An interview with the National Book Award Winner on citizenship in a time of invisible war.
By Brent Hannify | May 9, 2022
For the first time in decades, the United States is not at war. Right?
It’s not nearly that simple, says Phil Klay, Marine Corps veteran, winner of the National Book Award, and author of a new book that examines how American warfare has changed, and how that affects the service members who volunteer to wage it.
UNCERTAIN GROUND: Citizenship in an Age of Endless, Invisible War is an insightful collection of essays that explores how America continues to project force around the world, the relationship between civilians and servicemembers, and the author’s ruminations on his own experience wearing the uniform of a United States Marine.
Phil joined me for conversation about his new book, his military journey, and his views on what it means to be an American patriot.
GovX: In your intro, you describe this collection of essays as so many “broken fragments of my faith in, and love of, America.” What motivated you to put this book together, and why now?
Phil Klay: I wrote this to figure out on a deeper level what it means to be an American. It’s filled with stories of military life. The people I met and still know. The things I experienced. It’s me trying to answer what it means to be patriotic in relation to these wars we’ve been involved in for so long.
As for why I published it right now—the book begins with my thoughts on the last two Americans killed in Afghanistan prior to our pullout from that country, and the book ends with an essay published in August 2021 after we ultimately did leave. One of the things the book examines is America’s transition to a new kind of warfare, and since the fall of Afghanistan marked the full transition to it, it made sense to publish this book now.
GovX: A transition to a new kind of warfare?
PK: 9/11 was of course the beginning of the Global War on Terror. We began with big troop presences in Afghanistan and Iraq, and we had this idealistic sense that we could reshape and reorganize these countries to fit a western model. And along the way we tried a series of policies before we pulled back and relied more on special forces and drone warfare. That’s when we switched from high-intensity warfare with a big footprint, to low-intensity warfare with a relatively light footprint. But with no decrease in our lethality.
So when we pulled out from Afghanistan, Joe Biden declared the end of the war. But in the very next sentence he promised we would still continue to project force there with over-the-horizon strikes. So we’re in this strange place where we are continuing to kill people overseas, but as a nation we don’t think we’re at war, which is a situation that really got started during the Obama years. It’s a transition from fighting the War on Terror to managing it, and it’s why our wars have become more invisible.
GovX: How has invisible war made warfighters invisible?
PK: We may have fewer and fewer people going overseas, but our Special Forces operations are extremely taxed right now. That has real human implications. We think of special operations forces as superhuman, but there are very clear indicators that there’s a terrible strain we’re putting these warfighters under, and in pursuit of policies that are obscure even to the warfighters themselves.
Right now, we don’t have political leaders making the case to the American people why we’re killing people overseas, what the purpose is, and what the benchmarks of success are. If our politicians aren’t being clear about that, then how can we expect it to be clear to the warfighters themselves?
GovX: What would you say to the veteran community who may feel invisible, unsupported, or misunderstood at this time?
PK: People need to find their own community, purpose, and answers. That can be a hard process, especially after you leave active duty. I think finding ways to connect with people doing meaningful work can be tremendously valuable to veterans who feel misunderstood.
I was talking to one veteran friend who was involved in the process of evacuating people out of Afghanistan. It was brutal work. So many cases of people who had a real genuine need, but it was an insanely chaotic process and not everyone could be helped. He felt like he was alone in his efforts. But when he got back to St. Louis where he lived, he found a community of Americans who were stepping up and volunteering and helping to resettle people. He admitted that over the years, he used to have a lot of bitterness towards the American population for not understanding him or being apathetic to what was going on in the world. But he was reminded that in many moments where Americans are asked to step up, a lot of them will. And in very meaningful ways.
I once had a conversation with a woman who read a piece I’d written about my experience of seeing a Marine die in a combat hospital in Iraq. I was not in combat, I was a public affairs officer and my deployment was very safe, but the essay was about witnessing this and feeling that shocked numbness. And she wanted to talk to me about my essay through the context of something traumatic she’d experienced. She wasn’t equating the two experiences, but we were able to communicate about a challenging topic, and I found it to be a very meaningful dialogue.
I think we underestimate how much communication is actually possible between civilians and those who’ve seen war. That’s why I’m a writer—that kind of communication is essential to human beings and especially veterans. You have to get past that initial difficulty, extend grace to people, and not assume that you’re looking at them across some unbridgeable chasm. They might have insight and experiences that resonate with your own.
GovX: Let’s keep going on that idea of stepping up in meaningful ways. You write that “Ideals are one thing, the messy business of putting them into practice is another. That means getting your hands dirty.” How do you recommend getting your hands dirty?
PK: I think volunteering for the military is one way of stepping up. I think working in government is another. But that work is messy, and that’s what gets your hands dirty. As soon as you go from idealism to actually trying to practically get things done, you tarnish up your nice clean ideals. But we have to remember how healthy that is.
There’s always been turbulence in the American experiment. Turbulence in people’s attachment to what Ralph Ellison described as “America’s sacred words” like freedom and equality and democracy. These things fall away, and then rejuvenate all throughout American history. Change is the one thing that’s constant in this country, and it’s ultimately the process I still have faith in.
GovX: In one essay, you challenge the myth that veterans who have seen war all come back “broken” in some way. Why do you think this myth is so pervasive, and how can it be dismissed for good?
PK: Civilians often get PTSD wrong. There’s PTSD as a condition and a psychological wound, and we have treatment for this. I have friends who suffer from it. But then there’s this other, flawed way of looking at PTSD, which is this thing people project onto veterans. So, if a veteran acts violently, then it must be because they have PTSD. If a veteran expressed bitterness or rage over the current political situation, it must be because they have PTSD. These are assumptions, based on this erroneous idea that if you go to war, you come back “less” in some way.
I think civilians tend to focus on the bad times and the challenges veterans experience rather than focusing on the totality of service. I was talking to a woman about her boyfriend once, and she knew there were bad things from his deployments he didn’t tell her, things she felt were a kind of key to understanding him. But simply knowing a moment of trauma is not some key that unlocks a person. Even the moment of trauma itself isn’t meaningful if you don’t understand the context around it. You have to understand the people he was with, what it felt like to be a soldier with them, the good times they experienced, and the pride they took in their work.
Most of the people I know who served, including many of those with PTSD are glad they joined. They felt like they learned things from the experience. They’re proud of the experience. And the fact that some of them have psychological wounds doesn’t mean they’re broken or can’t operate.
GovX: How do you feel about your service after writing this book?
PK: I’m very glad I served, and I think everyone should feel proud of their service. But it’s a complicated feeling. I don’t just identify as a Marine, even though that will always be a part of me. But I identify as other things. I’m a father of three. I’m a writer. I’m a teacher. And it’s good to have those kinds of identities because they can be points of connection when wrestling with the world.
And this book is an account of me doing that. Wrestling with the moral, political, and spiritual questions raised by warfare in the last decade. And it’s an invitation to others to think through those things with me, and I hope they do.
I always say it’s great for people to buy books through their local bookshop, so please do that if you can. But you can grab it wherever books are sold.
GovX: Phil, thanks for sitting down with us. I loved your book and I think you’re going to reach people across the spectrum of American life with it. Thank you.
PK: Thank you. I hope people like it.