Phil Klay’s Missionaries

About a year ago, I was invited to moderate a book club for veterans conducted by the  Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum. The first meeting was conducted on board the vessel, now moored permanently on the west side of Manhattan. Since then, meetings have been held on Zoom. The meetings have attracted a diverse mix of veterans and also military family members.  So far, we’ve read A Woman of No Importance, The Yellow Birds, and Bloods. Our next selection, which we’ll discuss on Zoom on 15 December, is Phil Klay’s Missionaries. At this meeting we will be honored by the presence of the author.

I thought Klay’s short story collection, Redeployment, probably the best book to come out of the American Mideast wars that I’d read, so I looked forward to Missionaries. I can’t say I was disappointed. Klay’s writing has if anything gotten better. One of the strengths of Redeployment was Klay’s ability to speaking in different voices. As a Marine, I took to Redeployment partly because most of the stories depicted a Marine Corps that was familiar to me, while the book also made me see things about my service that I hadn’t previously. Most books to come out of our recent conflicts have been in the form of memoirs or fiction that sailed quite close to the writer’s experience. Redeployment in a sense illustrates the strengths of fiction by taking us into the lives of a diverse group of individuals, to include a chaplain, a lance corporal in an artillery battery, and (in the title story) a married infantry sergeant returning home.  The author in effect sets an example of empathy and imagination because he’s writing outside his own perspective.       

But still, in Redeployment, Klay was mostly writing about Marines in settings that were personally familiar to him. In Missionaries, the four main characters are a Colombian peasant turned paramilitary, a Colombian special forces officer, an American journalist, and an American special forces NCO. The novel is set mostly in Afghanistan and Colombia. Klay writes with authority on his settings and characters, an authority apparently based on years of research, much of it done in the field. Missionaries tells a complex, far-ranging, compelling, and page-turning narrative. In addition to this, Klay has avowedly set himself the ambitious task of educating people on the nature of modern armed conflict, with particular attention paid to the sometimes hidden cost and consequences of U.S. global armed intervention.  

In the posts that follow, I will be discussing Klay’s accomplishment. Readers expecting a ringing condemnation of U.S. military operations will be disappointed. Klay’s depiction is more nuanced than that, and he does not so much make judgments as challenge us to make them, as we shall see. I’ll conclude my discussion of Missionaries with a report on the book club.  

Next: Different voices             


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