Who Gets to Tell War Stories?: On Phil Klay’s “Uncertain Ground”
Uncertain Ground: Citizenship in an Age of Endless, Invisible War by Phil Klay
BECAUSE HE “can’t simply memorialize,” Phil Klay takes a different approach to war in his recent essay collection, Uncertain Ground: Citizenship in an Age of Endless, Invisible War (2022). His essays represent an attempt at collective critical remembrance of war and its aftermath, while eschewing the memorialization that he critiques.
Uncertain Ground is about the nature of the post-9/11 wars and their impact on how Americans view and treat one another, who counts as American within the boundaries they draw, and how different versions of Americanness configure relations with people globally. Klay worries that 20 years of war have divided Americans against one another. He does not seek certain ground where all Americans stand in consensus, but he points toward a United States where military service is not the metric for real Americanness. He conceptualizes Americanness and citizenship expansively and generatively. Throughout the essays, Klay revisits the experiences of inflicting violence, of having violence inflicted upon you, or of witnessing violence up close. In doing so, he traces the fraught relationship between service members and civilians as he grapples with how to portray war and the people who fight it.
Klay is a former marine and Iraq veteran. He begins each essay with a date or time frame and often the specific places that spawned his analysis. This specificity is the native ground of Klay’s writing. Military service is one identity that implicitly undergirds much of his writing, but he also claims other identities: “[I]f I have authority to speak about our military policy it’s because I’m a citizen responsible for participating in self-governance, not because I belonged to a warrior caste.”
This demarcation can seem jarring. Klay distinguishes his identity as an American citizen from his specific identity as a former military serviceman precisely to connect civic responsibility to all Americans, not just those who have been in the military. He worries about the existence of “a 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.” The role of the United States military, in Klay’s telling, remains intimately entwined with what it means to be an American. “Our military is justified only by the civic life and values it exists to defend,” he insists.
Indeed, what it means to be a citizen, and which rights and responsibilities accompany such a designation, is a central question for the book. For Klay, civilian and veteran are subcategories of citizen. He draws more on the ancient Greek notion of citizenship and civic responsibility than on contemporary political debates about citizens and noncitizens (such as migrant, displaced, or refugee persons). But he is less interested in trying to define the term or create boundaries for it; rather, he is concerned with the implications once the lines are drawn. Klay tells the story of an Iraqi man who served, at great cost, as a translator for the Americans but then faced immense difficulty when seeking asylum and citizenship in the United States. Citizenship is a fraught category, and Klay wants to lay it bare.
The increasingly sharp division between military and civilian life in part drives his profound worry about the increasing militarization of American civil society. Over Memorial Day weekend 2022, Klay published an essay in The New York Times, in which he laments the increasing secrecy of targeted killing done in the name of American citizens. That secrecy stifles public debate about what Americans actually want. He writes, “War—the killing of other people on our behalf, as citizens—is the most morally consequential thing a nation can do.” Klay laments the routinization of war, killing, and political violence, especially when it is done from the shadows.
Klay’s chapter on the AR-15, published in The New Yorker in summer 2022, gathers more urgency in the wake of ongoing mass shootings, including the September shooting spree in Memphis, Tennessee (still recent at the time of writing); which happened in the wake of Highland Park, Illinois; which happened in the wake of Uvalde, Texas; which happened in the wake of Buffalo, New York; which happened in the wake of El Paso, Texas; which happened in the wake of so many other mass shootings, circulated and recirculated. He tells the story of how a military-style weapon got remade into a necessity for civilians. In this way, the story of the AR-15 is about the increasing militarization of the United States.
Klay tells and retells a version of this narrative. The civilian-military divide is most clearly understood through the idea of civilian control of the military. Even the highest-ranking uniformed military officer is under the civilian authority of the president and the secretary of defense. Klay considers how these two realms were cordoned off from one another; the United States’ longest wars were fought by a relatively small percentage of Americans. Protracted and expansive American military engagement occurs not because so many Americans serve in the military, but because so few have for so long; the gulf between the realities of military life and how it’s conceived of and represented in public life has widened alarmingly in recent decades. The vacuum fills, as vacuums do, with an easy fallback: the veteran’s war story. Klay pushes against this simplistic solution.
Who gets to tell war stories, and why? Klay wonders about the virtues and drawbacks of using poetry, fiction, and journalism to write about war and warriors. He insists on the importance of fact but craves room to talk about experiences of political violence that cannot be conveyed solely through factual means—all of which is complicated enough. Yet Klay reaches further still by laying out the possibilities and limitations of writing about war to convey “what it was like.”
Such writing may have the benefit of verisimilitude, but it can’t convey the full range of experiences in war, and it risks prizing the narrative of one group (the hallowed veteran) over another (the nonveteran). And a veteran, of necessity, cannot convey on the basis of lived experience “what it was like” for troops and civilians on the other side. Klay writes about the intersection of models for writing and the reality of the civ-mil divide today: “[W]hat it’s like to serve in war is only valuable to me if it guides the reader toward the kind of collision of values and the destruction of ideologies that war experience sometimes brings about.”
The platitudes of well-meaning civilians—“I could never imagine what you’ve been through”—make him uncomfortable. Klay claims that the “notion that war forever separates veterans from the rest of mankind has long been embedded in our collective consciousness.” This assumption breaks down dialogue between the members of society who are collectively responsible for steering a path toward flourishing for all. His demureness about his own status as a veteran is understandable—citizens are responsible for the well-being of the country; soldiers only derivatively so. But the price for this responsibility does not fall equally nor is it equally borne.
At the same time, he worries about the nature and consequences of prioritizing the voices of veterans, emphasizing that the “notion that the veteran is an unassailable authority on the experience of war shuts down conversation. But in a democracy, no one, not even a veteran, should have the last word.” This passage makes plain the book’s central tension: how to speak about civic responsibility as informed by the situated experience of war while holding space for definitive insight from the nonveteran.
At one point, he details conversations and text exchanges on the day of a friend’s wedding. The disparate topics and times of his reflections are tied together by persistent threads. Klay’s understandings of meaning-making, remembering, and memorializing are refracted through his faith. Faith influences his approach to specific issues, including human dignity, civic responsibility, and the nature of their significance. Klay’s turn to faith at the close of the book also makes sense, given the significant role that religion and spirituality play in the lives of many as a form of collective meaning-making, especially during distressing times. Something deep lives beneath the surface—“all this raises questions about the nature and purpose of life with an urgency that can’t be held at bay by scrolling Twitter or turning on the television.”
Ordering the world through writing does not mean creating stable, unalterable narratives. Klay’s book does not work towards a telos, which matters enormously. Its understanding is specific and fragmented—exactly what might be expected from participants, bystanders, and a public embroiled in wars that themselves lack a clear end state, even though, as Klay himself is quick to observe, Americans are often told that these wars are over.
Klay’s thoughts mimic these broader realities in form, while the content elicits tangible insight from within the confines of particular times, spaces, and subjects. To move beyond this particularity risks becoming both insincere and unwise when providing much-needed analysis on these wars. Klay’s greatest achievement––and why this book deserves to be read widely—is his work to make visible the invisible by vulnerably writing about his own meaning-making.
Katherine Voyles holds a PhD in English from UC Irvine with a focus on 19th-century British literature. She uses that background to write on the cultures of national defense and national defense in culture, and is co-managing editor of The Strategy Bridge.
Nathan White holds a PhD in theology from the University of Durham (UK) and is a United States veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan. He is an Army Reserve officer who currently serves in leadership roles in academia and public service, and whose research focuses on resilience and meaning-making in the context of lived religion.
Disclaimer: The views here are the contributors’ own and do not reflect the position of the US Army, the US Department of Defense, or the US Government.
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