point of view, Ackerman explores the war with alterity by dressing himself as “the other.” The result is a work of imagination based on empathetic respect. He’s mapping causality. An Afghan commander explains: “Ask them why they’re still here, fighting. The war sustains us. It can be a life.”
The story is told as though it’s intended mostly for other Afghans or for readers who already understand Afghanistan well enough to need little more than the draw of what happens next. While most American writing about the desert wars explores the U.S. experience, Ackerman may be the first to devote his work to seeing beyond himself. He makes his perspective the least important one. He is, in this way, a storyteller like any in the Afghan mountains, his authority as a Marine veteran given away in favor of empathy for the people beside and against whom he fought. He invites us to sit by the fire with Aziz and hear what his people aren’t able to say in our books about them.
Busch is the author of the memoir “Dust to Dust.” On Monday at 7 p.m., Elliot Ackerman will be at Politics & Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington.