Review: 'Missionaries' sees our forever wars as vocation

Phil Klay’s “Redeployment” may be our best literary window into the Iraq war

Via AP news wire
Monday 05 October 2020 14:27 BST
Book Review - Missionaries
Book Review - Missionaries

Phil Klay’s “Missionaries” (Penguin)

Phil Klay’s “Redeployment” was a masterwork in mostly spare prose, its tonal range from laugh-out-loud, Joseph Heller-esque absurdity to soul-crushing bleakness. It may be our best literary window into the Iraq war.

A young Marine veteran’s literary debut, the short story collection won a 2014 National Book Award.

“Missionaries,” out Oct. 6 from Penguin Press, is Klay's next act. A big, ambitious novel, it spans a few decades and continents and plumbs U.S. forever wars’ psychic imprint on peripatetic American warriors, militarism as a way of being and the consequences of ill-conceived foreign meddling.

Two U.S. Special Forces vets of Afghanistan and Iraq — transitioned to mercenary and a military attaché — have fought “in enough murky war zones to lack the near-religious faith in democracy that the war was sold on.” Their next stop is Colombia where Washington’s targeting-killing apparatus, first turned on leftist insurgent, now hunts drug-trafficking warlords.

Colombia is a tremendously complex conflict. In fact, it’s not really one but a multitude of conflicts whose dizzying dynamics vary by region, a dirty war mostly of rural civilians suffering forgotten.

A callow U.S. journalist, done with Kabul, dispatches to Colombia, which she considers “an extension of the same war, not the endless war on ‘terror’ but something vaguer … related to the demands of America’s not-quite-empire which was always projecting military power across the globe and just shifting the rationale of why.”

Ugly Americans mixed up anew in somebody else’s fight.

The novel’s Colombian characters, including a second-generation army officer his questioning daughter and a demobilized paramilitary, bear practically at birth the scars of a land where war’s brutality has been a chronic condition.

Klay’s considerable accomplishment in “Missionaries,” goes well beyond incisive “insider access into the next permutation of the massive, industrial-scale U.S. machine for generating and executing targets.”

In the tradition of Robert Stone and Graham Greene, he makes geopolitical misadventure, cultural blindness and atavistic behavior pulse inevitably toward terrible denouement.

The Colombian officer, a cultured, religious man Jesuit-schooled like Klay, reflects with a certain resigned callousness on his profession: “the work of violence, which is what makes history happen.”

Reflecting on systematic extra-judicial killings of civilians by Colombian soldiers — something that happened for real a little more than a decade ago — he weighs potential mitigating factors, but ultimately finds no justification.

“The only explanation left is the sin all men are born with, a sin that marks us forever as loathsome creatures, fit for death.”


Bajak, a former chief of Andean news for The Associated Press, was based in Colombia for nine years.

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