Fiction can reveal important truths and the truths in Eliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue will make you despair of any positive outcome to our war in Afghanistan. That is perhaps evident in the title recalling the murder of blue (American) soldiers by green (Afghani) allies. But, how many of it were hoping for anything better than repeating our “peace with honor” withdrawal from Vietnam?
Meanwhile Ackerman boldly, some might say presumptuously, writes in the voice of a young Afghani boy named Aziz. He and his family live a poor but happy life in a small village until a militia comes through and his parents are killed. He and his older brother Ali head off to a larger town to try to earn a living. They are scraping by, his brother working hard so Aziz can study and get ahead.
Tragically, a bomb explodes in the market injuring Ali. Aziz brings him to the hospital where he is promised Ali will get good care so long as Aziz joins a US-back militia. Having little choice, the scholar turns soldier and that brings us to the heart of the book.
Aziz and his fellows go through a rough-and-ready form of basic training and are soon in active duty under the leadership of Commander Sabir, a rough and brutal officer who inspires fear and admiration. Their foe is the Taliban leader Gazan, the man behind the bombing that injured his brother.
This means Aziz can seek badal–an Afghani concept that the English word revenge is incapable of encompassing. It is not just revenge, it is also honor and manliness, the whole essence of being a man is tied up in badal. While an eye for an eye may make the whole world blind, they will still have their manhood.
Things are more complicated, though, than they first appear and sometimes combatants do not want victory, not if it means ending self-destroying cycle of badal or cutting of the flow of American dollars and weapons.
For action lovers, there is a lot of action. The story is sometimes breathtaking in its heedless rush toward…what? While Green on Blue is rich in detail and action, resolution is going to be hard to find and that is the ultimate truth. There is no easy answer for us in Afghanistan and Green on Blue makes it clear why that is so.
This is an excellent book. I was tempted to give it 5 stars because I want everyone to read it, but it is not one of those rare, unforgettable books. Ackerman does not do a great job of putting us in place in Afghanistan, we don’t feel the cold when they are out setting up an ambush in the mountains. We also don’t get much emotional depth or expression between the brothers. The writing is spare and disciplined, always moving forward when sometimes it should linger. Overall, though, it is an important novel with the well-informed insight of someone who has been there.