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All Wars Are Culture Wars

Kori Schake
·9 mins read

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- We are living through a renaissance of veterans’ writing by the men and women who have fought in America’s wars since the Sept. 11 attacks. Among the very best of those writers is Phil Klay, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran whose short-story collection “Redeployment” won the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction and the National Book Critics' Circle John Leonard Prize for best debut work in any genre. His first novel, “Missionaries,” is about to be released. He discusses its themes with me below.

Kori Schake: Tell me about the title. It conjured for me soldiers (U.S., Colombian and even Emirati) almost as Jesuits, "advancing a global, interconnected system … that was civilization."

Phil Klay: Yes, exactly. The book is about the globalization of violence, the ways it’s no longer sufficient to look at one war in isolation, whether it’s the war in Iraq or Yemen or Afghanistan or Colombia. When you can have a Colombian mercenary on an Emirati airbase watching a Houthi tribesman through the optics of a Chinese drone before killing him with an American missile, you’re dealing with something more complex than conflicts bound by national borders.

And within that global, interconnected system, my book has different characters, whether the American or Colombian soldier, the American journalist, or the former paramilitary, who each have a different understanding of where they fit within their various cultures, institutions, communities, countries and wars they’re a part of, and how they might project that understanding onto the world.

KS: You write "wars are not fought by armies. They are fought by cultures." I thought it was significant you didn't say states, or even societies. Talk about how you view the distinction, and why it matters for this novel.

PK: All the wars in the book are international efforts, to varying degrees, fought by soldiers and mercenaries who are part of subcultures that are markedly isolated from the broader national communities they come from, and utterly alien to the places where they’re fighting. Meanwhile, in the places where they fight, it often isn’t technological superiority or military prowess that matter for ultimate success, but the unique culture of the region and how the people there view the legitimacy of the various actors.

“All governments rest on opinion,” as Madison argued. In Iraq, where I served, the surge of troops in 2007 would not have done much without the Anbar Awakening, and when the political, military and social situation shifted dramatically, so did the course of the conflict.

In the novel, there’s a pivotal raid (based on a real incident) in which the Colombian military, aided by U.S. technology, tracks a drug kingpin by placing a beacon in a six-foot-tall teddy bear he’d ordered for his girlfriend’s birthday. When they kill him, it reshuffles the power structure in a rural region on the Venezuelan border in unanticipated ways. Part of my concern are the consequences of using the blunt tool of violence in cultural contexts that are utterly opaque to those directing the violence.

KS: There's a horrible scene in the book where a cartel chainsaws a man in half while his daughter is forced to play the piano and watch. What role does such performative violence play in societies fighting insurgencies?

PK: That murder is deliberate political theater. The political scientist Abbey Steele has shown how political considerations like the vote totals in elections were used to help paramilitaries target specific communities. In the novel, that town is a place which voted the “wrong” way during a congressional election, and so it is being destroyed in advance of the upcoming presidential election. The chainsawing scene is the capstone of a campaign designed to terrorize the people, and so the theater of it is important for it achieving the desired political effect.

At the same time, though, men who do such things come to love them. And the theatricality of it, the flamboyance, turns the victim into a dehumanized stage prop. It’s horrifying, but also a distraction from the reality of what is happening — the snuffing out of a specific human life.

KS: I really loved the passage where a soldier reflects, “If you’d asked our team ‘tell me how this ends,’ we probably would have answered ‘Badly.’” Where should responsibility rest for wars that go badly?

PK: I think our political leadership bears much of the blame. They’ve made decisions designed to evade political accountability, whether it’s Congress failing to exert oversight, the Barack Obama administration straight-up lying about whether or not we were even still at war, the lack of transparency from the Department of Defense, and so on. And then there’s the American people, who in electing Donald Trump picked a man manifestly unprepared for the role of commander-in-chief, and who, with his pardons of people charged with war crimes, has taken active steps to degrade the professionalism, effectiveness and honor of our armed services.

But people within the military have a responsibility to the institution they’re a part of, and with Mason, a medic in the Special Forces, I wanted to show a debate happening within Special Forces units about what their role was, and whether the culture of the Special Forces was being corrupted during the first decade of the war in Afghanistan.

KS: It seems to me the theme of the book is soldiers wrestling with societal indifference to the violence they are committing, and insulation from the wars being fought in their name. That's a subject you write powerfully about in your commentary on wars the U.S. is fighting. How does it affect the morale of characters in “Missionaries”?

PK: The alienation is painful for them, but it also feeds into a kind of pride that sometimes slides into arrogance. They’re part of a gnostic priesthood, understanding the true weight of war, unlike all those worthless civilians back home.

Except the civilians sometimes have valid critiques of the ways these wars are being waged, and whether they’re really holding back chaos, as the character Juan Pablo likes to believe, or contributing to it. In the first half of the book, we get the main characters’ narratives of themselves and their role in these wars. But in the second half, the canvas expands to include people with very different sensibilities.

KS: Your National Book Award-winning collection of short stories, “Redeployment,” conveys from many different perspectives what it feels like for soldiers to re-integrate into their own culture. In this book, all of the protagonists are choosing not to re-integrate; instead they move around the world to the next war. What did that signify for you in the novel?

PK: Right, they’re all doing the combat commute between Afghanistan or Colombia or Iraq and home, and the reasons they do that are particular to each character, of course, but at the end of the day, it’s because they want to. We’re all used to the notion that war is hell, sure. But it’s also alluring. Mason’s Special Forces team hates their Colombia deployments, where they’re not allowed to get into combat situations, and prefer their violent, though ultimately meaningless deployment to Afghanistan, where they fight a battle in a valley that coalition forces would end up fighting in time and again.

And then, finally, war is a job. It’s a career for these characters. It’s a reason for the institutions they’re a part of to exist. You know, if you look at the past two decades, in theory, we’ve learned lessons about the limits of achieving change with military power alone. In theory, we’ve learned about the necessity of thinking through political and social and cultural and economic considerations, and what levers of power we have to play. In practice, we’ve allowed nonmilitary tools of American power to wither, and built a remarkably powerful system for projecting violence around the world. So there’s a degree of inertia here, both for individuals and institutions.

KS: In this novel, one of the central characters, a journalist, considers war-torn Afghanistan "the place where life makes sense, and what I’m doing feels important." It reminded me of the scene from “The Hurt Locker” when the soldier returned from his deployment is in a grocery store, overwhelmed by the vast array of cereal, and determines to return to the war. How prevalent do you think that sentiment is among veterans? And how should we as Americans deal with it together for our veterans?

PK: I think many veterans feel that when we leave the service. A loss of community and purpose, which has spurred some veterans to form organizations like Team Rubicon, which does disaster relief, or to go into public service, and I think that’s very healthy. In fact, I think a greater appreciation for service, especially nonmilitary service, is important for the health of our country as well as for our returning veterans.

If we put military service on a pedestal, it separates our warrior caste from their fellow citizens, when in fact they should feel bound to the same purpose. They should be encouraged to feel their civilian lives can be as honorable and as meaningful and useful to their country, if not more, than their time in the military.

I think of George Washington, in his Farewell Orders to the Continental Army, telling his men to “prove themselves not less virtuous and useful as citizens than they have been persevering and victorious as soldiers.” As a society, I’d like us to think a lot harder about the hard work of peace, and how to honor it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Kori Schake leads the foreign and defense policy team at the American Enterprise Institute.

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