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Phil Klay Reinvents the War Novel to Capture Global Conflict

War writers have always been literary missionaries, true believers they can bring some new clarity to a well-told story. Today’s war writer especially needs that missionary’s deep faith, that hubris they have more to offer than one more Things They Carried knockoff, yet another Dispatches pantomime.

Phil Klay’s Missionaries is not derivative of those past classics. Klay saw something new and terrifying in modern war, and his first novel brings something new and fearsome to modern war literature. Klay’s confident vision and disciplined command of a complex structure makes Missionaries a powerful, meaningful, and original addition to war lit’s crowded catalog.

Klay told The Daily Beast that Missionaries “couldn’t feel like war books that I love, because it’s a different kind of war.”

“There is something important and different about how we wage war right now. I wanted to talk about these systems of violence and military power, and how they relate to each other,” Klay told the Beast. That’s a big question, Klay acknowledged, requiring his book to answer: “How am I going to organize the corner of the world I’m trying to create for the reader?”

“‘Missionaries’ is new and vital because it transcends the inward-facing, American-oriented ennui that modern war literature too often relies on.”

The book’s larger vision powers its simple premise. The plot intersects four characters in the violence-but-not-quite-war of Colombia. It shows Americans as well-meaning and blundering, and the Colombians weary of dealing with them. That aspect is not new.

Missionaries is new and vital because it transcends the inward-facing, American-oriented ennui that modern war literature too often relies on. Klay’s primary and supporting characters are well more than half residents of Colombia, and his close and vibrant narration immerses readers into their disparate personalities. Not the first time in recent years, but a rare time that readers get a full view of a conflict’s unforgiving gravitational pull, not only on Americans but to the citizens of other nations.

It has taken many years of perspective for authors to begin examining our post-9/11 wars in ways that break free from past influence. One of Missionaries’ main characters, war reporter Lisette, tells another character that, “The best journalist to cover Vietnam was Michael Herr, because Herr went crazy. Herr allowed himself to go crazy.

“Vietnam didn’t make sense,” Lisette goes on. “So you couldn’t just write the facts. You had to write the experience of getting pushed past sanity.

“What kind of crazy fits this war?” she asks about Colombia, where her ignorance will get her kidnapped.

Her question has been war literature’s copycat problem for 20 years. Authors looked for war’s insanity but overlooked the true terror—the facts. The facts of worldwide conflict’s interconnectivity, and its globalized, streamlined, impersonal, and abstract network of warfare and violence. It’s not crazy; it’s like COVID: relentless, uncaring, inhuman.

In a review included in a recent collection of movie criticism, The Press Gang, Matthew Zoller Seitz lashed into the Silence of the Lambs’ ill-considered sequel, 2001’s awful Hannibal. Seitz writes that “I keep thinking about James Ellroy’s comment that authors who build their careers writing books about diabolical serial killers are basically cowards; they don’t have the intelligence or the guts to face the real roots of evil: poverty, racism, abuse, official corruption. So they tell stories about wraiths instead.”

That critique could, unfairly, apply to very well-written war stories that resurrect, over and over, the wraiths of young men in Humvee turrets, ignoring the entangling branches of global warfare. A few books, like all of Elliot Ackerman’s novels, Matt Gallagher’s dark alternate history Empire City, Roy Scranton’s vile and hypnotic War Porn, and especially Salar Abdoh’s transcendent Out of Mesopotamia have broken traditional conventions. Missionaries breaks maybe the biggest, letting go of the Middle East as the central location.

Missionaries’ setting in the slightly familiar country of Colombia helps Klay avoid the preconceptions that weigh down Middle-East war stories. While some events occur in Afghanistan, they’re presented as a goodbye-to-all-that transition where Klay’s American characters can think of Colombia as a “war that we’re not losing.”

They won’t be wrong. In Missionaries, the war in Colombia will not be lost.

But in 2020, “winning” or “losing” feels like “Iraq” and “Afghanistan.” Abstractions without weight.

Klay told the Beast that “One challenge of writing about modern war is to make the abstractions disappear.” Klay referred to a Tom Sleigh essay about World War I poet David Jones’ “incarnational” poetry, of “dressing the spirit in flesh. The words that bring the war not only into focus, but make it so physically immediate that abstractions evaporate.”

In Jones’ poem “In Parenthesis,” an abstraction like “death in the trenches” became the physical stanza: “He sinks on one knee and now on the other, his upper body tilts in rigid inclination this way and back.”

Abstractions are common when discussing modern wars. Words like sacrifice and courage, an expanse of Humvee turrets—all an empty hum; readers nod, agree how terrible war must be, but there’s no terror.

“David Jones wanted his poetry to see the war, physically and viscerally in the writing of it. Every war writer wants to do that,” Klay said. “But what does that mean in a world marked with the globalization of violence? Where a Colombian mercenary is at an air base in the United Arab Emirates, watching a Yemeni tribesman through a Chinese-made drone, while killing him with an American-made missile?”

“Klay remembers that whether about Colombia, Somalia, Niger, Iraq, or Afghanistan, that these are the stories of the lives of those we’ve wrecked.”

Klay’s 2014 National Book Award-winning short story collection Redeployment examined war’s experience through numerous characters. He focused on one life at a time, an intensity limited by those brief, singular perspectives. In Missionaries’ 400 pages, Klay conveys conflict through his characters’ experiences and agendas, across continents, and decades.

Readers will go back and forth between different eras and locations, all angled toward one another. By the end, Klay ties his characters into war’s dark knot.

Klay used six years of research to earn the knowledge that connects readers with this challenging structure. It works with his skills in world-building and characterization. Klay’s characters become missionaries within his narrative, “trying to get a hold of their piece of reality, and trying to shape regions far from them,” Klay said.

“I was concerned with the beliefs of these people to justify and drive their actions,” he said. Beliefs, like a missionary’s, “that they’re trying to project out on the world.”

Klay’s wife, Jessica Alvarez, is Colombian-American, and those family connections helped gain the dozens of interviews that helped him create the book’s reality. Klay is a former Marine officer, with the background knowledge to interview Special Forces members. Some events, like a battle in Afghanistan or a hidden bomb, are closely based on real events. Characters were built from aspects of real people but are not one-for-one comparisons.

The book starts with Abel, a young man turned paramilitary in Colombia’s civil wars, and Lisette, a weary journalist trying to find a story worth her risk. Then it shifts to Lt. Col Juan Pablo of the Colombian military, and his American liaison officer, Mason, a U.S. Special Forces NCO on soft duty after Afghanistan.

Each of these first-person pairings is like the opposite end of a missionary’s role: the Colombians tolerate being preached at, the Americans often tend toward the preaching.

They are at opposite ends in other ways—the Americans know Colombia’s geopolitical significance within the larger world, but tragically little about the hard rules on the ground. The Colombians can control tragically little about the agendas that rule their fates but know far too much about each day’s deadly choices.

The book’s opening chapter is Abel’s first-person recollection written mostly in third-person, creating a distance from his childhood identity of Abelito. His entire village and whole family are massacred by guerillas exacting revenge for a brief display of rebellion. That began Abel’s journey to the paramilitaries on the other side.

Klay writes, “A person is what happens when there is a family, a town, a place where you are known. Where every person who knows you holds a small, invisible mirror, and in each mirror is a different reflection. So what happens when one by one the people holding those mirrors are taken from you? It’s simple. The person dies.”

From that boy in a small river town, Abel grows to be a willing participant in the paramilitaries’ vicious campaigning.

“So let’s not talk about this boy,” Klay writes, “as if he and I are the same person and not two strangers.”

To conclude each first-person section, each character comes to a decision, Klay said, to show “what are they going to do, where are they going, what are their hopes when they get there?”

Lt. Col. Juan Pablo’s hope is to raise his daughter, and that she can navigate her dabbling with leftist professors on her socialist college campus. His daughter defends Che Guevara and he sounds like any father in an argument pitting a child’s confidence against the parent’s entire worldview.

In that darkly funny section, Juan Pablo pedantically defines “ambush” to his disinterested daughter, arguing that Che’s tactics were misguided failures.

His daughter isn’t having it: “They kept going. Even though Che was shot. Even though he thought he was going to die.”

Juan Pablo has no use for such maudlin clichés.

“That impresses you? Trust me, it’s not particularly difficult to get shot through the chest if you’re a moron in a war zone.”

““There is a sliver of ice in a novelist’s high.””

— Phil Klay

Later, Juan Pablo’s wife pointedly asks him about his father-daughter debate, “Are you going to let me in on your game? Because I’m not sure you’re winning.”

Does he win? In the war zone of her country, his daughter will discover what “keep going” really means:

“You take bold action. I know,” Juan Pablo said again, and he put his palm over his heart. “The deaths, they weigh on you. Your first casualty. But don’t lose heart. This is the person I raised you to be.”

Juan Pablo’s American counterpart, Mason, is an American Special Forces NCO seeking a version of victory. It is actually two minor characters from Mason’s orbit who best sum-up the American military’s lasting mistakes: Mason’s Special Forces team leader, Jefe, and Ocho, one of his teammates.

On the team’s first mission to Colombia, in the early 2000s, Ocho is frustrated by how the SF teams are sidelined, providing overall support to Colombian military units but not joining them on missions.

“Dying fighting commies? That’s a bad-ass death,” Ocho says, trying to convince Jefe to let them join a patrol with a chance of combat.

“Americans die in Colombia, then Congress starts looking at all the money we’re spending and wondering if it’s worth it. We’re winning here, you understand?” Jefe says.

They’re winning here,” Ocho said. “We’re not doing shit.”

“Exactly, you fucking idiot. They’re winning, which means it’s sustainable. Which is the point of our job. You want to die for your country, do it somewhere else. Here, your death is worthless.”

In those conversations, Klay does a fine job presenting the tension in America’s military adventures of the last 20 years: how U.S. soldiers were always too ready, too willing, too motivated to do something, when doing nothing was the job, being content to hand off responsibility. Men like Jefe were too few.

Missionaries consistently feels like a tale of Colombians, and how the Americans affect them. It is a good shift from books that focus on an American point of view.

Klay’s research required interviews about the ghastly atrocities of the Colombian civil war. It dredged up memories far removed from an average American reader’s experiences, and even distant from Klay’s Colombian relatives.

After one such interview, Klay felt pleased with himself that he had gathered useful information, but, he said, “There is a sliver of ice in a novelist’s high.”

He had taken his wife’s cousin along, a teenager interested in learning more about the country. “It was a very intense, very good interview,” Klay said, with a man who grew up in a paramilitary town, a similar experience to Abel’s.

“Wow,” Klay thought afterwards. “That was amazing.”

Raised in a big city during Colombia’s more recent, relatively peaceful years, the cousin’s face was white, telling Klay “I’ve never realized how lucky I’ve been my whole life.”

“Oh. Yeah,” Klay said, about how those words struck him, realizing the dark window he had opened so others could peer in. “There’s some intense things. It’s about navigating the research with humanity.”

Klay’s narrative acquits that choice and threads that needle.

There is another word for missionary, after all, with their thin investment in other’s fates. Any author takes a risk, with their interviews and curiosity, turning lives into narrative, atrocities into plot.

That other word describes those with selfish creativity, dabbling before departing to seek new storylines, oblivious about the bloody memories they’ve dug into. The word is an underused insult in this toxic century of deluded certainty: dilettante.

Mason and Lisette play the dilettante–missionaries with faith, zeal, and good ideas; in the end, they only protect themselves and their friends. Abel and Juan Pablo know the real score.

The Colombians are well-practiced in patience. Another character deals with a local paramilitary. She has tried to convince him to make a condolence payment to the family of someone he’s had murdered:

“As she left, she decided to use the payment as a benchmark. If he made it, it’d show his intentions. If he didn’t, she’d evacuate the office, wait for him to get himself killed. She’d seen cycles like this before.”

As Klay said, there’s something different about how we wage war, but someone is always waiting for a strongman to get himself killed.

Klay has found a way to write about war away from unchanging desert sands. He remembers that whether about Colombia, Somalia, Niger, Iraq, or Afghanistan, or what comes next, that these are the stories of the lives of those we’ve wrecked.

“I think it’s a challenge and a serious one, and it is the fear, especially when you’re writing about extremely painful things,” Klay said. “You never want to be a dilettante, playing with these ideas. You’re playing for real, playing for keeps, trying to write in a way that’s meaningful in a long-term way.”

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