Elliot Ackerman reflects on the role of fiction in times of conflict. His new novel Dark at the Crossing is published by Daunt Books in April 2017.
In the autumn of 2013, I sat out at an open-air café for dinner in Gaziantep, or Antep as the locals call it, an industrial city in southern Turkey. Joining me was a friend, a Syrian revolutionary turned refugee who had fled his home in Damascus and who now toiled at odd jobs around the city. His wife was meant to join us but she had called and they’d had an argument and it seemed it would just be the two of us. “I was unfaithful to her and she’s never forgiven me,” he told me. He then explained that the infidelity was not with another woman, but with the revolution: its ideals, its excitement, all that he had sacrificed for it, too much, abandoning the emotional core of his marriage for what ultimately became a lost cause.
The pain of that lost cause ran particularly acute on this evening. President Obama had recently elected not to enforce his “redline” when Syrian President Bashar al-Asad launched a sarin gas attack in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus. Military aid from the west would not be coming. The conversation turned, as it often did, to the current state of the revolution (the term of choice if you sympathized with the rebels) or the civil war (the term of choice if you sympathized with the regime). As we pondered our menus, my friend began to talk about the merits of western intervention on behalf of the rebel Free Syrian Army. He explained that cities like Aleppo, Homs, Idlib, were all still contested, the Free Syrian Army continued to hold significant swaths of land, western military support could turn the tide despite gains by the Islamic State and Iranian and Russia interventions on behalf of the regime. Or so the argument was made to me as our first course arrived.
As someone who had spent his twenties in uniform fighting in the Middle East, I doubted the efficacy of such an intervention but often didn’t voice my misgivings too aggressively. It wasn’t my war and I understood the emotional complexities of having a war—or wars—that you can call your own. I felt that my job in such moments was to listen. We discussed other topics, of course: the difficulty of finding reliable work, the manner in which the Turks often exploited refugee labor, and the moral conundrum of whether to return to Syria or leave the border and start a new life in one of the few European countries resettling Syrians. But the conversation eventually returned to the revolution. By the end of the meal, as we were sipping our tea and a pack of cigarettes had emerged, the discussion had grown somber, infused with regret. “I wish we’d never gone out into the streets,” my friend told me. “I’ve destroyed my home.”
Can you feel both pride and regret for an experience as defining as a revolution, or even a war? This emotional conflict—which I often witnessed among those who had participated in Syria’s revolution—mirrored the emotional conflict I felt about fighting in my own wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. When I think of the best days of my life, many of them are days that I was in combat. When I think of the worst days of my life, they are the exact same days. How do we reckon with this type of an experience and how does it echo into other parts of our lives? It is a question that I have long grappled with and one I could see many of my Syrian friends grappling with as well.
The stories that I enjoy reading don’t provide solutions, but rather carefully frame such questions. When he accepted the Nobel Prize in 1950 William Faulkner said in his speech, “[it is] the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about …” A failed revolution is rife with such conflict and it is the subject I endeavored to write about. The complexities of the Syrian revolution—the shifting alliances and shifting frontlines—are overwhelmingly complex to all except the closest observers and even then the essential truths of the conflict often aren’t found in tracking these particulars. Fiction allows us to delve into emotional terrain that grants us a deeper understanding of such events.
When I am reading a really excellent novel, I feel something as I turn the pages. That is what good art does: it transfers emotion. Whatever the writer felt as they crafted their story is passed onto the reader. That emotional transference is an inherently optimistic act, it is a belief in empathy, that our shared humanity means any one person can feel and understand the challenges faced by any other. When creating a story, what I am often searching for is emotional equivalency. What is it like to participate in a failed revolution, or a failed war? What is it like to still believe in a cause that has already ravaged your life?
All through that dinner, my friend was exchanging distracted text messages with his wife. A marriage, like a revolution, is an adventure of the heart and his relationship was in trouble. Marriage is a letting go of two separate worlds in order to create a single shared one. When a marriage dissolves, a couple is forced to reimagine that world, to start again. The novel I wrote tried to tell the story of the war in Syria, a failed revolution, through the lens of an intimate, universal emotional arc: a failed marriage. The book is an exploration of grief—the death of a child, the destruction of a cause, the individual’s search to assuage loss. Having spent nearly three years covering the Syrian Civil War, I have watched that conflict’s spiral into darkness and witnessed the central choice of any failed revolution, any failed relationship: whether to accept what’s ruined and begin anew, or to keep faith with an increasingly hopeless cause.
After the waiter had set down the check and we’d paid, I was about to ask my friend if he wanted to share a cab. Then at the door, his wife arrived. Although she had chosen not to join us at dinner, she had come now. It was the slightest gesture, but it was not lost on either of us. She had come so that my friend wouldn’t have to find his way home alone.