Uncertain Ground: Citizenship in an Age of Endless, Invisible War
by Phil Klay
Penguin, $27, 272 pages
Leaving the Marine Corps in 2009 to embark on an instantly successful writing career, Phil Klay “envisioned [his] task primarily as making sense of the past”. He discovered quickly that it was not the past. Six years later, Barack Obama claimed “we’ve ended two wars”, but mid-scale conflicts dragged on both in Iraq, where Klay had served, and in Afghanistan. “No wonder our troops were having difficulty articulating why they were fighting,” says Klay. “Their commander-in-chief couldn’t even bring himself to admit that we were still at war.”
Uncertain Ground collects Klay’s journalistic work, to make the discomfiting case that America’s soldiers are not currently well served by her citizenry – and perhaps (to a lesser extent) vice versa. The Forever Wars (to use a phrase Klay doesn’t) became “like talking about Schrödinger’s cat”. The US is a nation understood to be at war by – and in – great swathes of the world, and yet not by much of its own citizenry. Americans were quite surprised to hear, five years ago, that four soldiers died on operations in Niger.
He worries about the effect on the body politic of so many little shadow conflicts fought in countries with whom war has never been declared. And if America isn’t losing many troops, it’s certainly still racking up the bodies: in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, Libya… “But an onslaught of counterterror raids does not make a policy,” warns Klay. “Clarity of purpose cannot emerge purely from the military itself.”
There exists, meanwhile, a “peculiar relationship between the American public and the military they venerate but know little about”; a form of “patriotic correctness” based on too many under-complicated US Navy SEALs movies. The Jesuit-educated Klay describes joining the armed forces as “an act of faith in one’s country”, and the Marines in particular as a culture echoing “the nature and character of religious life”. He signed up in 2005, when the war in Iraq was already starting to go wrong. “This was my grand cause, my test of citizenship”, and he knew it would be one “bound up with a politically and morally contentious conflict”.
It is perhaps brave, now, to admit that he returned from post-surge Iraq “untroubled, confident” and even “justified”. But if the self-evidently evil things he witnessed there – “a bomb-carrying woman with Down syndrome”; a chaplain who had to commission 11 “combat rocking chairs” – did not immediately upset his sense of righteous mission, they “left me feeling hollowed out, unable to gild all the agony with some beautiful meaning”.
Though his religious belief has waxed and waned over the years, Klay keeps “faith in the American promise”. But “for citizens to labour and sacrifice on a nation’s behalf, they must feel… that sense of inclusion in a broader community”. This isn’t special pleading for the warrior caste; far from it. War trauma may have been the making of St Ignatius and John McCain, but veterans don’t want to be told they must have PTSD simply from being there. With participation in war “a matter of choice, not a requirement of citizenship” (their taxes notwithstanding), “the American public remains insulated from considering the consequences”, to the detriment of all concerned. Back home, Klay notes, the data shows that, far from being damaged and dangerous, “veterans volunteer more, give more to charity, vote more often, and are more likely to attend community meetings and join civic groups”.
Over the past decade or so, Klay and his “mil-literary” brethren have taken on the undeserved obligation of becoming their nation’s conscious sin-eaters: he has become a “theologian, philosopher and jurist”. In that respect alone, whatever the domestic reception of the book, Phil Klay continues to do America service. Elsewhere, the fighting – always, inevitably – continues.
I’d begun to think that geopolitics may well have overhauled Uncertain Ground, when I saw that three of Klay’s soldier-writer peers had just returned from training – independently, unfunded and unadvertised – civilian “home defence” units in West Ukraine. How’s that for citizenship?
ASH Smyth is a writer and radio presenter based in the Falkland Islands.
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