By Jack Kruse
Hunkered down in drab cubicles and government offices—focused on the latest “I need it now-now-now” taskers, it’s easy (and perhaps necessary at times) for military service members to develop tunnel vision within their own narrow scopes of work. Reading Marine veteran Phil Klay’s (author of National Book Award-winning short story collection Redeployment) new novel Missionaries will remedy that tunnel vision, however, as it forces readers to step back and consider the “progress” and globalization of American warfare since 9-11. The novel accomplishes this by examining the decades-long Colombian civil war through the converging lives of a weary American war-zone journalist, an American Special Forces Officer, a career Colombian Army officer, and an orphaned Colombian village boy-turned-killer.
As the novel’s title alludes to, each character struggles with the notion of the ideological purity of their own mission—leading SF officer Mason to wryly explain why he took a relatively cushy embassy job in Colombia over another deployment to Iraq: “it’s awkward fighting a war in people’s homes.” Each character’s internal struggles emerge as emblematic of the larger question Klay hopes that readers will consider—what makes a war a “good” or “clean” one? And surely the fight against communism, and later a ruthless drug lord (i.e., Pablo Escobar), qualifies as righteous “missionary work”—on paper at least. The war there was also noteworthy because it would lay the foundation for the future of 21st-century conflict. Colombian Army Colonel Juan Carlos explains this in a discussion with a colleague:
It started here, in Colombia, thirty years ago. This was during the war against Pablo Escobar, who had been the herald of a new type of criminal. A drug lord of such scale and wealth that he was able to wage an asymmetric war against the foundations of the state itself, focusing as much on murdering police officers, judges, and politicians as on holding territory. When ISIS started murdering every state worker in Iraq they could find, including garbagemen, as part of their war, they were acting as Escobar’s children. Break down all order, all civilization, so the cockroaches can breed in the ruins.
In Colombia, the inability of the government to control its own territory caused these “cockroaches” to procreate and splinter into a disorienting number of factions and groups, as the orphaned child soldier Abel observes:
As a child, I thought there were guerrilla, and there were paracos, and they were at war with each other, but with Jefferson, I learned that it was so much more complicated. There were cocaleros, like I had been, working the fields and sometimes organizing into little self-defense unions. And there were narcos, who bought and transported coca. And there were police and army. But within each group were different factions. Narcos who worked with us, but not the guerilla. Narcos who worked with the guerrilla, but not us. Narcos who worked with both. Guerrilla who would work with us against other guerrilla. Paracos who would work with narcos against us. Cocaleros who protected the guerrilla. Army officers who asked us to do the work they could not. Police who worked for everyone and no one.
Inside this power vacuum, the civil war festered for more than half a century creating a gravity that gradually drew in a cast of global powers. Much in the same way as all politics are local, the author is arguing inversely that when it comes to conflict, all wars today are global. He demonstrates this as we follow one of the characters who sheds his “missionary” role in South America to work as a mercenary in Yemen. Working in an operations center that manages drone strikes a few months later, he watches the screen relay from a patrolling UAV and observes that:
Those armored vehicles [below] could have come from almost anywhere in the civilized world. He’d seen American MaxxPro and Oshkosh M-ATVs here, but also Finnish Patrias, South African RGs, even French Leclerc tanks, though he couldn’t make any of those out on the screens before him. If the resolution was good enough to make out individual weapons, he knew he’d see representatives of even more countries. Singaporean 120mm mortars, Serbian Zastava machine guns, Belgian FN minimis, Chinese M80s, and an assortment of small arms and heavy ordnance from Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Brazil, and more…
Later, as the team waits the approval for weapons launch, the same character wonders existentially if these tribesman about to die have any idea of all the improbable coordination that went into their deaths:
An American mercenary was aiming a laser at the instruction of an American pilot operating a Chinese drone. They were communicating over an encrypted frequency routed through a Canadian aircraft mounted with Swedish surveillance technology, bounced from repeater hub to repeater hub to the main air-ground tower at their air base in the Empty Quarter. The drone pilot, in turn, was communicating with an Emirati fighter pilot in an American aircraft armed with a laser-guided bomb capable of being launched from nine miles away and forty thousand feet up and still detonating within ten feet of its target.
In this description of drone warfare, the reader sees a stark contrast to the earlier conflicts described in the villages of Afghanistan, the urban city blocks of Iraq, and the jungles of Colombia. Klay is asking the reader to consider what war means when it’s fought through a video screen by a dizzying array of international government contractors. As the mercenary character observes in the aftermath of a messy drone strike: “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.” These observations are meant to wake the reader from the haze of their cubicles, out of the immediacy of the urgent– to ask the necessary questions:
What is the difference between killing from two feet away and a few hundred yards?
From 10,000 feet?
From the other side of the world?
What does killing from a video screen do to a human soul?
What is the eternal cost?
What can it do to the heart of a nation?
Does a conflict fought long enough always decay toward disorder and chaos?
What is a clean war?
What is progress?
What is peace’s cost?
Does it even matter?
From the drone operations center, one of Klay’s characters makes the realist argument after an American colleague bemoans the accidental death of a child during a strike:
This fool, this fellow mercenary, wanted to believe in clean wars with clear boundaries. Such a thing didn’t exist…Wars are not fought by armies. They are fought by cultures. If the animal you are fighting is communism, then the guerrilla are simply that animal’s claws. Drug trafficking is its heart, coca and heroin the blood coursing through its veins, and poor, angry, ignorant people its hide and the flesh underneath. The Houthis were a different animal, sustained by a different type of blood entirely, but the underlying principle was the same. Your job is not to trim the claws. It’s to kill the beast.
Missionaries offers no answers to these questions—and that’s the point. The power of fiction is that it forces the reader to depart the staid statistics and cold analysis of war and instead engage with its realities on a visceral and personal level. The author opens his novel with three lines from renowned poet Seamus Haney’s collection North that invoke history to
report us fairly,
how we slaughter,
for the common good.
With these lines, Klay frames his novel as an urgent missive for his readers to not only consider the state and cost of warfare but to ultimately—as his journalist character Lisette urges early in the novel—“to stop and care.” It is these questions and this admonition that should land Missionaries on every military and veteran’s reading list.