Santa Fe Literary Festival

‘A very erudite killer’: Phil Klay and Bob Shacochis on endless war, January 6 and American patriotism

‘I don’t know if [Ashli Babbitt] would rewrite the script of her death or not’, Shacochis told Holly Baxter during an interview at the Santa Fe Literary Festival

Sunday 22 May 2022 20:20
<p>Phil Klay and Bob Shacochis</p>

Phil Klay and Bob Shacochis

On a paved patio outside a Mexican restaurant, two people who once frequented war zones are having salted margaritas.

Phil Klay and Bob Shacochis are in some ways very different and in some ways extremely similar. Klay, a former Marine officer, is softer-spoken than Shacochis, a former Peace Corps volunteer and war correspondent, and they come from different generations, but they are both National Book Award winners and commentators on American warfare. Shacochis’ novel The Woman Who Lost her Soul is a wartime book, set in occupied Haiti and Second World War-era eastern Europe. Klay’s works of fiction explore the seediest underbellies of war — the street dogs lapping up blood, the casual racism, the awkwardness of having sex with your wife after months away on deployment — and his essays are confronting and political, with titles like “We have no idea what we’re doing in Iraq. We didn’t before we killed Suleimani” and “Public rage won’t solve any of our problems”.

It’s a sunny afternoon in New Mexico, one block from the inaugural Santa Fe Literary Festival on an idyllic street of adobe buildings and decorative cacti. Though we are in a desert, it’s a very different desert to the Middle Eastern battlefields portrayed in Klay’s Redeployments or discussed in his essays. The comfortable situation of our interview evokes that phrase Klay interrogates in his 2018 essay ‘The Warrior at the Mall’: “We’re at war while America is at the mall.” It was a phrase that was “already well-worn” among Marines in Iraq by 2007, Klay writes, with “just enough truth mixed with self-aggrandizement to appeal to a man in his early twenties.” After all, “back home they had aisles filled wall-to-wall with toothpaste, shaving cream, deodorant, and body spray,” while where they were stationed, “we had bodies flooding the rivers of Iraq until people claimed it changed the taste of fish.”

There is one thing Klay likes about this phrase, and one thing he absolutely doesn’t. First of all, he thinks it’s important the US talks about the fact that it is at war, despite successive presidents insisting that the forever wars are over (“We’ve ended two wars,” Barack Obama said in 2015, a moment Klay discusses in another essay in his 2022 collection, Uncertain Ground.)

“I always feel bad criticizing him because he’s been very kind to me,” says Klay, of Obama (in 2020, the former president picked Klay’s novel Missionaries as one of his favourite books of the year, and in 2015 he publicly recommended Klay’s book of short stories, saying they prove why “we can’t play political games and we can’t engage in bluster” when it comes to military decisions.) From a policy perspective, however, Klay tells me, “Trump was not a big break, to be perfectly honest… He was more secretive. He was more permissive of civilian casualties and less interested in legal niceties. But some of the legal moves the Obama administration made were kind of ridiculous from the outset. So it’s more of a continuum than a giant break.” That’s the reason why it was important to Klay to write — in another essay in Uncertain Ground — about “Matt”, a former Marine who voted for Trump. Matt was not a dyed-in-the-wool Republican or a hardcore MAGA type. Instead, he wanted someone — anyone — to admit that America’s military approach wasn’t working, and that it needed to change. Trump, at the very least, talked about doing that.

The thing Klay doesn’t like about the phrase “We’re at war while America is at the mall” is the military exceptionalism therein. “I’m increasingly convinced that my youthful contempt for the civilians back home was not just misplaced, but obscene and frankly, part of the problem,” he writes in Uncertain Ground. Instead, Klay thinks an open dialogue between civilians and the military is essential for American democracy — emphasis on “open”. When everyday Americans blindly refer to every military death as a “fallen hero” and repeat the mantra “support our troops” to each other while refusing to interrogate why their troops are in the countries they died in, that’s the opposite of what he means. An open dialogue is necessarily nuanced and often painful.

Klay writes about the psychological damage “forever wars” can do to both soldiers and a country at large. Wars that drag on with no clear enemy and no clear remit leave veterans dejected and searching for meaning elsewhere, he suggests. One particularly startling paragraph in Uncertain Ground refers to Ashli Babbitt, the veteran and January 6 insurrectionist who was shot dead while attempting to breach the Capitol. “What a thrill it must have been for Babbitt in the moments before she died,” Klay writes. “How much more meaningful than the frustrating, indeterminate war she fought in it must have been to have a simple, clear enemy and a simple, clear mission — to take Congress and make them reinstate President Trump by force.” Borrowing the phrase of another ex-military author, Elliot Ackerman, Shacochis says that he believes Babbitt was high on “the crystal meth of purpose”. He adds: “I don’t know if she would rewrite the script of her death or not.”

What happens, I ask Klay and Shacochis, if, after all this, Trump becomes president again in 2024? Shacochis has a clear and pessimistic vision: “He goes to war with Russia to prove he isn’t Putin’s [lapdog].” Klay prefers not to be drawn into hypotheticals, instead saying that Biden should concentrate on putting better legal guardrails in for all presidents now: “Rein in that power while you actually still hold the reins.”

At the time of writing, Americans are still stationed round the world in war zones, even though politicians rarely talk about it. There are 2,500 US soldiers in Iraq, for instance, although it is often said that they only do “advisory roles” (the government’s insistence that such people don’t count as “boots on the ground” led to a military joke that such soldiers must be wearing “Combat slippers,” says Klay elsewhere in Uncertain Ground.) Klay has three young children — considering the bleak portrayal of war in his books and the ongoing presence of American soldiers overseas in morally ambiguous situations, what would he say if one of them wanted to follow in their father’s footsteps and join the military?

“I would be proud of them,” Klay says, without hesitation. “People ask me this all the time, if their child joins the military. And look, I want people joining the military who are informed and skeptical and who have thought through some of the issues that they might encounter.” He pauses, then adds: “I’ve been told by people that they’ve read Redeployment and joined the military not long afterwards. Which I think surprises some people.”

Klay adds that  in between completing “Marine officer bootcamp” and before he accepted his first commission, he read a number of novels about war, on the recommendation of a mentor (“He had me read Journey to the End of the Night and War and Peace and all of Hemingway’s short stories… You gotta go to war, you should read things by the greatest minds to ever write about it.”) Shacochis points out that it’s impressive Klay did the reading: “You could have said that to plenty of people and they wouldn’t. You’re a very erudite killer.”

Despite the extensive reading list, was there anything that surprised Klay about going to war? “I wasn’t a military kid growing up,” he says. “...It wasn’t like I had a picture of military life and then military life didn’t live up to it.” The most surprising thing for him was that “when I joined the miliary, I met America. I’d grown up in the northeast sort of living in our little bubble, and then you’re in the military and you’re with every kind of person and you’re all working together. And that was, in many ways, wonderful.” He met a lot of “characters,” he says, smiling.

How to be genuinely patriotic without slipping into nationalism is a central theme of Klay’s and Shacochis’ books. Shacochis is cynical about the people who affix American flags on their front lawns, saying he thinks it’s “insecurity” that drives the urge. “My dad always put out the flag,” he says, adding that he particularly hates “the guys in the Senate who criticised Obama for not wearing a flag on his lapel.” His father was hardline and sometimes shockingly cruel: “I came home from college in my freshman year, 1970, and I had a t-shirt with a red fist on it, my hair down to my ears like this. My father took one look at me and said — I put it in my novel because it’s so interesting, and assigned it to a Turkish father talking to his son — he said, ‘I wish I was dead rather than I spawned a son like you’.” They never did end up seeing eye-to-eye, and even on his deathbed Shacochis says his father said things that were “even worse”.

But ceding patriotism to right-wingers with bad attitudes is not something either Klay or Shacochis can accept. Shacochis says that “sometimes I do wish I could put up the flag and fly it authentically.” He recalls a moment during his last book tour, where “I mentioned I was a patriot and one person in the audience said, ‘How can you use that word? That word is a right-wing word.’ And I said, ‘I understand that. And I’m taking it back.’”

Klay believes in America as an ideal and in patriotism as a positive, unifying, de-politicised force. “The book [Uncertain Ground] is an attempt to grapple with and articulate that particular type of patriotism that I’m deeply connected to and attached to,” he says. It’s a patriotism that constantly demands better, a tough-love approach to loving one’s country. “God forbid we lose all of our illusions about America,” he adds.

Klay has a lot of practical ideas for how to make America a more perfect union, all of which he outlines in Uncertain Ground, and reading it made me wonder whether he might be the “strong moral leader” he thinks America needs. Unfortunately, that kind of a job doesn’t tempt him: “No, I’m not going to run for office,” he laughs. “Good God, no.” He sees writing as its own democratic work instead: “I think that that other work, which is more about deeply interrogating the issues in the hope of producing a range of more productive thinking, is ultimately really valuable both on a personal level and hopefully politically.”

Shacochis says that, for similar reasons, he makes a habit of telling writers and other creatives, “Thank you for your service,” the phrase most people reserve only for soldiers. When he had to evacuate his house because of wildfires last year, he says, he ended up meeting Meryl Streep through mutual friends. “Here’s what I said to her — it made her blink, it made her cock her head a little bit — I said, ‘Thank you for your service.’ Because that’s what she’s done when she gets up in front of the Academy Awards audience or somebody else… And that is a service that writers have and actresses and actors have and singers have. And if you talk about America’s great strength… it’s our culture. It’s not our politics. Our politics is our weakness.”

Klay believes that systemic change is the only way to improve America’s political situation. Evil individuals will always exist but our excessive focus on them is a problem, he says: “It would be easy if the political developments movements that disturbed us were populated with monsters. Monsters are easy, right? There is one… terrifying Vasily Grossman essay called ‘The Hell at Treblinka’. Grossman moved with the Red Army into Treblinka very early on and conducted interviews… His work was used at Nuremberg. And he describes this one Nazi who would shock the terrified Jews so that they wouldn’t resist by physically grabbing a child and tearing it or beating it to death. And [Grossman] says… We should be horrified, but not of this guy. Nature throws up abominations, you know, two-headed calves and three-eyed trout as well as this moral abomination. What is shocking and horrifying is not that someone like this particular concentration camp guard existed. What is horrifying is that there was a political system that found such a man useful.”

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