Green on Blue by Elliot Ackerman, review by Bruce Jacobs
In Green on Blue (a military expression describing a "friendly" attack), a debut novel, former Marine Elliot Ackerman tells the story of the ongoing war in Afghanistan from a point of view Americans aren't accustomed to, setting his tale in the rugged mountains and small villages of Afghanistan where conflict of one sort or another is an intrinsic part of the historical fabric of the country's largely Pashtun culture. Ackerman, a contributor to the New Yorker and the Atlantic, served multiple tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the only G.I. in his first novel is the Pashto-speaking officer known as Mr. Jack who appears in his big black HiLux truck to supply commandos with money, guns and Jim Beam.
The story is told by Aziz Iqtbal, a young Afghan whose parents are killed in a Haqqani raid on their village and who, five years later, watches his brother lose his legs in a Taliban mortar attack. Without money or family, Aziz is recruited by notorious warlord Commander Sabir with the promise that by joining his regiment Aziz can fulfill the Pashtunwali code of nang and badal (honor and revenge--Ackerman effectively uses these and other Pashto words without direct translation). The U.S. invasion is no surprise to Sabir. He understands the need for U.S. badal and is happy to take all the money and weapons that pour in. For young Aziz, however, the "war on terror" means nothing. He only wants to avenge his brother's suffering, maintain family honor and go to bed each night with a full stomach. But he soon learns that retribution and satisfaction are not so simple. The United States' money goes to Sabir, who shares it with his Taliban opponent. As Sabir reminds Aziz, the fighting can never stop, for then the money would stop: "What happens if our war ends?... The Americans will no longer need us. How do we survive then?"
Ackerman doesn't take sides. Rather, with Hemingway-like restraint, he describes how one young Afghan's struggle to live an honorable life succumbs to historical forces that turn him into a lifelong soldier. It doesn't matter if the enemy is Russia, the United States or another warlord across the valley. Aziz accepts his fate: "As I thought of all the ways one could be killed.... I couldn't think of a single way to die which wasn't a green on blue."
Bruce Jacobs's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.