Stop Thanking Vets and Start Listening to Them: An ex-Marine and National Book Award winner offers advice for how to bind our post-9/11 wounds.

AuthorRicks, Thomas E.
PositionUncertain Ground: Citizenship in an Age of Endless, Invisible War

Uncertain Ground: Citizenship in an Age of Endless, Invisible War

by Phil Klay Penguin Press, 272 pp.

Phil Klay, an eloquent veteran of the Marine Corps, is weary of people dwelling on the damage our recent wars have inflicted on our soldiers. Instead, he suggests, we should turn our attention to the shortcomings of a society that deploys soldiers carelessly and then forgets about them. "For veterans looking at the society that sent them to war, it may not feel like they're the ones with the most serious problem," observes Klay, who is best known for winning the National Book Award for his short-story collection, Redeployment, in 2014.

George Orwell famously observed that one of the hardest things in life is to see what is actually going on before your eyes. In his new collection of essays, Uncertain Ground, Klay diligently examines American society in the two decades since 9/11, an event he calls "a somber ghost hanging over our national discourse." I think he succeeds admirably.

What kind of nation, he asks, fights wars of inattention, with its focus elsewhere, with weak and uninformed congressional oversight? "Is it any wonder our wars have been handled so poorly, that overseas conflicts grow out of control, and that the public notices only when disaster looms?" That neglect shaped our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, he argues: "A nation unwilling to hold itself accountable perhaps deserves incoherent policy." But, he continues, it is others--Afghans, Iraqis, Syrians--who suffer the lethal consequences of America's negligence. Indeed, he concludes that the American political system has "insulated" its people from their wars. The absence of a draft means that people don't much care about our wars, which takes the pressure off members of Congress to provide rigorous oversight.

The result is that Klay, who was deployed in Iraq's Anbar Province as a public affairs officer during the "surge," finds himself a stranger in his own strange land. "There's something bizarre about being a veteran of a war that doesn't end, in a country that doesn't pay attention," he notes.

In particular, his meditation on "What We're Fighting For" sent a chill up my spine. No one phrase or sentence in the essay stood out to me; rather, it was his sober reminder that a war is only worth fighting if you can do so while preserving your honor and upholding your principles. Thus, you treat your prisoners well. You care for your wounded enemies, even if they tried to kill...

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