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tv   Elliot Ackerman on Green and Blue  CSPAN  May 17, 2015 4:00pm-4:52pm EDT

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think it was -- but page 23 of our book, a solution right there. price co2. >> if totally agree with you on that. and i've written articles to that effect. i'm with you there. >> there we go. >> but die think we could have a hell of a problem feeding the planet and i also think it's a big mistake to -- it's -- we're the last place that should be increasing its population. >> fair enough. this book lets off climate change and wait a couple years the next book will solve overpopulation and feeding the planet. thank you. [applause] ...
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>> >> elliot ackerman is next on booktv. the decorated afghanistan and iraq war veteran's book is a novel about an afghan boy who joins a u.s.-funded militia following the u.s. invasion. >> so our guest tonight is elliot ackerman. he's a decorated veteran of the united states marine corps and a writer whose work has been
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published in the new yorker, which alone would be an accomplishment for me for the rest of my life. [laughter] the atlantic, time and the new republic, among others: mr. ackerman is also a contributor to the daily beast and a member of the council on foreign relations. he served as white house fellow in the obama administration, and prior to that he spent eight years as both an infantry and special operations officer. he served multiple tours of duty in the middle east and southwest asia. as a marine corps special operations team leader, he operated as a primary combat adviser to a 700-man afghan commando battalion responsible for capture operations against senior taliban leadership. he also head a 75-man platoon that headed relief operations in post-katrina, new orleans. he earned a purple heart in the november 2004 battle of fallujah and a bronze star for valor in afghanistan in 2008. he has earned a master's degree
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in international affairs from the fletcher school of law and diplomacy at tufts where he studied literature and history as well and graduated assume qume laid from there and fee beta kappa in 2003. elliot has completed many of the u.s. military's most challenging toarptions training courses and completed his officer training as the number one second lieutenant ranked out of 200 other marine corps officers. he is the recipient of the wheeler award for infantry excellence and green on blue is his debut novel. and this evening we're very pleased to have him here to discuss it with you. so if he would come forward, please. [applause] >> thanks so much to hopkins for hosting and to the ivy bookstore for supporting this event.
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i'm going to read from the opening of the novel. many would call me a dishonest man, but i've always kept faith with myself. there's an honesty in that, i think. i am ali's brother. we are from a village that no longer exists and our family was not large or prosperous. the war that came after the russians but before the americans killed our parents. of them i have only dim memories. there is my father's kalashnikov hidden in a wood pile by the door, him cleaning it working oiled rags on its parts and the smell of gun metal and feeling safe. there is my mother's secret the one she shared with me. once a month she'd count out my father's earnings from fighting in the mountains or farming. she'd send me and ali from our village to the large bazaar
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which was a two-day walk away. the bazaar sold everything; fine cooking oils and spices, candles to light our home and fabric to repair our clothes. my mother always entrusted me with a special purchase. before we left, she would press an extra coin in my hand one she'd stolen from my father. among the crowded stalls at the bazaar i would slip away from my brother's watchful eye and buy her a pack of cigarettes, a vice forbidden to a woman. when we returned home, i would place the pack in her hiding spot the birchwood cradle where she'd rocked ali and me as infants. our mud-walled house was small two that much-roofed rooms with a courtyard between them. the cradle was kept in the room i shared with ali. my mother would never get rid of the cradle. it was the one thing that was truly hers.
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at night after we'd returned from the bazaar she'd sneak boo our room -- into our room, her small sandaled feet gliding across the carpets that line the dirt floor. her hand was cup a candle its smothered light casting shadows on her young face aging her. her eyes, one brown and the other green, a miracle or defect of birth shifted about the room. carefully, she would lean over the cradle as she'd done before taking us to nurse. she would run her fingers between the blankets that once swaddled my brother and me and, finding the pack i'd left her she'd step into the courtyard, and i'd fall back asleep to the faint smell of her tobacco just past my door. this secret made me feel close to my mother. in the years since, i've wondered why she entrusted me with it. at times i thought it was because i was her favorite, but
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this isn't why. the truth is she recognized in me her own ability to deceive. so that's the opening passage of the novel, and it's the voice of azis the book's protagonist. when i served in afghanistan i served exclusively as an adviser to afghan troops around country. and as an adviser, the afghan troops i was with, you know, we did the things that fighting men have always done, you know? we went on patrol together we bled together, we mourned friends together. but when the war was over and my war buddies weren't a bunch of americans, they were a bunch of afghans, and upon returning home i knew that i would never see them again. they weren't a bunch of guys i could call long distance, keep up with on facebook or even go get quarter beers with at the local vfw. they were trapped in
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afghanistan's elliptical conflict. and i began really writing this book in an effort to try to render their world and really as a last act of friendship as i was reckoning sort of with the grief of knowing that i would never see them again. it's difficult to really say where a novel begins, because i think process of writing there's so much groping in the dark that accompanies with it. as you begin the story, the opening often becomes the middle, your middle becomes your end and your end becomes your beginning. but for me, there was one anecdote from my experience in afghanistan that i always felt was sort of right out of reach. so you know, i'd like to share that with you. there was a fellow who i advised in southeastern afghanistan, his name was commander esok. when i was with him, we lived on a very remote fire base, about
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as big as three football fields wired in with mud walls and concertina. and about once every two weeks esok and i would have what we grandly called the operational planning meeting. and what the operational planning meeting really consisted of was i would go from my plywood hut my hooch basically walk across this dusty fire base over to esok's hooch. i'd open the door and esok had this lumpy sofa. it was actually a love seat. and i would flop down on it, he would sit down next to me. in front of us was a cheap wooden table. he would put on table he'd put down a pot of chai, lay out a pack of smokes and the two of us would recline on the sofa, and we would look at the far wall of the hooch and hanging on it were two things, a map and a calendar. esok would stand up, smoking his cigarette and kind of approach the map. and he knew that part of
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afghanistan better than anyone. he'd been fighting there for almost a decade, and i'd say, so esok, the next couple weeks to fill up, where do you think we should go? and he'd look at the map and the border where we were, and he'd often point to one of the villages right on the worlder and say, you know, mr. elliot we could go to manglatar always very good hunting. i'd say, all right esok, that sounds good. we block out, you know, seven days ten days on our calendar. we would load up the trucks with all of our troopers, you know about 100 120 afghan soldiers and we would drive up to mangritay. 50/50 chance we would get into a fire fight drive back down, fix up the trucks give the troops a day off and inevitably a couple weeks would pass, and i would be wandering out of my hooch across our fire base to esok's for the operational planning meeting.
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swing open his door, i would flop down in the love seat, esok would come over, pot of chai pack of smokes the two of us staring at the map again. so esok well, what do you think we should do next? what's next on the agenda, and he would -- smoking his cigarette -- inevitably look to the next village south and say, well, you know, mr. elliot, always very good hunting in rarakiray. so we would get in the trucks roll on out. in the whole time i worked with esok, you know, the conversation was never, you know, mr. elliot, if we hit them in mangritay and then we go south, we can do one last operation, we can shut the door to the border blocking off the pakistani taliban the war will likely be won, i can go back to my fields, you can go get your master of fine arts, write that novel you keep talking about. you know, it just, it wasn't
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that type of war. and so what type of war was it? and in the book, you know as much as it's a book about character and it's about it's about aziz and his brother ali and the things that aziz does for ali, it's also -- my ambition for the book was to try to render the afghan war in micro, to show some of the paradigms that i saw playing out again and again valley to valley village to village province to province and to try to tell a story that was accessible to people who hadn't spent time in afghanistan. and that would allow them an entry point into a conflict that is incredibly complex and difficult to understand. so in the segment that i read is the opening with aziz talking about his family and his parents and what happens shortly after that passage is azid's parents
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are killed in the time after the soviet occupation, but before the americans invaded. and after they're killed aziz's older brother alley takes him to the nearest large city. and there the two brothers basically survive for four winters working as delivery boys in the bazaar there. and then on that fourth winter, azi, iz's older brother is horribly maimed in a bombing and while az can iz is wandering the corridors of this hospital with no idea how he's going to support his brother he's recruited into the lash car and he goes to fight in the mountains with the deal that his brother will be cared for in the hospital. as aziz goes off to fight to not only support his brother but also to get revenge for what happened to his brother he gets sucked into an increasingly complex and elliptical war, one that eventually he realizes is
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being fought for every reason by the ending -- but the ending of it. and the commander he works for a man named sabir has visions of building an outpost in a village called gamal, and the section i would like to read next is azid -- aziz is sent to gather information in this village, and sabir is plotting how to build this outpost. and when aziz goes to live in this village, he finds himself lodged with an old mujahideen fighter from the '80s, a man named mumtaz, and he lost a great deal in the war. what i'm going to read right now is a little bit of mumtaz's story. when my brother died, he said it was not in the war we thought we fought. we were mujahideen and treated as heroes in this village. our battlefield achievements known by all. earning us honor, honor we
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became greedy for. this led to larger and more daring attackings. when the fighting slowed each winter, we'd grow impatient for it. the russians stayed on their bases, and it was difficult to strike at them. an informant of ours in orgun, a man who ran a trucking company told us in a few nights a russian convoy would pass our village. eager as we were, my brother and i asked few questions. the operation would be simple. after curfew we'd bury a mine in the road, and in the morning -- if the russians didn't show up -- we'd remove it. some days later in the darkness, my brother and i chipped a ditch out of the frozen earth and slid the mine in. we carefully repacked the crumbled soil and went home giving the matter little thought as if we'd planted a tree and casually wondered if it'd grow. we slept soundly, and early the
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following morning before the sun rose we returned to either inspect our kill or to recover the mine. as we walked through the clear, cold air, the snow on the distant hilltops glowed with fire light. the mine had struck, and we approached the road riding on great gusts of enthusiasm. but still our situation was up certain. uncertain. who i knew if the russians had sent anyone to aid their convoy. who knew if we'd come across any manic survivors. these were uncertainties we felt prepared for. we weren't prepared for what we found. as we crested the last ridge and glimpsed our kill we saw only the beginning of our terrible mistake. tilted against its side was the carcass of a great steel beast, the truck. but it wasn't russian, it was civilian and full of lumber that now burned in a pyre sparkling on the snow. we kept our distance but were close enough to feel the fire on
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our faces. we could see the cab and its white paint which curled to scales against the heat. behind the shattered windshield, flames licked out in upright silhouette that burned with the dignity of one who met debt immediately -- death immediately, without pain and shock. and through this absence, seemed strangely alive. i can't say how long we watched the pyre. when we left the sun still hadn't risen. but the silhouette had been consumed. on our journey home, we said nothing and tried to hide in our silence. news of the attack spread through all the families of gomal. the truck had been from our informant's company, and the dead driver had been his employee. several days later my father and our villages were called to a jirga in orgun to settle the matter. the deliberations were short. lasting but two days.
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and my father returned in ruin. the both sides decreed that our father was responsible for our actions and that he must replace the destroyed truck and buy yet another to recoup the damaged cargo. in this our informant made out very well, for the first truck forced us to sell our home and the second wiped out my father's accounts eliminating him as a business competitor and that's when we moved here. so mumtaz's story as old knew ya that deerntion you know, was very similar to, i think, the story of many afghans and the american experience in afghan inso much as oftentimes the war was being fought for a myriad of reasons, none of which had any linkage to the larger objective. and as we think that wars that have gone on in 15 years, we have to the ask the question of why do these wars continue for
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so long. and in this book what i aim to set out towz with -- was to show some of the economies that exist around war. i don't mean necessarily financial economies although those can often be parts of it, but the incentive structures that exist. many of the people who become influential and important in war commanders and such, have been elevated by war itself. so what happens when they've held their station for so long that that the war gives them status, potentially they no longer have strength to sustain the war. that was a theme i was trying to get out through the writing and that's a theme that, obviously, mumtaz gets out to what occurred to him. the book is all told from the perspective of aziz and in the voice of an gavin. and -- an afghan. and it actually wasn't my original intent in writing the book to write it in an afghan
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voice. in the early drafts of the novel, i had a construct where, actually, aziz walked onto a fire base and was telling his story to an american character who never made it into the book at the end of day. and this american character was basically an intelligence officer. and the construct of the book kind of had kind of had a conradian build around it inso much it was like the heart of darkness when marlowe is recounting his story to go visit kurtz. it was aziz telling this story to this american and the rhythm was something i would inevitably be sitting on a fair base, and i could -- fire base, and i could almost set my watch to it. if i were to sit down to do anything, an afghan would show up at my door who has to see me. but the rhythm of those
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discussions where i would basically be sitting across the dressing -- desk from an afghan who claimed to have information that was essential to me, that type of back and forth became almost like a song i could hear even after i came home the banter of those conversations. so i initially wanted to structure the novel that way. but as i was writing it, that framework just wasn't holding up, you know? and i had to ask myself you know, why do i feel the need for aziz to be telling his story to this american. you know, why shouldn't aziz speak directly to the reader? and after wrestling with that question for a while, i realized i had built in that american character as a crutch for me to be able to try to tell aziz's story and that if my goal for the novel was honest, to try to render the war as i thought the afghans saw it, i should try to allow them, allow aziz to speak directly to the reader, you know? and the end product is what you have in front of you. another thing that struck me
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too, and it's struck me since leaving afghanistan, you know, is we think about these wars and how long they've gone on, and as much as again, that was something i was trying to get out in the book, if you think about it, in afghanistan right now there's been nearly 35 years of war. the average life expectancy for an afghan is late 50s early 60s particularly if you live outside kabul in the provinces. so the afghans who are in their late 50s early 60s right now were, you know, late teens, early 20s when the soviets invaded in 1979. so in another ten years by and large, you'll have a large segment of the afghan population that has died off that will be the only segment that can actually remember afghanistan at peace. so what happens when nobody can remember afghanistan at peace? how do you arrive at peace? then the act of arriving there really becomes one of sheer imagination.
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but by that criteria i think we also have to reflect on our own experience as americans in our wars which have now gone on for 15 years, and if they progress much further, the remembering of that peace will become more and more distant. and there's a certain point in the book mumtaz bringing a similar point up to aziz as he's reflecting on his days as a mujahideen. he tells aziz that the future is in the remembering. and that's something i definitely saw amongst my peers who were afghans who were my age, they had no memory of afghanistan at peace. and i think it's a frightening thing that we might soon have no memory of our country at peace. and so with that point, i'd like to read just one final segment, and perhaps we can have some conversation. so this is when aziz first arrives in gomal where he serves
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as an informant. these are his reflections on that village and also on mumtaz's home. the night was cold, and all through it i got up, stepped lightly over mumtaz and threw dried branches into the mouth of the stove. once the last scrap burned out in the fire, a chill set into my legs and woke me. i walked into the compound's dirt courtyard to wait for the dawn. as the early light came, i saw how poor mumtaz was. his home was nothing more than a small coop. the mud room we slept in, and the four walls of the courtyard. a ditch ran beneath one of the walls and out the back. dishes were stacked alongside it. this was the kitchen. past mumtaz's compound were the mountains. though it seemed these never ended, they were not enough to protect the village from the war, but they were enough to preserve its traditions. and even as isolated as the
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village was sprouts of progress had arrived. motorbikes cell phones and a few homemade satellite dishes that perched from rooftops all standing as messengers from other, more modern worlds. but it was a false progress. it measured not movements forward, but the distance we would soon travel backward when the war destroyed everything. so thank you. [applause] >> you say that we are close to a point where the afghans would not know peace because there aren't enough of them around to have experienced peace because of the russians and then the war that's gone on for 35 years. so my question is, number one
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do the afghans deserve to live in peace? and number two -- let me, this is my wife who's telling me what to say. [laughter] and, number two, if the answer is yes then -- and assuming that in 35 years they've always been put upon by other peoples and assuming that this will continue -- what role would united states have to play in trying to bring about that peace and how would you approach it? >> well, first of all, i think, i think everyone deserves to live in peace. that's my humble opinion. you know, in terms of what role the u.s. is going to play in afghanistan i think that the fate of the after a began people and the american -- of the afghan people and the american people have been linked together based off of our involvement in
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that country for the last 14514 years. and -- 14 years. and, you know, i don't suppose to know exactly what a quick two minute policy prescription would be to cure the afghan people of all their woes, but i think that a complete u.s. disengagement from afghanistan would wind up having seriously negative consequences. we saw what happened in 2011 when the u.s. virtually disengaged completely from iraq. so we have models from other wars where the u.s. has left its presence in a way that doesn't necessarily involve committing large numbers of troops to fight but just involves remaining politically engaged and militarily engaged to a certain degree. but i think as long as that type of engagement continues, you know i'm actually optimistic about direction of afghanistan. the people i talk to who are going back there, i left in
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2011, but they're going back there with greater frequency they're actually optimistic that the center is going to hold in afghanistan. but only time will tell. >> [inaudible] status of force. >> status of forces agreement? >> yeah. where you're keeping people there, and it has the flexibility to increase and decrease depending upon the situation on ground? >> sure. i think a s.o.f.a. would be appropriate in afghanistan. i think if you look at all the places where the u.s. has fought wars, europe we've had s.o.f.a.s in those countries for years and years and years and it's worked out well. >> when you had a story in your head and then how you set about making a novel out of it. >> oh, certainly. i wish i could give you like, a very precise answer that showed me as a master craftsman. you know, for me often a story will pop into my head. it could be a first line. i mean, i find myself approaching each project differently. oftentimes i don't know if that
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first short line is nothing, if it's a short story or winds up being an entire novel. you know, in the case of this book, actually the first line of the book was one from this american who i mentioned was originally in the frame, and he in early drafts had the first line of the book. and i very quickly realized that the book was about aziz. so it's a lot of groping in the dark for me. but i think that -- >> did you have to rewrite a great deal? >> i did. i did. writing is rewriting, as has been famously said. [inaudible conversations] >> speaking from, with your experience with the afghani people if you could speak from their perspective, what would be the one thing you think, one dynamic about our involvement there that they would want us to know that you maybe feel has not
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gotten across to the american public during our time there? >> well, you know, first of all i don't claim to speak for the afghan people. i mean, i would never be so presumptuous. i just wanted to tell a story that i thought might resonate with some of my afghan friends and try to tell the war a little bit more from their perspective as opposed to a kind of u.s.-centric narrative. you know, with that being said, you know, one of the themes that the novel really engages with is one of moral relativism. there are i think a lot of issues that we see in the u.s. whether it be corruption or, you know, insider attacks which you know, the novel's named "green on blue." green refers to insider attacks, shorthand for friendly troops, afghan troops, blue so an afghan soldier kills his american adviser. at face value we see them in the media, they're morally
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reprehensible to us as americans. why would someone do that? what drives someone to do that? are they just born innately as an evil person? what is the system that they're operating in that delivers them so feeling as though embezzling money or killing an american adviser is the only choice offered to them? and the ambition of the novel really is to take one of these green on blue attacks and sort of peel it all the way back. so by the time -- not a real spoiler alert -- but by the time the green on blue takes place you know, the reader you might not agree with the action, but at least you're able to see all of the decisions that lead up to it and sort of the reduction of opportunities, this is what that character feels they have to do, qiewn? and if there's -- you know? and if there's at least that understanding i hope that a little bit of a bridge has been built. again, doesn't mean you have to
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agree with it, but i think often times we can be reducktive in howe we deal with some of these issues like green and blonde awe taxes -- blue -- green on blue attacks. >> how do the afghans think of the americans being there? >> i think it's difficult to say because there's such a large swath -- i don't think the afghan michigan like us all too much. >> [inaudible] >> again i think it's very difficult to generalize about how all afghans feel about the u.s. occupation. i mean some are infuriated by it i think some have welcomed certain opportunities that have come up particularly people in kabul. you know it's, again, i think the afghan response to the u.s.-led invasion kind of mimics the war. some people have liked it and are supporting the americans, and some people are not. as much as we look back at the russian experience in afghanistan and it's seen as, you know, it's almost portrayed in shorthand as though all of the afghans rose up against the
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soviets i mean, they didn't. a huge segment of the afghan population supported the soviets, and they were incredibly progressive in terms of women's rights and education. they also killed a million afghans. it's very complex and i think the response to the american-led invasion is as complex as all of that is. >> when we're talking about moral things that need to happen and decisions of governments and that kind of thing which are built on cultural things, when we were in europe after the second world war there was -- well, there were similarities of a past history. most americans were coming out of that as there was a basis. in afghanistan there really isn't the same kind of depth of basis. there's -- it's further apart.
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they're seen more as other than the europeans were. we were in europe for a very long time. what kind of a projection do you give with maybe how long we sort of need to be in afghanistan? >> you mean culturally there's differences between -- >> yes. a difference in steps in what was in europe. we have similarities there. >> well, i don't think, i don't think the u.s. can -- should try to create an gavin society that looks like ash an afghan society that looks like a little america. >> that's not what i mean. >> but, you know, i think there are i think there are obviously vast differences between afghans and americans, and i actually think though we all know those. i think what often gets underplayed is the vast similarities between all peoples. and we often give those similarities short shrift and spend all of our time trying to address all the differences
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instead of spending time cultivating similarities. i think sometimes cultivating similarities, we're able to look up and realize the differences don't matter a as much even though they're still there. so for me as, you know, someone who served as a marine soldier what have you there's a lot of similarity just to the experience of soldiering no matter where you are. and that was really the prism through which i became close with afghans because, you know, we were all soldiers in the same unit and it's very difficult to have these large barriers between you, you know, when you're in a fire fight huddled down behind the same pile of dirt. those differences become insignificant pretty quickly, and you focus on the similarities. >> that's true. but when you go to the next steps and it becomes removed and when there's wonderful possibility for doing things that shouldn't happen -- taking money to have something happen and so forth and so on -- if you, if you aren't working from the, from a similar at least acknowledgment of the similarities i think it might
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take longer. >> you know, i never really understood war until i had a daughter. i had a daughter on my very last deployment. the only time i deployed with a child. and, you know, i saw a lot of hard things before i had kids, and i recognized that they were tough things to see. but they never really struck me the same way until i could see like, my own child in that. and i bring that up because i think many times war perpetuates not because of cause or ideology perpetuates because of loss. when i had a daughter, i could sort of imagine what it would be like to lose her i think like any parent can. you can feel that in the pit of your stomach. and i think about what that would mean for me if i was maybe even a taliban fighter and i had lost a young family member, i would be gone from this world. i would probably be up in the mountains fighting until they killed me. and i think in many respects these wars perpetuate because of
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loss. and at the same token too we talk about issues of corruption. i think it's very easy to sit back here as americans and talk about those corrupt afghans when, you know, i have a young family, you know? my daughter's now 4 and a half, my son is 3. if i was sitting in afghanistan with all the uncertainty that exists around the idea of trying to raise my young family in kabul or in kandahar, what that would maybe mean for my daughter to grow up in kandahar, what it would mean for her education let's say i was a mid-level function their at the ministry of the interior, and i saw an opportunity to take a certain amount of money that would get me and my family out of afghanistan and somewhere safe. you know, who's -- i think it's very difficult to sit here and say what's right and brook. and when we talk about these issues of corruption, we have to do it with clear eyes understanding that many people are operating in a dynamic that is unfamiliar to us. and addressing that dynamic might do more to address these
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problems of corruption than, you know than sort of excoriating folks for being corrupt. so that's my opinion and, you know, obviously, you know i wrote a book about a green-on-blue attack, so i feel that it's worthy to kind of examine some of these issues. >> fought in iraq and afghanistan, why did you choose to write or set your novel in afghanistan and not in iraq? >> i've done writing on iraq war, short fiction that's set in iraq. it wasn't necessarily a really deliberate like i was sort of shunning an examination of some of the things that happened in iraq but i was very interested by a lot of the themes that had come up while i was an adviser to afghan troops and, you know, this story was sort of coming at me. a lot of the times, you know, i feel as though story i'm writing is kind of something that won't be denied.
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it just sort of takes me over. so i wasn't shunning one, per se. it's just this happened to be the one that got my attention with the loudest amount of volume early on. >> novel about iraq? >> sure. you got any good gldz. [laughter] >> you were there i wasn't. >> did you ever personally dodge a green-on-blue attack or feel you were very close to being having your life in danger through one of your fellow soldiers afghan soldiers? >> i never personally dodged one or had one take place anywhere that i worked. but as an adviser yeah, it was something you knew was out there. they were happening while i was in afghanistan. you know, one thing you could always tell, some guys would wear like a small pistol, you know, kind of on their hip or the small of their back, and that was like a decision everyone had to make, because the afghans knew which advisers
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carried pistols and which ones didn't. and you were aware of it. but at the end of the day as well i mean, you were -- a handful of americans out in pretty rough places surrounded by afghans and earn thrown out together. i think there's a level of fatalism that comes into that line of work if you're constantly obsessing over every contingency you're just not going to be able to do your job. >> when you were telling about your being in consultation in your role as an adviser to the group and you thought that a the afghan commander of your group might say we could go here and here and then secure this border would your role have been to suggest that yourself? or would that have been -- >> sure. it would have been. so as much as i tell this story to about esok and kind of the lack of a grand strategic vision for afghanistan, i didn't have it either.
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esok had been someone who again, had been elevated by the war, his position. he was very important. the militia that i worked with him in basically employed all of esok's extended family which made him a pretty significant individual in that community. but at the same time, for me working with that unit in a very remote and dangerous part of afghanistan, professionally it was good for me. being involved in missions that were, you know the most far forward was something that advanced my career and was something i was drawn to and many of my peers were drawn to. so as much as i look at that and examine why did esok never speak in these grand strategic terms why didn't i? i felt like we had more in common with a beat cop than we did with, you know general eisenhower. and, you know, why was that the case and how was the war built that way how was -- you know, what construct led to that? so it's something i try to examine in the book and show in the book.
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>> personal could you describe a little bit about your thinking as a young adult and what led you to college, marines and how that all transitioned? it seems a little bit of an unusual path. >> sure. i went into -- can i did rotc at tufts university. i had this sense -- so i went in when i was 18 into rotc. that was in 1998, so it was before 9/11. and i had this sense that i wanted a job when i came out of school whether or not i was good at my job or bad at my job didn't really matter. it mattered in terms of life. and i wanted a lot of responsibility at a young age, and a third point i would make admittedly was i was also that kid who never stopped playing with his g.i. joes -- [laughter] so i was always fascinated by the military. but, you know i see myself as a fortunate son of this country. i came from a good family loving parents i was able to go to an excellent university, and
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i sort of had this sense and always have had the sense that war is fundamental as a human condition. wars are going to happen. and as a 23-year-old with sort of this when i came in this abstract idea that, you know, there might be a war on, it could happen, you know i felt again in an abstract sense well, you know, there's probably going to be a platoon of 45 marines out there and they'll have a lieutenant. should there lieutenant be someone who hasn't had all these advantages, or should they be one of the fortunate sons of this country, because that lieutenant will probably over the course after their time have to make a few important decisions that will impact these guys. i just had an instinctive sense that i wanted to be present for those decisions. and just the way events in the world turned out, you know, that's how my experience evolved. >> i have two questions. the first is very much related to the book and the second not so much. but the first one is as far as
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you know, have any of your friends that you made in afghanistan realize the book, and i'm curious to know what their response is or anybody else in afghanistan. >> i've had folks read it in afghanistan. the ones who read it were not my friends that i served with, but they were basically spot checking it for all the slang when i wrote it. i basically was writing everything at first, this is how i remembered it, but i ran it by a couple of afghans to make sure i had it right in pashtun. there are many places where aziz just slip into the pashtun words. i, you know, if you read the acknowledgments in the book, you know i mention i don't suspect many of the afghans i follow are going to be reading this not only because they're not lovers of american fiction, you know but because, you know, they're still engaged in a very remote part of the country. so it would involve the book to read it and appreciate it to be
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translated into pashtu and find its way into bookstores in very, very far-flung places. maybe i can talk to the gentleman at the ivy after this. [laughter] >> my second question is related to your experience as a white house fellow and -- [inaudible] i was just curious, my husband and i really enjoy watching a lot of tv shows that have to do with government or, like, covert affairs or house of cards or any of those 140es and i'm curious as someone who's been in that world a little bit how much of they get right? are there any shows that they get a lot right and sort of accurately represent the experience, or is everything hollywoodized, or can you not stand to watch that stuff at all? >> yes. [laughter] when i worked in intelligence, i had an instructor who used to say, you know, if we were one-tenth as good as people think we are, we'd be really good. [laughter] you know, i think there's a lot of hollywood. i think, you know, working in
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the government anywhere where you are in the government it's a very large bureaucracy. so but also, you know, during my military service, you know, even doing some of the things that i thought were the most exciting, there was huge, huge drudgery associated with it. there would be these moments from time to time when i would sit there and i would say this is pretty amazing. i remember being in kunar province which is up in northeastern afghanistan once, again with a group of afghan soldiers that we were advising and it was a pretty small -- it was about four, i think we were four americans with 200 afghans and we were doing a raid one night that involved us basically, climbing some very, very steep is terrain, and i was with the lead element that was sort of path finding up to where we were doing it. i just remember being on the side of this mountaintop under my night vision goggles, and every single afghan had a light on their vest. you couldn't see that infrared unless you were wearing night
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vision and it looked like a glow worm, and i thought looking down was this huge ray force sprinkling through this dramatic valley and just thinking this is really cool. but, you know, there were hours and hours and days and days and days of work and drudgery and bureaucratic forms to fill out to make some of that stuff happen. so i think that the television deletes all of the real world, and all you get is the one guy looking down saying this is really cool. >> to what extent were the drug lords and their tribes -- [inaudible] a la mexico? >> sure. i think that, you know, one of the interesting dynamics in the afghan world is the role of the opium the popty trade -- poppy tray plays there, and what should the role of the afghan and u.s. military be in trying to eradicate the poppy trade.
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there's been initiatives to try to incentivize farmers to grow things aside from poppy that i think have met with mixed success. you know it's a real challenge. you fly over southern afghanistan, you can still see poppy fields for miles and miles and miles. but again, wars go about economies, and those economies have huge force, and they take on lives of their own and they can be very, very difficult to undermine, and i don't think anyone has yet figured out how to undermine the poppy trade in afghanistan. >> [inaudible] try to eradicate -- nubble treat all the -- [inaudible] treat all the symptoms and everything that flows downhill from it? >> that's an interesting idea. we tried it with fast and furious down south. it didn't work too well. but, you know who knows? creative approach. >> i have a question. i think that the united states is the biggest purchaser of drugs, so some of the folks who are users in the u.s. are probably the biggest supporters of the poppy fields.
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but you haven't mentioned civilians and i think, you know, that's been one of the to me as a reader of the newspaper, the hardest thing for me to read is about all the civilian deaths that are occurring in this war. any comment on that? >> sure. i think that, you know, in both this war and the iraq war you know the novel gets into it, many, many of the characters in this novel are civilians. the civilians frequently are rendered almost invisible, and i think as americans as we think what these two wars have meant to us as a country, i assure you they've been like an atom bomb in those two countries for what it's done for the civilian populations there, and i don't think that can be underestimated. it's had huge ramifications. it just doesn't often get quite as much air time, seems like more of a distraction than the immediacy of the fighting. >> any ideas on how that could be changed? solved? >> civilians in war? i mean, nothing nothing.
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no. i think the way civilians are stuck in the middle of a war that's war. and it's very difficult. i mean, i don't know what to tell you. war is not a pretty thing. let's have less wars. >> [inaudible] killed than fighters. >> in afghanistan? no i believe more fighters have been killed than civilians. >> -- story and you change most of your books so that it would be his story and not an american retelling it. but you have a history and so much involvement with stories similar to what you're writing about. i was wondering how much of this book was about liker you would connect to your own experience or how much is from knowing people in these situations and just going off of that and coming up with their own back story. >> you know, like when i'm
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writing sometimes, i feel like it's as though i'm standing in a field of kind of knee-high dry grass, right? and i'm trying to -- i've got two flints in my hand, and i'm trying to make a fire in this field. i'm banging those flints together as hard as i can. the thing the two flints always represent, they're always an experience of mine, something that has really happened to me. so from those real experiences, i'm striking them together and trying to make these sparks. and when i get it right one of the sparks will fly and they will light that field on fire. so everything that gets on that is on fire, is imagination. but none of it can start without those two flints. so the flints aren't in the week, only the field -- in the book, only the field on fire is. but it took the flints to basically get that field going. does that make sense? >> i think we're going to wrap up now. for those of


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