The act of killing people was once taken so seriously, Phil Klay writes in Uncertain Ground: Citizenship in an Age of Endless, Invisible War, that after the Battle of Hastings in 1066, a Penitential Ordinance was imposed on Norman knights: “Anyone who knows that he killed a man in the great battle must do penance for one year for each man that he killed.” Klay, a forty-year-old veteran of the war in Iraq, considers such rituals beneficial not only for the psychological health of soldiers but also for their communities, because after a war the traumatized perpetrators “must reconstruct a view of faith, society, and ethics that will not merely collapse into the emptiness of the evil they have faced.” A nation left flailing in the emptiness of evil becomes one in which that evil never ends.
This medieval rite of penance brought to mind Slate’s 2021 podcast Slow Burn: The Road to the Iraq War, which spends a remarkable amount of time examining, and even interviewing, some of the journalists who encouraged the 2003 invasion. A number of them, like Judith Miller, formerly of The New York Times, and Franklin Foer, formerly of The New Republic and now at The Atlantic, explain and defend the positions they held at the time; The New Republic’s Lawrence F. Kaplan, in contrast, has left journalism—and declines to be interviewed at all. “He thought he’d said too much already,” the host, Noreen Malone, explains, as if his atonement for supporting such a disastrous war is to never speak of it again.
Such reckoning is rare. “How many American presidents or members of Congress have suffered from PTSD or taken their own lives rather than live any longer with the burden of having declared a war?” asked Robert Emmet Meagher, a professor of philosophy and religion whom Klay quotes in Uncertain Ground. According to a report by the Costs of War project at Brown University, as of 2021 the number of US soldiers who died in the so-called war on terror was 7,057, and the number of active-duty soldiers and veterans who committed suicide was 30,177, over four times as many. Do policymakers, writers, or citizens, Klay demands throughout his book, shoulder any such burden for twenty-first-century wars? Do we think of those wars at all?
Reading Klay in 2023 is a reminder of what Americans lost in the six-month window between August 2021, when the US withdrew from Afghanistan, and February 2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine: the possibility of national self-examination. The war on terror devastated entire countries, caused the deaths of millions of people, and turned tens of millions into refugees; countless more people were imprisoned, maimed, tortured, or impoverished. In the months after the Taliban’s total defeat of the United States in Afghanistan, the American and foreign press published hundreds of essays and articles on the twenty years of war since the September 11 attacks, reflecting on everything from their cruelty to their incompetence—even their part in the election of Donald Trump.1
Shortly after the withdrawal from Afghanistan, on a panel hosted by the Quincy Institute, the political scientist Anne-Marie Slaughter and the journalist Peter Beinart—both of whom had championed the invasion of Iraq—felt moved to reconsider their own intellectual worldviews. “I thought…we could be more optimistic about the spread of liberal democracy and America’s ability to foment it, even sometimes at the point of a gun,” Beinart said.
In retrospect, I myself had not thought nearly hard enough about Vietnam, nor had I thought nearly enough about the Spanish-American War, or about America’s wars in the nineteenth century against Native Americans and these very deeply rooted traditions of imperialism that existed in the United States that had been…so disastrous for people, particularly in non-Christian and nonwhite parts of the world.
For a moment it seemed as if American foreign policy was poised to go the way of the 1619 Project—toward a vast reappraisal of the American empire, a recognition that the chaos of the present has resulted in part from a deliberate misunderstanding of the past. It seemed logical that a country that had interrogated white supremacy after the death of George Floyd would interrogate American supremacy and all the killing done to preserve it. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as well as the mounting tensions with China, quickly returned the foreign policy establishment to its old dichotomies: good versus evil, democracy versus terror, freedom versus authoritarianism.
Why has there been so little national reckoning? It’s possible that the remote and technological nature of the war on terror—Klay calls it “invisible”—bred a different kind of detachment, a lack of curiosity. Much of the war has been conducted from the sky (drones, “targeted assassinations”) or in the shadows (torture, special forces operations). The decades-long cold war shaped an American outlook that accepted violence (often in the so-called third world) as necessary in the battle between Soviet communism and the West. It’s still an open question what sort of American worldview twenty years of this far stranger war on terror created in its wake.
Answering this is one of the tasks Klay sets himself in Uncertain Ground, a collection that ranges from book reviews to op-eds and longer, more searching essays in magazines such as The Atlantic and The American Scholar. It is his third book examining aspects of American war. He looked at its psychological impact on American soldiers in his short story collection Redeployment2 and explored global technological war in Latin America and the Middle East in his magnificent 2020 novel Missionaries. In Uncertain Ground, his first nonfiction book, Klay investigates what these new wars have done to American society and even to the American mind.
Klay is well aware that the problem of Americans’ detachment from wars is also a problem of how we write about those wars, that the old cold war language many politicians, policymakers, and journalists use on the subject is a rhetorical prison that forecloses Americans’ understanding. He has embarked on an ambitious project: how to fashion a new language and literary form adequate to the magnitude of what global war has become. In Uncertain Ground he quotes a soldier who asks, “Was I part of an evil thing?”
Soldier-writers have often given unsatisfying answers to this crucial question. In “First-Person Shooters,” an influential 2015 essay in Harper’s, Sam Sacks observes a trend in critical enthusiasm for fiction about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, particularly fiction obsessed with the trauma of American soldiers, such as Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds and Michael Pitre’s Fives and Twenty-Fives. “A familiar language of acclaim is always invoked: shared suffering, eternal truths, the passion play that transmutes pain into collective redemption,” Sacks writes. But the focus on the arc from “innocence to trauma to recovery” diminishes the importance of the geopolitics: “All pain may be the same, but all wars are not, and in the search for reconciliation that distinction has gone missing.” In his essay, Sacks spends time on Klay and Redeployment, which won the National Book Award in 2014.
Klay joined the marine corps after graduating from Dartmouth College in 2005. He deployed to Iraq and spent thirteen months as a public affairs officer during what was known as the surge, an increase in US troops and one of the most violent phases of the occupation. Klay left Iraq in 2008 and the military in 2009. He began an MFA program at Hunter College in Manhattan, trying to make sense of the disconnect between veterans and civilians at home.
Many of Klay’s stories depict the absurdity of Americans’ “nation building” in countries whose cultures they barely understand, or the devastation of high-tech weaponry and old-fashioned torture in Iraq. Redeployment is relentless in its portrayal of violence, as if Klay himself is still stunned by what modern war can do to the human body. “It looks like half the jaw is gone,” he writes of a man shot in the face by an American soldier. “There’s bits of the beard, still attached to skin, sitting on the other side of the room.” In another story, a lieutenant colonel picks up a body bag, heavy with the remains of an Iraqi fighter:
But the bag rips on the edge of the truck’s back gate, and the skin of the hajji tears with it, a big jagged tear through the stomach. Rotting blood and fluid and organs slide out like groceries through the bottom of a wet paper bag.
The Bush administration censored photos and TV coverage of much of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially the deaths of American soldiers. Klay’s gorier passages therefore have another effect: they expose the sheer grotesqueness of modern war. His language stands in sharp contrast to Washington’s antiseptic images and bureaucratic language.
The stories of Redeployment remain stuck in the soldiers’ experiences, which they can’t comprehend. In one of his subsequent essays, Klay quotes the writer and West Point instructor Elizabeth Samet, who explains that during the war on terror
the absence of a clear and consistent political vision…forced many of the platoon leaders and company commanders I know to understand the dramas in which they found themselves as local and individual rather than national or communal.
That idea also seems to inform Missionaries—so different from Redeployment as to seem the work of another writer. “There is a naive belief among Americans, swaddled from war as they are,” Klay writes from the point of view of Juan Pablo, a Colombian colonel, “that merely to tell the stories of the oppressed and victimized is a political act.”
In Missionaries, Klay pulls back from the psychological profiles of soldiers as victims, acknowledging that in order to understand what American wars mean, he first must identify and catalog what American wars have become, by which he means
not the endless war on “terror” but something vaguer, harder to pin down and related to the demands of America’s not-quite-empire which was always projecting military power across the globe and just shifting the rationale of why.
Missionaries follows four characters, two American and two Colombian, starting in present-day Afghanistan but soon moving back to 1980s and 1990s Colombia, where the US had been fighting the war on drugs for twenty years, and then returning again to the war on terror, this time not in Afghanistan but in Yemen. Klay’s structure suggests that to grasp the American wars of the twenty-first century, a novel must include a sense of both the progress and the repetition of empire, of the skills and methods learned in one place and deployed in another. The Yale historian Greg Grandin called Latin America “empire’s workshop”; Klay also observes a continuity between the war on drugs, the war in Afghanistan, and eventually the US’s high-tech drone war against al-Qaeda in Yemen.
A marvel of Missionaries is the feeling of discovery that it provokes, as if this vast architecture of global power has been made visible for the first time. In How to Hide an Empire (2019), the historian Daniel Immerwahr described America’s “pointillist empire,” a constellation of actual colonies, military bases, and torture sites. In his novel, Klay connects these dots until they map a vast network across the globe.
Klay also shows how the century-long expansion of modern war technology developed across this imperial grid. In Uncertain Ground, he praises Kurt Vonnegut’s stories about World War II, which reflected
not only on the planes and crews, the bullets and bombs and shell fragments, but also where those came from: the factories “operating night and day,” the transportation lines for the raw materials, and the miners working to extract them.
In Missionaries Klay seems to update Vonnegut for the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries, adding the appetite for oil, the desert princes, the global supply chains, the secure shipping routes, the arms sales, the space race, Silicon Valley and the microchip, and then September 11 and military contractors. He finds a devastating vehicle for these ideas in the novel’s main character, who fought in his country’s drug war alongside the Americans and eventually works for an American military contractor in the United Arab Emirates. In one passage, the contractors are about to drop a bomb on a funeral in Yemen:
Juan Pablo closed his eyes, took in the hum of the operations center. He wondered if the men who were about to die were capable of appreciating everything that went into their deaths. An American mercenary was aiming a laser at the instruction of an American pilot operating a Chinese drone. They were communicating over an encrypted frequency routed through a Canadian aircraft mounted with Swedish surveillance technology…. The drone pilot, in turn, was communicating with an Emirati fighter pilot in an American aircraft armed with a laser-guided bomb capable of being launched from nine miles away and forty thousand feet up and still detonating within ten feet of its target.
At another point, about an earlier bombing, an American soldier tells Juan Pablo, “‘We killed kids, today, [that’s] not what I signed up for.’” To which Juan Pablo replies, “You’re American. You’ve killed kids before.”
In Missionaries, wars become divorced from any idealistic, political, or even practical justification. “In a war like this,” Klay writes,
it did not matter if you stirred the passions of the people by demonizing the government or the capitalists or the Liberals or the Conservatives or the Catholics or the Protestants or the Muslims or the Jews. What mattered was the global, interconnected system that generated the wealth and the technology that ultimately would determine the fate of this war, and the wars to come.
No wonder the soldiers in Redeployment couldn’t make sense of what they experienced. In Missionaries, wars are not about religion or democracy or any isms at all. The enemy, in this case Yemenis, is a “notional people,” and the victor is not a people, either—the victor is the technology, the alliance of wealth and power.
In focusing on the history and development of American global wars over the course of seventy years, Missionaries captures their permanence. By the time the novel reaches the later years of the war on terror, Western power seems to exist simply because it can, because it is so technologically impressive, and because a history of war-making has made it a way of life. What Klay seems to suggest in the novel’s stunning final scene—in which a Yemeni child arrives at the ruined funeral site, looks up at the sky, and “whispered of the day of reckoning, and of the paradise that is the truth”—is that as long as this invisible and all-powerful technology reigns over the earth, those subjected to its airborne evil will find solace in the only thing large enough to counter it: the majesty and terror of god.
Uncertain Ground, in keeping with its title, is frustratingly uneven, but that gives the book the appropriate feeling of a workshop; Klay is still struggling to find elusive answers, still working things out, still trying to apprehend how Americans, the people behind the country waging these wars, make sense of their identity. How can he connect the wars to the meaning of their citizenship? As in Missionaries, Klay remains transfixed by the idea that in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in all contemporary American wars, there have been not only no definable diplomatic or political objectives, but also no definable military objectives. No one has any clue what they’re fighting for or even “clear benchmarks of success.” That means that there is no obvious enemy, or that one’s perception of the enemy keeps shifting. “If you think the mission your country keeps sending you on is pointless or impossible and that you’re only deploying to protect your brothers and sisters in arms from danger,” Klay writes, “then it’s not the Taliban or al-Qaeda or ISIS that’s trying to kill you, it’s America.”
That may be why Klay looks at conservative voters with a deeper understanding of their emotional lives than many of his liberal, educated readers might. He tells the story, for example, of a wedding he attended in Pennsylvania coal country just before the 2016 election. When his Colombian American wife “half nervously” asks if she’ll be the “only Hispanic in attendance,” he replies, “No, it’s a military guy’s wedding, it’ll be super diverse.” One of the groomsmen is in fact half-Cuban, half-Colombian, and voted early for Trump. It was clear to the groomsman that “our military adventurism had been a human catastrophe” in Iraq and Afghanistan and that “Hillary is a hawk.” No one, not even Trump, was worse than a president who might kill more people. This veteran was angry at Clinton because she represented American power much more than the outlier Trump. For so many Americans, military policy likely had little to do with their vote in 2016, but for those who have fought in the wars, or loved people who have fought, war-making is everything.
Klay also offers the case of Ashli Babbitt, the air force veteran turned QAnon conspiracist who was fatally shot while trying to enter the Speaker’s Lobby in the Capitol on January 6, 2021. By now, we know that a disproportionate number of rioters that day had military pasts. “It’s easy to dismiss Babbitt as a loon,” Klay writes,
but her beliefs were a distilled, paranoid version of a not-so-unreasonable distrust of American elites. The past decades of war have shown mismanagement, incompetence, bald-faced lies, as well as forms of cruelty only a bit less bizarre than QAnon, such as the CIA’s use of hummus enemas as a form of torture.
The CIA indeed used hummus, along with raisins and nuts, to force-feed its torture victims through their rectums. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were a monstrous fantasia; why would it not return home in similar form, with people dressed in Marvel costumes and animal pelts, shitting on the Capitol floor?
Those Trump-voting veterans—they succumbed to madness, but, Klay almost suggests, if you knew what they knew, you would, too. What is an American citizen in the twenty-first century? One version is surely Ashli Babbitt. Another is the veterans who, as Klay writes, could not fathom how war
could be anything to all Americans but the central concern of their lives; how it could be anything less than the dark sun around which we were all in unbreakable orbit as its doomed and somehow hopeless satellites.
Which leaves nonveteran American citizens with the absence of this dark sun, a void. Klay characterizes most Americans’ relationship to the recent wars as one of indifference or ignorance, but something he doesn’t consider in Uncertain Ground is what the vacuousness of American domestic culture has to do with that ignorance. Many of those responsible for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq “went on to be feted in classrooms and boardrooms,” the Iranian American academic Laleh Khalili wrote recently, “to preside over universities, publish bestsellers, collect starry-eyed puff pieces in the business sections of newspapers.”3 The constellation of prestigious institutions is an extension of Klay’s technological war architecture. Only a society so blithe about the source of its wealth, power, and status could enable such an empty celebrity spectacle, the ultimate distraction and impediment to any sort of reckoning.
Of the many reasons Americans might be so eager to return to the good-versus-evil, democracy-versus-authoritarianism binary is that it was much easier to maintain an illusion about one’s identity—what it meant to be American—in a bipolar world. A multipolar world means a different identity for Americans, and though that world isn’t fully here yet, the fear of it is. In that scenario, in which Americans must compete with other large or economically robust or militarized nations like China and Russia, Americans might lose some of their power and supremacy, and even some of the privilege that being American once conferred on them; they might suffer some of the same indignities as the rest of the world. They will experience the pain of being weaker and knowing they are weaker. For now, they hold tight to their old selves.
In his nonfiction, as in his fiction, Klay admirably avoids most traps of American rhetoric. He rejects the impulse to end on tired notes of hope and promise—America is not a failure, just a disappointment, etc. Until the very last line of Uncertain Ground, he turns well-worn language (“together,” “unified,” “sense of common purpose”) against themselves. He writes:
9/11 unified America [and] nothing we have done as a nation since has been so catastrophically destructive as what we did when we were enraptured by the warm glow of victimization and felt like we could do anything, together.
For Missionaries, Klay immersed himself in Colombia and Colombians to write about American empire, part of his admirable quest to seek answers elsewhere, or at least to keep questioning the mainstream view. In May 2022, after he had completed Uncertain Ground, he interviewed the legal historian Samuel Moyn for Plough and asked how we should think about the war in Ukraine. “We care about the invaded and we should have solidarity with those facing down empires,” Moyn responded. “We just have not figured out what to do to create a better international order that prohibits this sort of thing in the first place.”
Americans continue to live in an idealistic eternal present, caught in the cycle of military violence and the rewards and privileges it provides. They are willing prisoners of that global technological warship that is always on the move. The rest of the world lives in its wake, unable to ignore its lessons for the future.