The Uncertainties of Phil Klay

Ex-Marine struggles with his conscience–and the Iraq War–in a captivating book of essays

Former Marine Phil Klay wants to have it both ways. He’s got plenty of criticism about how we handled the Iraq War, but isn’t ready to condemn what is clearly sees today as a failed mission. He seems still blinded by the allure of the military. In his new captivating book of essays, Uncertain Ground: Citizenship In An Age of Endless, Invisible War, he writes that he is “proud to have been a Marine.  I would do it again.  But it marked me and left me with a feeling of responsibility.”  Klay remains vague as to the precise nature of his burden, other than offering up some banalities about liking the ideas of the military, and believing in higher purpose. But his own incisive writing contradicts these notions over and over again, including his bizarre insistence after he left Iraq, he felt his deployment had been a good one.

Klay was born in New York in 1983 and wasn’t from a military family, but felt compelled to enlist after graduating Dartmouth in 2005. He explains: “If you had asked me what I wanted to do post-college, I would have told you I wanted to become a career diplomat like my maternal grandfather. I had no interest in going to war.” But this obviously ambitious young man clear had intentions for his life that one senses he felt army service would greatly accelerate.

Now home, and no longer a Marine, he is married with children, and has returned to the Catholicism of his youth.  He attends church every Sunday with his wife and family in tow.  But doubts linger. He writes in a moment of clarity about his wartime participation: “What, precisely, was the bargain I struck when I raised my hand and swore to defend my country against all enemies, foreign and domestic?”  A half century early, another ambitious young man, John Kerry, was asking himself the same question, when he returned from active duty in Vietnam with his face lined with regret.

Phil Klay
‘Uncertain Ground,’ by Phil Klay.

Klay describes his tenure in the Marines as a soft one. He never engaged in active warfare. Instead, he was a public relations officer tasked with dealing with the media and finding positive stories to spin about any progress the Americans were making. For most of the day, he concedes he sat at a cheap plywood desk in a makeshift hut in the middle of the desert. He was present during the surge, which involved the Sunni revolt against Al-Qaeda, which he believes would not have happened without American involvement.

But one senses strains of a compulsive neatness in Klay’s prose that speaks to his need to tidy things up rather than excavate them. He’s overly enamored with his notion of an exemplary soldier and often avoids the more tangled issues surrounding America’s participation in Iraq. Even a close friend once asked him why he is always so unfailingly polite, to which Klay had no good answer. His decision to leave the Marines and turn to writing full time seems to be an attempt to come to terms with his personal complications of an unpopular war. But in order to do so, Klay, who often sounds defensive, needs to come to terms with his own fear of exposure.

In one of the stories in Klay’s National Book Award winning collection, Redeployment, the first-person narrator decides that when he returns home he will not speak about the war ever. But friends and strangers pester him, and he lies to satisfy their longings.  He makes up grisly stories about corpses lying on the ground; their eyes missing.  The men seemed to love the gore and he enjoys satisfying their lust. With women, he learns to tell other tales, ones that were softer and sadder, but spoke to the helplessness of all those involved.  Redeployment was fiction and his stories shakily weave heroism, duty, and patriotism with weightier issues like guilt, shame, and responsibility.  They have no easy resolutions.

Some readers might recall another writer, Tim O’Brien, who wrote about his experiences fighting in Vietnam a half century ago in Going After Cacciato and The Things They Carried. O’Brien is furious he didn’t have the spine not to go to war. He hates when he gets together with his army buddies and hears them still denigrate the Vietnamese using slurs like gooks, dinks, and slants. Yet he loves these men; they are his blood-brothers; and it is they he thinks about to be able to fall asleep at night. His empathy and compassion ripples through his pages, as well as the agonies of his personal reckonings.

He has a gracefulness and candor Klay is still struggling to find, as well as the peace and serenity of someone who has faced the immoralities they have committed and attempted to atone for them. Klay is in a different place.  He writes: “During my past decade of writing about the war, I’ve often been unsure of whether I’m fulfilling a civic obligation, exploring a personal obsession, accepting a religious duty, or simply screaming into the void.” We sense that if Klay is to find the same sort of peacefulness O’Brien has, it will be by spending hours staring at a blank page, that forces him to go further than he is willing to do now.

Klay admits to flashbacks haunting him. He recalls seeing a Marine so injured he could only make out the tattoo on his right shoulder. He remembers the day a suicide bomber killed over 30 people outside their gate, and he carried a small child to receive medical attention. Sometimes he wonders what he doesn’t feel more than he does; and the reader senses a certain chilliness and righteousness that seems to have overtaken him. He tells us about doctors who would sit with their dying patients unable to do more than hold their hands. He recalls the ruins left by explosives in towns and cities across Anbar Province.

Klay claims he lost faith in the Catholicism of his youth while there, but still made a few visits to the military chaplain.  In an unusually revealing passage, he seems to break through to a lot of the churning turmoil that is smothering him.  He writes:

“My boyhood objection to the savagery of the martyrdom stories, to God’s ultimate silence in the face of suffering and death, takes on a different light in the wake of such deaths.  To anyone with any kind of experience in war, a story of God saving the good would feel less like a comfort and more like an indictment.  Any soldier can tell you that no amount of prayer provides security for the defenseless in a war zone.  The good die.  The bad die.  The combatants die, and the children die.  Sometimes, often, they die horribly.  When we return home, a new knowledge follows with us, the viscerally felt knowledge that men are cruel, that history is bloody and awful, and the earth is a place where, no matter where you live, whether it’s New York or Fallujah, Chicago, or Baghdad, we are regularly failing to protect our most vulnerable, our poor, and our desperate.”

We hear the beginnings of an emotional breakthrough but he stops short of his personal responsibility in this gruesome mess.  After all, he is now an acclaimed writer, a husband and father, and no longer a young kid fresh out of college.  Surely, his children prompt memories in him about what happened there he would rather avoid.  And most of the time, he does so.  The reader can’t help but wish he would go further.

Klay speaks out against the Marines’s bogus proclamation that it is not racist or homophobic. He detests Obama for pulling out funding which he believes allowed for ISIS to gain a footing. He is disturbed by how disinterested Americans are in the culture, religion and identity of those in other countries and stands against the counterterrorism operations in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia, and believes these actions aren’t based on sound military policy.

He’s mortified at how Iraq is faring today; beset by corruption, sectarian violence, and a dysfunctional central government, and knows there are ISIS cells waiting for the right time to pounce. He believes Congress should always vote on a President’s decision to send men to war; and we should only send them when there are clear markers of success and a coherent mission for the fight and what comes afterwards. These criticisms are sound, but soon after declaring them, he seems to pivot again, espousing excessive patriotic speech about how Americans must not “choose not to believe in a morally diminished America,’” which sounds hollow.  Still, there’s much to ponder here that is worthwhile and compelling, because in witnessing Klay’s brokenness, which he tries to shield from us most of the time, we come to understand the depth of his suffering, which he’s still too frightened to see or acknowledge.

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Elaine Margolin

Elaine is a book critic for The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Times Literary Supplement, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Jerusalem Post, Denver Post, and several literary journals. She has been reviewing books for over 20 years with a sense of continual wonder and joy. She tends to focus on non-fiction and biographies.

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