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Former U.S. Marine-Turned-Writer Returns To Iraq Over A Decade Later


Elliot Ackerman is a decorated Marine who now makes a living as a writer. He fought in Iraq with the Marines and the Special Forces, and he recently went back to Iraq on assignment for Esquire magazine. He spent time with Iraqi counterterrorism forces who are fighting to retake Mosul from ISIS. These troops have been trained by the U.S. They're well-equipped, and they are supposed to represent all of Iraq. But Ackerman says that's not how it looked to him.

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: From the back of their Humvees, you know, they're flying the Shia flags as they go towards Mosul. You know, and these are the supposedly secular forces that are - you're not supposed to be participating in any of the sectarian violence.

You know, in the West, when we think of the Islamic State, I think what's first and foremost in our consciousness are these terrorist attacks, whether it's Paris or the Istanbul airport or the cells that have operated in the United States. But when you're on the ground in Iraq, what's really evident is that, you know, this is a Sunni-versus-Shia fight. And the Sunnis are represented by the Islamic State. And brutal as they are, a lot of everyday Sunnis are sort of withholding judgment to see what it's going to be like under the Iraqi security forces.

And when the supposedly nonsectarian security forces come in flying Shiite banners, you know, it certainly sends the wrong message. And it's probably in the long run going to make work more difficult for the Iraqi security forces in securing Mosul and winning over the support of the Sunni population there.

MCEVERS: You also went back to Fallujah. That's a place where you fought in what's called the second battle for Fallujah in late 2004. Fallujah has now gone through its fourth major battle. Iraqi forces have routed ISIS out of that city. What's it like now?

ACKERMAN: Well, progress in Fallujah has been very slow. Only about a quarter of the population has come back to the city, and there's still no water in the city. There's no power. There's no sanitation. So the people who are there basically bring in their own potable water, and they're living off of generators. So if Fallujah is any predictor of what the rebuilding of a Mosul is like, you know, there are significant challenges ahead.

MCEVERS: What was it like for you to be back there?

ACKERMAN: You know, I mean I have a lot of memories having fought in that battle. And I wanted to visit a couple of key places, particularly where some friends had been killed. You know, the thing that was most striking to me is that in some respects, absolutely nothing had changed.

You know, I remember standing on a rooftop that I - the platoon I was with - we wound up fighting basically a 12-hour firefight from this rooftop, and a number of us were hurt. And I was looking down, standing there today, looking down at that rooftop, and there was a very small cinderblock wall that formed a corner probably only four or five cinder blocks tall. And I remember when we ran out of this house in the middle of this firefight crouching down behind those five little cinder blocks.

And I've thought about that day, to be honest, probably almost every day since it happened. And then coming back and looking at those five little cinder blocks and they haven't moved - you know, it sort of causes you to reflect on how much can change in your life and how absolutely nothing can change in these places that are so significant to you.

MCEVERS: The United States invaded Iraq in 2003. We've been going to this place and - or talking about this place for 13 years now. I mean how many more years do you think Americans are going to be involved in Iraq?

ACKERMAN: I wish I had an answer to that question. You know, I mean, you know, as much as the conflict that we're seeing in Iraq and Syria right now, you know, is really sort of a - it is an existential crisis for, you know, what is the future of Islam, what is the future of the Middle East? But I think what often gets missed - it's also a somewhat existential crisis for how the U.S. and in particular the U.S. military is engaged in the world.

A war of this length in our country is without precedent. You know, the way we're fighting it is without precedent, you know, with an all-volunteer army and for many of the years in the past through deficit spending so no one spends more taxes.

You know, so I hope as we go forward, you know, as a country, we can start asking ourselves questions. You know, is this the way we want to fight our wars? Are these wars we even want to fight? You know, what are the implications going forward in terms of perhaps the moral hazard we run if we keep outsourcing these wars to a very small sliver of our society?

MCEVERS: Elliot Ackerman is a decorated Marine who is now a writer. He returned to Iraq this month on assignment for Esquire magazine. Thank you very much.

ACKERMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.