Phil Klay, as both a participant and a writer, has been thinking deeply about war for a long time. In his two acclaimed works of fiction, the book of short stories “Redeployment,” which won a 2014 National Book Award, and the novel “Missionaries” (2020), and in the nonfiction collection “Uncertain Ground: Citizenship in an Age of Endless, Invisible War” (2022), Klay has interrogated, to profound effect and with a deeply humane and moral sensibility, what war does to our hearts and minds, individually and collectively, here and abroad. “I’m interested in the kinds of stories that we tell ourselves about war,” says Klay, who is a 40-year-old veteran of the Iraq war. “I’m interested in the uncomfortable ones, but also in the ones that feel too comfortable and need to be told alongside other types of stories that make it more troubling.”
This is maybe overly cynical, but why do you think that having a less ideologically rigid point of view is more effective in the long term than the opposite? In the long term, if you blinker yourself to reality, it limits your ability to formulate positions that are based in reality and therefore formulate positions that will achieve something lasting and moral. You need to be open to complexity because whatever narrow thing that you want to achieve in the real world will, if it gets put into practice, be put into practice in the real world. Not in the ideologically antiseptic world that you’ve created in your head.
What might crack open in someone that they’re able to see the suffering of civilian others as just as grave a human concern as the suffering of civilians on the side they support ideologically?In war, there’s a primary experience: a terrified father in Gaza as bombs are falling, unsure of whether he can protect his family; or the Israeli soldier trying to deal with Hamas’s tunnel network. There is a responsibility when you’re thinking these things through to sit with some of those primary experiences to the extent that you can, and think about them without immediately seeking to churn them into something politically useful. Because they mean more than whatever policy cash-out we get from them.
We’ve entered this awful period, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine and then the conflict between Israel and Hamas, when war is present in many people’s minds in a way that, perhaps, it hasn’t been before. But has this moment changed anything fundamental in how we think about war?I think that Ukraine represents not a good war — because the closer you get to war, the more obvious it is that a phrase like “a good war” has no valid meaning — but rather a necessary war. The clear moral case for Ukraine is about as straightforward a case of a just defense against a vicious aggressor as you could find. There is a certain appeal for that, especially for Americans accustomed to interminable, murky operations where military activities were ranging from trying to strengthen host nations to counterterrorism as well as more straightforward combat. Here is a war with a clear front line with a clear moral imperative. That, I think, has shifted people’s perceptions.
You’ve written about the need for soldiers to be able to connect their missions to the broader values of their society. How might that apply to American soldiers today, given that there seems to be less and less consensus about our shared values? The debate over what America means is nothing new. To me, the crucial aspect of American identity is a certain embrace of change. I think of American identity as being like Heraclitus’ river that you can never step in twice. It doesn’t mean that there are no riverbanks. It’s not an amorphous pool of water spilling out in all directions. Nevertheless, a certain degree of turbulence is important for growth and allows for necessary changes to come about.
You mean as far as belief? I don’t know what other option there is then on a personal level to get on one’s knees and beg for forgiveness. We’re so unequal to responding to the challenges of the world that we nevertheless have a responsibility to. I mean, we’ve been talking about the current conflict, and don’t you just feel stupefied by the horror of it?
It’s completely shattering. It is.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity from two conversations.
Welcome to Lit Trivia, the Book Review’s multiple-choice quiz designed to test your knowledge of literature. This week’s installment asks you to identify the titles and authors of memorable short stories and novellas — based on a simple plot description. The answer section reveals a bit more about the work from articles in the Times archive. After the last question, you’ll find links to the novellas or story collections themselves if you’d like to read (or reread) them.
“I have a lot of books on near-death experiences, psychic phenomena and past-life regression on my shelves,” says the two-time poet laureate, whose new book is the memoir “To Free the Captives.” “These kinds of books nudge me to remember our world is but one facet of an enormous continuity.”