Taking Sides and Phil Klay’s Work in Progress

              In my last post, I suggested that I would be taking sides in what I had described as the central debate in Missionaries over the use of force. Neither Phil Klay nor I can hope to settle this question, but I will say a few things about how this debate plays out in the novel, for the sake of argument and whatever insight I can add.

            As I said earlier, the principle proponent of force in Missionaries is the Colombian officer Juan Pablo. As Klay has pointed out, this is at least in part because he serves a country regularly rent by violence. Unlike the American soldiers, whose experience of combat is all abroad, he fights in his own country, striving to contain and stamp out the loci of greatest lawlessness and violence. His solution to these problems is generally to default to the military option. When the possibility arises that the police, rather than the army, will take the lead in suppressing banditry and violence, his is resistant to the idea, preferring military solutions that can make use of US firepower and surveillance technology. He may have a point. We might acknowledge that the military option may have its uses, as an arrow in the security quiver.

            What is troubling is Juan Pablo’s neglect of justice. He says at one point that justice is not the concern of soldiers. When another character introduces him to the expression, “No justice, no peace,” Juan Pablo is diverted, but his views are not changed. It is interesting that Klay dubs the contested peace operation “Agamemnon.” Agamemnon does not get very high marks as a warrior or a commander in the Iliad. Something else may be being suggested. Agamemnon and Juan Pablo are alike in both being primarily concerned with maintaining their own social status. War is an occasion for Agamemnon not only to recover a rebellious wife but to bring the turbulent lordlings into line. For Juan Pablo, his status as an officer is an extension of his bourgeois social position, important in part because the poor are prey in Colombia. The rich and privileged can afford security for their families and live in places not subject to the depredations of the outlaws.   

            Towards the end of the novel, Juan Pablo is working as a contractor in the Middle East, manning a computer screen that monitors the attacks on the terrorists. He watches an attack in which children are killed, and when an American colleague expresses regret at this, Juan Pablo privately attributes this to sentimentality. His rejection of any feeling of remorse is also troubling, and in the final, very short scene of the novel, Klay shows a boy who has survived the attack swearing  vengeance, “And then he was gone,” outside the reach of surveillance, presumably, to plot his revenge.

            Klay’s point seems to be that violence breeds violence, that we shall reap what we sow. He has made of Juan Pablo an intelligent and even sympathetic spokesman for the use of force in upholding order and defending what Juan Pablo refers to at the end as “civilization.” Readers of this blog might not be surprised that this made me think of my own book Soldiers and Civilization, the premise of which was that soldiers, and the military profession in particular, had often upheld civilizing institutions and practices. But Juan Pablo’s rejection of both justice and remorse, his attachment to the military solution even when others may be available, limit his claims to be called a professional, despite his bursts of thoughtfulness and his competence as a tactician. In effect he has failed to tie tactics and operations to an effective and defensible strategy. It was remarked upon in the book group that Juan Pablo is in some ways the most relatable character in the novel. We are often privy to his thoughts, we see his complex but caring relationships with his family, we follow his struggles as a young boy and junior officer find meaning in his life, but in the end he is found wanting, at least in Phil Klay’s eye. Juan Pablo’s commitment to armed force as a “force for good,” is called into serious question, although, intentionally or no, he is the character most likely to live on in the imagination. (Thanks JR)!

            Phil Klay announced at the end of our meeting that, perhaps signaling a trend of books inspired by family ties, he is at work on a book based on his grandparent’s service in Czechoslovakia in the 1960s when his grandfather was U.S. ambassador. If I got this right, the character inspired by his grandmother will be allowed to play a larger part in events than the conditions in the diplomatic service of the time allowed her. A debt to Tom Stoppard? Sounds interesting. Klay seems to be moving further from his Marine Corps roots although maybe nearer to his own background and upbringing.

Next: More Thoughts on Writing and Purpose              


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s