Marine and author Phil Klay on his latest book and his endless war

Almost a decade after Phil Klay’s first book Redeployment won the National Fiction Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Awardthe bestselling author and Iraq War veteran returns with his first foray into non-fiction.

Uncertain Ground: Citizenship in an Age of Endless and Invisible War is a collection of essays by Klay that address what it means to be an American at a time when the nation seems constantly mired in conflict around the world. Klay’s latest work addresses the complex relationship between a peaceful society and its combatants, as well as how two decades of combat have shaped the way America views military service. Some of the strongest essays in the collection, like “The Good War” and “Duty and pity, are some of the best things written about the GWOT and the people who fought it.

Coffee or Die Magazine sat down with the Iraq War veteran to discuss uncertain terrain, his transition to nonfiction and how he thinks “Eternal Wars” could shape the future of American foreign policy.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Phil Klay is the author of the collection of short stories Redeployment, the novel Missionaries, and a collection of essays. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

COD: Tim O’Brien talked about The things they carried, “What you remember [of war] is the feel of it, and that’s what I really wanted to communicate. […] You can tell them without having to tell the literal truth, most of which you don’t even remember. Your first book Redeployment, was a fiction. What do you think works so well in fiction when writing about war?

PK: There are a few advantages you have with fiction. On the one hand, you’re telling a story that you’re asking the reader to kind of imaginatively enter into, which is a fundamentally different thing than presenting them with an argument that they’re supposed to deal with and have to respond to. Some people have read my first book, Redeployment, and I read it as an anti-war book. I was also told that the children had read Redeployment before joining the army. So ultimately, fiction doesn’t seek to spread a message, but invites the reader to think very deeply about the experiences most important to the writer. You take readers to situations of great moral, spiritual, or political concern to you, and then the reader imagines themselves inside that experience and tries to formulate their own personal response.

This is what is deeply important to me in fiction. There is nothing new in the fact that the experience of returning from war is an experience of alienation, is there? It dates back to Odysseus’ return to Ithaca and is recognized only by his dog. It’s not a new experience that when a soldier returns to a society that hasn’t shared the experience, there is a disconnect. Fiction is a way for people to start trying to imagine these experiences and process them for themselves.

COD: Your new book, uncertain terrain, is a collection of essays. What inspired you to write a non-fiction book about America’s endless wars?

PK: I’ve been writing both fiction and non-fiction for a long time, but the essays in Uncertain ground address things in public discourse on the war that I believe are wrong, or out of place, or understated. Some of the essays are more explorations of things in my life, related to the war, that still puzzle me. For example, “Tales of War and Redemption »the story of my chaplain interacting with children in Iraq — is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. An essay is a way of rigorously trying to examine my own responses to these things and then inviting other people to do the same. It’s just a different aspect of trying to get people to actively engage in these wars, the homecoming experiences, the pursuit of the moral and spiritual issues that wars raise.

Evacuation of Kabul
Evacuees board a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 21, 2021. U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Taylor crul.

COD: Some of these trials are more than 10 years old. Did major events (like the fall of Kabul or the war in Ukraine) change your vision of these “eternal wars”?

PK: My perspectives have definitely evolved over time. I think readers can probably see that in Uncertain ground. The first essay I wrote, “Death and Memory talks about the experience of watching someone die in the hospital and then go to New York on discharge. And I think this particular essay has more anger towards a civil society that is less interested in war. Later, when I think back to that exact moment, I realized that there was a lot more political debate about wars than I had originally thought. There is a balance in how we think about our responsibilities as citizens.

The initial alienation of veterans is an understandable response, but must be overcome in order to adopt a healthier approach to our society. There are many issues of great political importance in American life – and people’s ordinary lives – when they don’t think of war, and which are still deeply important and worthy of respect. This kind of perpetual complaint by veterans against civilian culture is unhealthy.

COD: I was particularly captivated by your essay, “The Good War,” which addresses how we remember, or more accurately, how we misremember certain wars when describing moral behavior and ethics in fight. With the prevalence of cameras everywhere, do you think an increase in visibility has bridged this gap between what you call “historical memory and lived experience?” Do you foresee problems in future wars because of this new transparency?

PK: I was just discussing with a friend yesterday the alleged videos of Ukrainian soldiers behaving coldly with dead Russians and their families. There is an interesting WWII document by Pvt. Frank B. Sargent, who talks about how people should be trained, and one of the things he stresses is the importance of hate. It’s that kind of candid discussion of what the experience of being in intense combat for extended periods of time does to someone psychologically. There are these kinds of things that happen when these videos come out and people are shocked. I think it’s a good thing they’re shocked, because how we treat the dead and how we behave in battle is hugely important – for a whole host of reasons, including our own humanity.

I also think we shouldn’t be naive about what prolonged periods of war can do to people. I think you just have to be lucid. I think cell phone videos give you information immediately, but I think often times it’s kind of a show that’s different from understanding, isn’t it?

One of the reasons I’m attached to the written word is that it forces someone to think about these questions in a slower, more contextualized, and more careful way. You can bring out the intensity of an experience that often turns into some sort of shocking image. There’s something really weird about watching these wars on a screen. There’s this kind of weird, sanitized nature. I support the Ukrainians and hope for their success on the battlefield as much as anyone, but it’s strange to see people sharing videos of successful strikes, because what they share are basically snuff films, where in many cases a group of Russian conscripts who didn’t even know they were going to invade Ukraine burn to death. You share a video and you’re supposed to feel elated. You share another video and you’re supposed to feel horror and disgust, but with the written word, you move into more complex emotions, where you start to understand how these things fit together.

Book by Phil Klay Uncertain Ground
Uncertain ground – shown, preview copy – contains essays that cover a decade of America at war. Photo by Mac Caltrider/Coffee or Die Magazine.

COD: You wrote a brilliant essay, “American Purpose After the Fall of Kabul.” You warn of the catastrophic destruction that can come from a nation “raptured by the warm glow of victimhood,” citing unity in the wake of 9/11 and the two wars that followed. Do you worry about how Russia’s invasion has seemingly united much of the West and how that might weaken our aversion to war?

PK: I think whenever there’s war fever — including for a demonstrably righteous — it’s very important that there are cooler, more skeptical heads. I think that’s the challenge the Biden administration is trying to address right now. I know a few veterans who went abroad to help train Ukrainians. For them, there is a very clear and moral purpose. Whenever something becomes the cause of the moment, there’s this kind of brain-dead contrarianism that people despise, like they’re making fun of anyone who supports Ukraine, because supporting Ukraine is the ” current thing, but sophisticated contempt is far dumber than heartlessly retweeting Ukrainian propaganda. . It’s important to keep a cool head, especially when it comes to taking human lives on an industrial scale.

COD: Does Uncertain ground do you have a target audience? Did you write it for the military, civilians, or both? And what do you hope readers take away from your first non-fiction book?

PK: I always try to write things that would appeal to both military and civilian leaders, and which hopefully can serve as a basis for conversation between these two groups. One thing I hope they will remember is that they need to take war seriously – it is one of our responsibilities as American citizens.

Uncertain Ground: Citizenship in an Age of Endless War by Phil Klay, Penguin Press/Random House, 272 pages, $27.

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Lola R. McClure