"Right now the Middle East is in the midst of an existential crisis — a fundamental reordering of a type that comes across every few centuries in parts of the world," says reporter, veteran, and novelist Elliot Ackerman. He would know. After witnessing the liberation of Mosul in Iraq, the struggles of Kabul during his deployment to Afghanistan, and most recently the conflict on the border between Syria and Turkey as a working journalist, he has seen first-hand what it looks like for revolutions to go to pieces. We spoke to Ackerman about his observations of the Syrian civil war, his perspective on U.S. politics, and his new novel, Dark at the Crossing, which is set on the Syrian-Turkish border.
What do you make of the current political mood in the U.S.?
Why are we all so terrified right now? I think it’s the very obvious product of an incredibly divisive election. Regardless of your politics, the tactics employed by both sides were, I think, very aggressive fear tactics. When you ratchet up all the rhetoric, it’s very effective in getting people to support you because they are afraid of what’s going to happen if you don’t win. I think that as long as our politics are occupying that emotional space, our country is really in a position of hazard. To me, my number one political concern is that single emotional phenomena in American political life, as opposed to one specific issue. Is this how we’re going to run our politics from now on, with extreme levels of fear baiting? They do it in other countries. They do it all around the world, and it doesn't end well.
With your military background, what does Trump’s picking so many retired generals for his administration indicate?
General Mattis was my division commander when I was a Marine in 2004. General Kelly's son who was killed was in my same infantry battalion. I only say those things to bring up that I have familiarity with some of those folks and their reputations, and they’re really high-quality people. I don’t think there’s a huge concern that that’s going to lead to military junta. I think the larger concern is why are we seeing so many? What’s concerning to me is what does this say about Trump that he, being a non-military man, is so eager to bring these military men in close to him? What does it say about how he wishes he was perceived?
The Saudis have poured billions into the conflict in Syria, yet they’ve accepted zero refugees, and we’re not doing much better.
How does the shifting U.S. political environment impact the Middle East?
The Middle East is in the midst of an existential crisis on what the political, religious, and cultural future of the region is going to be. Frankly, one thing that is very clear when you’re operating in that part of the world is the U.S. is a side player. We are not the ones who are going to answer these questions. They’re profound questions, and the people who live in that part of the world are going to have to answer them for themselves. We obviously have interests, and I think it’s smart for the U.S. to try to clearly articulate what those interests are and adopt policies that support those interests, but any belief that the U.S. is going to adopt a policy that will solve these problems in Syria, Iraq, Iran, Turkey — the list goes on — is foolish.
What looks likely for the future of Syria?
I think the reality is much of the highest educated, skilled Syrians are now outside of Syria. Many of them will never be coming back. That’s not good for the future of Syria. What does that mean to Europe and the world as we assimilate these people? What are the moral obligations of all these countries to assimilate these people? Obviously, there’s a lot of political tension around those questions. In Europe they’re changing the demographics of countries, and for many of those countries it’s not encoded into their national DNA that their entire ideology is framed around accepting immigrants and being a home for immigrants.
I was a Marine officer, I fought in Iraq, I fought in Afghanistan. We went out with all these great intentions and it all failed and led to all this violence and all this destruction.
It’s also telling that the countries that have played the most active role in fighting this war by proxy, whether it be the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Russia, Iran, are the countries that have taken the least number of refugees. The Saudis have poured billions into the conflict in Syria, yet they’ve accepted zero refugees, and we’re not doing much better.
In writing about the Syrian civil war, what have you seen about human psychology in times of conflict?
The book (Dark at the Crossing, out 1/24) is dedicated to a friend of mine named Abed, who was an activist in the revolution’s early days. He was very involved, and then the regime came after him to try to arrest him. He had to leave the country. He knows that he’s never going back. When we met he was somewhat fresh out of Syria. We’d have conversations over dinner, and at the beginning he’d be arguing to me, “If the U.S. would just intervene and support the Free Syrian Army, it could still turn the tide of this conflict and win and you’d have a secular Syrian state without Bashar al-Assad.” By the end of dinner, he’d be sitting there saying, “I regret it all. I wish I’d never gone out on the streets. I wish I’d never protested. I’ve destroyed my own home.”
He was ideologically dispossessed. He was a young political activist who had come of age in a country with a repressive regime where there was no political freedom, no freedom of speech, and he and his colleagues had gone out on the streets and launched nonviolent protests for democratic reforms. How can you disagree with that? Those series of actions led to his entire country being destroyed and his family being broken up. The ideology that he went into the streets with was basically torn to shreds, as well-meaning as it was.
It caused me to think of my own life and career. I was a Marine officer, I fought in Iraq, I fought in Afghanistan. We went out with all these great intentions and it all failed and led to all this violence and all this destruction. The fallout of that ideological dispossession is an emotional journey I felt really familiar with. When you see people at these emotional extremes, it’s not just seeing people in dramatic specific moments of crises. It’s seeing how these really large global events echo though people’s lives.