Civic Engagement In an Age of Perpetual War

David Beckam

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.

—Noah Flora

Noah Flora: When we talk about “endless war,” we lose sight of the fact that this was nevertheless a war with discrete phases and theaters. What I appreciated about your book was that in discussing your own deployment, you conveyed a sense of how it coincided with a very particular and pivotal moment in the war. Can you talk about the specifics of Anbar Province, your understanding of your assignment there, and your understanding of American involvement in Iraq around this time.

Phil Klay: I accepted my commission in 2005. At that point, we were in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and the news from Iraq was increasingly bad. So it was already clear that the kinds of promises we made when we were going in were not true. I knew all that before I even took my oath of office. And Anbar Province, which was where most of the Marine forces were located, was the heart of the Sunni insurgency—2006 would be the year that intelligence assessments would refer to Anbar as “the lost province.” It was extremely violent. There had already been a major battle, the Second Battle of Fallujah, in 2004, which was a pivotal moment when the Marines saw urban combat like they hadn’t seen since Huế City in Vietnam. And still, after all that, by 2006 Falluja as well as other cities were basically controlled by Al Qaeda again.

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