Phil Klay, an eloquent Marine Corps veteran, is tired of people dwelling on the damage our recent wars have inflicted on our soldiers. Instead, he suggests, we should turn our attention to the shortcomings of a society that casually deploys soldiers and then forgets about them. “For veterans who look to the society that sent them to war, they may not feel like they are the ones with the most serious problem,” notes Klay, best known for winning the National Book Award for his short story collection, redistributionin 2014.
George Orwell famously observed that one of the hardest things in life is seeing what’s actually going on in front of your eyes. In his new collection of essays, Uncertain Ground: Citizenship in an Age of Endless and Invisible War, Klay diligently examines American society in the two decades following 9/11, an event he calls “a dark ghost hanging over our national discourse.” I think it succeeds very well.
What kind of nation, he wonders, fights wars of inattention, focusing elsewhere, with weak and uninformed Congressional oversight? “Is it any wonder that our wars have been handled so badly, that conflicts abroad are growing out of control and that the public only notices it when disaster looms?” This neglect has shaped our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, he argues: “A nation unwilling to hold itself accountable perhaps deserves inconsistent policy.” But, he continues, it is others – Afghans, Iraqis, Syrians – who suffer the fatal consequences of American negligence. Indeed, he concludes that the American political system has “isolated” its people from their wars. The absence of a draft means that people don’t care much about our wars, which relieves pressure from members of Congress to provide rigorous oversight.
The result is that Klay, who was deployed to Iraq’s Anbar province as a public affairs officer during the “wave,” finds himself a foreigner in his own foreign land. “There is something bizarre about being a veteran of a war that never ends, in a country that doesn’t pay attention,” he notes.
In particular, his meditation on “What are we fighting for” sent a shiver down my spine. No sentence or phrase in the essay struck me; Rather, it was his sober reminder that a war is only worth fighting if you can do so while preserving your honor and upholding your principles. So treat your prisoners well. You take care of your wounded enemies, even if they have tried to kill you. You do not transfer combat risks from yourself to civilian bystanders. Such decency might seem obvious, but it’s a reminder that Americans have needed it all too often since the fall of the Twin Towers. For example, the more I learn about Navy SEAL operations conducted in recent years, the more I believe they have often acted with reckless disregard for rules, regulations and moral behavior.
America’s civilian-military shortcomings are generally seen as the result of structural causes. Our lack of a project results in a disconnection between the people and the military. (Klay joined the Marines after graduating from Dartmouth in 2005.) In military jargon, most Americans don’t have any skin in the game. Klay, who comes from a dedicated public service family, including a diplomat, a Peace Corps volunteer, and an international medical aid worker, offers good advice on how citizens can bridge this deplorable chasm. “Veterans need an audience that is both receptive and critical,” he writes. That is, people need to stop thanking vets for their service and start listening to them seriously.
Klay remembers a woman asking him how to talk to her boyfriend about her difficult combat deployment. Klay’s answer is worth quoting:
I told her to focus not on the bad things she had been through if she wanted to have that conversation with him, but on the good. Ask about his best friends in the unit, the good times they had, what he liked about the army, why he joined in the first place, the bonds of love between the soldiers, a sense of community and purpose . Of all the things, in other words, that would give context and meaning to the bad things he endured.
This is one of the wisest advice I’ve heard in a long time. Listening to this insight would benefit the veterans and the rest of us.
If you asked Klay such questions, I suspect he would tell you about the marine chaplain he knew in Anbar who built a rocking chair that he used to hold 11 Iraqi children and rock them, trying to bring them some comfort as they died from it. of their wounds. At the end of the shepherd’s deployment, Klay notes, he burned the chair so that he could join the children who died in heaven. Klay might also tell you that he has learned that joy and pain go hand in hand.
Would such conversations with veterans carry the nation forward from our post-9/11 panic that led to our sloppy fighting in Afghanistan and then the invasion of Iraq based on false evidence? Unfortunately I doubt it. We lied to ourselves about what we did. Worse still, we don’t really know or care what we’ve done: how many innocent people have been tortured on our behalf, or even how many Iraqis, Afghans and other Americans have been killed. Such a national reassessment would require us to look at ourselves and our actions honestly and accept painful truths about who we are as a nation. Klay offers us help to take the first step on that very long journey.