Phil Klay Breathes New Life Into the Great Tradition of Writing About War

In "Missionaries," the former Marine levels his sights on the decades-long civil war in Colombia

October 7, 2020 7:47 am
Phil Klay's new novel explores how society deals with war.
Sorin Rechitan / EyeEm / Penguin Random House

War never ends. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but America’s seemingly perpetual involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan suggests that we’ve become resigned to war as the status quo. Not only does the fighting continue when the public isn’t paying attention, but the scars and culture of war never leave the affected. War becomes a way of living.

Missionaries, the debut novel by National Book Award winner and Marine veteran Phil Klay, arrives with an intense first chapter and never relents. Klay captures how war and disorder infect a culture. “A period of great fear began,” a man called Abel writes, reflecting on his fractured childhood in Colombia. He remembers how men on motorcycles, offering no warning or apology, would speed through the children’s street games. Then the violence started: local feuds led to dead bodies floating downriver. A ruthless guerrilla named Carpenter, “a big man with a rough face, pitted like pumice stone,” takes control. He kills indiscriminately, turning children into orphans — ones longing for revenge.

No one forgets the past in Missionaries. Carpenter’s guerrilleros recruit more and more fighters from Abel’s town, although most residents, including Abel, are scared silent. But a young man named Franklin — the one “in a hundred [who] will stand up to a true killer” — ambushes Carpenter and stabs him repeatedly, like a thousand vengeances for the death of his brother at the hands of the guerrilleros. “But Franklin only had enough courage in him to do it once,” Abel says. “He fled, and his whole family fled with him, while the rest of the town waited like a pig facing the knife.”

Missionaries is a relentless book. After violence shocks their town, Abel’s father hides him in a boat and he drifts to Cunaviche: another place stained with blood. A crowd gathers in the town’s church at the altar under the hanging Christ. The town’s priest has been executed as an example: don’t cross the wrong person. Abel — narrating his past in third person — feels that “the eyes of the Holy Christ followed him and only him, ignoring all the crowd, and the wound in the side of the Holy Christ seemed no longer to gape and devour, but to scream along with the people in the street.” Klay has the rare talent to make every moment feel authentically ominous — and to make true justice feel absent.

“Certainly, some form of justice is possible in this world, but never justice for all,” Klay tells InsideHook. “The language of justice very easily turns into a tool for persecution and inequality.” It’s an ethos that is captured in the hearts of his characters. Juan Pablo, a Colombian military officer, believes “Soldiers don’t have any business thinking about justice.”

Klay, who served as a public affairs officer at Camp Taqaddum in Iraq’s Anbar Province, can reveal the imperfections of justice better than most. His first book, the acclaimed Redeployment, tells the stories of soldiers who face moral struggles and inescapable suffering. In one story, after yet another funeral for a fallen soldier, Klay writes that they kneel in front of a cross, “arms over one another’s shoulders, leaning into one another until it was one silent, weeping block. Geared up, Marines are terrifying warriors. In grief, they look like children.”

In his fiction, and in essays for The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The Washington Post, Klay has emerged as a writer of dramatic and morally-conscious literature about war, grounded in lessons learned from his own service. Klay reveals the complex ethics of what it means to live as a veteran in America — especially the problem of elevating veterans as superheroes. The myth of the veteran as an invincible warrior is most comforting for people who want to send others to war, but don’t want to provide them with the help they need when they return. Redeployment showed what happens when American veterans return home, but Missionaries doesn’t give its veterans a rest from battle. The novel shows that war is perpetual: not simply a sequence of battles, but a pattern of life.  

“So many of the characters in the novel desperately want to be believers, whether it’s in their religion, their job, or the progress of civilization,” Klay says. He’s one of the most visible Catholic fiction writers in America — his moral and literary senses have been cultivated by his Jesuit education. His ability to write jarring, violent scenes comes from a place of religious empathy — he understands how the Catholic world of Colombia coexists with, and even sustains, the corruption and strife of the country.

Faith is often all these characters have. “Their faith is related to that apprehension of meaning and purpose they feel, that sense that the human drama before them matters profoundly, that the people in front of them are more than mere matter, but connected to one another in deep ways,” he says. When those characters try to put that faith into action through their actual lives, “it means joining institutions marred by corruption in a world marred by strife. Which means their efforts never quite bear the fruit they hoped they might. For some, this tempers their faith, since God exists outside of such corruption, and is there for them when they need forgiveness or a belief in the possibility of human redemption, or even just someone to cry out to in agony.” 

Agony is what they know. Abel isn’t stirred by the sentimentally spiritual tone of his local evangelical school, but he’s moved by the blood-and-guts Christ at Cunaviche. Juan Pablo’s daughter Valencia is driven by a sense of Christian mission to help document abuses in the country, but her vision becomes murky when the reality of violence reaches her. She seeks clear moral lines — good and bad, savior and saved — but her war-weary father tells the truth: “Men are weak. Don’t ask if they’re good or bad. We’re all sinful. Ask if they’re better or worse than the times they lived in.” 

Klay writes in the tradition of provocative after-the-war novels like Dog Soldiers by Navy veteran Robert Stone — another writer formed by Catholic faith, but whose belief soured in response to the messy world. In Stone’s book, John Converse, a Marine-turned-journalist and playwright, gets mixed up in a heroin deal from Saigon to the United States that includes his sclerotic service buddy Ray Hicks, who now works as a Merchant Marine sailor. Converse, like those around him, has gotten to the point where he can rationalize anything: “And as for dope, Converse thought, and addicts — if the world is going to contain elephants pursued by flying men, people are just naturally going to want to get high.” 

Converse says Vietnam “is the place where everybody finds out who they are.” American soldiers like him “didn’t know who we were till we got here. We thought we were something else.” Converse thinks about how he was embedded with a Cambodian infantry company, and would steal moments where he would read his paperback copy of Nicholas and Alexandra. When fragmentation bombs rained down from the South Vietnamese Air Force, Converse had a revelation: “One insight was that the ordinary physical world through which one shuffled heedless and half-assed toward nonentity was capable of composing itself, at any time and without notice, into a massive instrument of agonizing death. Existence was a trap; the testy patience of things as they are might be exhausted at any moment.” After that, international dope schemes don’t seem too wild. 

In the same way, Klay’s American veterans feel the romance and horror of war — and that once you are scarred by service, morality feels like a cruel joke. Mason, an Army Special Forces medic, loved war at first. He was young, and longed for the thrills. But then he started to become troubled “by the occasional mission that made you question. Like the raid on Ammar al-Zawba’i.” Mason thought that Special Forces was “supposed to be the unit of warrior-diplomats, of language and culture specialists who could learn the cultural terrain, build up host-nation forces to fight so Americans didn’t have to, was already becoming more and more a direct-action unit. Raid after raid after raid. Over the next ten years, the ‘diplomat’ portion of the ‘warrior-diplomats’ would wither.’” He thinks: “It’s jarring, the transition out of those deeply private seconds when you’re preparing your kit and your body for what’s to come.”

Now the Special Forces liaison at the Colombian embassy, Mason unknowingly brings together the parallel strands of Klay’s novel: journalists willing to risk their lives for the next big story, Colombians exhausted by death and betrayal, and American veterans who can’t escape the aftermath of war. Klay is a great novelist of chaos — but he doesn’t revel in despair. He deftly creates a mess of nearly biblical proportions as Missionaries builds toward its riveting conclusion — but he also challenges his readers to think of how war frays morality. 

In one scene, Juan Pablo says of his daughter’s empathetic views on Che Guevera: “She pitied him…Good. I didn’t want her to look up at the mural in rage, as I might have done at her age. Rage is too close to love.” I love those lines on their own — but there’s also a strong hint of the cadence, syntax, and heart of fellow Catholic novelist Graham Greene. I asked Klay if he had Greene in mind when writing this book. “I love the way Greene interweaves politics and faith and crime, the sense he has for the complexity of human affairs, for perversity and dishonesty and corruption, the ideological openness which, however much it might have led him to more than dubious political statements and affiliations in his private life, allowed him to craft richly compelling characters of all political persuasions,” Klay says.

In The Quiet American, Alden Pyle, a CIA agent, arrives in Vietnam with hopes to remake the East as a democracy. Thomas Fowler, the book’s narrator, is a jaded British journalist who is skeptical of Pyle’s project, but who also claims to be objective: “I wrote what I saw. I took no action—even an opinion is a kind of action.” Greene himself had been embedded in Saigon, and wrote that the First Indochina War “will be decided by men who never waded waist-deep in fields of paddy.” When Phuong, Fowler’s lover, becomes involved with Pyle, Fowler loses his sense of objectivity. He takes action, and it leads to Pyle’s death.

By the end of the novel, Fowler feels guilty. “The condemnation of human sacrifices to America’s materialistic, ignorant anticommunism is in keeping with Greene’s Jansenist Catholicism” — a smart observation from the introduction to the re-issue of the novel, written by none other than Robert Stone. 

Klay keeps alive the tradition of great writing about war. Late in Missionaries, Juan Pablo sips whiskey and thinks to himself: “This fool, this fellow mercenary, wanted to believe in clean wars with clean boundaries. Such a thing didn’t exist.” Klay, like Stone and Greene, knows of the world he writes. And he knows that all of us — soldiers and citizens, war-mongers and pacifists — are part of the mess.

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