You Gotta Serve Somebody: Phil Klay’s Uncertain Ground

At first glance, Uncertain Ground: Citizenship in an Age of Endless, Invisible War, a collection of previously published articles, essays, and op-eds by National Book Award winning fiction writer Phil Klay, is exactly what you might expect from a Catholic Marine veteran who attended Regis, the prestigious Jesuit high school in NYC, then Dartmouth, then Hunter College for a Masters of Fine Arts in creative writing on the GI Bill. Which is to say that these essays feature a rare combination of intellectual, theological, and artistic depth that few who have written about their military service can boast.

Klay, who attended Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Virginia following his 2005 graduation from Dartmouth, writes of his decision to apply to the OCS in duty-bound terms that will be familiar to the thousands of others who enlisted post-9/11, but in terms that are likely quite unfamiliar, and even suspicious, to your average MFA-trained writer from the same period. This isn’t to say MFA programs are full of unpatriotic cowards, but it is to say, as Klay points out, the young people doing most of the fighting and dying in battle zones are not college educated.

If these sorts of generalizations about who serves in our military grate on you, then Klay’s book will have your attention immediately. Not only does he question the stereotypes of who fights for us, he also seeks to convince the reader that contrary to what the Vietnam War films of the 70s and 80s (Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon) suggest, military training and service does not produce legions of shell-shocked vets with debilitating PTSD and substance abuse issues, but rather citizens who return to civilian life committed to public service and eager to continue making a difference in the world.

If you do not buy this, that’s okay, because it is one of the tensions at the heart of the book. Throughout, he questions (“grapple[s] with” is the muscular phrase he uses) the impact America’s constant war-making over the last 20 years has had on soldiers and civilians in terms of their attitudes toward war, the role of the military in international affairs, and the responsibility we all have as citizens in a democracy. In doing so, he calls attention to a troublesome binary: on the one hand, a near-paralytic mistrust and cynicism about our warring motives, and on the other a full-throated patriotism dismissive of accusations of abuse and exceptionalism.

Klay sees the reality of the situation somewhere in between, but one thing is clear: if anyone is to blame for the tribal divisiveness in America, it is not the people at either end of this spectrum, but “American elites.” This is a phrase that has taken on a dog whistle quality in American politics, though here Klay uses it not in a broadsided manner, but to draw attention to a “leadership class” that he believes we have every right to distrust. He writes: “The sense that our leadership class can be corrupt, or ineffectual, or malevolent, or callous, or blindly self-interested, is well-founded.”

With this common enemy in mind, Klay frees himself to reexamine his own beliefs and motives. “I’ve often been unsure of whether I’m fulfilling a civic obligation, exploring a personal obsession, accepting a religious duty, or simply screaming into the void.”

The collected essays, written over the course of a decade and grouped into four thematic sections (“Soldiers,” “Citizens,” “Writing,” and “Faith”), explore each of these conditions, and in so doing we observe Klay contradicting himself. At times he is antagonistic towards civilians who did not respond to the call to serve post-9/11, and is critical of an American public that stood-by on the sidelines and just watched—“that is, if they bothered to look” at all, he quips.

But in other moments he understands why civilians would be critical of the protracted and costly Global War on Terror, and makes a plea for those on the homefront to stay informed as to what the government is doing in their name, so that they can hold their leaders accountable at the ballot box. Such contradictions are a hazard of any collection of essays published over a long period of time, but in this case it is also a strength. The reader comes away from Uncertain Ground feeling like they have seen Klay wrestling with his own demons (and the demons of this country), trying to drive them into a corner, learn their names, discern their nature.

In addition to being a work of literary self-portraiture, Uncertain Ground, as the subtitle suggests, also paints a picture of the roughly twenty-year span between 9/11 and the January 6th riot at the Capitol as a cultural watershed, an era during which America went from being a nation alloyed by the brutal terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon to a nation coming apart at the seams.

Pointing up these personal and national fault lines and contradictions also signals that Klay is not interested in writing culture war agitprop. From the introduction, he makes it clear that this is a book of “essays,” of “attempts” to “understand how we got here,” and astonishingly, the word “we” feels, for a moment, genuinely inclusive in a way that it usually does not these days.

This is because Klay does not see this as one party’s failingthere is plenty of blame to go around. He argues that the “aimless” and “incoherent” policies across three presidential administrations have compromised a clear sense of mission, a clear sense of purpose and “legitimacy,” leaving veterans, like himself, who sought out military service out of a sense of duty, feeling abandoned, their moral resolve and good will squandered. At the conclusion of the essay “Left Behind,” Klay drives home this demoralization:

If your country won’t even resource the wars with what its own generals say is necessary for long-term successes, what else is there to fight for? But 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, then it’s not the Taliban or al-Qaeda or ISIS that’s trying to kill you, it’s America.

Klay’s tone reaches this exasperated and angry pitch at key moments in the book, often when inhabiting the perspective of enlisted soldiers, an anger born of the belief that one of the greatest injuries done to the country by the Leadership Class during the GWOT (Global War on Terror) is that the “bonds between men and women in combat” and between “soldiers and the citizenry” have been severed, and “we [have] fail[ed] as a nation to treat our wars as a collective responsibility rather than the special mission of a self-selected few.” 

Despite the swings in mood and perspective, Klay is a careful and responsible guide through the political and moral quagmire that is the GWOT, and the best pieces in the collection are the longer narratives in which he has room to guide and room to place contradictory points of view cheek to jowl, something that there is simply not room for in the shorter op-eds and columns that punctuate the collection.

Klay is at his most powerful when owning his identity as a Catholic and a storyteller, for example in his essay “Man of War,” which appears late in the book in the last section titled “Faith.” Here he takes his time describing the ins and outs of his role as a public affairs officer in Iraq’s Anbar Province. At times he sounds like Matthew Modine’s Pvt. Joker in Full Metal Jacket, except his job was less reporter, more editorial and advisory. He “assisted professional media” and briefed the commanding general on the “biggest news stories coming out of Iraq,” which meant consuming a lot of grim news: “chlorine gas attacks and assassinated political leaders and bombers using children as decoys.” 

Writing from this perspective, grounded in his military duties, but also regularly escaping and finding solace in the ritual of Mass and sacrament of Confession, Klay is at his most fluid, poignant, and insightful. He spends several pages reflecting on the task of finding a PSOD (Positive Story of the Day). Given the unrelentingly bad news he was delivering, he was asked by the general’s chief of staff to end each of his briefings with a PSOD to “pep things up.” In a book full of reflection, introspection, and big realizations, it is Klay’s daily numbing search for something, anything “PSOD-y” that eventually leads him to a turning point in what he calls “my war.”

The turn comes because the stream of news coming out of Iraq is less and less terrible. “At a certain point, I couldn’t remember the last mass casualty event. I saw fewer injured children. And I went from hope that we were winning to certainty.” But Klay does not rest in this certainty because it is based on a “strictly utilitarian, consequentialist calculus.” He writes, “I was right and noble, while the antiwar folks who opposed the surge were guilty of risking Iraqi lives.”

This is one of the most important moments in Uncertain Ground, as it articulates the larger philosophical underpinnings of Klay’s thought. Citing Carl von Clausewtiz’s philosophy that the “most important forces in war” are “immaterial,” spiritual, Klay begins to see this certainty as naive. Blinded by the numerical data he was daily tasked with gathering, what he and no one else could anticipate was that the “spirits permeating the war,” spirits that had not been “quantified and tamed” would eventually rise and turn against them.

It is tempting here to imagine the swirling spirits released from the Ark of the Covenant by the Nazi’s in Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, but Clausewitz does not mean haunting apparitions with ghoulish faces but, natural forces “composed of primordial violence, hatred, and enmity,” forces that cannot be tamed, though perhaps harnessed by creative strategy and policy.

In a moment of true humility and surrender, Klay finally accepts that this primordial spirit is unpredictable and uncontrollable, and he is able to see it not only as the cause of the rise of ISIS, even after the troop surge, but also at the root of all the civilian casualties, all the maiming and killing of Iraqi children caught in the crossfire, and all atrocities like the Iraqi men tortured by ISIS and the CIA-led abuses at Abu Ghraib prison. 

But what is most crucial and poignant about this moment’s realization is that it eventually leads him to a confrontation between his hubristic desire to “make a difference” and faith. In “Tales of War and Redemption,” he reflects on how tempting it was in Iraq to be pulled into a kind of Manichean dualism. A Special Forces veteran confides in Klay “killing people in Iraq felt less morally troubling than . . . Afghanistan” because “al-Qaeda was so grotesquely, absurdly evil, you can not help but compare yourself with them and assume that you must be good.” Klay uses this confession as a springboard for his own:

Confronted by a man who voiced contempt at the notion that anyone would fight in a war that had caused such horrendous civilian casualties, I told him, “I carried injured Iraqi children to medical care with my own hands! What have you done for Iraqi civilians recently? Posted snarky comments on Facebook?”

He goes on to chide himself for behaving “like some bizarrely inverted, old-school Calvinist, assured of my own righteousness not because of any good I saw in my life, but because of all the evil I saw in others. My notion of the value of faith went away, convinced as I was that I could justify myself through events.”

This confession breaks open a larger conversation of how the individual finds their way morally within war. In On War Clausewitz writes on the importance of the individual soldier “submitt[ing] . . . to demands of a higher kind, to obedience, order, rule, and method.” It is only in this submission that the soldiers will come to regard themselves with the pride of a “guild,” and a true esprit de corps is formed.

Like any reasonable, conscientious soldier deployed to a war zone, Klay wants to be gung-ho, all-in, play his role, contribute to the success of the mission, but he also struggles with the morality of what he finds himself a part of, though not in the way that you might think. He writes that he cannot “square” the relative safety and privilege he enjoys in his job as a communications officer with the death happening all around him. He goes to Confession regularly and confesses feelings of “inadequacy”—he feels guilty because he is not able to do more. 

This, it seems, is where the civilian and the soldier will always be somewhat out of touch. Civilians struggle to imagine how they would, or even if they could, serve during war time, but Klay is eager to unite these two selves. But, how?

One of Klay’s contributions to the literature coming out of the early GWOT era is that he does not simply allege and theorize, he attempts to show how a lack of strategy and policy, a lack of a “broader endgame” has impacted the lives of soldiers and civilians caught in the cross-fire, and the millions of Americans back home in whose name the war was being waged.

We know that the Geneva Conventions are supposed to protect civilians and the human rights of prisoners of war, but we also know that the GWOT is not a conventional warwe have been up and down this litigious road. Klay knows of Aquinas’s contributions to Just War theory in terms of right authority, right intention, and proportionality. He knows so much—we know so muchand yet it has not assured us victory. No wonder there is weariness and cynicism towards warmilitarily we have attempted to do the right things, haven’t we? We have done all that we can possibly do, right? Arguably, depending on who you ask, yes.

And this is what gives Uncertain Ground purchase in this fraught moment in our history. Klay is actually diagnosing something more complex than a lack of a coherent foreign policy or the abdication of responsibility on the part of civilians back home, and yet, like all people of good will who have educated themselves, and voted, and refrained from blindly criticizing our soldiers and leaders, he does not arrive at this understanding over the course of one essay. The collection is a collection of receipts for dues paid and hundreds of hours of silent soul searching.

Reflecting on the oath he made as Marine he comes to the sobering realization that supporting and defending the Constitution, as the oath goes, “against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” is what all citizens should be doing. He writes: “So I had already owed that to my country, by virtue of my birth and the privilege of being American.” But Klay stops short of putting his finger in the chest of the reader and saying “do better,” but he does make a strong appeal: “there is always a way to serve, to help bend the power and potential of the United States toward the good.”

He continues, that while the civilian on the home front cannot “assume the moral burdens felt at a gut level” by soldiers “all can show an equal commitment to their country, an equal assumption of the obligations inherent in citizenship, and an equal bias for action.” But as Klay alludes to in another essay, “The Warrior at the Mall,” perhaps one reason America has not mobilized behind the GWOT effort in ways seen in the first two World Wars, is because we have sitting presidents telling the nation that the best thing they can do to fight terrorism is get thee to a shopping mall.

This is one of the few moments in the book where readers might take pause, especially Catholic ones steeped in the social justice tradition of the Church. How does one fix this disconnect, this lack of collective responsibility when the Commander and Chief seems more concerned with economic stimulus than the mission? The answer for some Catholics is that we must turn to social critics and pacifists like Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, all of whom offer critiques of violence and militarism that implicate capitalism, who see Clausewitz’s primordial forces of hatred, violence, and enmity as being fed by a worship of Mammon. It should be noted that Klay does not reference Day or Merton in his book.

Despite these notable omissions, he does not turn a blind eye to the way capitalism symbiotically feeds off and encourages America’s violent and warring nature. In the immensely powerful “A History of Violence” (recently re-published in The New Yorker), Klay goes deepall the way back to America’s first recorded murderin order to sketch a fascinating and damning history of the personal firearm industry, revealing how it grew and flourished by marketing gun ownership as an essential accessory of rugged American individualism, and eventually fixating on the ridiculous power of the AR-15, which has become a sort of talisman for conservative gun rights advocates.

In another affecting work of long-form journalism, he profiles the ex-Navy Seal Eric Greitens, calling him out as a bigoted, war-profiteering grifter who charges exorbitant fees as a popular guest on the conservative speaker circuit. Though not a stylish or scenic writer like Joan Didion, there is a moral concern reminiscent of her; each essay seems to emanate from a troubling moment that has passed but is still raw enough to be accessible. We must remain on speaking terms with our past selves, Didion suggests.

In the end, Klay’s book urges us to return to speaking terms with ourselves and our neighbors. It is an ambitious, frustrating, and, ultimately, humbling book, and he is to be commended for allowing us to watch as he writes his way through waves of anger as a way of resisting the pull of bitterness, demagoguery, and self-righteousness in favor of a kind of exorcism. We do not belong to ourselves, or the polis, but to God, Klay seems to say, and yet at times, it is our duty as citizens within a democracy, to sacrifice for one another. In this way, Uncertain Ground invites us to reflect on who and how we serve.