Book Matters

“Young Girl Reading”
Seymour Joseph Guy, 1877

The Fifth Act: America’s End in Afghanistan

By Elliot Ackerman

In case you’ve put the whole awful subject out of your mind by now, this book, by a battle-hardened marine, is a reminder that our (the USA’s) exit from Afghanistan was not a thing of beauty.

Ackerman’s attempts – together with other combat veterans with whom he served and assorted free-lancers – to rescue their Afghan helpers, are the main story. It’s presented interleafed with personal post-combat scenes and his own reflections on the high-level policy decisions that precipitated the hasty, ill-planned, American withdrawal. 

It’s very well written. The author’s lean, unembellished style put me in mind of the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S Grant, Commander General of the Union Armies during our Civil War and later 18th President of the United States. There may be something about the direct experience of war that cuts the fat off the prose.

Here are samples: 

“Never before had America engaged in a protracted conflict with an all-volunteer military that was funded through deficit spending.”

“Medevacs are called in with three priority levels. The highest is urgent, which is for ‘loss of life or limb.’ The next is priority, ‘patient’s condition is stable but requires care.’ The last is routine, ‘personnel’s condition is not expected to worsen significantly.’

“The dead are routine.”

One imagines that wars are won on the battlefield, but they are partly fought on the plane of public opinion, where the last shots are often fired by the opinion-shapers. The author takes note of other sites (South Korea, and Niger, to name two) where our troops hold the peace (really, the cease-fire), taking sporadic casualties equal to those we suffered in Afghanistan – without any public clamor for withdrawal.  

It’s said, before you start a revolution, make sure you have a means of escape. By the same token it should be said, before you engage your country in a war, have a means to keep the public on your side!

“In Afghanistan,” Ackerman notes, “there is a saying, ‘The Americans have the watches but the Taliban have the time.’”

The most gripping part of this story is still the author’s efforts, with his military teammates, to save Afghan allies who were now, with their families, in mortal danger from the Taliban. Each report is given as it unfolds on the ground. The reports are hair-raising.  Successes depend on lucky chances, unswerving persistence and steadfast loyalty.  

What motivates these people working to repair some of the wounds left by our exit from Afghanistan? So far as I can tell, it’s actually a high sense of personal honor. For that reason, this is an elevating read.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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