All Wars Are Culture Wars

(Bloomberg Opinion) - We are seeing a renaissance in veteran writing by the men and women who have fought in America's wars since the 9/11 attacks. Among the best of these writers is Phil Klay, a veteran of the US Marine Corps whose collection of short stories, Redeployment, won the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle's John Leonard Prize for best debut work in any genre. His first novel "Missionaries" is about to be published. He discusses his topics with me below.
Kori Schake: Tell me about the title. For me it conjured soldiers (US, Colombians and even Emirati) almost like Jesuits to "advance a global, interconnected system ... that was civilization".
Phil Klay: Exactly. The book is about the globalization of violence, the way in which it is no longer enough to look at a war in isolation, be it the war in Iraq or Yemen or Afghanistan or Colombia. If you can have a Colombian mercenary at an air force base in the Emirates watching a Houthi tribesman through the optics of a Chinese drone before killing him with an American missile, you are dealing with something more complex than the conflicts that are going on national borders are bound.
And within this global, interconnected system, my book has different characters, whether the American or Colombian soldier, the American journalist or the former paramilitary, each with a different understanding of where they fit into their different cultures, institutions, communities, countries and wars they are involved in and how they might project that understanding onto the world.
KS: You write: "Wars are not waged by armies. They are waged by cultures." I thought it was important that you said neither states nor societies. Talk about how you see the distinction and why it's important to this novel.
PK: All of the wars in this book are, to varying degrees, international endeavors waged by soldiers and mercenaries who are part of subcultures that are clearly isolated from the broader national communities they come from and the places where they are fight, are completely alien. Meanwhile, in the places where they fight, it is often not technological superiority or military strength that are critical to ultimate success, but the unique culture of the region and how the people there view the legitimacy of the various actors.
"All governments are based on opinion," Madison argued. In Iraq, where I served, the 2007 troop surge would not have done much without the Anbar Awakening, and as the political, military and social situation changed dramatically, the course of the conflict changed too.
In the novel, there is a pivotal raid (based on a real-life incident) in which the Colombian military, with the help of US technology, pursues a drug king by inserting a beacon into a six foot tall teddy bear that he ordered for his girlfriend Birthday. If they kill him, the power structure in a rural region on the Venezuelan border will be reshuffled in unexpected ways. Part of my concern is the consequences of using the blunt tool of violence in cultural contexts that are completely opaque to those who direct it.
KS: There is a horrific scene in the book where a cartel chainsaw a man in half while his daughter is forced to play the piano and watch. What role does such performative violence play in societies that fight against insurrections?
PK: This murder is deliberate political theater. Political scientist Abbey Steele has shown how political considerations such as the number of votes in elections have helped paramilitaries target specific communities. In the novel, this city is a place that voted “wrongly” during a congressional election and will therefore be destroyed before the upcoming presidential election. The chainsaw scene is the keystone of a campaign to terrorize the people, and so the theater is important in achieving the desired political impact.
At the same time, men who do such things love them. And the theatricality, the extravagance, turns the victim into a dehumanized prop. It's terrible, but also a distraction from the reality of what is happening - the obliteration of a particular human life.
KS: I really loved the passage in which a soldier ponders, "If you'd asked our team how this ended, we would probably have answered" bad "." Where should the responsibility lie for wars that go badly?
PK: I think our political leadership is largely to blame. They have made decisions that are designed to evade political accountability, whether it's Congress out of control, the Barack Obama administration lying outright about whether we're still at war or not, the lack of transparency in the Department of Defense, and so on. And then there is the American people who, in the election of Donald Trump, chose a man who appeared to be unprepared for the role of commander-in-chief and who took active steps with his pardons for those charged with war crimes to undermine the professionalism and effectiveness and honor of our armed forces.
But people within the military have a responsibility to the institution they belong to, and with Mason, a Special Forces medic, I wanted to show a debate within the Special Forces units about what role they play and whether the culture of the Special Forces was corrupted during the first decade of the war in Afghanistan.
KS: It seems to me that the subject of the book is soldiers wrestling with social indifference to the violence they have committed, and isolation from the wars that are waged on their behalf. This is a subject that you insistently write on in your commentary on the wars the US is waging. How does it affect the morale of the characters in "Missionaries"?
PK: The alienation is painful for you, but it also leads to a kind of pride that sometimes turns into arrogance. You are part of a Gnostic priesthood and understand the real weight of war, unlike all the worthless civilians at home.
Except the civilians sometimes have valid reviews of how these wars are waged and whether they really hold back the chaos, as the character Juan Pablo likes to believe or contribute to. In the first half of the book we get the main characters' narratives about themselves and their role in these wars. In the second half, however, the screen is expanded to include people with very different sensitivities.
KS: Your collection of short stories, "Redeployment", which was awarded the National Book Award, conveys from many different perspectives what it feels like for soldiers to reintegrate into their own culture. In this book, all of the protagonists choose not to reintegrate. Instead, they go around the world in the next war. What did that mean for you in the novel?
PK: Right, they all commute between Afghanistan or Colombia or Iraq and home in the fight, and the reasons they have for that are of course specific to each character, but ultimately it's because they want to. We're all used to war being hell, of course. But it's tempting too. The Mason Special Forces team hates their missions in Colombia, where they are not allowed to get into combat situations, and prefers their violent, if ultimately meaningless, mission in Afghanistan, where they wage a battle in a valley where coalition forces would fight in time and again.
And after all, war is a job. It's a career for these characters. This is one reason for the existence of the institutions to which they belong. You know, if you look at the past two decades, we have theoretically drawn lessons from the limits of making change using only military might. In theory we have learned how important it is to think about political, social, cultural and economic considerations and what leverage we have to play. In practice, we have withered non-military tools of American power and built a remarkably powerful system for projecting violence around the world. So there is a certain amount of inertia here, both for individuals and for institutions.
KS: In this novel, one of the main characters, a journalist, views war-torn Afghanistan as "the place where life makes sense and what I do feels important". It reminded me of the scene from "The Hurt Locker," when the soldier who had returned from his mission was in a grocery store, overwhelmed by the variety of cereal, and decided to return to the war. How widespread do you think the mood is among veterans? And how should we as Americans deal with it together for our veterans?
PK: I think a lot of veterans feel when we leave the service. A loss of community and purpose that has led some veterans to start organizations like Team Rubicon, provide disaster relief or enter civil service, and I think that is very healthy. In fact, I think greater appreciation for the service, especially the civil service, is important for both the health of our country and our returning veterans.
Putting military service on a pedestal separates our warrior caste from its fellow citizens when they should actually feel bound by the same purpose. They should be encouraged to believe that their civil life can be as honorable and meaningful and useful to their country as, if not more, their time in the military.
I think of George Washington, who in his farewell orders to the Continental Army told his men that they should prove themselves no less virtuous and useful as citizens than they were persevering and victorious as soldiers. As a society, I want us to think much harder about the hard work of peace and how we can honor it.
This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Kori Schake heads the foreign and defense policy team at the American Enterprise Institute.
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