Another Perspective on the War in Afghanistan

Green on Blue: A Novel, by Elliot Ackerman, (Scribner), 256 pages, released on 17 February, 2015

This review is coming several months after Green on Blue‘s release, but the title is worth writing about nonetheless. The central characters of Green on Blue are a pair of Afghan brothers: Ali, the elder; and Aziz, the younger, who serves as narrator of the novel. Orphaned by the war, the brothers manage to survive as members of a gang of street kids.

Ali does whatever he can to raise the money to send Aziz to school. Unfortunately, Ali is permanently injured when a bomb goes off in a local market. It’s now Aziz’s turn to be the breadwinner for the two of them. Aziz joins the Special Lashkar, a militia funded by the U.S., in order to pay for Ali’s ongoing hospital care.

What follows is the heart-breaking but hugely interesting story of Aziz’s life in the Special Lashkar. He occupies a sort of no-man’s land, peripheral to and often looked down upon by the U.S. military, yet distanced from his fellow Afghans.

Elliot Ackerman is not Afghan, but has the life experience that makes him a credible author. He served a total of five tours of duty in the middle east, has earned Bronze and Silver Stars, as well as a Purple Heart, and has served as a White House fellow. Green on Blue is his first novel, but his essays have appeared in publications like The New Yorker and The Atlantic. He is currently living in Istanbul and reporting on the war in Syria.

Ackerman’s knowledge of the reality of life on the ground in Afghanistan allows him to fill the novel with physical and emotional details that draw readers close to the novel’s characters and to glimpse their various perspectives—although it is Aziz’s voice that dominates. A few collections of short writings by Afghans living through the war have been published in English, but to the best of my knowledge Green on Blue is the first novel-length treatment of the subject that attempts to take on an Afghan perspective. Literature in translation is hard to publish and often appears years after the work was published in its original language. Because of this, Ackerman’s novel makes particularly valuable reading while we wait for the work of Afghan writers to appear in English.