Elliot Ackerman ’98
A Portrait of the Author in Scarlet and Gold
Twenty-six years ago, Elliot Ackerman ’98—prolific novelist, journalist, and recipient of the Silver Star, the Bronze Star for Valor, and the Purple Heart—splashed a bright scarlet Slurpee into the face of his GDS classmate at the start of anthropology class. His teacher Topher Dunne handed the newly arrived British-American sophomore a trip to the principal. More than a dozen years later, when Elliot returned to talk to the students about his multiple tours of duty in the Middle East and his relief efforts in post-Katrina New Orleans with the United States Marine Corps, Topher handed him a Slurpee. It was a playful poke, sweet and prophetic: as his novels would show half a dozen years later, the past is never far afield.
By the end of High School and in the intervening years that followed, Elliot reinvented himself from long-haired, cavalier skater punk to clean-cut, disciplined writer intent on being of service internationally. Former P.E. teacher Karen Epstein drilled him into shape with lunchtime wind sprints and a workout plan. Former English teacher Gary McCown tore his writing apart and with tough attentive care built it up again. Elliot keyed into the rigor and the moral center of the school and headed off to Tufts.
“Once he decided on the military, Elliot worked incredibly hard to attain physical and academic excellence,” Karen said. “He set high and precise goals for himself and made those goals public. This took courage. His empathy for others and his drive to understand even the people that he fought against on the battlefield make him a true model of excellence for our school.”
Elliot went on to serve as a U.S. Marine Corps captain and special operations commander in Afghanistan and Iraq. He also served in Southwest Asia.
“GDS teaches kids to stand in the shoes of other people,” Elliot said. “There is a desire to understand and occupy the experiences of others that is wired into the school's DNA. Combined with academic excellence, that is powerful. That's why you see this critical mass of alumni who have gone on to be successful in the arts and as writers. They experienced rigor combined with a moral center.”
Elliot is the author of the novels Red Dress in Black and White (2020), Waiting for Eden (2018), Dark at the Crossing (2017), and Green on Blue (2015), as well as the memoir Places and Names: On War, Revolution and Returning (2019). On March 9, 2021, Penguin Press released 2034: A Novel of the Next World War, Elliot’s sixth book and first collaboration. Cowritten with retired four-star admiral and former NATO supreme allied commander of Europe James Stavridis, the geopolitical thriller imagines in horrifying detail the global conflagration ignited when China and the United States go to war.
Elliot's books have been nominated for the National Book Award, the Andrew Carnegie Medal in both fiction and nonfiction, and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize among others. His writing often appears in Esquire, the New Yorker, and the New York Times, where he is a contributing opinion writer, and his stories have been included in the Best American Short Stories and the Best American Travel Writing.
The Power of Good Writing
“One of the things I really credit GDS with is that it taught me the mechanics of how to write,” Elliot said. “Teachers like Gary McCown were really focused on making sure the students got it right, something I came to appreciate when I graduated GDS and saw the level of skill that they had given me through their incredible diligence. Gary really cared that I knew how to write an essay.”
Elliot finished reading Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War this fall and, though it is a nonfiction academic text, recalled being “totally floored by the beautiful writing.” Elliot’s palpable emotional response to the book speaks to something he identifies beyond the storytelling. “That’s the power of really great writing,” he noted. “That’s what I am always aspiring to do: to write a book that will elicit that type of reaction from the reader.”
The fictional expat artist Peter from Elliot’s Red Dress in Black and White calls this “emotional transference.” It’s the ability of an artist to gift empathy and understanding to an audience so they might share in that intimate experience. Book critics often point to the grounded, empathetic storytelling in Elliot’s novels, as well as the diverse cast of narrators. The New York Times’ Anthony Swofford wrote, “He makes pure character-based literary art, free of irony, free of authorial self-aggrandizement, dedicated only to deeply human storytelling. Waiting for Eden is a journey through the traumas, betrayals and ecstasies of contemporary warfare and the multiple lives touched and sometimes shattered by one combat injury or death.”
“One thing that a novel allows you to do is to really occupy the interior lives of other people and find access points to people who might seem totally different to you,” Elliot explained. “Often through a novel’s characters, we all make uncommon connections, developing intimacy with characters who, on face value, seem so different and yet with whom we find we can relate deeply. In that way, a novel can be a very powerful assertion of our common humanity and an inherently optimistic action. In a world where there is plenty of division, GDS is a school that makes the constant assertion that in all of the difference, we are also all the same.”
It’s one of the reasons Elliot sends his children to GDS. He’s experienced firsthand the impact of academic rigor coupled with an ethical, empathetic core. Elliot’s three years at GDS were the most challenging academic years of his life and “laid the foundation for everything else [I’ve done] academically...I want my kids to walk out the door and have those same tools. I want them to have those experiences with teachers, even if it's bumpy along the way.”
Elliot’s next novel, Bloomfield, takes place around the 2016–2017 London terror attacks and is slated for a 2022 release. As elsewhere in Elliot’s works, the narrator holds an optimistic worldview—often a cautionary hopefulness. The opening line: “Alexis Bloomfield looked out his window, and he could see nothing but possibilities.”
Populated with scarlet Slurpees and combat zones, Elliot’s past is never far afield in his storytelling. And it blooms gold with possibility.