Citizenship in an Age of Endless, Invisible War
By Phil Klay
At first I thought Phil Klay had made a mistake in collecting his nonfiction magazine, newspaper and online work from the past dozen years into a new book, “Uncertain Ground.”
Klay’s first book, “Redeployment,” in 2014, was an achievement hard to match. It was a group of 12 short stories set in wartime Iraq, where Klay had been a Marine Corps public affairs officer during the “surge” of 2007-8. Among other recognitions it won the National Book Award for fiction, plus enthusiastic reviews both from those with extensive military experience and from those with none. Six years later, he published “Missionaries,” a novel of ideas based on the drug-and-guerrilla wars of Colombia. Its admirers included Barack Obama, who chose it as one of his books of the year.
News-pegged opinion essays don’t always age well. My reading of “Uncertain Ground” started with some of the shorter items in it, the op-eds and blog posts — for instance, a newspaper piece on how the killing of the Iranian Quds Force commander Qassim Suleimani in 2020 might affect fighting in Iraq. Most of these, I thought, now looked like journalistic “takes” from their particular moments, written while emotions and reactions were still fresh, and meant to be read under those same conditions, rather than months or years later.
But the rule of most writing — the shorter, the better — appears not to apply to Klay’s nonfiction. The half-dozen longest, meatiest and most probing essays and articles presented here share the lasting power of Klay’s acclaimed fiction. They were published separately, in different places over a decade-plus span. But read together they amount to an interwoven, evolving and revealing examination of Klay’s central topic: What it means for a country always at war, that so few of its people do the fighting.
“War remains a large part of who we are as Americans,” he writes in his introduction, “with almost a sixth of our federal budget going to defense, keeping troops deployed in 800 military bases around the world and engaging in counterterror missions in 85 countries. And yet, thanks to a series of political and strategic choices, to the average American that’s mostly invisible.”
Firsthand exposure to the country’s “long wars” has been almost unbelievably concentrated. All the Americans who have served in Iraq, Afghanistan or any other U.S. combat theater at any time since the 9/11 attacks of 2001 together amount to around 1 percent of the nation’s public. The best of these essays combine reporting, with Klay’s observations from his own military service, with historical evidence and spiritual reflections, all to help illuminate the “invisible” world of this 1 percent.
For instance, “A History of Violence,” written after the Las Vegas gun massacre of 2017, explains how what is now America’s most widely owned rifle, the AR-15, arose from the military’s quest for a lightweight weapon that could do maximum damage through high-volume “area fire,” rather than relying on carefully aimed sniper shots. He also recounts the grisly sequence of experiments in “wound ballistics” that guided the choice of ammunition for the AR-15 and its military descendant, the M16. (According to his family, the AR-15’s designer, Eugene Stoner, never imagined this weapon in civilian hands.) With a slightly modified AR-15, the Las Vegas gunman was able to kill 58 people and wound at least 400 more. “There was nothing particularly remarkable about the shooter’s skills,” Klay writes. “His lethality was primarily a function of the sheer number of rounds he could put downrange.”
“Citizen Soldier: Moral Risk and the Modern Military,” originally a Brookings essay, is about the invisibility of the 1 percent who have worn the uniform — and the resentment many veterans feel not for mistreatment but for cheap “thank you for your service!” rituals that mask a deeper indifference to the physical, emotional and moral costs of war. Klay writes, “It’s that sense of a personal stake in war that the veteran experiences viscerally, and which is so hard for the civilian to feel.”
And in “Man of War,” for the Jesuit magazine America, Klay explains at length how serving in the Marine Corps gave him an almost religious sense of community and mission, whose absence he felt on return to civilian life. As a Marine, he writes, “I was given the stories of military saints — men and women who risked their lives under enemy fire, who jumped on hand grenades to save their buddies, who held faith with their fellow prisoners of war during years of torture. … Out of the Corps, I was deprived of that community and not yet fully absorbed into the civilian world. … I was alienated, as so many veterans have been before.”
What does Klay ask of the other 99 percent of Americans? It starts with seriousness about the consequences of going to war. He dares dream of an America in which a president would “regularly go before Congress to explain where and why he was putting troops in harm’s way” — and of a Congress that would have to vote up or down on the plans. But he connects those stakes to the daily obligations of citizenship under the Constitution, which all service members must take an oath to defend.
“No civilian can assume the moral burdens felt at a gut level by participants in war, but all can show an equal commitment to their country,” he writes. “Ideals are one thing; the messy business of putting them into practice is another. That means giving up on any claim to moral purity. That means getting your hands dirty.”
It turns out that I was the one making a mistake about this book. It is engrossing and important, and I hope readers will start with the longest parts first.
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