When Phil Klay left the Marines a decade ago after serving as an officer in Iraq, he found himself a part of the community of veterans who have no choice but to grapple with the meaning of their wartime experiences—for themselves and for the country. American identity has always been bound up in war—from the revolutionary war of our founding, to the civil war that ended slavery, to the two world wars that launched America as a superpower. What did the current wars say about who we are as a country, and how should we respond as citizens?
The rule of most writing — the shorter, the better — appears not to apply to Klay’s nonfiction. The half-dozen longest, meatiest and most probing essays and articles presented here share the lasting power of Klay’s acclaimed fiction. They were published separately, in different places over a decade-plus span. But read together they amount to an interwoven, evolving and revealing examination of Klay’s central topic: What it means for a country always at war, that so few of its people do the fighting ... The best of these essays combine reporting, with Klay’s observations from his own military service, with historical evidence and spiritual reflections ... It is engrossing and important, and I hope readers will start with the longest parts first.
Each of these pieces...is presented here as an independent struggle to find meaning on its own terms. Still, there is a sense of progression from one to the next. Klay is certainly no fan of the war machine — nor is he a pacifist — but he proves too wise a writer to fall for the trap of prescribing what others should think or feel about American military action. Instead, early essays in which he asks himself how he should feel about his experiences set the stage for bigger ideas ... Klay’s warnings against neatly packaged explanations can risk sounding obvious, though the keenness of his observations is unmatched ... Though these pieces were written over several years, reading them together positions them into an inevitable conversation with one another. Leitmotifs emerge through repetition of stories and images ... Reading it all together is a little like watching a stand-up comic work through the same jokes on different nights; the brilliance of the feat is both deepened and dampened in the repetition. The illusion of spontaneity is lost ... The author hybridizes many forms of nonfiction to explore questions people have been asking about war for centuries ... With this collection, Klay transcends his self-description as “a writer who was once a Marine and writes about war” to become more of a philosopher. He uses war to pose urgent questions about political identity and personal faith that will endure long after the narratives of recent conflicts get revised and their terminology fades into history.
With care, Klay addresses questions of faith, guilt, and collective trauma, offering insights into military culture and the meaning of masculinity ... Klay has written an important and eye-opening essay collection that should be a must-read.