Phil Klay is an author and veteran of the US Marine Corps. His short story collection Redeployment won the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction and the National Book Critics’ Circle John Leonard Prize for best debut work in any genre, and was selected as one of the 10 Best Books of 2014 by the New York Times. Today, Missionaries, his first novel, released from Penguin Random House. Providence executive editor Marc LiVecche speaks with Phil about the book, covering topics ranging from the nature of personhood, the changing character of war, the uses of American power, moral injury, and much else.
LiVecche: All right, hello everybody. I am Marc LiVecche. I am the executive editor of Providence Magazine: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy, as well as a Stockdale research fellow at the US Naval Academy. and I am delighted to be here with Phil Klay, who is a Marine officer and currently a writer. And he is the author of two incredible books. The first one is Redeployment, which came out several years ago, a collection of short stories. We’ve reviewed it in the pages of Providence. Look it up — my name with Redeployment. And just today is just out his second book, his first novel, called Missionaries, and this is going to be the subject of today’s conversation. So, Phil, thank you for coming, or thank you for being on Zoom. Yeah, could you say just one or two words about who you are and then we’ll jump into a review of your remarkable book?
Klay: Sure. Yeah, as you mentioned, I was in the Marine Corps. It feels like a long time ago now. I think that, you know, I wouldn’t really have thought when I got out of the Marine Corps in 2009 that I would still be writing about these conflicts that we’re still embroiled in, but yeah. And I don’t know, just I’ve been writing mostly about military affairs, civil-military relations, right. Non-fiction as well, and I’m primarily a fiction writer, so this is, this is my first novel. And it’s in many ways my attempt to try and get a handle on maybe something broader than just one specific conflict, right. My first book was about the Iraq war. And this novel, you know, spends time in Iraq, it spends time in Afghanistan, in Yemen, mostly in Colombia, actually. And it’s in some ways trying to get a handle around not just sort of 21st century war in the way that it’s somewhat importantly different, in a kind of globalized world where everything is connected, including how we kill, but also what that means — the way that we use violence now — what that means for individual people, for their bodies, their psychologies, their communities, and their souls.
LiVecche: Oh, that’s brilliant. That’s fantastic. You’re preempting half of my questions already completely. This is great. You’ve already said that the, you know, the book is about people, right. And you open up with this great eminent, and I wish we could read, you know, long sections of the book. That would be a bit of a spoiler. So, just go out and buy the book and read it yourself. But you have this opening almost disposition on personhood.
LiVecche: Where you say, and I will read a couple short sections of it. I mean, really the initial pages where you say, “Most people think that a person is whatever you see before you walking around in bone and meat and blood, but that is an idiocy.” Right. “Bone and meat and blood just exists, but to exist is not to live. And bone and meat and blood alone are not a person. A person is what happens when there is a family and a town a place where you are known, where every person who knows you holds a small invisible mirror, and in each mirror held by family and friends and enemies is a different reflection. When you go on to say a person is what happens when you gather all those reflections around a body. So, what happens when one by one the people holding those mirrors are taken from you? It’s simple, the person dies and the bone and the meat and blood goes on walking the earth as if the person still existed, when God and the angels know he doesn’t.” So, fantastic. Heartbreaking. All of that to be a person is so much different and more important I think than to be simply an individual that, you know, we could probably talk about that.
LiVecche: All day long about what that distinction is, if you want to touch on that. But I want to use that as an introduction. Your book has a, you know, there’s a carnival of characters, but four primary ones. And I’m wondering if you could say, who are those four persons that shape your novel primarily, and why are those four-person stories worth telling?
Klay: Sure, sure. So, the initial impetus for the book — I wanted to get, you know, a sense of as I, saying this kind of modern system of war, right. So, for me in terms of war, right, the thing I would, I always think to David Jones, the Great War one poet, who wanted his writing to be incarnational, right. And, you know, to sort of bring you sort of this physical immediacy to the writing. And I think that’s really critical for war writing and discussion about war, which often sort of evaporates off into abstractions. And yet how do you retain that in the modern world where you can have a Colombian mercenary on an Emirati air base watching a Yemeni tribesman over a Chinese-made drone before killing him with an American-made missile, right? What does that mean and how do you talk about the way that the world has become that way that’s possible? Well, one way to do it is to put it into the stories of very concrete specific people, in people who are part of different institutions with their own sort of institutional prerogatives and inertia and their own desires and ideals, right. That sort of clash against the pragmatic demands of the world as they encounter it. And so, you know, if you think about the narrators as being at sort of different ends of a spectrum in terms of where they exist in relation to the sort of ground experience, right, where the violence is done, the first narrative you just read from his event, and he’s in that passage is talking about what happened to him after his town is destroyed, right. It’s due to the violence in Colombia. You can probably hear echoes of sort of Jacques Maritain in that particular description of what a person is. And he is, ends up in this kind of right-wing paramilitary group, and what he ultimately wants is to be embedded in a community again, right. And then at a sort of higher level you have Juan Pablo who is an officer in the Colombian military, right. And he works with Mason who is an American special forces, a former medic, and we sort of meet him, meet Mason in Iraq and we follow him to Colombia and Afghanistan. And Mason, you know, his trajectory is very much about sort of a shift that happened in how we use special forces in his disquiet with that, right. As particularly, first decade of the 21st century, this sort of warrior diplomat ideal kind of leeched away as they were used for a lot of direct-action missions, right, and very little sort of institution building, particularly in Afghanistan, right. And there’s a very violent deployment, that’s based on a real deployment, that I talk about in one of his chapters, in 2007. And then there’s Lisette who we meet, and she’s a journalist, right. So, she’s trying to communicate this to the American public. And we meet her in Afghanistan, and she sort of burned out, and she wants some war where we’re winning, right. And this mercenary, who she, yeah, she wants a good war, right. I mean, don’t we all? And this mercenary, who she used to date, tells her that Colombia is the place where we’re winning because Colombia is on the verge of signing this peace treaty with the FARC. And so, she ends up in Colombia. And so, you said follow these characters in. The first half of the book is in their voices, right. And then in the second half of the book, there is a raid that happens based on a real raid where the Colombian military found out that a drug sort of trafficker had ordered a six foot tall teddy bear for his girlfriend’s birthday party, and so they put a beacon in the teddy bear and then tracked it to the birthday party where they then went and killed him. And that raid sets off a kind of chain of events in this small kind of rural poor community on the Venezuelan border. And that sort of ends up sort of having all these characters’ plots converge and their fates converge. And so, that’s why the book was structured that way. Now the funny thing about it, of course, is when you’re writing a book you start out with a kind of grand scheme of, you know, this character is going to be at this level of conflict and this character is going to be at this level of conflict and this character is going to be at this level of conflict and so on. But while you’re writing it, certain things take over, and certain things become much more important to you. And so, you know, Valencia, Juan Pablo’s daughter, for example, didn’t exist in the initial conception of the book, right. And yet as I was writing it, she became more and more important and this kind of primary character. We’re thinking through this one Colombian officer and his sense of himself and his job and his hopes for the future and how those will then get realized or not in his own daughter, right. And then her, you know, very distinct perspective on her country and her father’s work and, you know, what to do in the wake of violence.
LiVecche: So, fascinating. I mean, and that makes so much sense. I first read the book, your publishers were kind enough to send me an electronic version, I’m reading through it on my Kindle, and then the hardcover version came. And I like Kindle because I can have like, but there’s nothing that ultimately substitutes for this. Because it wasn’t until I picked this up, because I was having a difficult time trying to figure out okay, who are the main characters, and it wasn’t until I picked this up that I realized — well duh, the main characters are the ones who in the beginning of the book, as you’ve said it’s all first-person narrative, right. And, you know, and then you shift into the second part. You’ve made them persons for-
LiVecche: And then you bring them all together in this cacophony of violence. And Valencia and Jefferson and all the other characters are crucial and important, but we don’t get quite inside them quite like we do with your initial four. And Juan Pablo particularly is an enigma. I kept asking myself, I don’t know you that well, we’ve met a couple of times, and I kept thinking, “So, who’s Phil? Is Phil in here?” And everyone that I thought — Juan Pablo is Phil and, you know, Mason, you know, there’s a couple things that Juan says that I’m like, “What is that?” And especially with this father-daughter sort of dance. So, are you in there? Is that a fair question? Is that asking the magician to show the trick?
Klay: I’m in all of them. You know, you pull, you pull characters out of your own emotional palate, right. So, yeah. I’m in all of them. Yeah for sure.
LiVecche: Right. And they seem familiar. And I think they will seem familiar to anybody who’s read Redeployment because they’re, you know, they’re not, I don’t want to say their types in a flat one-dimensional sense, but they felt familiar. Like some of the stories they’re telling, some of the emotions they’re conveying, I’m like, “I’ve read this before.” And that’s one of the things I love about your writing is one, I’ve read it in Redeployment, but even when I was reading Redeployment I’m like, “Oh, he’s read this combat narrative or he’s read this essay.” And, you know, the more you read within this sort of world, the more you draw into it. And it’s both, it’s interesting to me because it’s almost disequilibrating, because I’ll be reading your stuff and I’m thinking, “So, where is fact and fiction? Where, you know, where do they blend? Where do they separate?” And I think it’s incredibly effective because it, you know, for a civilian who has never been downrange, it makes war in one sense familiar but it also probably helps to convey this sense of where does fiction and reality diverge. And nobody would ever weaponize a teddy bear, right? But they do.
Klay: Totally happened, yeah.
LiVecche: Right. And so, it gives a realism to it that’s just equilibrating, which is, which is fantastic. Really exciting.
Klay: Yeah, some of the more I think startling and weird things in the book I can’t really take credit for, because they happened, right. So, the clowns, for example. Which maybe we shouldn’t talk about.
LiVecche: Yeah, there are clowns.
Klay: Yeah, there are clowns in the book. They make a very distinctive cameo.
LiVecche: That’s right. Like this is too ridiculous to be fiction. This had to have happened.
Klay: Right, right.
LiVecche: Absolutely fascinating. The title of the book is Missionaries, right. A couple of times, surely this is a mistake, right, you misspelled mercenaries? What is Missionaries? What is, what is the, I mean, if missionaries feel then there must be good news that they’re trying to share? And so, is there good news there that they’re trying to share, and is good news in this context in scare quotes, it’s not good news? Or is it more ambiguous than that? What is going on with the title?
Klay: I think, I mean, you know, the book is about forces that are reshaping our world and reshaping communities, right. And it’s not the, you know, the sort of mechanisms might be impersonal, right, but the kind of the individual actors within their various institutions, whether it’s Juan Pablo and the Colombian military available in this paramilitary force, Lisette as a journalist, or Mason as a special forces liaison at the American embassy in Colombia, they all have their own sort of ideological beliefs about what they’re doing, right. And there’s a kind of mix of idealism and pragmatism in all of them. And, you know, so there. I think whether or not any of them have good news is ultimately something that I want the reader to think through. I don’t, you know, this is not meant to be a sort of simplistic novel about the, you know, the badness of the use of military force, right.
Klay: Though I certainly hope that it’s, it sends, it depicts the way that there are sort of extremely complex second and third order consequences any time you use violent force that are kind of critical to the understanding of what we’re doing, right. And the danger of using that in places where we don’t fully understand and where we don’t really have any other tools of power at our disposal or we’re choosing not to use other tools to power our disposal, right. The other thing I would say about, that is, you know, it’s when I was talking with a Jesuit a couple days ago and he was saying, you know, what is, what, you know, maybe the sin that the — in the Gospels, what Christ talks about the most is religious hypocrisy, right. Hypocrisy, but specifically religious hypocrisy, and he said to me, you know, he’s, this is a Jesuit, he’s in his 80s. He says, “For all the years I’ve been a priest doing confession, no one has ever come to confession and said to me, ‘I have been a religious hypocrite.’”
LiVecche: Very good. Absolutely fantastic.
Klay: Take that as you will, yeah.
LiVecche: Absolutely I will. That’s — I’m going to ruminate on that. That’s great. Toward the end of the book, and in fact probably the last couple pages of the book, and I won’t say who says this because I don’t want to give away this character’s fate. But in the concluding pages one of the characters remarks that if you’ve been something to the fact, this isn’t a direct quote, but if you’ve been raised in a violent city, what you most crave is order. And he wants order. And you’re, you know, you’re, this is captured in all sorts of places — by Abel’s recognition early on that he could not appeal to anyone for protection. There’s this section in page, he’s having this moment of absolute crisis. He says, “There was no pain, only surprise. And the first movements toward Abilito’s final death, a slow reordering of the way the world works, in which a boy can be helpless, truly helpless. And a blow cannot be returned with another’s, with another blow.” This craving for order in a disordered world, in which the new order is actually disorder, right. Everything has been turned upside down. This and even, I’m intrigued by the structure of missionaries, because it’s even, it betrays a tight order. You have three primary sections, each of them eight chapters. Then you have a fourth chapter with one section, you know, every, everything seems to be tightly controlled and tightly ordered. Which is intriguing to me. But one of the things that stands out is that this desire for order might rub in some ways at what would probably be the typical American’s more overwhelming desire for justice, right. We want justice. We want to help Abilito deliver that other blow, right. We want to be the mechanism to do that. So, is that right, and what are the different, if competing, primary desires of your various characters, maybe particularly the Americans in it? Is there a clash? Is this in terms — does much of the world want order and America is always pushing for justice? Which isn’t wrong. Justice and order together make peace. Those are political goods without which other goods can’t long exist. What’s the difference? Is it a difference with a, meaning, are you up to something there?
Klay: Well, it’s also the question of whose justice, right?
Klay: You know, I mean, justice in the hands of the powerful is often just another mechanism for injustice, Bernanos pointed out to us in Diary of a Country Priest. So, there’s also, at one point Valencia raises the question of mercy, right. Which of course is an evasion of justice.
LiVecche: That’s right. That’s right.
Klay: And requires a different sensibility to embrace, right. And then no, justice and order can be at odds. I always think of Jean Amery as a, Amery was tortured by the Gestapo and then sent to Auschwitz, and years later he wrote an essay called “Resentments” about traveling through a well-functioning land, right, West Germany where everybody seems to be doing well. This is in the 60s I think that he’s writing this. And he knows that he’s supposed to let go of his resentments, right. That’s what the ethicists and the psychologists say. And he knows that holding on to his resentments nails every one of us on the cross of our ruined past. And yet he thinks it would be immoral to let go of his resentments. And he says, “Only I, for whom the blows.” He’s referring to an SS guard who used to beat him with a shovel handle. For whom the blows still echo, only I am entitled to judge. Not laws, the SS guard, and not society, which cares only about its continued existence. And that line between the continuing existence of society which, you know, there’s an amount of justice to enabling that, right, versus the claim of the individual victim, right. The claim that justice must be wrong not just from the individuals, but from the whole social structure that enabled it, right. What do you do in the wake of mass violence, right? Mass organized political violence, right? And, you know, for some of the characters you just have to have order first, right. And then that becomes a justification for a turn to violence, right. And the relationships between violence and the creation of stable political settlements is very tricky. And oftentimes one suspects that what they’re achieving is not actually order but merely the sort of satisfying feeling of achieving something.
LiVecche: That’s right.
Klay: There’s a bit where Mason is watching this raid where they take out a drug lord and, you know, it’s like these sorts of things never really change anything. They never make a dent in drug trafficking, right. But he says it’s, there’s something satisfying about watching the operation of a smoothly running machine, right. And so, and then there’s justice, right. And then the question of, you know, is it possible to create political stability or a place where sort of mercy can exist, where wrongs can be acknowledged but moved past, right? Which is what some of the activists that you meet later in the novel are trying to do, but of course they end up enmeshed with the local power structures as well, and having to navigate them through sort of very challenging decisions at various crisis points in the book. And so, you know, those questions I think of order and justice and mercy and, you know, and the ultimate functioning and flourishing of communities is an important question. There’s a, you know, at one point Juan Pablo is thinking about this politician that he meets who, you know, takes pride in actually representing her district. And he’s like yeah, but that district is like, the power structure of that district is, you know, more bound up with narco trafficking and various, you know, criminal and non-state actors than with actually the actual government power structure. So, what does it actually mean to represent that place in a real way? And, you know, so exploring those questions is a kind of recurrent theme to the book, and you get it through different characters and the choices that they make. And then also the sort of the tools they have at their disposal are going to relate to the institutions they’re a part of, right. And one of the things I think, you know, if we look at that concerns me is if we look at the past 20 years, right, of American wars, one of the sort of I guess intellectual lessons that we have learned in theory is about the limits of violent force for achieving political stability, right. For stable outcomes as a result of military intervention, right. That a much broader sort of set of tools must be employed — that’s what we’ve learned intellectually. But if you look at what we’ve done institutionally, right, we have whole allowed those other tools to wither. I mean, just looking what has happened in the State Department is a prime example, right, and built up a tremendous capacity for say targeted assassination, right. Which is one of the things that the book looks at. And there’s also actually a sort of interesting parallel, or interesting sort of case study, for the kind of cross-pollination between wars that the book is interested in. So, to give a kind of quick loss joint special operations command is doing 12 raids a month in Iraq in 2004. They’re doing about 250 in 2006, right. It’s not because the Navy Seals went to the gym and got more buff and, you know, more worthy of memoirs. It’s because they, the way in which we did sort of targeting change, the system change, which was not just about a direct-action unit or an intelligent service or technology, but rather about the ways in which you combine all these things together, made the process a very smooth functioning machine. And as one of the characters says in the book, right, if you, if you know most people think kind of Navy Seals doing a raid is kind of cool and most people think a drone strike is kind of creepy, right, it seems like inhuman. But from the perspective of the targeting system, right, that’s just the Phillips head and the flathead screwdriver at the end of that system, right. And that system we can apply in other countries. And we actually helped the Colombians do the same type of targeting in Colombia in the mid-august. What’s even more interesting is that mechanism has roots in the hunt for Pablo Escobar, right? Where we had actually done something on a much smaller scale integrating, you know, various types of intelligence services, and direct action, etc. in the hunt for Pablo Escobar. Similar ideas were brought to play in the Balkans and then in Iraq under McChrystal and Flynn. You know, we sort of pump that up on steroids, and so, you can sort of see how these things go from one theater of war to another after another, right. Yeah, so that’s, you know, sort of one small example, right. But of course, you know, you build an institution, that institution has its own kind of inertia, right, and that is going to determine the choices that characters are presented with, what they can do.
LiVecche: Right. So, in everything you’ve just said, there’s all sorts of room for critique, and even potentially in some people’s hands, condemnation. You don’t seem satisfied with either when it comes to whether it’s America or America’s military, America’s fighting men and women, American foreign policy. You don’t seem satisfied with either a geographical approach or approach full of hatred, you know, not at all satisfied with easy answers, right. You’re hard to peg.
Klay: Well, I’m a fiction writer, right. Like why would I give you, why would I give you easy answers?
LiVecche: Sure, I’ve read your non-fiction, too. Possibly the only group you really come down on hard, and this would be a conversation for over a pint, are the Navy Seals. I would love to know, what’s more behind that? That’s just fantastic.
Klay: I was just having a little bit of fun with them.
LiVecche: I’m sure. I picture this Navy Seal friend of yours, and you’re writing to him. You don’t hate anybody in this book, do you? Jefferson?
Klay: Well, I’m not a big fan of Jefferson.
LiVecche: But you don’t, you don’t hate him?
Klay: I would hope that he’s an interesting monster.
LiVecche: He’s an interesting monster. Is that, is that-
Klay: So, Jefferson is, when we first meet him, he’s a right-wing paramilitary boss, right. Who then kind of comes back later in the novel, and sort of playing a similar role, but sort of representing a different, a new faction.
LiVecche: Right. It’s one of the things I love about your characters, even the monsters, even the abominable ones. Is you seem cognizant that there is no way that you, or I even, about the characters that you’ve created and you’ve written about, there’s almost no way for one human being to know exactly how another human being’s history intersects with their ability to make moral choices. And we might have to resist them. We might have to stop them. We might have to stop them to the point of a, you know, of lethal force. But change the circumstances, change the names, and maybe there go I, right? And there seems to be a real empathy that, I don’t know what empowers the story that you’re telling. I don’t think I’m, personally, I don’t think I’m allowed to write human beings off. I just, I think it’s falsely consoling when we do that, right. Yeah, if there’s anything that I find you unsparing against, it’s probably sentiment. And easy, you know, easy pad answers, which is possibly why I love, I love your writing. You tell a knock-knock joke.
Klay: Yes, I do.
LiVecche: I love the knock-knock joke.
Klay: The context is important.
LiVecche: The context is critical. Do you want to walk us through that?
Klay: Sure. So, there was the seventh group, which is the Latin America specialty special forces group. They got sent to Afghanistan a lot, and there was one very particular violent deployment that they had in 2007. I tell the story of that deployment through the character of Mason. And there’s a battle they have in this particular valley that like; we’d had a big battle there several years before. We would have a big battle there again. It’s just kind of like even at the time they know, you know, this is not going to change anything. This is, you know, we’ll be back here, right. And at the end of the, at the end of the battle, so like they, all the civilians and like these little kids have sort of left beforehand because they sort of dropped artillery to tell people like get out of here. So, it was just kind of this pure pitch battle with Canadian tanks, which really happened. And then after that they’re, like the families are just going back in after they’ve killed their, you know, the kids, like older brothers basically, and one of the guys, you know, points out a kid who says like, “You think we’ll come back here in a couple years and kill him?” And one of the characters asks, like essentially, “You don’t think that this is going to create lasting stability. Why are we going to do this?” And the character, I guess we can, we can just do it. Knock knock.
LiVecche: Who’s there?
LiVecche: 9/11 who?
Klay: You said you’d never forget. And it’s just this very dark, cynical sort of like no, that’s not, you know, that’s not it. Like maybe it was once what we’re doing here, but it’s become so separated from that at this point.
LiVecche: Which in many ways brings us back to persons. And that this novel is centrally, after everything else, after, you know, after the reflections on American deployment of force on power and the changing character of war, after all of that, the novel is about people.
Livecche: And some of the people that you I think throughout your writing career have been most concerned with, and rightly so, are those combat veterans redeploying home. And I think we first met in Washington, DC over a coffee, and you were on your way to a think tank to discuss moral injury. And you see that throughout, here after Redeployment, after Missionaries, after the knock-knock joke, we said we’d never forget, have we? Have we taken care of our own as they’ve come home from the combats that we’ve sent them to?
Klay: Well, it’s complicated because in some ways the reception has been amazing, right?
Klay: The new, the new GI Bill is incredible. The, you often get very warm reception from people. And, you know, sometimes veterans complain about “thank you for your service.” I think it’s certainly better than the alternative. I think it’s, I think it’s important to actually have a sort of public ritual that acknowledges a relationship between military service. I do think our sort of relationship to the military is deeply dysfunctional in many ways. I think we sort of hold the military up on this kind of bizarre pedestal and separate it in ways that I think unhealthy from other, from other types of service. You know, I always think about Washington’s farewell orders to the continental army, telling his men to, you know, prove themselves not less virtuous and useful as citizens. And they were, you know, persevering and victorious soldiers, right, that the work of peace is as honorable and as important as the work of war, and this is your task now. And I think that, you know, there are veteran organizations that have very much taken on that mission. I think of a group like Team Rubicon is a kind of perfect example. But I think that a greater appreciation for civilian life within the military itself too, which plays into this all the time, is important because we don’t want to have a warrior case that feels separate from their fellow citizens. We don’t want to have a warrior case that insists that, you know, what we do is so much more honorable and important than, you know, what diplomats or teachers or other people do. I know a veteran who felt that he never came home until he worked in the parks department, right, actually, you know, digging trails with his own hands. And so, I think that it is important for us to have that sensibility. And of course, you know, there have been problems in the VA which are much publicized and other things like that, but the biggest thing I think is the disconnect, right, that you can have a GI bill, you can have all these things, but if we as a society are not taking the moral seriousness of war seriously, right, then that is always going to be wounding. And it should be. And I think that our political leadership bears a lot of blame for that. I think that, you know, I will never forget in 2015, you know, so the Obama Administration pulled troops out of Iraq and then after the rise of ISIS started introducing combat operators, but they were saying, “Oh, we don’t have boots on the ground. They might end up in combat situations, but not in combat.” These like weird, you know, tap dancing around the fact that we were back at war, right, and killing people overseas. And Susan Rice was at an event with active duty military, and a lot of four-star generals, and people from the NSC, and also about a dozen severely injured troops. And she said, you know, “One of our proudest accomplishments is ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” right. And somebody went, because it was just like, you’re lying, right. But of course, you know, the wars are currently waged in a way that is designed to be out of the public eye. There’s a heavy reliance on drones and special operations-type troops, right. There’s a huge lack of transparency from the Department of Defense that has only worsened in recent years. And Congress, you know, I personally, I think if we’re going to, if we’re going to be killing people overseas and sending people overseas, I think the president should have to go before Congress, I don’t know, every two years and say what we’re doing, what the goal is, what it’ll cost, and what the benchmarks of success are. So that if he has to go back in two more years, we can actually see whether we’ve achieved anything, and then every member of Congress should vote on it. Because otherwise, what are you there for, right? The military is a huge part of what we do as a country, right. Just look at, you know, what the place that it makes up in our budget, and it is the most morally fraught thing we do as a country. And yet, we have sort of ceded everything to the executive. It’s done at a level with very low visibility. Our elected officials have punted on the responsibility to do serious oversight and actually, you know, vote on, think, and so of course you’re going to have a disengaged public, right. Of course you will. And I think that that is a very serious failing. And I don’t think it’s unrelated to the sense of alienation and anger that some vets feel when they come back because in theory, we’re doing this, we’re representatives of the American people, and yet this sort of chain of connection between the attitudes and decisions of the average American citizen and voter is so attenuated when we get to, you know, some American military man dying in Niger.
LiVecche: Right. That’s right. That certainly resonates. I mean, I, you know, I’m a scholar of the Just War tradition. There are bits of the Just War tradition that continually sort of fall out of focus. One of the, one of the elements, maybe not a deontological element, but one of the elements is public declaration of war. And I think a part of the wisdom of that is precisely what you’re saying. Is that if you, if you compel yourself to have a public declaration that, you know, what I’ve got to do. I’ve got to be able to articulate the case. I’ve got to be able to go before my constituency and say, “This is why this is going to be worth treasure and blood.” But, you know, that’s too easy to not do that. I’ve got a question about the cover, and then I would like to conclude. I’d love to talk all day long, but you’ve probably got other things to do, and we should move on. But I want to conclude with asking you just to read maybe one of your own favorite sections. But that the cover is intriguing to me, and I’m going to compare you to Dante if that’s okay.
LiVecche: Who would say no? So, Dante wrote a letter to one of his patrons and in it he said many things, but one of the things he was talking about regarding the divine comedy is he said, you know, look, words can work at several levels in different senses. And there were four of them he listed. I just want to touch on the first two. He says there’s the literal sense, right. There’s the meaning of the words themselves, the literal. But there’s also an allegorical sense, what the literal signifies. And so, you’ve already said this is a book about Colombia, and we see it on the cover. It’s, that’s the colors of the Colombian flag, right. You’ve got your yellow, you’ve got blue, you’ve got your red. Is it operating at a different level as well, though, than just the literal? A novel about the conflicts in Colombia with, you know, with other conflicts drawn in? Does Colombia simply stand on its own, or does Colombia signify for you something else? Why Colombia?
Klay: Well, it has been the largest recipient of military aid in the Western Hemisphere since the end of the Clinton Administration. Actually, Joe Biden was one of the people who was instrumental in putting that together, initially sort of designed for a kind of militarized response to drug trafficking, right. To say it did not bear fruit is to put it, to put it mildly. And then during the Bush years was transferred to use against the communist groups. But there’s also just, I mean, just the connections are so many. Every ambassador that we’ve sent to Columbia post-911 has ended up involved in, you know, the Afghan conflict in some way. Two of our ambassadors to Colombia, their next posting was to be ambassador to Afghanistan, right. Colombia was sort of the case that people would use to suggest that a more kind of counterterrorism approach could be successful, since there was a tendency, I think especially during the latter half of the Obama Administration, to sort of overemphasize the role of targeted killing in Colombia and what it had done in terms of the conflict there. But it should also be mentioned that my wife is Colombian-American. I have relatives in Medellin. It’s very easy to do research. It involves, you know, staying with your relatives and they can help, you know, introduce you to people. So, you can, you know, do research and do interviews, and it’s also just a fascinating complicated, complicated conflict that I think is a kind of perfect illustration of a lot of the things that were concerning to me. So, that’s why.
LiVecche: It makes a little more sense now to know the family connection, but your, you know, your deep research was evident. And it really bears out, and it really makes an unfamiliar situation very familiar. And it also serves well because, so Colombia is unfamiliar, and I don’t necessarily feel as involved in Colombia as I might with Afghanistan and Iraq. And so, through Colombia I can begin to understand what went on in the Middle East maybe a little bit more clearly.
Klay: Yeah, I think that sometimes people, because they have sort of set political opinions about the wars, there’s a sort of, there’s another level that I want people to think about. And so, taking you to a conflict that might be more unfamiliar and yet which we as a country have been intimately involved with for decades is, I thought, was useful.
LiVecche: Yeah that’s right. Just one other comment on the cover. I hope people can see this. You’ve got either fighter planes or unmanned aerial vehicles turning into a dove. Somebody asked, hunting the dove? Maybe they’re hunting the dove? Is this irony, is this, what is this? Because you said earlier that you don’t have, you don’t completely dismiss the role of power in the world. But is there, did you select the imagery, and then how would you interpret the imagery?
Klay: You know, it’s funny. I, so I of course, you know, I didn’t do the cover, though I think it’s a brilliant cover. I really do. And I’m going to just find this very quickly because there was a very smart review that talks about that cover specifically. So, I’ll just read from her review. And it refers to the latter part of the book where there’s a sort of naturalistic description of the bomb. “This is the ultimate act of wishful thinking for these warriors, to anthropomorphize technology, to dream it back to nature. The image on the cover of the US edition of the book shows fighter planes turn into birds. This is not a pacifist image, a turtle dove, but something more unsettling. About the flower power, the carnation in a rifle, or the bombers riding shotgun in the sky turning into butterflies of the Woodstock generations in treating disarmament, but a more disturbing, more ineluctable act of transference taking deadly machines. So totally for granted has to see them as something truly natural, truly beautiful, with a logic all their own.” I like that. I thought that was a good, good read of the cover, you know, but you can read it however you like.
LiVecche: Yeah, it’s fantastic. You can go on all day long, but would you just conclude us with a short read from a particular passage?
Klay: So, I’ll read another bit from after that knock-knock joke. So, there’s been this battle, which I’ve already set up, and one of the guys from his team has been severely wounded. And so, Mason the medic has been sort of very involved in his abdomen, and then he’s thinking about it later after the fight. “There are two ways to think about severe wounds. One is the very smallness and weakness of the human body, pathetic even compared to other animals, and so easy to break beyond repair. So easy even with the most basic of tools, a rock is enough. And then to think of it in the midst of the sorts of things that happen in war, not just explosions sending earth and brick blossoming, but weapons that work by strange inversions of pressure, collapse buildings from the inside, or concentrate force in small spaces that liquefy metal and send it shooting out through the air. The penetration of the human body is so easy it almost seems beside the point. Such tools should be used for greater creatures than us. We are weak. We are fragile. And so, perhaps we are nothing. There’s wonder in the world. The unbearable blackness of the sky in Afghanistan, its piercing stars, the vibrations of the guns. Soundless light on the horizon flashes like echoes, a moon rising over sharp blades of mountain, while tracers carve limes into the night. But man himself is nothing. But the other way of thinking is the opposite that the world itself is. What is small mountains, stars, horizon, so much accumulation of rocks, dust, and an expanse of empty air meaningless without someone there to see it? I was once shot in the shoulder. The world around me wobbled and vibrated and collapsed to nothing. In the midst of the pain, I applied my mind to the pain, oriented myself, returned the world to its proper place around me. I thought of my brothers who I was currently failing by no longer being in the fight by being injured. Perhaps badly enough I would need their help leaving this place under fire when they had enough to carry without me. I thought of my wife and daughter, and then I looked at my arm, flopped to the side, immobile, mere matter. A thing. Meaningless. And I applied my mind again to the pain. And a finger wiggled. Dead flesh suddenly live. There was a miracle there in the difference between the two.”
LiVecche: Shakespearean. Biblical. Should that pass without comment or would you like to conclude?
Klay: I think that’s fine.
LiVecche: That works for me. Phil Klay, the book again is Missionaries. We’ll post a link in our program notes. Thank you for the book.
Klay: Thank you.
LiVecche: Thank you for writing it. I wish it all success. I hope we can do this again, maybe catch up on a future subject. There’s a lot of material left on the table that I would love to talk about, so maybe at some point we can do that. Thank you for taking the time. Congratulations on the day. Today is the book release. I wish it much success and I look forward to the next one.
Klay: Thank you so much.
LiVecche: No, thank you, Phil. God bless. Be well. Take care.