Missionaries explores several themes of armed conflict in the modern world. One of the things we learn in Missionaries is how the killing takes place. In Missionaries, killing takes many forms, although the ends are the same: a violated and lifeless body. One man is cut in half with a chain saw. A woman is ordered to step in front of a speeding truck or see her children killed in front of her. Another is hacked with axes, although she survives what was intended to be a lethal attack. Klay does not omit the gory details of these killings and intended killings from his narrative. A character in the story notes that her editor’s refusal to publish the details of some deaths she has seen is a sign of cowardice. The bloody facts are an important part of the story. We dare not turn away.
But for many of those who do the killing in the modern world, the killing is remote, done by machines or by others whom those giving the orders neither see nor know. Killing is covered over with layers of bureaucracy and Orwellian language. We learn that a change in a criminal or terrorist organization’s categorization can result in an instant and decisive change in the weapons used to combat the organization. Suddenly aviation, surveillance, and fire support resources become available. Greater risk of “collateral damage” may be countenanced, adding up to more dead bodies, although perhaps (it’s rarely certain) to a more stable security situation and greater safety for the residents of a region.
Another theme pursued in the book concerns the deals and compromises made in the pursuit of long-term goals. This is most represented by Luisa, a character whose father was the victim of a chain-saw execution, but who is now willing to negotiate even with the men who killed her father in an effort to tame the bandits and reduce the level of violence. Her view of these arrangements seems clear-eyed and logical, but we are still left with doubts about the effects of the trauma she has suffered, and concerning her ability to manage as she claims the often unstable men of violence.
Missionaries begins with the shocking and sudden destruction of a main character’s Colombian home village, and it ends with more scenes of estrangement and absence from home. Throughout the novel, the subject of home and exile is presented, in one of the elements linking Klay’s writing to that of Joseph Conrad. The character Abel whose village is destroyed is constantly trying to recreate a place he can call home, and then usually seeing his shaky domesticity ruined by forces beyond his control, if out of his own past. The American journalist Lisette revisits her home in Pennsylvania from an assignment in Afghanistan, but she quickly departs for Columbia, where she seems to renew a relationship with a former American soldier turned mercenary that, however, does not prosper. For the American special forces soldier Mason, being in the army now means that he must leave and lose touch with the family he loves. He’s warned by another character against looking at pictures of his wife and child while on deployment. The roles of husband/father and warrior appear in his case incompatible. The Colombian officer Juan Pablo tries to keep his daughter within his influence, but her university education and associations are drawing her away, and he is later forced to accept employment far from home when his military career founders.
All of these people, the Americans perhaps especially, are not only missionaries but nomads, in the sense given the word by critics Deleuze and Guattari in their work Nomadology: The War Machine. Perpetrators of war and those caught up in war are nomads who inhabit unstable lands not of their own origin, displaced by war and acting in a way to displace others.
Juan Pablo has some of the last words in the novel, and his confident assertion that by killing the barbaric bad men and terrorists he is advancing the cause of civilization may be one of the things that stays with us at the end, but some disquiet is likely to remain. Klay has presented a complex picture of the war machine, which belongs to no one, but always lies in the violent space between nations and individuals where conflict takes place. No one can control it, because it is always reciprocal, self-destructive as much as other-destructive, a tool of ill omen, even when there is no other.
I was left at the end of Missionaries with a sense similar to how I felt after watching No Country for Old Men with my then 15-year old son at his birthday request. There was a debate in the movie about how much of this was new. Did the arch-villain represent a new form of evil, or was he simply a manifestation of a millennia-old malignancy tricked out with new new/old skills and weapons? If Missionaries shows us the conflict of our time, is it different but for details? The technology has changed, and with it the level of connectedness among scenes of conflict. The essentials of death and dislocation remain, but the changes may indeed be adding up to something fundamentally new, something we had better try to understand, before it eats us alive.