I knew about Elliot Ackerman before I even met him. We were in different battalions, but our platoons fought across the street from each other down Route Henry in Fallujah 14 years ago. Even then, he had a reputation that preceded him. He was known for his competence and heroism, in addition to being a down to earth, no-nonsense officer with little regard for his rank.
A hundred years ago, at the height of the First World War, John Tolkien, a 25-year-old former lieutenant with the Lancaster Fusiliers, went walking with his wife, Edith, in the Yorkshire countryside. He’d recently returned to Britain from the battlefields of France, after acquiring a case of trench fever. Both the condition and his harrowing experiences in the Battle of the Somme, which claimed the lives of some 600,000 allied soldiers, had weakened him. The carnage continued after he left, decimating nearly his entire battalion. “By 1918,” he wrote later, “all but one of my close friends was dead.” As he walked with his wife, they came to a glade flowered with hemlock. Tolkien sat down to rest. His wife, who was struggling to restore his spirits, began to dance for him among the flowers.
In the fall of 2016, while writer Elliot Ackerman was on assignment in Iraq for Esquire magazine, he found himself on a rooftop in recently liberated Fallujah, peering down at a knee-high cinderblock wall. Before he was a writer, Ackerman was a Marine infantry officer, and for a few tense minutes during the Second Battle of Fallujah, that wall had been all that stood between Ackerman and a barrage of enemy gunfire. Now, after all those years, it was still there. And as he looked out across the neighborhood where his platoon had fought a daylong battle in 2004, it dawned on him: Everything else he remembered from that day was there, too.