A Marine’s Story: Phil Klay’s Memories and Advice for a Nation Still Reeling from Afghanistan and Iraq

Phil Klay, an eloquent veteran of the Marine Corps, is weary 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 deploys soldiers carelessly and then forgets about them. “For veterans looking at the society that sent them to war, it may not feel like they’re the ones with the most serious problem,” observes Klay, who is best known for winning the National Book Award for his short-story collection, Redeployment, in 2014. 

George Orwell famously observed that one of the hardest things in life is to see what is actually going on before your eyes. In his new collection of essays, Uncertain Ground: Citizenship in an Age of Endless, Invisible War, Klay diligently examines American society in the two decades since 9/11, an event he calls “a somber ghost hanging over our national discourse.” I think he succeeds admirably. 

Uncertain Ground: Citizenship in an Age of Endless, Invisible War
by Phil Klay
Penguin Press, 272 pp.

What kind of nation, he asks, fights wars of inattention, with its focus elsewhere, with weak and uninformed congressional oversight? “Is it any wonder our wars have been handled so poorly, that overseas conflicts grow out of control, and that the public notices only when disaster looms?” That neglect shaped our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, he argues: “A nation unwilling to hold itself accountable perhaps deserves incoherent policy.” But, he continues, it is others—Afghans, Iraqis, Syrians—who suffer the lethal consequences of America’s negligence. Indeed, he concludes that the American political system has “insulated” its people from their wars. The absence of a draft means that people don’t much care about our wars, which takes the pressure off members of Congress to provide rigorous oversight. 

The result is that Klay, who was deployed in Iraq’s Anbar Province as a public affairs officer during the “surge,” finds himself a stranger in his own strange land. “There’s something bizarre about being a veteran of a war that doesn’t end, in a country that doesn’t pay attention,” he notes. 

In particular, his meditation on “What We’re Fighting For” sent a chill up my spine. No one phrase or sentence in the essay stood out to 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. Thus, you treat your prisoners well. You care for your wounded enemies, even if they tried to kill you. You don’t transfer combat risks from yourself to civilian bystanders. Such decency might seem obvious, but it is a reminder that Americans have needed all too often since the Twin Towers fell. For example, the more I learn about Navy SEAL operations conducted in recent years, the more I believe that they often acted with reckless disregard for rules, regulations, and moral behavior. 

America’s civil-military shortcomings are generally seen to be the result of structural causes. Our lack of a draft results in a disconnection between the people and the armed forces. (Klay joined the Marines after graduating from Dartmouth in 2005.) In military parlance, most Americans don’t have any skin in the game. Klay, who comes from a family devoted to public service—including a diplomat, a Peace Corps volunteer, and a worker in international medical assistance—offers good advice on how citizens can bridge this lamentable 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 recalls a woman asking him how to talk to her boyfriend about his difficult combat deployment. Klay’s response is worth quoting:

I told her to focus not on the bad things he had been through, if she wanted to have that conversation with him, but on the good. Ask about his best friends in the unit, about the good times they had, about what he liked about the military, why he’d joined in the first place, about the bonds of love between soldiers, the sense of community and purpose. About all the things, in other words, that would give context and meaning to the bad things he’s suffered. 

That is some of the wisest advice I have heard in a long time. Heeding this insight would benefit veterans and the rest of us.

If you posed such questions to Klay, 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 of their wounds. At the end of the pastor’s deployment, Klay notes, he burned the chair so it could join the dead children in Heaven. Klay might also tell you that he has learned that joy and pain walk hand in hand. 

Would such conversations with veterans move the nation forward from our post-9/11 panic that resulted in our fighting in Afghanistan sloppily and then invading Iraq based on false evidence? Unfortunately, I doubt it. We have lied to ourselves about what we have done. Even worse, we don’t even really know or care about what we have done—how many innocents were tortured on our behalf, or even how many Iraqis, Afghans, and others Americans 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 in taking the first step on that very long path.