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A world at war in Phil Klay’s ‘Missionaries’

The first novel by the award-winning author and Iraq War veteran is a sweeping yet intimate look at the military in the 21st century.

How many wars are going on right now around the globe?

It’s a trick question. According to Phil Klay’s compelling new novel, Missionaries, the answer is: just one.

If you did think about answering, it might have occurred to you how infrequently wars make headlines these days. Preoccupied as we are by upheaval within our borders, Americans don’t think much about what our military is doing on our behalf elsewhere every day.

Klay wants to remind us.

As a U.S. Marine, Klay served in Iraq in 2007-2008. After his discharge, he earned an MFA at Hunter College. His debut book, a short story collection called Redeployment, grew out of his military experience. The book, published in 2014, won the National Book Award for fiction, the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Award for best first book and numerous other honors. Its stories focused tightly on the experiences of individual soldiers during the war and after they returned home, often highlighting how little most civilians understand about such experiences in a nation where less than one-half of 1 percent of Americans are active duty military.

With his second book (and first novel), Klay expands his scope. Missionaries revolves around closely observed characters and their personal experiences of war, but it also widens the lens to portray the military as a sophisticated, self-perpetuating global corporation with unlimited reach. One question the book grapples with is how much individual lives mean to such a machine — not just the lives of the people who used to be called collateral damage, but the lives of its own members.

Two of the book’s four main characters are Colombian, two American. As Missionaries begins, their lives are separate in time and place.

In the 1980s, Abel is a little boy in a remote village in Colombia. He has an idyllic childhood despite the constant pressure of navigating the differences among “paracos and guerilla and narcos and bandits and police and soldiers.” When Abel is a teenager, those turf wars result in the slaughter of his family and almost everyone else in the village. Abel survives to become a child soldier under the command of a chillingly cruel paramilitary leader, Jefferson Paul Lopez Quesada.

Lisette is an American journalist working in Afghanistan in 2015 when she suffers burnout. It’s not so much the horrors of war that wear her down as it is her sense that all the urgent, vivid stories she sends back to the United States fall into the void and never “make some dent in the public mind. The great democratic public relies on the intrepid veracity of the free press to cut past the political rhetoric with hard-hitting facts so they can make informed decisions. Which, fourteen years into this war, hasn’t happened yet, but hey, maybe could someday.”

A visit with her family in rural Pennsylvania offers little comfort, though. She, like most of the book’s characters, is addicted to the heat of battle. When she asks Diego, a sometime boyfriend and military contractor, “Are there any wars right now where we’re not losing?” he responds with one word: Colombia.

When we meet Mason in 2004, he’s a junior medic with a Special Forces unit in Iraq. Back home he has a pregnant wife, Natalia, whom he admits is tougher than he is. At her instruction, he’s trying not to die, a challenge in Baghdad. He, like Lisette, feels both the terror of battle and its visceral rush: “The truth, though, is that I loved it.”

Yet more and more, encounters with civilians during raids, especially women and children, have him questioning what he does. A decade later, he has a desk job in the American embassy in Bogota.

Juan Pablo has no such questions. In 2016, he’s a career officer in the Colombian military, a middle-aged, happily married husband and proud father to Valencia, a university student. Juan Pablo is an atheist and a cynic, but his soldier’s sense of duty (along with his rigid sense of social class) is his guide. His mission, he says, “is like a man with a machete hacking a path through the jungle. Everybody who follows behind us, it’s their job to think about justice, about whether the state is cruel and callous, or good and benevolent. It’s my job to carve the path.”

The lives of those four characters will collide in ways that change them all. The book’s multiple plot structure is complex, its cast of characters large, but throughout, Klay’s writing is beautifully crafted, even when he is recounting the most disturbing acts. One passage offers a detailed, evocative description of the sounds of a woman playing the piano, then pivots into an equally detailed account of “what happens when a man is chainsawed in half in the public square of a small village.”

Klay’s ruthless eye aims not just at such individual acts of cruelty, though. He is just as insistent on, and just as clear in his descriptions of, their sources, on examining a global enterprise that erases borders and has little interest in victory. It’s a world few of us see, where mission success trumps ideology, where technology is its own reward, where people slip from military service to mercenary work with hardly a moral tremor.

As horrific as the book’s many closeups of death in wartime can be, perhaps the most chilling is the one most distant. As Juan Pablo, now working for an American military contractor in Yemen, observes a lethal drone raid from a command center hundreds of miles away, he thinks, “In all his time watching Yemenis die on video screens, he had not once talked to a single Yemeni, or even seen one in person. They were a notional people to him, defined not by experience but by a few articles he’d read, by talk among his fellow mercenaries, and by a few opinion polls he’d sought out to learn about their retrograde beliefs.”

[ Penguin Press ]

Missionaries: A Novel

By Phil Klay

Penguin Press, 416 pages, $28

Times Festival of Reading

Phil Klay will be a featured author at the virtual Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading, Nov. 12-14.