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Elliot Ackerman: Writing About War and America’s Future

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Elliot Ackerman: Writing About War and America’s Future

Elliot Ackerman, Marine combat veteran and bestselling author, talks about writing and about his fears for the future.

Elliot’s latest book is 2034: A Novel of the Next World War. The Harper’s story referenced in the episode is “Civil Warning”. Learn more about Elliot’s work at and find him on Twitter at @elliotackerman.

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Elliot Ackerman: I think for everyone who gets out of the military it's tough to figure out what you're going to do next and how you're going to find your purpose after you've had one that is so intense with the type of purpose I think many of us experience when we serve. And so for me it was a real leap of faith to try to find my purpose in something that in many respects was so different from the experience that I just had.

KH: I’m Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions. On Burn the Boats, I interview political leaders and other history makers about choices they confront when failure is not an option.

My guest today is Elliot Ackerman, Marine combat veteran and bestselling author. He is a prolific writer and commentator and has authored five novels and a memoir exploring war and its aftermath. His most recent book is 2034, A Novel of the Next World War. Elliot, thanks for joining us on Burn the Boats.

EA: Thanks for having me, Ken.

KH: So you have just written, or co-written I should say, this runaway bestseller with Admiral Stavridis, 2034, about the challenge that an ascendant China poses to American interests around the world. It's a gripping read, but I don't take you as some one note military thriller writer. In fact, you cut your teeth as an author writing deeply thoughtful, what I would call war lit. How do you straddle these two very different worlds? The New York literary scene on one hand and I guess the more bravado-driven vet scene that I'm more familiar with. They seem like they might clash.

EA: Interesting. No one's ever asked me that before. Yeah, I kind of subscribe to Whitman's wisdom, we all contain multitudes. Since I got out of the military, people would often say to me like, "Wow, that's so odd. You did this eight year career in the Marine Corps and then you became an author, it seems so odd to me that you would do that." But the people who've known me the longest would say, "We always found it so odd that you wound up in the Marine Corps because you were this creative long-haired kid who used to like skateboarding and was more artistically inclined." Again, I only bring that up because I think we all have myriad interests, and I think just because you served in the military doesn't mean you only fit into one category. And I know obviously you know that because you do many things, but I think that I straddle those worlds and perhaps when I'm hanging out with my buddies I served with and we're talking about old times, I'm engaging with one part of my life. And when I'm doing my work I'm engaging with another part of my life, but there's also a lot of bleed over between the two.

KH: There is within the Marine Corps this weirdly cerebral strain. I'm thinking about the authors that have influenced me that have come from the Corps that have contributed to that canon of war lit, all the way back to EB Sledge, With the Old Breed, and Karl Marlantes and more contemporarily Swafford and our mutual friend Jake Wood who we had on the show. And I think the Marines do that in a way that the other branches don't. Maybe the Navy comes close, but what is it about the DNA of the Marine Corps that occasionally spits out these literary figures? You have a former commandant who everyone even described as a warrior monk, Mattis, of course. He had a required reading list and it wasn't all strategy, it was a lot of classics. Why do the Marines have that in their bones?

EA: I think you're certainly right to identify that, but again Mattis isn't the first commandant to have a reading list, so this is just a through line that's always existed in the Marine Corps. And I think the Marine Corps is by definition a little bit of an eccentric service. It's famously been said, "America doesn't have a Marine Corps because it needs a Marine Corps, America has a Marine Corps because it wants a Marine Corps." And we're sort of these soldiers from the sea and we're kind of half navy, half army, and I think all of the eccentricities that are bred into the Marine Corps culture oftentimes I think attract a certain type of person. And I think those people sometimes yes, they do manifest as authors and sometimes people who want to be with a bunch of other folks who are a little bit on the outside in terms of the service that they are a part of. I'd only give you one example of this would be one of my best friends in the Marine Corps, we met in training when I was still a midshipman in ROTC and he was a lieutenant. And he had a distinguished career in the Marine Corps and special operations, left, went and worked for the CIA in one of their special operations units, now runs that unit and is the most, on his resume, grisled commando you could imagine, been in and out of wars for the last 20 years, he was in the Iraq invasion. But in his background he was a creative writing major out of UVA and recently got his Master of Fine Arts in Poetry on the side. So the Marine Corps is filled with people like this. And oftentimes to outsiders, they don't realize that, it's sort of a different more cookie cutter conception of what the organization is and the people who are inside of it.

KH: Well, I'm glad I asked you and I'm glad you answered in that way, because I would imagine the vast majority of people hearing that kind of description of the Marine Corp would think, "Really? That's what it's made up of?" And I'm wondering when you talk about the eccentricity that it attracts, if that was at all intentionally or not self-referential. When I look at your background and the many paths you could have taken, what the hell drew you to the Corps?

EA: A lot of things. It's also famously been said that the Army has its tanks, the Navy has its ships, the Air Force has its planes and the Marine Corps has its culture. So I think as I learned about the Marine Corps when I was younger, I found that culture appealing. I knew that I wanted to serve in the infantry and the Marine Corps famously has its saying, "every Marine is a rifleman." And the core organizing principle in the Marine Corps is to support the infantry, and so I found that attractive because I knew I wanted to serve. So as I was looking at branches, because I wanted to serve and have that experience of small unit leadership, it seemed like the Marine Corps made a lot of sense. So I would say really the culture is what ultimately drove me there.

KH: Years ago you wrote this in a Vogue article - speaking of the variety of your writing outlets - you wrote, "I was raised by a financier father and a novelist mother. And although I was that little boy who never stopped playing with GI Joe's, the Marines wasn't the obvious choice. I chose to serve because I didn't want to spend my early 20s scouring spreadsheets at a bank or making photocopies at a law firm. For better or worse, I wanted a job with actual responsibility where my performance really mattered and it did in the Marines. It mattered in terms of lives." Did you get what you signed up for?

EA: Yes, and then some. That, to me, that sense of wanting a job that mattered and wanting to do work that mattered is what drove me into the military in general and what I just referred to as what led me to the Marine Corps as a service. Because as you know, that type of work that you do where your decisions matter and you have that responsibility at a young age, that's not exclusive to the Marine Corps, you get that in the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, anywhere in the service. It's remarkable the amount of responsibility they give to young people. And I think for me what was interesting is I began Navy ROTC in 1998, so that was when I made my commitment that I was going to go into the Marines. And at that point America was at peace, there was no war, there hadn't been wars for a while and the ones we had been engaged in we had won handily, really since Vietnam. And so there wasn't some big expectation that we would be at war. I remember I had a college roommate at one point who asked me pointedly, "Why are you going to the military? It just seems like such a waste of time because our military doesn't fight wars anymore." Then obviously that all changed. I was finishing college when 9/11 happened. I was in Quantico finishing up my training when they announced that the Marines would be going back to Iraq after the invasion of 2003. And then from that point forward, I very much had this, and particularly my first deployment as a rifle platoon commander was very intense, everything you would imagine a rifle platoon commander doing in combat type of deployment. So it certainly exceeded my expectations. I don't say that in a positive, like, "Oh, it was so much fun", but I never thought I would have been having so much experience right out the gate.

KH: So that's what I want to get to, because it seems to me like the romanticized notions of service that you may have entertained upon joining, confronted the reality of war and in Afghanistan the reality of a war with a lack of clear missions and undefined outcomes. How did you square that with your idealistic notions of service?

EA: I wouldn't say that my trajectory was one of idealism meeting a reality and then resulting in disillusionment. There was a certain point when I was in Iraq, this was on my very first deployment, I check into my platoon in April of 2004 and a little more than six weeks later I'm in Iraq in June of 2004. And that fall I fought in the Fallujah Battle, which was some very intense urban combat. And I remember at a certain point in that battle, my company commander grabbed me and one other Lieutenant. And it was only two of us because one of the other lieutenants had just been killed and another of our lieutenants had been wounded and evacuated. So we'd been through a lot of stuff in this handful of days. And he pulled us aside and he said, "You know what? You two guys are both the luckiest and the unluckiest lieutenants I've ever met." He said, "You're the luckiest because right out the gate, you're doing this, having this experience.” And he said, “And you're the unluckiest because anything else you ever do in the Marine Corps is going to be a let down after this." And let down not like it was fun, let down just in intensity, purpose and understanding exactly what you're doing and really getting to do your job, it's going to be a letdown. And in many ways, what he said was prophetic. I went on to have other deployments that meant a lot to me and were important where we did very, very good real work, but in terms of pure combat, nothing was as intense as that first deployment. And so I just bring that up because it kind of gets to these questions again of like, "Why are you there?" And if you asked me, again we touched on this, "Why did you join the Marine Corps Elliot? Why are you there?" It's for all of these ideas. I wanted to have a job where whether I was good at my job or bad at my job really mattered and it mattered in terms of lives. And those lives were really the young Marines in my platoon. I was making decisions, and I knew it, I can think back to really five or six times where there was a decision going on and a conversation I was having on the radio and guys are watching me have this conversation. And in their faces I can see that they know that the outcome of this conversation is going to determine whether they live or die. I don't say that to be dramatic, it's just the reality of the tough spots we were in. That's why if you grabbed me in the streets of Fallujah or later in Afghanistan and said, "Why are you here?" That's the answer I would have given you, it wouldn't have been a political answer. So everything that happens later obviously in Iraq and Afghanistan, yes their politics goes south, Fallujah gets overrun by the Islamic state, we're pulling out of Afghanistan, those are all things that have happened politically, but they have never really affected me in feeling disillusioned because that's not the real reason I was there. I was there for the reason I gave you before, to matter to that group of guys.

KH: Do you think the buddies you served with have found that same sense of clarity and peace around their involvement in the light of the current proposal to leave Afghanistan? Because I'm hearing a lot of angst, I'm hearing a lot of confusion and anger and a lot of agreement as well. But there are plenty of folks who can't disentangle the politics from why they were there.

EA: Listen, I don't speak for all veterans, I'm just speaking for myself. So I would only say that the way I feel, I know a number who do feel very similarly, and I'm sure there are others who feel differently. Now if you want to talk to me about the politics of it, I certainly have my political opinions about what we're doing and I write about it frequently. But the real core of my disillusionment, the things that are hard on me and keep me up at night, they're not rooted in political regrets. I certainly have my things that I look back on at my time in the service that are hard, but they're not political things, they're more personal things, experiences, "Man I wish we'd gone this way instead of that way, that guy would have been alive." Stuff like that that I think, if I were going to say anything eats at my soul, it's moments like that.

KH: Were you writing at the time of your deployments?

EA: No, I wasn't. You mentioned my mother's a writer so I always grew up around books and literature and other writers, so it didn't seem like the most ridiculous thing to do when I got out. Although I will confess that it still does seem a little bit ridiculous, I think getting out of the military and saying, "I want to write", is a little bit like saying, "I want to dance." When you don't have anything to show for it, it seems kind of silly. But I had one or two false starts, like I thought, "Oh, maybe I'll write about this someday", and maybe I tried once or twice. And when I say tried, like maybe wrote two or three lines, and just the idea of writing about all this stuff while it was happening just sort of, at least for me, felt false in a way. I really couldn't get anything going and it was actually, and this might sound even a little bit trite, but I was actually on my last deployment in Afghanistan and I handed in my resignation letter, so I knew that was going to be the last one. And it was literally the day after I handed in that letter I started making what I considered my first serious attempts at writing. And I think that's because I needed the psychological closure of saying, "Okay, this is over, now you can move to what's next."

KH: Was writing in any way a catharsis?

EA: I know for some people it can be and there's a certain type of writing that people can feel is very cathartic. I would say for me, writing is so difficult and frustrating to get it right that it can often feel like the opposite of catharsis, I feel like I'm trying to put my head through a wall. So no, I would not say it's cathartic. The one thing I would say is the writing I've done about the war has certainly led me to a point now where there's certain things where I know what I feel about them with real clarity because I've just thought them over so much and done all this work to try to get it down on the page just right, just how I want to say it. So, when I'm asked about it now, I'm not wrestling to pin down certain ideas, I've staked them down in my writing.

KH: So much of your writing has been about our country's adventures and misadventures abroad, even imagined misadventures abroad, as in the case of 2034. But you're also beginning to shine the light inwards at internal divisions and the threat that they pose and I have to imagine you've gotten a lot of feedback on this recent Harper's cover story, which they titled “The Next Civil War”. What drew you to that story, given just how focused most of your work is on external threats?

EA: I think part of it stems from a series of conversations I kept having with friends of mine who were veterans, in which we would kind of try to situate our wars in a larger narrative of America and global security and said, "How are the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan going to feature someday historically?" And many of us with a grim pragmatism had said, "I bet we're going to be remembered kind of like the equivalent of the veterans of the Boer War," in so much as the real defining event has not come yet, it's coming up, and then when people look back they'll see all of this as prelude to what that event is. And increasingly, I'm concerned about the direction our country is going in, somewhat unconsciously or at least without a lot of awareness with regards to its relationship with our military. And I'll just say up front, I am a totally unapologetic both-sideser politically. I think both sides, both the right and the left are behaving very, very poorly at this moment and tearing us apart so there's no center left for anyone in America to stand on anymore. And so with that being said, I think that one of the things these wars has done is we have just a massive civil-military divide that exists in this country right now, where we've gone through now 20 years of war that unlike other wars have been funded through deficit spending, meaning nobody's paid any taxes on them, and manned through an all volunteer military. We've never done that before. And if you look back historically, history does not treat republics with large standing militaries and very dysfunctional internal politics well. Like when you have those two dynamics present in a republic, the outcome is usually not a positive one. And that is a dynamic that is completely present right now in the United States, particularly in so much as we've also seen the politicization of everything in America in the last couple decades. All of our industries are politicized, all of our media is politicized, film is politicized, companies we see are politicizing. And so really I would argue one of the very last bastions of an apolitical institution in the United States is the US military. I don't think you can say right now the US military has a heavy political bend left or right, it hasn't been tarnished in that way. But you're certainly seeing forces, again I would say on both sides, that are trying to do this and are pushing political agendas at the military. And woe be unto us if you see the US military politicized in this country. And that is something that truly frightens me. And having worked as a journalist, I covered the war in Syria for a number of years, when you politicize the military that's when things get incredibly dysfunctional incredibly fast.

KH: Are the cultural ligaments within the military strong enough to keep those traditions together and resist the increasing calls for politicization that you're seeing from all sides?

EA: Well, they're strong up to a point, and that's the unfortunate thing is you don't know how strong they are until they break. And so what frightens me is when we see these incidents, these gestures where you can see the politics getting pushed on the military and the military pushes back, it circles the wagon, keeps the politics at bay. But what I find, again, so concerning is each time we're flirting with the precipice more and more closely and why even go there? It's terrifying to me, and I feel like the people who are pushing us near that precipice are not 100% cognizant of what they're doing. They're driving with a blindfold on, they don't recognize what's on the other side of that. And I can imagine many scenarios that I've just been like, wow - I often feel like I'm watching a dance and I'm seeing our politics and the politicians and everybody are doing this dance. And I feel like, "Oh, I recognize this dance." We're on steps three and four of this cha cha cha, but when you get to steps eight, nine and 10, that's when there's a military coups or a schism within the military. Why are we dancing this dance? And we stop at step four and go back to step one. I just find it terrifying to watch us engaging in these dances. And I feel like, for instance, this past year in 2020 we were going through many of those dance moves. And count me alarmed, that's why I wrote the piece in Harper's.

KH: You talked about the military's efforts to keep the politics at bay, but that becomes a really gray area when that requires standing up to civilian authority. We actually saw that in unprecedented ways, at least publicly with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs reportedly refusing to countenance the invocation of the Insurrection Act with all of the Joint Chiefs signing that memo, reminding the military, those in uniform that their oaths were not to the president, unprecedented stuff. Every former Secretary of Defense signing that open letter about the dangers that Trump's actions posed to the democracy. Is that the dance you're talking about and approaching a step too far in which the military actually oversteps and does not honor the primacy of civilian control?

EA: Yes. Count me concerned that we have this coterie of retired generals, retired intelligence heads who now at a moment's notice weigh in on domestic political issues. And again, everything you said, I totally agree. These are real issues and the fact that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs has to tell the president, "You can not invoke the Insurrection Act", and feels the need to remind troops that their oath isn’t just to the president, I find that alarming. But I also find it very alarming when you see a letter signed by former intelligence heads saying the Hunter Biden laptop is Russian disinformation, when it's been shown that it's not. Why do you feel the need to weigh in on this? Just get your nose out of it. You represent an agency that should not have a political agenda and you might be retired, but putting your nose in this politicizes your agency. And that used to be a line that former heads didn't cross, now they cross it all the time and I would argue it only, no matter which side you're doing it on, it only takes us closer to a moment where people feel like they have to choose within the ranks. And that's the moment you have to avoid. Because if you ask the entire US military, if something happens, a real crisis politically, and I can lay out things that I've imagined that to me don't seem implausible, and you look at the entire US military and say, "Okay, now you got to choose, who are you with?", people will choose. We've done it once before in the history of this country. And it won't be pretty, it'll go just like this country, right down the middle. Everybody in the ranks, they all have political biases, just don't ask them to engage with them.

KH: In your Harper's piece, you laid out how this might happen and I want to quote part of it back to you and get your reaction. "The confluence of these two events, an electoral victory that depended on bringing a record number of people into the political process and the fierce efforts of an entrenched minority to subvert that process through violence, naturally raises the question of whether peaceful reconciliation is possible or whether our polarization and disfunction will cause a fracture in American society comparable to the Civil War." How do you feel in the months since you penned that and the reaction it's certainly gotten?

EA: Listen, I live six blocks from the capitol. I live between DC and New York, so I'm half and half, and one of the things that was very psychedelic for me was being in DC and then being in New York. In New York, January 6th happened, there was the fallout, but life in New York was going on. In DC, without hyperbole, it was totally militarized by my house. The day of the inauguration, I'm walking my kids out the door and there's all four blocks, there's two National Guardsmen on all four blocks and they're armed walking around. Again, it felt like something I'd see in Baghdad. And so just seeing that in American streets was very, very odd. I had to drop my wife off at the train station the day before the inauguration and they had immediately shut down the way you can get to Union Station and she was going to miss her train. I basically had to talk my way through a checkpoint as though I was in Syria or something, to this 20 year old private. Just seeing that in America was quite striking. Obviously that has dissipated, but it would seem to me are we entering an age where every election now becomes a contested election? And that to me is a terrifying precedent. So the 2020 election really set a horrible precedent and are we going to break that cycle in 2022 and 2024? And god, I hope we do. But if we don't, I think it's only a matter of time until you see a true breakdown around one of these elections. Some iteration of January 6th where you're not able to deescalate and get our politics back into some semblance of normal.

KH: It may feel different in DC, you tell me, but it feels like in much of the country there's this concerted effort to forget what happened on January 6th, to move on, to pretend it was just some anomalous spasm. And it's not going to happen again if we pretend it didn't happen in the first place. That scares the hell out of me as much as having troops in the streets to remind us of it. What do you think?

EA: That's funny, I actually feel the exact opposite. I feel like there's a real effort to keep January 6 in the headlines very intentionally we're going to keep talking about this, keep talking about this, keep talking about this. And I think January 6 happens in a context too, it happens after a whole six month period where violence in American streets became the norm, it was not a big deal to see people marching into state houses. The Capitol was not the first legislative body to be marched into. So there had been several others, there hadn't really been huge consequences to it. We'd seen federal buildings attacked out West. We'd seen right wing elements storm into state capitols around COVID restrictions. All of this was brewing, all of this was going on all through that year. And then the January 6 was like the finale.

KH: Do you think it's the finale or a portent of things to come?

EA: I think it's a portent of things to come if we don't get sound leadership in this country that very clearly doesn't create the oxygen for these things to occur. And there's things that I observe and I think both parties do that create this space that allow things like January 6th to occur.

KH: I want to pick up on something you said a little bit ago alluding to the Boer War and its parallels to the post-9/11 veteran experience today and your suggestion that the defining event of our generation has yet to occur. That seems kind of ominous, especially in the light of January 6. Did you mean it that way?

EA: Yeah, I have a sense that we can't keep going as we've been going and I remain skeptical that we're just going to internally correct. And when I say, "the way we've been going", I mean our politics are completely dysfunctional and broken. Our society right now is as divided as it's ever been since the American Civil War. We consume a media, our news media, and I would say even our culture now, that really encourages division in many respects, and frankly profits off it. The model for so many of these news companies and social media companies is outrage. You create outrage, outrage gets you eyeballs on screens, eyeballs on screens equals profit. And so we're in this doom loop, and unless we break that doom loop, it's going to lead us somewhere. So if that cycle doesn't remain unbroken in some ways, I can't tell you exactly what that's going to look like, but I don't think it's going to end well for the United States. And I hate to be so down about it, America is great, but this is a real problem and we've got to deal with it and it's systemic though it's frequently not served up to us as systemic, it's served up to us as partisan.

KH: And at the same time, external threats have not dissipated, this is my pivot to 2034. I'm wondering if that factors into your pessimism as well, because one of the other ingredients that predicts civil war is the existential external crisis that is not successfully met and you and Admiral Stavridis clearly see the militaristic rise of China as one of those external threats. Your book has been hailed as a warning and is being taken seriously in the Pentagon and among policy makers, I assume that was part of your intention.

EA: Absolutely. And again, we've talked thus far about obviously internal threats to the United States, but this could be something external. We're both sort of Iraq, Afghan War guys, and as the Afghan War now is winding down, I think when you look at one of the costs, both financial in terms of human lives, one of the also enormous costs has been the opportunity costs on fixating on these insurgencies for 20 years. And while we've been doing that, we've seen the rise of real peer-level competitors, particularly in the form of China. And we're now, I think the military is now very much playing catch up. So you combine that dynamic with, again, an internal politics where we're quibbling with each other and arguing about microaggressions and our adversaries are building right now, they're claiming the entire South China Sea. The Chinese claimed the entire South China Sea as territorial waters. The South China Sea is half the size of the continental United States. It is as large as the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea combined. So it would be the equivalent if we woke up tomorrow as Americans and said, "We claim the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean are American waters, you are not allowed to drive ships through those waters, they're ours." It's a totally ridiculous claim, yet China claims those. The Chinese Navy right now is larger than the United States Navy. Now granted our ships are more sophisticated, but they are building ships. They have very clear intentions in both the South China Sea and with regards to Taiwan. And I would argue if you were to look right now, if the Chinese were to act on Taiwan tomorrow, Gallup recently had a poll that showed three quarters of Americans don't think we should do anything. And the Chinese are looking at these numbers as well. I don't say that to warmonger, but I just bring it up because we are as Americans caught in this very insular reality where we're all at each other's throats and we behave with a certain degree of impunity as though this does not affect our position in the world, and it absolutely does.

KH: Can we talk about the potential for follow ons, or is that still under wraps?

EA: Sure, I'm happy to talk about it. We're turning it into a trilogy, so we will be writing a book right now - tentatively 2054, which it's going to be a novel of the next civil war, and 2074, which will likely deal with the climate crisis.

KH: 2054 being the next American Civil War.

EA: Yes, American Civil War. It's also going to deal with artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and biotech. Interesting trends as we look out into the next few decades.

KH: Is that going to be a stretch for you as a writer? Are you looking forward to that?

EA: No, I look forward to that.

KH: The techno thriller stuff, that's not your thing right, yet?

EA: My thing is, I think if you read a book like 2034, you'll see there's lots of, I guess what I would consider my trademarks in there. It is in many respects it's definitely a character-driven book. There are five central characters and you are very much in their head and experiencing this war from their perspective. And many of those characters are individuals who are antagonistic to the United States. And when they step on the page, they're making their case to you, the reader, like they would make it before God, and you're hearing what the Chinese Admiral Lin Bao thinks about America from his mouth. And so doing that type of imaginative work exists in a lot of my writing, so it certainly exists in 2034 and as we're laying out 2054 right now, that's going to also continue to exist. But again too, I also like pushing into new terrain and I also have a couple books that will probably be coming out in the interim that are works I've done on my own.

KH: I wanted to ask you about one of those characters. What was it like trying to get inside a Marine Corps aviator’s head? I say that as a Navy pilot.

EA: Yeah, it was a lot of fun. So there's a character in the book who's a Marine pilot, his call sign is Wedge, and it's Wedge because a Wedge is the world's oldest and simplest tool, and he is very much -

KH: Oh, we had one on our squadron. Every squadron has one.

EA: Oh did you? I've met many Wedges. And since the book's come out I've actually had a few people email me and be like, "I was Wedge in my squadron." He's sort of a throwback character. He's a fourth generation Marine Corps pilot, his dad flew in Iraq and Afghanistan, his grandfather in Vietnam and his great grandfather in the South Pacific in World War II. So he's this character that's a throwback to a more classic 20th century vision of American machismo, but here he finds himself at the first major war of the 21st century and he still has a use, but he's certainly kind of out of place. So he's a character you take off the shelf.

KH: Well, thanks for sharing Elliot. We end every episode of Burn the Boats with the same question, what's the bravest decision you have ever made?

EA: Oh man. I think probably to write. I joked and said saying you want to write is like saying you want to dance, it feels very silly, but I think for everyone who gets out of the military, it's tough to figure out what you're going to do next and how you're going to find your purpose after you've had one that is so intense with the type of purpose I think many of us experience when we serve. And so for me it was a real leap of faith to try to find my purpose in something that in many respects was so different from the experience that I just had. Many people I know, and I think all of us have had our struggle figuring out what's next, for those of us who’ve left. And so I think each of us, it takes a little bit of courage to have a vision for yourself of who you're going to become after you've had those experiences.

KH: Well, we're lucky you chose to write. The book is called 2034: A Novel of the Next World War, and I highly encourage everyone to read his Harper's cover story, The Next Civil War. Thanks Elliot for joining us.

EA: Thanks a lot for having me, Ken.

KH: Thanks again to Elliot Ackerman for joining me. You can learn more about his work at and find him on Twitter at @elliotackerman. His latest book, co-written with Admiral James Stavridis, is called 2034: A Novel of the Next World War.

Next time on Burn the Boats, I’m talking to Lina Hidalgo, the county judge for Harris County, Texas. Including the city of Houston, Harris County is the third-most populous in the country - larger than some states. As the county’s chief executive, Lina took early public health measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 and has made great strides to challenge voter suppression in Texas.

If you enjoyed today’s episode of Burn the Boats, please rate and review us on iTunes - it really helps other listeners find the show.

Thanks to our partner, VoteVets. Their mission is to give a voice to veterans on matters of national security, veterans’ care, and issues that affect the lives of those who have served. VoteVets is backed by more than 700,000 veterans, family members, and their supporters. To learn more, go to

Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Isabel Robertson. Audio engineer is Sean Rule-Hoffman. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.

I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.

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