This review originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books on March 6, 2017
Author Elliot Ackerman is uniquely qualified to write about his chosen subjects, the ongoing and apparently unending conflicts in the Middle East in which the U.S. is embroiled and often foments. A scholar-soldier, Ackerman was a White House fellow as well as a Marine who served five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and has covered the Syrian war from Istanbul since 2013. He has intimate, firsthand knowledge of the human suffering these conflicts cause, and his writing humanizes all participants.
While his acclaimed first novel, Green on Blue, focused on Afghanistan, Dark at the Crossing moves into Syria by way of Iraq. But it moves at first at a leisurely pace, as set in the opening paragraph: “The morning he went off to his second war, Haris Abadi spent twenty minutes in the sauna of the Tuğcan Hotel…Downstairs for a late breakfast, he ate three buttered croissants with jam.” It’s obvious that Haris, an Iraqi, is not a regular soldier reporting for duty; he’s on no one’s clock.
Haris is a naturalized American who earned his citizenship and a Michigan home for himself and his sister when he served as a translator to U.S. troops in Iraq. With his sister getting married and moving to the UAE, Haris — steeped in quiet guilt over his role in the war — searches for a meaningful cause. He is recruited online by shadowy Saladin1984 to join the Syrian Free Army and fight for the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime.
Thus, when we first encounter him, Haris is making his way to the Turkish border to cross into Syria and meet up with his contact, who has suddenly gone silent. At the closed border, he’s immediately rebuffed. From there on, Crossing simply follows Haris in his dogged attempts to get into Syria. His determination holds in the face of repeated reminders that the Free Army is almost defeated, though not by Assad.
For his American readers who tend to think in the stark terms of good guys and bad guys, Ackerman makes clear the tangled, shifting lines in the war. The Free Army’s popular revolution seeks to overthrow the Assad regime and establish a free and democratic Syria. Another group, the Daesh (the pronunciation of the Arabic acronym), is also attempting to overthrow Assad, but for a different purpose: to establish the Islamic State in Syria. The Daesh spends as much time fighting the Free Army as it does the regime, and its tactics are brutal and unforgiving.
One of the first Syrians Haris meets is Saied, who bears a fresh scar down the length of his torso, but also old wounds: He’s missing the tips of his index fingers. “The Daesh did this…To pray, they believe one needs fingers to point toward Mecca. If you don’t believe, you are lost to them. They will disfigure your body in the same way they think your soul is already disfigured.”
With Saied is Athid, slightly older and treated with deference by the Syrians around them. (“Among religious men, he is known for his piety,” Saied observes cryptically.) Athid offers to help Haris sneak across the border. When that attempt ends in betrayal, Haris is temporarily stymied, but then meets Amir and his wife, Daphne, who is even more determined than Haris to cross into Syria, from which she and her husband have only recently come.
The guilt that Haris, Amir, and Daphne each carry for good intentions with bad outcomes suffuses the story, keeping them isolated from each other and locked in a silent wrestling match with their own demons. Haris and Daphne’s single-minded pursuit of a futile objective makes them seem almost lacking in free will, as though they are forced by fate onto this path; at the same time, their determination makes Amir — whose refusal to participate should paint him as the sane one — seem cowardly.
The Americans in this story aren’t evil, but still leave destruction in their wake. When Amir says that Marty, a clueless American dilettante who runs a research firm holding fat U.S. government contracts, is a good guy, Daphne snaps, “Do good guys make money on bad wars?”
Jim, the battle-hardened professional warrior with whom Haris worked as an interpreter in Iraq, is incapable of compassion for the people whose country he and his fellow soldiers are ravaging. After smashing into a house and nearly breaking the arm of a young man in order to get his grandmother to admit where her husband is, Jim turns to Haris. “‘Tell them they’re free to go’…This is their house, thought Haris. Free to go where?”
This is a tightly packed, nuanced narrative in which virtually every character introduced plays a pivotal role. The story is told with economy and a sense of urgency even when the characters seem to be stuck in a holding pattern. That waiting ratchets up the tension, and it’s hard to see how this can end well.
Of course, that is the larger question that Ackerman is exploring here: What might constitute “success” under these circumstances? The real-life civilians of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria haven’t seen anything yet that looks much like success in these ongoing conflicts. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem as though the author will be running low on source material anytime soon.