The Fifth Act

  • By Elliot Ackerman
  • Penguin Press
  • 288 pp.

A painful, essential read from perhaps the only author who could’ve written it.

The Fifth Act

When it comes to parsing the complexities of our modern wars — Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan — and articulating the cost of so many strategic lapses and sheer moral failures, no one compares to Elliot Ackerman. Here’s a summa cum laude Tufts graduate and White House Fellow who also served five tours of duty as a Marine, first in Iraq and later in Afghanistan, fully boots-on-the-ground and also in the chain of command. He has a unique ability to center his and his comrades’ lived experience within the larger historical continuum.

Most readers know Ackerman from his fiction, including Green on Blue, Dark at the Crossing, and Waiting for Eden, though he is also a respected journalist and author of a war memoir-in-essays, Places and Names. His latest book, The Fifth Act: America’s End in Afghanistan, is also nonfiction, but it has a race-against-the-clock tension that wouldn’t be out of place in 2034, his thriller co-written with retired admiral James Stavridis.

Unfortunately for all involved, that ticking clock is not artificial dramatic tension but instead a very real-world human catastrophe that unfolds over mere weeks as the U.S. ripped itself out of Afghanistan last August after a two-decade incursion. The gaping hole that resulted swallowed thousands of Afghans who’d worked hand-in-hand with American troops, trapping them and their families as the encroaching Taliban swarmed the void.

Ackerman weaves several narrative threads through this immersive account. He, his wife, and their three children are on an Italian vacation as the vacuum of the American exit sucks the surrounding populace to the several gates of the Hamid Karzai International Airport. Even as his family takes in the sights of ancient Rome, Ackerman is glued to his phone. He, along with an ever-expanding network of allies across the globe, works within a shrinking window to get as many Afghans as possible onto planes. Their success depends on whether they have any contacts — or their contacts have contacts — with anyone inside those locked and heavily guarded gates.

The insanity of the situation is clear: None of this is a U.S. government operation; everyone working on this chaotic, slapdash evacuation is a volunteer. The chartered flights are paid for by a patchwork of contributors large and small, but the planes are the least of the problem. Getting evacuees to the airport itself, and then to the right gate at the right time in a way that makes them identifiable to the right people, takes a global village.

Illustrating the insanity most clearly is the fact that Mike Mullen, a retired admiral and former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is one of the people grasping for contacts to get an old Afghan colleague out of Kabul. Ackerman eventually works to extricate the man and his family.

Interspersed into the nail-biting episodes of attempted evacuations are scenes from the author’s time on the battlefield. Ackerman had finally left it behind in 2011 after eight years of near-constant deployment. “For those who fight in a never-ending war, it becomes something that doesn’t end,” he writes. “To finish it, the war becomes something that you must choose to leave.”

He previously touched on some of these events and on the people who fought beside him in Places and Names. Indeed, in that memoir, we met his best buddy, Jack, with whom he’d had a falling out precisely because Ackerman had finally decided to take the exit door. Though he and Jack were friendly again, Ackerman wasn’t sure they’d completely patched things up. In The Fifth Act, that uncertainty turns to dread as Jack becomes the contact Ackerman must rely upon to get a convoy of 109 Afghans through the Kabul airport’s Unnamed Gate.

The battle experiences that Ackerman recounts connect together, from the loss of Sergeant First Class Dave “Momez” Nunez under his command, and Captain Garrett “Tubes” Lawson’s attempt to rescue Nunez; to Ackerman’s dressing down for not recovering his own man; to Tubes’ death and later burial at Arlington National Cemetery; to Ackerman’s noticing Admiral Mullen attending the service from a discreet distance; to Mullen’s asking about the author’s mental state.

The Fifth Act’s concluding thread is Ackerman’s damning assessment of America’s policy and actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. One compelling point? The U.S. undermined its own efforts from the beginning by telegraphing to all that we had one foot out the door (which ironically extended our stay). An obvious signal of this lack of commitment is that U.S. military buildings in Afghanistan were made of plywood:

“Resources existed to build out of concrete, but why would we do that? At any given point in our twenty-year Afghan odyssey, we were always — in our minds, at least — only a year or two out from a drawdown followed by an eventual withdrawal. Of course, the Afghans noticed this.”

Yet even with withdrawal perpetually around the corner, there was never any plan for how to accomplish it. And more troubling was the fact that these wars were funded entirely through deficit spending — blowing up our national debt and leaving our last balanced budget in the dust at the turn of the 21st century — and fought with an entirely volunteer force. The American public never felt the pain of either conflict.

And that lack of pain has meant a lack of attention, a lack of protest, a lack of demands for accountability. Eventually, people forgot we were still at war. One wonders whether this will become America’s template for pursuing future global conflicts.

The public may have forgotten, but the troops who fought have not. Ackerman started his military career at age 17, when he joined the ROTC in college. He graduated directly into deployment in Iraq:

“Ultimately, the war didn’t change me; the war made me. It is so deeply ingrained in my psyche that I have a difficult time separating the parts of me that exist because of it from the parts of me that exist despite it.”

He and his comrades in arms have sacrificed so much of themselves for the U.S., a nation that abruptly left them a year ago to tell the courageous Afghans who fought alongside them, as Ackerman writes, I’m sorry, but there’s nothing more we can do to help you. It was the ultimate betrayal.

[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2022.]

Jennifer Bort Yacovissi’s debut novel, Up the Hill to Home, tells the story of four generations of a family in Washington, DC, from the Civil War to the Great Depression. Her short fiction has appeared in Gargoyle and Pen-in-Hand. Jenny reviews regularly for the Independent and serves on its board of directors as president. She has served as chair or program director of the Washington Writers Conference since 2017. Stop by Jenny’s website for a collection of her reviews and columns, and follow her on Twitter at @jbyacovissi.

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