Phil Klay: Citizenship in an Age of Endless, Invisible War

From a Wall Street Journal review by  Leslie Lenkowsky of the book by Phil Klay titled “Uncertain Ground: Citizenship in an Age of Endless, Invisible War”:

In his first State of the Union address following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, President George W. Bush called on Americans to step up. Best remembered for its opening identification of Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an “axis of evil,” the 2002 speech ended with the president urging his fellow citizens to “overcome evil with greater good” and to “lead the world toward the values that will bring lasting peace,” particularly “freedom” and “human dignity.” Many responded by enlisting in the military and joining civilian service programs such as AmeriCorps.

Phil Klay was one of them. A New York native, he was hiking the Appalachian Trail when al Qaeda attacked. Afterward, while still a Dartmouth student, he enlisted in the Marines, receiving a second lieutenant’s commission when he graduated in 2005. By then, he notes in “Uncertain Ground: Citizenship in an Age of Endless, Invisible War,” the U.S. had shifted its focus to Iraq. The fighting was not going well, and he felt he needed to help. “This was my grand cause,” he writes, “my test of citizenship.”

Mr. Klay, who now teaches fiction at Fairfield University, won a National Book Award in 2014 for “Redeployment,” a collection of short stories drawn from his Marine experience, which included a year in Iraq’s ferociously contested Anbar Province. “Uncertain Ground” brings together essays that appeared in a variety of publications after his service ended in 2009. It solidifies Mr. Klay’s place among the best of an increasing number of writers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and, while recounting their experiences in combat realistically and unheroically, raise profound questions about the nature of contemporary warfare.

The essays range across a number of topics. One explores World War I literature, with its emphasis on the glory and awfulness of battle, and harks back to the critic Walter Benjamin’s judgment that to understand war one must first know peace. Another traces the development of the rifle, from the erratic musket of colonial times (and its more accurate, but still unwieldy, counterpart at the beginning of the Vietnam War) to today’s semiautomatic, more lethal, lightweight AR-15. Several muse about the place of religion in combat. A Catholic, Mr. Klay found that keeping the faith was more challenging amid the horrors of Anbar than it was after he returned home.

Mr. Klay served in Iraq during the Bush administration’s 2007 troop surge. He provides a town-level view of what worked and what didn’t: He notes that overwhelming force could be remarkably effective in subduing terrorists and securing villages but that it couldn’t transform the daily lives of Iraqis or make them feel safe in their own communities. Rather than viewing conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan as a series of engagements in which the side with the best weapons wins, Mr. Klay argues that, for the individual soldier and generally for American troops fighting on foreign ground, victory depends on “weaving yourself into a web of relationships in such a way that those around you begin making choices that take your wants and desires into account.” Building such ties is easier said than done.

But the “relationships” that Mr. Klay’s essays mostly address are the ones between American soldiers and American civilians. George Washington and other Founders, he observes, distrusted “standing armies,” worrying that they wouldn’t be as loyal as citizen ones. Eventually, American leaders recognized the necessity of having at least some professional soldiers. Still, major conflicts relied on conscription.

The Vietnam War ended that arrangement, and since the 1970s the U.S. has had an all-volunteer force. What concerns Mr. Klay—citing Andrew Bacevich’s estimate that just 1% of the population serves at any given time—is that most Americans have little contact with the military and thus have little sense of it. More than that, much of what they think they know is wrong; they overestimate, for instance, the prevalence of post-traumatic-stress disorder among today’s veterans. Adding to public misapprehension, Mr. Klay observes, is the nature of modern war-making: Sophisticated technology, such as armored drones and precision weapons, has made it easier to wage war with minimal public attention and resources.

As a result, in Mr. Klay’s view, the U.S. has stretched its military too thin, deploying it on too many missions in too many places. This “endless, invisible war” not only inflicts destruction where it occurs but also leaves the soldiers doing the fighting feeling isolated, unsure of what they are fighting for and unable to talk with their fellow citizens about their experiences. Mr. Klay is especially critical of those who would, in the name of respecting the military, stifle any questioning of it. This attitude, he says, further marginalizes what soldiers do by suggesting it is beyond understanding, let alone legitimate criticism.

Mr. Klay avoids simple, impractical solutions, such as a revival of conscription or an expansion of national service. But his preferred remedies—more political debate and oversight, a clarification of missions, a repeal of the post-9/11 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (which expansively legalizes combating terrorism)—seem improbable if public officials prefer to reap the political gains of war without accepting the responsibility for its costs.

The final essay in “Uncertain Ground” considers the lessons of the fall of Kabul in August 2021, the result of President Biden’s decision to withdraw American troops. As Mr. Klay sees it, 9/11 gave America a sense of “common purpose,” but ultimately, as in Afghanistan, the effects of our “warm glow of victimization” damaged both those we tried to help and the U.S. itself. Yet as this book was published, Russian armies were invading Ukraine and reminding us that the world remains a dangerous place. Sometimes, even if we cannot guarantee the results, it may be necessary to try to “overcome evil with greater good.”

Leslie Lenkowsky is a professor emeritus at Indiana University.

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