As shrapnel and earth rained over Elliot Ackerman’s humvee after an explosion in Iraq, his identity transformed. Ackerman was no longer only a ranking officer in the United States Marine Corps; he was also a combat veteran.
On Thursday, the College hosted Ackerman for a lecture titled “Everett P. Pope.” During his talk, the journalist, author and Purple Heart recipient explored the dangers of a public discourse defined by identity, contextualized by his experience in the Armed Forces.
“Late in my military service, I came to understand how my identity accorded me deference in certain situations,” Ackerman said during his lecture. “The ability to silence the dissent of those who disagree with me when discussing, say, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some might say this is appropriate. That I have earned it. I don’t think so. ”
Ackerman argued that veterans do not necessarily have an inherently more valuable perspective on military-related issues than people who have never been in the armed forces. He is ready to “turn in his card,” urging other groups who rely heavily on identity to frame discussion and argument to do the same.
“The authority of experience certainly counts for something, but should it account for everything?” Ackerman asked his audience. “Should only those who have the authority of lived experience be entitled to raising their voice on certain issues? Race, gender or, as in my case, critical issues of war and peace?”
To Ackerman, these questions are rhetorical.
“The appeal to identity as the dispositive consideration is an anathema to an open, liberal society,” he said.
For Ackerman, identities may supplement and inform arguments, but they should never define them.
Ironically, Ackerman grounds this perspective in the decidedly undemocratic, regimented society of the military. On active duty, he discovered the incredible power an informal identity like “combat veteran” can wield.
After the attack on his vehicle in Iraq, Ackerman noticed changes in his 40-man Marine rifle platoon. Operations ran more smoothly, with no complaints. The non-commissioned officers began visiting Ackerman during off-hours. Trying to understand the sudden shift in attitude, Ackerman asked his sergeant what had changed. His answer was sheepish and simple: “you got blown up—after that, we decided you were OK.”
However, this perspective proved not universal. At a speaking event, a woman in the audience dismissed Ackerman’s perspective about a troop surge in Afghanistan. Because, in her opinion, the war had made him a victim, she had “a hard time believing he could see the situation clearly.”
Ackerman, who describes his veteran status as a “sharp rhetorical blade,” was suddenly reduced to that identity. He worries that the same risks apply to any groups or individuals who rest their arguments on something similar.
At Bowdoin, discussions engaging identity are prominent in conversations, classrooms and student organizations. Responding to a question from Government and Legal Studies Professor Barbara Elias about addressing identity in an academic context, Ackerman expressed concern that colleges are “losing the space to challenge ideas.”
However, some students argue that this is not the case.
“Celebrating and acknowledging people’s identities and lived experiences is a crucial part of open discourse, including at Bowdoin,” Robyn Walker-Spencer ’24 said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “Creating a safe space for dialogue actually brings more voices to the table.”
Ackerman challenged this argument.
“So much of the conversation today around identity professes to celebrate individual difference, but it celebrates individual difference through the individual’s membership in a collective,” he said in a phone interview with the Orient. “You can’t celebrate the individual if you are only able to see the individual through their membership in a collective.”