Grounds for Discourse

Book cover of 'Uncertain Ground'

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While he was writing well-regarded literary fiction – the 12 short stories in the National Book Award-winning “Redeployment” (2014) and the novel “Missionaries” (2020) – the Iraq veteran and former Marine Corps captain Phil Klay was also producing essays.

His words got around in 14 credited publications including The Daily Beast, New York Daily News and The New York Times, The Atlantic, The New Yorker and Time. In all, “Uncertain Ground: Citizenship in the Age of Endless, Invisible War” collects 22 of the pieces published between 2010 and 2021.

Time is kind to a decade’s nonfiction pieces, which remain pertinent because war wears on and because Klay writes well. “None of Klay’s words is accidental,” this reviewer wrote about the finely tuned “Redeployment.” My review of “Mercenaries” says Klay creates “a situation you want to stick with, even if the chance of a happy ending is slim.” Those assessments hold true outside his fiction.

In “Uncertain Ground” the voice and feat are that of Klay himself and not a fictional character. His topics involve civilians, service members, veterans, and elected leaders, all of whom have a part in a predicament that is the book’s prevalent theme:

A search for signs of ethical life in the universe, which is currently a place where people seem to be ambiguous or, worse, ambivalent, about the moral implications and actions of war. 

Klay is not the first to explore the military-civilian comprehension gap about what military service requires of those in and not in uniform, but his commendable effort could be conciliatory, could help find new ground.

“The essays in this book represent my attempts . . . to grapple with how we got here.” Here is now, and given his examples, his struggle is understandable.

“The past decades of war have shown mismanagement, incompetence, bald-faced lies,” Klays says in the introduction. That’s not news, of course, but one of his points is that administrative or military mistakes and clandestine misbehaviors end up symbolizing these United States – at home and abroad.

The result? “If the courage of young men and women in battle truly does depend on the nature and quality of our civic society, we should be very worried,” he says. 

His frustration is bipartisan in focus, starting at the top.

He notes President Obama’s saying, in 2015, that the United States had ended two wars. “No wonder our troops were having difficulty articulating why they were fighting. Their commander in chief couldn’t even bring himself to admit that we were still at war.”

The twice-impeached Commander in Chief Trump fares worse. At a veterans gathering in 2016, Klay had an opportunity to ask Trump what might happen after ISIS falls. “He didn’t have much of an answer, beyond the puzzling suggestion that we should ‘take the oil’.” Two years later? “The incoherence,” he writes, “has increased under President Trump.” 

But a reader ought not blame politics alone for the common bewilderment. “Uncertain Ground” points fingers with impartiality, even toward the author himself. “The moral certainty of my rage must be met with humility about the limits of my knowledge,” he admits, eloquently.

Nor are his essays merely a harangue against hubris, although you can feel a righteous sense of indignation in examples such as:

  • When Gen. John Kelly is “trotted out” by Trump to defend American troops’ deaths in Niger, “in an all too common move,” the chief of staff “transitioned to expressing contempt for the civilian world.” The public was “effectively told they had no place in the debate.”
  • Former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens, once the governor of Missouri, “left the government in disgrace” but “the manner in which Greitens successfully leveraged the symbolism of the military . . . is a case study in the peculiar relationship between the American public and the military they venerate but know little about.”

The veneration is what Klay calls “patriotic correctness,” and part of his mission is to decry the “fraudulent form of American patriotism, where ‘soldiers’ are sacred, the work of actual soldiering is ignored and the pageantry of military worship sucks energy away from the obligations of citizenship.”

Let the record show, by the way, that Klay is not antiwar: “I served in a war, and I served proudly. But just or not, necessary or not, war is the industrial-scale slaughter of other humans.”

Citizens have a duty to serve, too, and their reading at least a handful of these essays is recommended by this reviewer. (Heads up: While the undated “History of Violence” piece might seem more like gun-manufacturing history than commentary, stick with it for its relevance to the Las Vegas shootings of 2017.)

“No civilian,” Klay says, “can assume the moral burdens felt at a gut level by participants in war, but all can show an equal commitment to their country, an equal assumption of the obligations inherent in citizenship, and an equal bias for action . . . That means getting your hands dirty.”

To help clean the civilization we help make up, to fulfill our personal obligations to humanity in a serious way, means many things – including, Klay says, “accepting that being responsive to suffering and attuned to joy are not different things, but one and the same.”

With certainty, “Uncertain Ground’ offers a way to begin the process of exploring what Americans might be able to achieve again, together. Ponder the last three sentences in the last essay in the book:

“9/11 united America. It overcame partisan divides, bound us together, and gave us the sense of common purpose so lacking in today’s poisonous politics.

“And nothing we have done as a nation since has been so catastrophically destructive as what we did when we were enraptured by the warm glow of victimization and felt like we could do anything, together.” 

What does a coherent U.S. war policy look like?

Klay urges (in a 2018 essay) the adoption of “a coherent national policy that takes the country’s wars seriously.” What would that mean? Among his answers:

  • “Rescending the open-ended Authorization for the Use of Military Force and making the president regularly go before Congress to explain where and why he was putting troops in harms way . . .”
  • “Every member of Congress carrying out his or her constitutionally mandated duty to provide oversight of our military adventures by debating and then voting on that plan.”
  • “The average American taking part in that debate . . .”
  • “Average Americans rolling their eyes in disgust when our leaders tell us we’re not at war while American troops are risking their lives overseas . . . “
  • Our “having a longer and harder conversation about the mission we are asking soldiers to perform, and whether we are doing them the honor of making sure it’s achievable.” 
  • Americans in general “doling out a lot fewer cheap, sentimental displays of love for our troops, and doubling down on . . . zeroing in on our country’s faults and failures.”

Huffman’s book reviews received the Military Reporters and Editors’ 2018 award for commentary. He serves on the board of Student Veterans of America and co-edited “The End of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (Marine Corps University Press, 2012).