Shortly after Phil Klay returned home from Iraq in 2008, the US Marine Corps veteran enrolled in the MFA program at Hunter College in New York and put pen to paper to make sense of his wartime experiences. He has since published a National Book Award–winning collection of short stories, Redeployment, and later a novel, Missionaries. “It’s about bringing the reader in close to an experience that forces you to reevaluate your sense of the world,” he says of his fiction.
Klay’s new book, Uncertain Ground: Citizenship in an Age of Endless, Invisible War, is his first collection of nonfiction work. The essays reflect on the consequences that two decades of war have brought to the United States, in terms of its self-image and national character. Spanning a decade, they chart a soldier’s fragmented journey along a spectrum of emotions ranging from optimism to resentment and outright anger. “With these essays, I’m staking positions in the things that are of greatest moral, political, aesthetic, and spiritual concern to me,” he writes. I talked with Klay about the disconnect between American civilian life and the backdrop of perpetual war, the structures of power that maintain that disconnect, and what can be done to bridge the gap. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
So that was the context. When I went into Iraq in January of 2007, there was this new strategy that was being debated in the United States. And Anbar Province, being the most violent place in Iraq, was going to be the testing ground.
NF: And the shift was to more of a soft-power strategy, right?
PK: Yes. The main idea in counterinsurgency theory was, “Look, we can’t kill our way out of this problem.” And, in fact, when we use excessive violence, it ends up in civilian casualties. And the more civilians we kill, the less tips we get about where there are homemade bombs, the less support we get from the locals, and we sort of hamstring ourselves in the long term. We needed to make the local population the heart of the effort, but at the same time, we needed a more aggressive troop presence, so that we could have some degree of suppression of enemy violence. This would hopefully enable us to get other types of projects going, using the money that we were giving out to local leaders to do a whole range of things that would hopefully win us friends in the long term.
When I came in, I was doing a relatively safe job, but it was still really obvious that it was a violent place. And what was most notable for me early on was a suicide bombing outside a mosque in Habbaniyah, just north of our base, and seeing civilians come in in droves, which was nothing like I’d seen before—not simply the number of injured, but the types of injuries. Bombs do fairly extreme things to human bodies, and I was not prepared for that.
But by the end of my deployment, the violence had dropped off a cliff. We weren’t even receiving indirect fire on our base, and hadn’t for months. So we very much felt like we were winning, and that all the stories that we had told ourselves about the strategy and what it could achieve had come true.
NF: You ended your deployment feeling fairly optimistic about the direction of the war and about America’s role in it. And clearly, following the arc of your essays here, your feelings on that changed. What caused you to reconsider as the war dragged on?
PK: I left the corps in 2009. Also in 2009, The New York Times published an article about a town on the banks of Lake Habbaniyah that I’ve been through myself, on patrols with an infantry unit. It was about a rave on the banks of Lake Habbaniyah—young Iraqi kids partying to Syrian pop music. I was discussing it with another Marine, who told me, “When I read that article, I was like, ‘We won,’ you know?” And that’s kind of how I felt, too.
And then you had the Obama troop surge, also in 2009. At the time, it felt like, “Oh, well, this worked in Iraq. Now we’re going to do the same thing in Afghanistan.” But, of course, I knew a Marine who died during that surge. I knew Marines who were injured in ways that will affect the basic functioning of their bodies for the rest of their lives. The fact that violence had gone down in Anbar—I think I over-extrapolated what that meant for the future, and what it meant for the ultimate political goals of the war. And having left the war myself—having decided in the middle of a war that, you know, I’d done my four years, and I was going to do something new, which is a very weird thing, that you can just do a piece of the war and then leave, while other people who you serve with continue fighting—the simple and often self-serving narratives that I’d started with started to fade away.
Anybody who was following what was happening—the increasing rifts between the Shia and Sunni in government, the rise of ISIS—anybody could see that there was disaster on the horizon. I was just watching, trying to think about what it said about what I’d been a part of, about what my country had done. That’s something that a lot of veterans went through. In one of the essays, I talk about being at a documentary screening. During the Q&A, this guy stands up, the perfect image of a big, tall former Marine, and he says, “Being a veteran, that used to be something I was very proud of.” But he was looking at what had happened in Iraq, he said, and wondering: Had he actually been part of an evil thing? And if he had, then, like, who was he anymore? I think it affected a whole generation in the same way.
NF: The term “citizen-soldier” is a unifying thread in the book. Why the emphasis on citizenship? What is the significance of that term?
PK: It’s this romantic term that didn’t necessarily live up to the hype during the Revolutionary War. The founders thought that mercenaries were going to be worthless, because they were just fighting for pay, and Americans would be fighting for freedom. But they got their asses kicked by Hessian mercenaries in the Battle of Brooklyn and realized that competence, knowledge, and professionalism count for quite a lot in war. And yet, at the same time, I think that the “citizen” portion is so incredibly vital—because we’re a democracy, and how we use our military should be, in some way, related to the will of the people, reflecting our concerns and needs as well as our values.
Waging war is the thing of greatest moral significance that a nation does. It must be a subject of democratic debate. And yet the nature of exceptionally long, murky, and disappointing wars, where the public mood is often sort of schizophrenic—we sort of really want to know that we’re killing people, but we also don’t want to be at war. It leads to strange situations like Ambassador Susan Rice claiming that the Obama administration ended the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2015. At the time, that was a straightforward lie. During the current administration, President Biden—in the same speech where he announces the end of the war in Afghanistan—promises that we’re going to continue to kill people with over-the-horizon strikes. “The war is over. But we will continue to kill people.” This is what politicians promise.
And the nature of war-making powers has become incredibly expansive. War-making powers that were granted to the president at the start of the War on Terror, and expanded and elaborated on during the Obama presidency, led to a situation where there’s less political debate about these things than ever before.
NF: I wanted to zero in on this phrase, which you talk about in one of the essays: “We’re at war while America is at the mall.” I think it illustrates a central tension that you’re trying to work through in a lot of these essays, which is the disconnect between civilian and military life.
PK: We don’t need to just call it a “disconnect”; there’s often contempt for civilians. You’ll see [Fox News contributor and former Navy SEAL] Rob O’Neill saying things like, “I can’t believe that I risked my life for you” when things happen in American political life that he doesn’t approve of.
You know, when I was in Iraq, I kind of liked that phrase—“We’re at war while America is at the mall”—because it sets up a nice little moral hierarchy where, if you’re at war, then you’re at the top of that moral hierarchy. And this is nothing new: Wilfred Owen’s soldiers are in the same moral hierarchy in his poetry. But it’s especially peculiar when it’s a small fraction of the country that serves, and it’s a geographically concentrated fraction. If you live near a military base, or if you’re from a couple of states, especially in the South, you might know a lot of veterans. If you live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, you might not.
I remember I did an event with a really wonderful Iraqi author in New York, and he felt uncomfortable doing an event with somebody who had been a Marine. He clearly wanted to bring it up, and as genially and politely as you possibly could, he compared me to a Nazi. We had a cordial exchange about that. And the audience—this is on the Upper East Side of New York—a majority of the audience who actually came out for this were Iraq and Afghanistan veterans: the only people interested enough to want to hear from this wonderful Iraqi author. So the physical burdens of war get carried by the soldier. The emotional burdens of war get carried by the soldier. The political burdens of citizenship in relation to war shouldn’t also get carried by the soldier, but they do. And I think that breeds frustration, rage, contempt. And that, in turn, only worsens the problem.
NF: That brings me to the next point I wanted to raise, which is your emphasis in these essays on civic engagement. When you talk about “shouldering the burdens,” what would that look like to you? What is effective civic engagement?
PK: There’s this speech Gen. John Kelly gave about two Marines who died. During that speech, he claimed that we were winning in Afghanistan, but that you wouldn’t know it because our successes go unreported by members of the “know-it-all chattering class,” who always seem to know better but have never themselves been in the arena. That attitude—it’s not uncommon, but it’s poisonous. And I say in the book that my responsibility to talk about our nation’s war policy comes not from the fact that I served as a public affairs officer a decade ago, but from the fact that I’m an American citizen who has a direct stake in these wars. That also means that it’s my patriotic duty to tell guys like John Kelly, when they say stuff like that, to go pound sand.
I think there are things that individuals can do, but then there’s also things that I would like to see happen structurally. It’s all well and good to ask citizens to care more—which, obviously, we should. But our political leaders have made a series of decisions that actively keep us from engaging [as citizens] in [meaningful debates about] the wars. And coming to this realization took a bit of the edge off my frustration and anger with the average citizen about this.
I think there are things politicians can do, too, in terms of the authorities that we’ve granted the president, to create conditions where Congress will actually be forced to debate things. And if you make these things a live political debate, where people actually have to come down on one side or the other, vote about them, it would be at least a small step toward us behaving more like a republic.
NF: I wanted to ask you about the essay “A History of Violence.” It’s different from the rest of the essays in the collection in that it’s a kind of cultural history about the mass-manufacturing of ever deadlier technologies, and also the manufacturing of a culture around those technologies, which is also tied to conceptions of American identity.
PK: Before the pandemic, it just seemed like there was one mass shooting after another. So that essay is ultimately concerned with the proliferation of guns in America. Our cultural attitudes about war are things that had to be built and constructed. They have real consequences in terms of how we wage war, how we think about it, the stories that we tell ourselves about war, which then affects how we treat veterans and how we treat our responsibilities as citizens. And the question of firearms and the American fascination with them has its own kind of history, which obviously feeds into it all.
So I kind of broke it down by advances in the rate of fire—the number of bullets that you can spew forth in a minute. And then the advances in wound ballistics—how lethal those rounds are when they enter human bodies. And then, finally, advances in the technology of the marketing and dispersal of weapons, which we sort of imagine as this natural process where people just want to buy guns. But historically, that’s not the case at all. A lot of our understanding of ourselves and our relationship to violence is a product of marketing campaigns.
You can trace that, look at it, and see how it dovetails with technological advances to lead us to a very dangerous place. There’s the hard technology, and then there’s the software, the kind of cultural software that we create, which tells us how to employ it, and what stories to tell ourselves in our relationship to this hardware. In the essay, there’s also just a little bit of frustration with folks on the left who only have a horror of guns and don’t understand the genuine appeal of these things. I wanted to write about guns in a way that was more connected to the people who actually use them. I’m always interested, when I’m writing either fiction or nonfiction, to write about these things in a way that hopefully makes you feel uncomfortable. Because hopefully, it’s pulling things out of you that you didn’t know were there.
NF: You make the point in the book that the United States doesn’t have mandatory service—this is a volunteer army. So why do Americans join the military? And how is this also related to conceptions of American identity? What stories are people telling themselves when they sign up for service?
PK: There’s an essay by Gustav Hasford, who wrote The Short-Timers, which Full Metal Jacket is based on. He’s reviewing Rambo in Penthouse magazine. It’s a wild review. He calls it the “Triumph of the Will for American Nazis.” But at one point he says, “Why did we go to war? They’ve been trying to figure that out since Hitler was a corporal. We were young, and the young love to travel.”
I think it’s not that surprising that people join the military, and there’s a mix of good and bad reasons. I quote a buddy of mine in the final essay: “We’re at war. And when your country goes to war, you sign up if you have any honor.” That’s how he felt. I know people whose motivations were unquestionably moral. I know one guy who protested the war in Iraq and then signed up because this was what his country was doing, and he felt invested in the morality of our conduct overseas and thought that he would have a stake in it. He ended up going to Afghanistan.
And then there’s the people who sign up because they want to kill people, or because they want excitement, or because they want to prove themselves—and certainly there’s a masculine component to that. Like, “This is how to be a man, and how to be a man in a variety of ways,” right? It’s also that you leave home and become independent, and people find real community and a sense of family in the military.
Or because it looks cool. Because the recruiter talked you into it. Because they offer you money for college. Because your family has a history of doing it. But whenever anybody makes a major life decision at 18, or 17, or 21, not to put too fine a point on it, it’s not a fully worked-out thing. It’s kind of crazy.