Missionaries From a Strange Land: Veterans and the Society That Sends Them
Do the people who fight America’s wars ever think civilians truly understand and appreciate their experiences?
Phil Klay argues that American soldiers don’t expect Americans to understand, because war is not something you can without experiencing it. Killing a man before his family’s eyes, surviving a bomb going off in a market square, watching as a young boy runs towards the ruins of his village in tears: War changes the way soldiers see the world and their place in it.
The violence of war has effects far beyond the battlefield. The wars American soldiers fight change the way the world sees the United States of America, and the way the United States sees itself in relation to the rest of the world. War shapes America’s foreign policy outlook, its defense spending, its investment in technology, its political campaigns. It inspires projects in Hollywood, series on Netflix, books such as Klay’s, and videogames consumed by American teens.
In both his National Book Award-winning collection of short stories, Redeployment, and his latest book (and first novel), Missionaries, Klay argues passionately that civilians have a practical as well as moral responsibility to try because, “Wars are not fought by armies. They are fought by cultures.” Klay shows that America’s platitudinous reverence for its military is a form of indifference. It fosters cynicism about the causes for which soldiers are put in harm’s way and widens the gap between civilians and the military.
Missionaries weaves together four different perspectives — American and Colombian — spanning three decades, from the 1990s to the present. The stories form a fictionalized account of America’s involvement in Colombia’s internal conflict, which resulted in the peace treaty between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (better known as the FARC). Mason is a U.S. Army Special Forces medic whose trepidation at the costly pointlessness of war in Afghanistan and becoming a father lead him to choose a safer path as the American liaison to the Colombian military. Lisette, a foreign correspondent, leaves a job reporting from Kabul to cover the “purposeful” conflict in Latin America. Abel is the lone survivor from his village in an attack by Colombian paramilitary faction, forced into joining a rival faction from which he can’t extract himself. Juan Pablo is a Colombian officer deeply implicated in government extra-legal violence, manipulating the Americans who have joined the state’s efforts to restrain domestic narcotics gangs, and negotiating his daughter’s political liberality. The four interlocking narratives provide compelling insights into the globalisation of violence, the idealism that compels people to war, and the devastation left in their wake.
Klay shows American soldiers sent on intensely dangerous operations where there is no clear goal for their sacrifices. Klay eloquently captured this frustration in an article for The Atlantic back in 2018: “[I]f you think the mission your country keeps sending you on is pointless or impossible and that you’re only deploying to protect your brothers and sisters in arms from danger, then it’s not the Taliban or al-Qaeda or ISIS that’s trying to kill you, it’s America.”
Klay’s theme of soldiers feeling disconnected from their society is an important and enduring one in the literature of war. The soldiers of Robert Olmstead’s Far Bright Star feel abandoned fighting Comanche on the Mexican border as the rest of America turns its attention to World War I in Europe. The Korean War was called the forgotten war even as it was happening. Tim O’Brien’s soldiers in The Things They Carried cling to artifacts of an America that doesn’t want to know about Vietnam. In an article he wrote on Medium earlier this month, veteran of Afghanistan, Peter Lucier, plaintively asks, “[W]ho will be left to care about war?”
Nor is it just wars fought on foreign soil that stoke concern by combatants that their society is indifferent to their experience. John Adams wrote, “Soldiers are apt to consider themselves as a Body distinct from the rest of the Citizens.” George Washington tried to explain away public disaffection with the American Revolution, writing John Laurens in 1781, “The people are discontented, but it is with the feeble and oppressive mode of conducting the war, not with the war itself.” Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. ennobled the entire generation of his fellow veterans of the Civil War as being “set apart by its experience. Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing.”
Klay captures the veterans’ perspective brilliantly in Redeployment:
The weird thing with being a veteran, at least for me, is that you do feel better than most people. You risked your life for something bigger than yourself. How many people can say that? You chose to serve. Maybe you didn’t understand American foreign policy or why we were at war. Maybe you never will. But it doesn’t matter. You held up your hand and said, “I’m willing to die for these worthless civilians.”
Despite television, social media, live streaming, newspapers, magazines, blog posts, reasons practical and moral for caring, Americans still manage to distance themselves from the wars being waged in their name. There are both policy and sociological explanations.
Americans’ indifference to their military is the direct result of policy: a volunteer military small relative to the civilian population. Professionalizing the military aligns the people willing to run these risks with participation in the undertaking. So few families are affected by our wars that their concerns never reach the magnitude of participation necessitating national political attention.
The fundamental difference between those who live experience violence firsthand and those who observe it from a geopolitical or cultural remove comes through powerfully in Missionaries. The scars from living in and through war change what people believe in, how they act, and the relationships they build. In Violence Performed: Local Roots and Global Routes of Conflict, editors Patrick Anderson and Jisha Menon argue that violence of war isn’t something that happens to a single soldier or unit; it produces an entire network of relations between people, a political structure predicated on the continuation of conflict. Klay engages this in Missionaries, concluding, “What mattered was the global, interconnected system that generated the wealth and the technology that ultimately would determine the fate of this war, and the wars to come. That system was civilization. It was progress.”
Nearly every description of events and characters in Missionaries is permeated by violence. Violence is remembered, witnessed, experienced, inflicted, or on the horizon. The book is a meditation on how spectacles of violence have shaped modern Colombia — its politics, its values, its civilian-military relations, and the daily lives of ordinary people.
It also contains one of the most horrible and spectacular acts of performative violence in literature since the Comanche raid in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian: A local leader is chainsawed in half while his daughter is forced to play the piano in accompaniment. It occurs in the runup to the 2002 Colombian presidential election. This chapter is told through the eyes of Abel, by then a lieutenant in a troop of paracos (insurgents) in Colombia. Abel’s commander, Jefferson, is loyal to Colombian presidential candidate Álvaro Uribe who, in the novel as in real life, wins the presidency in 2002. Any town that votes for Uribe comes under the paracos’ protection, and all those who vote against him are considered disloyal. Abel’s job is to make sure towns vote for Uribe. One town, Rioclaro, stands out for its widespread support of Uribe’s competitor. In retaliation for the townspeople’s resistance, Jefferson has Abel’s troop brutally murder a resistor called Sancho, strapped to a piano in the main square. Abel describes how all of Rioclaro is forced to watch as a paraco saws through Sancho’s skin, muscle, organ tissue and, eventually, bone. Though many scream at first, silence soon descends as ever more blood and fluids spray the pavestones, soldiers, and many bystanders.
Immediately before and after the murder, Abel carefully outlines the political purpose of the violence: The months of intimidation, rape, daylight robbery, shootings, vicious beatings, and destruction of villagers’ property in the lead-up to Sancho’s death have been orchestrated with the specific intent of creating a climate of fear. The spectacles of violence were staged with the full understanding that they would have repercussions far beyond the immediate victim and aggressor: As the entire community came to fear for their lives, political ideals would crumble and, with them, their resistance to voting for Uribe. Killing was merely a means to an end. The local people had to witness the deaths, see for themselves how beatings left neighbours unable to work the fields or dying in the local hospital for them to fear that they would suffer the same fate. In torturing five or six members of the community, the paracos have driven the entire town from the land they inhabited for generations and have helped Uribe win the presidency. These public displays of violence are a form of political theatre aimed at reconfiguring Colombia’s entire political structure. And in the novel, they succeed. Americans favor the civilization this violence produces, and have the luxury of crafting narratives that exculpate their responsibility for the cruel means that often create it.
In War as Performance: Conflicts in Iraq and Political Theatricality, Lindsey Mantoan explains that modern wars are staged to be seen: The images we see of the battlefield or of successful raids, the live broadcasts of politicians negotiating ceasefires, are intended to structure the world around us. Building on Susan Sontag’s and Judith Butler’s work, Mantoan points out that images of the war in Iraq were never just “objective” records of bloody skirmishes or victories over insurgents. They were photographs and videos that, by focusing people’s attention on select realities while excluding others from the frame, changed how Americans (and the international community) understood America’s place in the post-9/11 world. As Lisette observes in Missionaries, “prior to the war, hawks wanted everyone to know the suffering of the Iraqi people. Not so much after the war started.”
This brings us to a final question: Why do soldiers keep enlisting, serving, and fighting America’s battles?
Lisette’s cynicism is colored by an arrogant belief that her participation sets her apart as less jaded than, and therefore superior to, the average American. Like the soldier who sees himself as better than most people in Redeployment, the Americans involved in the wars of Missionaries resent that their superiority isn’t truly appreciated by their wider society. They believe their self-sacrifice deserves to be legitimized by those who benefit from their actions. But, despite their disillusionment and frustration that it is not, they choose to continue. They take pride in fighting, are drawn to the heightened sensibilities experienced in war, and — if nothing else — see it as their job.
Rather than reintegrating with their societies, the soldiers and journalists of Missionaries choose to “combat commute” from one war to another. The theatricality of violence and its connection to purposeful outcomes give veterans meaning they often don’t experience in other parts of their lives. An expert Colombian soldier in Missionaries reflects that the military “revolves around the work of violence, which is what makes history happen.” Lisette describes Afghanistan as “the place where life makes sense, and what I’m doing feels important.” The Americans in Missionaries wistfully envy the Colombian soldier whose fight against the narcos constitutes a veritable battle for the soul of Colombia. There is even, perhaps, some envy for the paracos who, though brutal, fight for militia leaders they worship and for control over the fate of their region.
Juan Pablo, the Colombian colonel implicated in brutality during Colombia’s counterinsurgency and whose daughter’s human rights activism risks exposing his crimes, reflects, “If her generation were ever so safe that they could look on mine with disgust, that would only mean that my life’s work had been successful.” It’s the moral center of the book, the ennobling sacrifice conjured by the Greeks at Thermopylae or by John Niel Randle, who is buried at Kohima, where the Japanese advance into India was halted in 1944, and has on his memorial marker: “For your tomorrow, we gave our today.”
That’s what America’s veterans crave, what would reconnect them with their broader society. They want a war fought by the entire American culture, not just its army.
Kori Schake leads the foreign and defense policy team at the American Enterprise Institute. Áine Josephine Tyrrell holds a PhD in performance studies with a focus in political science from Stanford University and is part of the AEI foreign and defense team.