Senior Fellow Q&A | Elliot Ackerman

Elliot Ackerman

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Senior Fellow

Elliot Ackerman is a New York Times bestselling author of the novels Halcyon, 2034, Red Dress In Black and White, Waiting for Eden, Dark at the Crossing, and Green on Blue, as well as the memoir The Fifth Act: America’s End in Afghanistan, and Places and Names: On War, Revolution and Returning. His books have been nominated for the National Book Award, the Andrew Carnegie Medal in both fiction and nonfiction, and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. He is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and a Marine veteran who served five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he received the Silver Star, the Bronze Star for Valor, and the Purple Heart. He divides his time between New York City and Washington, D.C.

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After earning an undergraduate degree in history and literature, you joined the Marine Corps in 2003 and stayed on for eight years, including service in Iraq and Afghanistan. What motivated you to go that route?
I joined the Marine Corps really for three reasons. First, because I wanted to have a job where, whether I was good or bad at it, it mattered. Or, put another way, I wanted real responsibility at a young age. In the Marine Corps, I was placed in charge of a 46-man infantry platoon at 23 years old and sent to Iraq. I know of few places that offer that kind of responsibility to those so young.

The second reason I joined has to do with growing up overseas, in London. This gave me the chance to travel pretty widely at a relatively young age. It also gave me the chance to grow up as an expat, and this provided me with an outsider’s appreciation of the United States, which made me want to serve and give back.

The third and final reason I was drawn to the Marines is probably the simplest of all. I was that kid who — I’m embarrassed to say — never really stopped playing with his G.I. Joes. I’d always had an interest in the military, even at a very young age, and I know that interest drew me into the Marines.
Following a decorated military career, you switched gears to focus on writing, including multiple best-selling novels, a memoir, and essays in The Atlantic. Twenty years ago, could you have pictured yourself as a professional writer? What advice do you have for students interested in this path?
It’s funny, people will sometimes say to me, “Elliot, it’s odd that after a career in the military you went into a career in writing and the arts." I can understand why this might seem strange. The life of a Marine — which is very outgoing — is quite different than the more solitary, creative life. However, the people who’ve known me the longest often say, “You know, Elliot, we always thought it was strange that you wound up in the Marines given that you were such an creative kid.” I guess my take away from this is that “we all contain multitudes,” as Walt Whitman famously said.

My advice to students who want to write is to get out in the world and don’t be afraid of being multiple things. You can write, and be a military officer, or doctor, or entrepreneur. Don’t be afraid to engage with the multitudes within.
You also served as a White House Fellow in the Obama administration and hold a master’s degree in international affairs. Did you consider a career in diplomacy or the policy world? What were your most valuable takeaways from your IR degree program?
I did consider a career in policy and was lucky enough to work on veterans issues in the Obama administration. Although, at the end of the day, I’m much happier being a writer. I’m a graduate of the Fletcher School [at Tufts University] and my studies there gave me the tools to contextualize complex political events. This is a task I’m continually called upon to do in my journalism, in which I have to put a framework around the issues I’m writing about for an audience.
Now you’ve come to Yale to teach and mentor students. What unique insights or lessons do you hope Yale students will gain from taking your classes?
The class I’m teaching along with my friend, lecturer Matt Trevithick, with whom I’ve traveled much of the world, is titled Field Operations in Global Affairs. Unlike theoretical classes, this is designed to be a practitioners class, in which students will learn how to operate in austere environments from some of the greatest practitioners working today.

In addition to the discussions hosted by me and Matt, we’re bringing in leaders from the military, journalism, and those who are working in the field right now in places like Ukraine, Syria, and Afghanistan. We like to joke that the goal of our class is to make you taste the sand from the field in your teeth!