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    The Point of War Literature

    Myles Werntz interviews Phil Klay about his novel Missionaries.

    By Myles Werntz and Phil Klay

    May 31, 2021

    Myles Werntz: Phil, thanks for talking about your work. Can you connect the dots for us between how writing helps you make sense of your time in war, and how it helped you to see the wars you were part of? How did this begin for you?

    Phil Klay: When I was in high school, I was part of a group called Chi-Rho, in which we read religiously inflected literature and worked at a hospice run by a group of nuns. Part of the ethos of Chi-Rho is that there ought to be a direct connection between the literature we were reading and the work we were doing in the world, that it ought not be just an aesthetic or intellectual enterprise. In that sense, I’ve always felt that literature isn’t some abstract realm removed from one’s place in the world, but directly related to it.

    I was raised with an appreciation for public service – my parents worked in the Peace Corps and in international medical aid for years. But when I started college in 2001, America had just left one war and was about to enter another, and that seemed to be the best way to serve my country. Writing for me is the best way to make sense of the world, not just to take all your conflicted feelings and put them into a story, but to make them even more conflicted and complicated in the process of writing. But in the process, your obligation to the characters ends up destroying the ideas that generated the framework for the story in the first place.

    Your work follows in the vein of so many other great writers of war fiction, like Philip Caputo, Erich Maria Remarque, Tim O’Brien, Kurt Vonnegut – but few of them touch on religion, except perhaps to invert it, to make war a nihilist or comic affair, like Vonnegut or Hemingway in his short story, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” Could you say a little about your own religious background and how it influences your treatment of war?

    One of the writers I point to regularly is the poet David Jones, whose experience in World War I led him to Catholicism. He had a sacramental view of reality, and of writing, something you find in oblique ways in other writers. Even Hemingway, a bit. He comes from this generation who have been disabused of the “old lie” about war, and he knows you’re not supposed to use words like “honor” and “courage”. And yet he obviously believes in them. Think of that famous passage in A Farewell to Arms, on how “abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.” The dignity he gives to concrete names and numbers isn’t so far away from the desire of Jones to make his poetry incarnational. Hemingway’s rejecting the abstraction, and the distance the abstraction has drifted from reality, more than the complete repudiation a world like ‘nihilism’ would suggest. Even in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” the character’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, “Our nada who art in nada,” isn’t a simplistic nihilistic parody. We feel the yearning, the echo in the hollow place left by the departure of God.

    So Hemingway is invoking things that hold power for him, but he can’t quite commit to them. In someone like David Jones, however, we have someone who – in the eyes of some critics – doesn’t commit to nihilism as he should. Jones still believes in the meaning of things: even in the meaningless carnage he rejects, there’s space for a kind of sacredness and power amidst senseless slaughter, because of the presence of human beings and a natural landscape charged with real grandeur. In a way, that’s why I think the slaughter in Jones’s works is more devastating than in works that are more straightforwardly cynical. In the wake of true horror, cynicism is an escape, and nihilism is comforting. But it doesn’t work because it doesn’t accurately represent the world: things of real meaning and sacredness are being destroyed.

    In Missionaries there’s a very self-conscious dimension of conflict in which characters are constantly drawing on their past religious formation to reckon with violence. Who are some of the writers that have informed your religious vision of war?

    For me, it’s not so much a list of theologians or theological works, though there are certainly those, like Augustine’s City of God, in its articulation of secular power, or Thomas Aquinas. I tend to be more drawn to the ones dealing with the nature of the violence. On one end of the spectrum, those who would be deeply nihilist about this question, you have someone like Ernst Jünger, whom Heidegger considered “the only genuine continuer of Nietzsche,” insofar as Jünger offered a notion of the heroic creation of value in a nihilistic universe. His essays advance, as a consequence of his encounter with the industrial face of war, and with a great deal of sophistication, a real nihilist and fascist vision of man. It’s very powerful, and very, very dangerous, and directly relates to the spiritual question and the deep appeal of war that anti-war literature doesn’t often get at. At the other end of the spectrum are those who capture the religious sense that things can have meaning and sacredness even within a world marked by violence and pain: Robert Stone, Graham Greene, Dostoyevsky, and Shusako Endo in Silence.

    Im not a pacifist at all, but if were waging war, thered better be a damn good reason. 

    There’s a passage in Missionaries where one of the characters, after something horrific happens, can only pray Psalm 88, which ends in something close to despair. I’m interested in that knife-edge of despair, where the individual can still reach out to God. Robert Alter’s reading of Job is something I’ve thought about a lot here. If you’re writing about war, you’re dealing with the question of unmerited and horrific suffering – God doesn’t reach down and rescue us. In Alter’s reading of Job we begin with Job’s beautifully articulated prayer that he hadn’t been born, only to run up against interlocutors who want to wash their hands of their friend’s suffering by insisting his pain must be merited, a theology Job rejects. And when God ultimately responds, he does so in various ways, the most famous of which is the part about the Leviathan. But Alter makes the point that the beginning of God’s speech is a direct response to Job’s initial prayer about never having been born, and it is an accounting of the richness of the world, a natural world awe-inspiring and, crucially, fecund. “Do you know the mountain goat’s birth time,” begins chapter 39, and it ends with an image of the eagle feeding his young, whose chicks “lap up blood, where the slain are, there he is.” And that gets at something that works its way into Missionaries, about how dead mechanical reproduction is the opposite of natural organic life, both individual and communal, and the generative possibilities that are opened up in that, and the ways life can be cut off.

    Missionaries opens with Abel (one of the four key characters) reflecting on his life before his village was destroyed by the conflict in Colombia, and in a passage informed by Jacques Maritain he reflects on what a person is: not just bone and meat and blood, but someone enmeshed in social relationships. There’s also a lot of emphasis in both of my books on communication, and how we are formed in relation to other people. The Anglican theologian Rowan Williams, in The Edge of Words and his work on Augustine, conforms to my own thoughts about what it means to be a person, in relation to others and society and institutions, and ultimately, to God. This is the deeper well of what I’m drawing on, I think.

    It’s interesting to hear you thinking with Rowan Williams on this, particularly the role that language plays with personhood and helping establish our common life together, that this is critical to helping us understand meaning in a violent world. Communication as a way to make sense of violence seems to be a consistent theme in your first book, Redeployment, as well, even if the religious themes are far less prevalent.

    Well, it’s also the case that there was a period during the writing of Redeployment when I didn’t believe, and then started going back to Mass intermittently midway through writing it. The story “Prayerin the Furnace” is about a priest trying to get the guy into the confessional, while also trying to deal with what has been told him about the killing of civilians. I wrote a long essay about why I went back to church; it was thinking about war and the meaning of violence which played a large part in my going back. All these questions I was working with – of the citizen’s role in society, of what it means to be a veteran, of redemption and evil – these are more properly theological questions. There are characters in Redeployment who are actively flirting with nihilism, and it was reckoning with that that pushed me to go back to Mass.

    Missionaries has rightly garnered a great deal of attention for its depiction of war not as a series of discrete events or political actions, but a globally interconnected phenomenon that catches up seemingly disconnected societies. Why take this global approach?

    Well, for one thing, it’s just true; it’s importantly true. At the point where you can have a Colombian mercenary at an Emirati air base piloting a Chinese-made drone to kill Yemeni tribesmen with an American-made missile, you’re talking about truly globalized warfare. Talking about just one or two countries in the conflict leaves out large parts of what’s going on.

    To get back to the theological dimensions, this helps us think how we’re constituted as persons in communities. The point of war literature is not to ask “What is it like to go to war? What is the experience of an individual consciousness?” It’s rather to ask “What are the forces at play to create those individual experiences?” The forces in play are institutions which cross borders. I’m still working in the traditional novel, where you have individual characters moving through the world, enmeshed in institutions that they are simultaneously at odds with – the journalist has her questions about the nature of journalism in war, the American soldier worries about the corruption of Special Forces’ missions – and all of these institutions cross borders and play a role in different conflicts.

    In the last third of the novel, these first-person narratives shift and you’re introduced to a whole host of organizations that are also operating in this space. At this point, you hopefully have what Iris Murdoch called “mutually independent centers of significance”: you’ve got a world in which none of the individual narratives are driving the show. They’re part of broader forces which are moving the story forward, but nevertheless the choices individuals make have consequences for all the others. They’re all trapped within broader forces – it’s not that they can’t influence things inside the car, but they’re certainly not steering it.

    Throughout the book, there are any number of religious characters caught up in violence: priests are murdered, nuns present as agents of mercy, a character sends his daughter to a Jesuit school and is shocked when she actually begins to believe what she’s taught. What should the reader take away from this?

    If we want to reshape the world, or reform institutions, or simply live well in a world full of dehumanizing forces, we can’t think of ourselves and others simply in terms of ethical or psychological struggles, but must consider spiritual ones as well. Otherwise, the machine will always win. The character Juan Pablo, for example, is an atheist, but as a child he had a powerful religious experience that he ultimately rejects before going on a kind of reverse Pilgrims Progress. Even that rejection shows the extent to which he’s driven by spiritual questions. The reporter, Lisette, is probably the least driven by this. She’s operating with a much more constrained range of resources. But hopefully seeing the range of characters makes clear that her way of dealing with the world, in which spiritual questions never arise, is not a natural way of being. It’s somewhere between a choice and a product of the mechanical world she’s living in.

    For all the pain that is depicted here, I don’t think this is necessarily a tragic vision – most of the main actors want to be there in one way or another. But what does it mean when people’s actions contribute to war and violence without their intention?

    The Polish Shakespeare critic Jan Kott makes a distinction between the tragic and grotesque in an essay on King Lear. In the tragic, you have two people who are upholding moral codes that are real and important, but in conflict, as in Antigone, and tragedy is the result of that irresolvable conflict. But the grotesque is something different: imagine a man, Kott says, playing chess against a computer that he’s fed the algorithms to, so that the computer is always going to win. Now, when the man plays the computer, there is always a choice to make, and at any point, he can make a different choice, but he is always going to lose at the hands of this thing he has created. Such a man, he says, can’t be considered a tragic hero, only grotesque.

    For Kott, it’s the mechanical world we make that obliterates the human. Kott was not a believer, but there is a touch of the grotesque in my description of how modern war plays out in Missionaries, and it’s my hope that it’s contrasted with things that are very real, products of humans working together to create in a more organic way, that are about relationships.

    What does this mean for people who are concerned about the nature of war and what it would it mean to mitigate or end war?

    Well, there’s a dimension of sin that’s social, right? This goes well with discussions of institutional racism: racist choices have structured a society in which certain people are disadvantaged, and you don’t have to do anything for that to continue. Indeed, doing nothing perpetuates it. If you have a strictly individualist ethos, not doing anything in any concrete way means you haven’t committed sin. But that strikes me as a naive way of viewing our obligations to the world.

    What do those obligations look like?

    They mean, I think, considering the institutions we’re part of, and being willing to change the ways in which we kill. I’m not a pacifist at all, but if we’re waging war, there’d better be a damn good reason. There’d better be oversight, we’d better care about it, and there’d better be structures in place to force our elected representatives to care about it. The kind of institutional fights I’m trying to depict in the novel have real consequences for the ways in which war is waged. People look at the world and think it’s far beyond them: they think, how can one respond? Well, you put pressure on stakeholder institutions. You join institutions that work on the issues that you care about. I think it requires thinking in a way that is about understanding institutions and communities and their interplay, and the ways in which perverse incentives can work.

    I want to build on that question in a slightly different direction then: in a piece for the New York Times, you make the case that war creates bonds which transcend borders. In what ways do you think these interconnected wars alter the way we think about national identity and borders?

    Great question! I don’t think national borders are meaningless – as we’ve been saying, local attachments matter, but in America local institutions as local institutions have slowly lost power or faded into being handmaidens of the national conversation. I think there’s a tendency toward extreme identification with national politics that is extremely unhealthy, and with that, an extreme idolatry toward the nation. I would certainly consider myself an American patriot, but I think you would ideally want to be attached to your neighborhood, your city, and your country, but also attuned to those beyond its borders, people who are also created in the image of God.

    So, yes, I do believe there are special responsibilities toward those to whom we are bound by local ties. You should be connected to what happens in your neighborhood, and feel a responsibility for your city and to those living near you; I should feel obligated to those with whom I share local responsibilities and benefits. But those forms of local attachment can easily be perverted into a kind of chauvinism that becomes very ugly very quickly. One of the things that is important about American identity is the extent to which it has always had a counterpoint to that chauvinistic impulse, and these battle throughout American history.

    If we want to reshape the world, or simply live well in a world full of dehumanizing forces, we can’t think of ourselves and others simply in terms of ethical or psychological struggles, but must consider spiritual ones as well.

    In that essay you mention, I tell the story of a First World War unit that was heavily composed of immigrants and became celebrated, but celebrated in a way which obscured its ethnic diversity; this was happening in a time when nativist sentiment was on an upsurge. The hero of this unit was a former socialist who had gone on to speak about the value of the Irish and Italian and Jewish soldiers he had served with, and what hope that gave him for the future of the country, a hope that was clearly dwindling. I contrast his story to the story of two Iraqi interpreters, who served with American troops but were left in Iraq after the fact.

    In both that Times piece and in your book, the question is raised that if war is such a globally interconnected phenomenon, sustained by international institutions irrespective of national borders, what do we do with asylum seekers? Do these interconnections require us to rethink the nature of borders?

    Especially since so many of our wars create pressures on asylum seekers, this is an important point. Trump often stated a desire to bring troops home and made some moves where there was more talk than concrete action. In the Horn of Africa we trumpeted plans to pull troops from Somalia while quietly leaving folks in Kenya and Djibouti to help carry out drone strikes across the border: a lot of times it was just a shell game. And that stuff is matched, in some cases, by local warlords and criminal gangs for whom borders are equally meaningless. And then, of course, there’s the technology which is in play here, which allows for surveillance and killing from a distance without actually being enmeshed in the local cultures. Add to that the resulting refugee flows.

    I think that the nature of modern war is – and the book tries to show this – that it can so easily, and with so little foresight, punch holes in local power structures and local cultures and communities. This has consequences not just for the valuable and delicate thing created by people living together in relationships, but also for seemingly more permanent things like national borders.

    Right – we should be attending to local contours, instead of being solely preoccupied with national parameters.

    When we were doing counterinsurgency, there tended to be disputes between the special ops guys and military personnel we called the “landowners.” If you’re the landowner, you have a stake on the ground where you are. You’re doing COIN (counter-insurgency), you’re meeting with local leaders, you’re invested in the complex relationships, but the special ops guys are taking a helicopter in, fast-roping down, doing their mission and going home. In theory these are complementary – the landowners are building local ties and special ops are taking out the really bad actors. In practice, there would be disputes between special ops and landowners because going in and killing someone causes problems.

    This tended to be most sharp when special ops would kill civilians, causing huge issues for the landowners, making it much more dangerous to live in a region where everyone hates you. I’m thinking of one friend in particular where SEALS came in and shot some civilians and flew out; in Fallujah, there was another case where the special ops apprehended a woman locally, and the State Department liaison called up the commanding officer and demanded that she be returned, or people would die. And so, there’s always this tension.

    As American footprints have gotten smaller, we still kept an interest in maintaining special operations, drone strikes, and the like, to be able to prevent ISIS-style collapses regionally. But this also means that you now have folks who have very limited understanding of the local dynamics, making life and death decisions in the absence of real understanding. So, it’s a pretty fraught enterprise, and I’m not sure we have thought through the dangers.

    In a parallel with your novel, the individuals making the decisions in war are more representative of the institution than they are attentive to the local situation: whatever benefit there could be in integrating is lost because they are there as institutional representatives.

    When I was writing the book, I had conversations with counterinsurgency folks who had very complicated feelings about their deployment: they’d made political decisions and alliances, and they weren’t sure how they would play out, because you could work with one leader today in the hopes of brokering a peace, but it could be the wrong guy, or your guy could be removed. You’re doing your best, but it’s not in your control. And it’s not in the other parties’ control either, because politics are in flux all the time.

    But when you talk with the special operations guys, they felt very unambiguous about what they’d done. They would talk about how they had gone in and captured a lot of bad guys, that they knew were bad guys, people with torture houses in their basements. The nature of their mission – and their detachment from the local community – caused them to think very differently about the nature of the war they were a part of.

    Contributed By portrait of Myles Werntz Myles Werntz

    Myles Werntz is an associate professor of theology and the director of Baptist studies at Abilene Christian University.

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    Contributed By PhilKlay Phil Klay

    Phil Klay, a veteran of the US Marine Corps, published his debut novel, Missionaries, in 2020 (Penguin). His short story collection Redeployment won the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction.

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