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Combat Story #28: Elliot Ackerman

    Visualising Peace as Story-Sharing

    “I don’t agree with his ideology […] I’m not too into fundamentalist Islam, but he’s not into democracy. So, listen, at the end of the day you can either try to see someone’s humanity, or you decide that you don’t ever want to see them again. And I wanted to see his, and he wanted to see mine, and we left everything else on the table.” 

    Elliot Ackerman and Ryan Fugit, “Combat Story #28: Elliot Ackerman”
    Two gold-edged glasses holding steaming black tea.

    In November of 2013, American author Elliot Ackerman found himself sitting in a small café near the Turkish border with Iraq. A former Marine officer for eight years, much of Ackerman’s early career had been defined by the relentless pace of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now he sat opposite a man who embodied his elusive and seemingly illusory foe in the “War on Terror”, a former al-Qaeda-in-Iraq operative named Abu Hassar, who had agreed to meet Ackerman for tea. Both men quickly engaged in conversation regarding their shared experiences in Iraq and found that, despite vastly differing ideologies, their narratives remained inextricably tied to one another by a web of places, names and dates that laid the foundation for a lasting friendship that continues to this day. Elliot describes one particular moment during their exchange where both men sketched out their respective journeys in Iraq. He explains: 

    “As we once chased each other around Iraq, our hands are chasing each other around the map. The names were the place names, and the numbers were the dates we had been there, and he wanted to see if we had been in the same place at the same time fighting against each other. What occurred to me, at that time, was as much as Abed [the group’s interpreter] and I had that connection that we had both been ideologically disenfranchised by Abu Hassar and fought against so many of the things he embodied, Abu Hassar and I were also very much tethered together. We were tethered together by this shared language of places and names and dates, and that was a language that, even if Abed had been there sitting next to us, he couldn’t have translated. That was our language alone.”

    Elliot Ackerman and Ryan Fugit, “Combat Story #28: Elliot Ackerman”

    Our research into different habits of visualising peace has emphasised the centrality of narratives in exacerbating or alleviating conflicts. Personal narratives contain entirely different sets of “emphases, inflections, and silences”, and, in doing so, offer us a unique lens through which we both view our personal experiences and work to generate a coherent understanding of the world around us. The most dangerous forms of narratives are simplified – their emphasis on linear storytelling and clear distinctions between an in-group and out-group often serve to promote the superior morals and humanity of one group while delegitimizing the other, thereby serving as potent sources of sources of polarization and conflict. Complex narratives, however, question this process of simplification and emphasize the creation of a landscape in which personal stories do not compete with one another for dominance but, rather, grow increasingly interlinked and interdependent. Thus, peace is not the “outcome of a shared narrative” but the result of a rich narrative landscape of experiences growing from “core, common, or interwoven roots”. 

    The story of Elliot Ackerman and Abu Hassar is perfectly illustrative of the unifying force of complex narratives. Both Ackerman and Abu Hassar ultimately possess entirely opposite ideologies, and it would be easy to expect both men to resort to the deeply entrenched, simplified narrative of their opponent that dominated much of their early careers – that of an extremist ideology that posed an existential threat to values such as democratic governance or religious freedom and that of an oppressive external force seeking to impose its hegemonic worldview on others. Despite this, the interaction between Ackerman and Abu Hassar quickly turns to the shared roots or, in Ackerman’s words, the “shared language of places and names and dates” that bind both men together. It is this web of common experiences that allow Ackerman and Abu Hassar to reconcile the profound ideological differences between them and realize that, despite not sharing one another’s views, their narratives were not inherently conflictual.   

    History ultimately is replete with stories of adversaries re-encountering one another in the aftermath of conflict, from the story of the British and German infantrymen reunited on the beaches of Normandy 75 years later to the American and North Vietnamese fighter pilots who met to speak of their aerial “dogfights” over the skies of Vietnam. While most of these examples are isolated and short-term in nature, it is certainly possible to begin re-envisioning the role of servicemembers in post-conflict reconciliation efforts. Traditional disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) efforts by organizations such as the United Nations have emphasized the importance of ideological rehabilitation and ensuring that combatants are provided with a renewed sense of purpose following conflict. Comparatively little attention, however, has been paid to the importance of fostering opportunities to develop and strengthen complex narratives shared by previously warring factions. It is impossible to determine the long-term impact of Abu Hassar and Elliot Ackermann’s encounter, but the exchange between the former adversaries highlights the transformative nature of these encounters in fostering a newfound, potentially long-term appreciation for one another’s humanity. This is, perhaps, best exemplified by the parting words shared by both men. When asked by Abu Hassar what he will do upon the creation of a “peaceful and just Islamic state”, Ackerman responds by saying that “I’ll come visit you with my family”. Abu Hassar simply replies, “and you will be welcome”. 

    What Do You Think?

    • What role do you see narratives playing in the process of peacebuilding? 
    • Can small-scale interactions between individuals truly form the foundation for a broader peace between communities and groups? 
    • Do you feel this understanding of peace through rehumanization fails to capture any key aspects of peace or peacebuilding? 

    If you enjoyed this item in our museum…

    You might also like Story #1913, Journey for Forgiveness, ‘Moral injury: Healing‘ and other items with the tag ‘Rehumanization‘.

    Mathias Katsuya, April 2022

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