Global Violence on an Intimate Scale: The Work of ‘Missionaries’

October 21, 2021
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Phil Klay, Missionaries (New York: Penguin Press, 2020)


War is a disorienting experience. One way that individuals process it is through writing. Two decades after the attacks that spawned what came to be called the “Global War on Terror,” the intertwined issues of how to tell the story of 9/11 and its meaning remain deeply unsettled. The injuries and interpretations that characterize war are already immensely complicated by their very nature, but they become even more so when the violence has gone on for so long. For many Americans that infamous day is still lived experience, but it is also far enough in the past that young adults who today can vote and enlist in the military were born after 9/11. How to write about the day itself and its aftermath are such important issues because writing has the power to shape the meanings of that event and what came after.

Fiction possesses particular powers that are especially important for telling the story of war and trying to make sense of it. The defining aspects of fiction — its capacity both to chronicle the lives of individuals and to capture an entire society, its moment-by-moment attention to unfolding action and its movement through longer stretches of time, and its ability to zero in on specific locations even as it spans the globe — are especially useful in grappling with 9/11 and its aftermath. The post-9/11 novel turns the traditional novel to new ends by entering into the lived experiences of individual characters in local places while telling a story with global reach.



The 9/11 Commission famously wrote of “failures of imagination” within the U.S. government before the attacks. Novels are, of course, works of imagination. On Sept. 15, 2001, Ian McEwan, who would go on to write about the run-up to the Iraq War in Saturday, claimed in The Guardian that had the hijackers read fiction they would not have become hijackers, “If the hijackers had been able to imagine themselves into the thoughts and feelings of the passengers, they would have been unable to proceed. It is hard to be cruel once you permit yourself to enter the mind of your victim.” McEwan’s line of thinking, laid down immediately after the attacks, has been complemented by other novelists and thinkers as that Tuesday morning recedes in time. In 2008, Zadie Smith charted “Two Paths for the Novel” to show how the post-9/11 novel is riven between making meaning and turning entirely away from it. More recently, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the attacks, Jim McDermott’s “Five Pieces of Popular Culture That Wrestled with 9/11” does not look at pieces that are openly and explicitly about 9/11. Texts that are obviously about 9/11 include Tom Junod’s exquisite Esquire piece “The Falling Man,” Don DeLillo’s novel Falling Man, or Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. McDermott, however, turns his attention to work such as The Sopranos, on the theory that, “with its casual racism and misogyny, its deconstruction of morality as simply window dressing and its emphasis on aggression as a law unto itself, the show seemed custom-made for post-9/11 America.” McEwan trains his attention on empathy, Smith turns to mean-making, and McDermott suggests that the meanings of 9/11 may be found in cultural productions that are not obviously about that day and its aftermath. Moreover, in the years after 9/11, formalism — tracing the shape of literary works for their cultural, political, and social resonances, but also treating culture, politics, and social relations as having shapes that the literary helps make visible — emerged as an important approach to literary studies.

The two paths I see for the post-9/11 novel are direct engagement with the Global War on Terror conflicts down one path, and indirect, offset engagement with those conflicts down the other. Concentrated, sustained attention in fiction on America’s two post-9/11 wars exists alongside fiction written during those conflicts that is not explicitly about them. This attention plays out not just in the content of the novel — a recognizable contemporary New York in the manner of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, a New York shaped by the counterfactual American victory in Vietnam in the manner of Matt Gallagher’s Empire City, or the borders of conflict in the manner of Elliot Ackerman’s Dark at the Crossing — but in its form: Its rhythms, handling of space, and the interactions between the two.

Philip Klay’s Missionaries is a post-9/11 novel that uses the formal properties of the novel — its geographic sweep and local focus, and its social reach and its deep-dive into single lives — to anchor violence in the lives of individual characters even as he chronicles the societies that perpetuate and continue violence. Klay, a Marine Corps veteran who deployed to Iraq, shows how an intense focus on specific locations is necessary to tell the story of global political violence. His novel shows the power of the novel today to make intimate and personal immensely complicated political, social, and military conflicts.

Missionaries centers on war but moves around. While it takes political violence as its subject, it does not limit its view to Iraq or Afghanistan even though its setting involves Global War on Terror conflicts. Klay probes the ability of writing to engage with political violence by putting American involvement in Colombia alongside American involvement in Afghanistan. Commentators on Klay’s novel are split over its methods and overall effect. Writing in the New York Times, Juan Gabriel Vásquez says, “Klay’s understanding of Colombia, the main theater of war in ‘Missionaries,’ is the chief source of admiration for this reviewer. There are no simple wars, of course, but the Colombian conflict is as intricate as they come.” Vásquez’s admiration for Klay’s handling of the complicated specificities of political violence in Colombia is different from Zac Davis’s take on the novel in America Magazine, “What happens to a world, a nation, a society constantly engaged in forever-war? It is an enormous question that Klay understands can be answered only by engaging the lives of individuals, and especially the forgotten ones.” Vásquez sees specific forms of violence playing out in a specific location, but Davis emphasizes that forever war brings home how any location is embedded in a series of relations. Klay himself says that Missionaries is about the impact on local communities of “abstract systems of violence moving around the world.” Zeroing in on places is crucial to telling a story with a global reach. Without a broad geographic sweep, the impact of outside forces on a location is hard to see. Writing about abstractions takes on added importance when their power is made intimate and relevant.

The novel opens in Colombia. Klay rotates narrators early in the novel, a technique familiar to readers of his first book, Redeployment. Abel, a young Colombian, is first, his story beginning in 1986. Klay’s writing is relentlessly local from the start: “My town sat on the top of a small hill by the side of a river whose banks held only sand. At noon you had to walk quickly so as not to burn your feet.” This laser-like focus on a single place, on its features, and on what it physically feels like to be there are distinguishing aspects of this first line that continue throughout the novel. The book’s ability to show Colombia in all its complexity arises from Klay’s movements through different parts of the country, which allow him to chart the political, social, cultural, religious, and economic dynamics at work. He devotes considerable attention in the second half of the novel to contrasting privileged students from Bogotá with the residents of Norte de Santander. Valencia, the daughter of a high-ranking military officer, works for Luisa, a woman from Norte de Santander who experiences political violence first-hand early in the novel and spends the rest of the novel interviewing victims of violence. When Valencia mishandles an interview, the result is not what she expects:

Afterward, Valencia braced herself for shouting and screaming, but in a way what happened was worse. Luisa sat her down and said quietly, “We have to show these people respect. If you are not capable of that, you need to think hard about what you are doing here, and what type of person you are.”

Klay’s ability to draw locations and people so precisely yields a detailed picture of an entire country.

The reverberations of violence in Colombia exist in the novel next to political violence in Afghanistan. Missionaries opens in Colombia, but its second chapter lands in Afghanistan. Lisette, an American journalist from Pennsylvania, tells her story, “It didn’t begin with the bombings. By which I mean Kabul was no longer Kabul well before then.” Through Lisette, the novel shows a place in transition, a place where political violence is still a reality, but less and less American attention is paid to it. She takes aim at the indifference of other journalists, aid workers, politicians, and even well-informed everyday Americans when she notes, “‘The tide has turned,’ Obama had told us in 2012. Indeed.”

Even Lisette’s attention flags as she leaves Kabul for home. Back stateside, she types out the email that almost everyone who writes about Missionaries inevitably quotes, asking, “Are there any wars right now where we’re not losing?” The answer she receives is “Colombia.” On the strength of this reply, Lisette travels to Colombia, where she is kidnapped in Norte de Santander. The novel sets Colombia and Afghanistan as opposites when it comes to winning (or at least not losing) and losing. But the distinction between winning and losing appears increasingly irrelevant in the face of Klay’s depiction of the realities of political violence on individual lives.

The novel’s focus on the local and the particular, stemming from its confidence that it can trace change in a place over time, takes on new meaning at its end. The stability implied in Lissette’s “we” — that it refers to a single county, that “we” are Americans, that lines between groups of people can be clearly drawn — was always hard to realize or sustain.

Although the novel primarily focuses on two places, it ends in a third place altogether, the United Arab Emirates:

An American mercenary was aiming a laser at the instruction of an American pilot operating a Chinese drone. They were communicating over an encrypted frequency routed through a Canadian aircraft mounted with Swedish surveillance technology bounced from repeater hub to repeater hub to the main air-ground tower at their base in the Empty Quarter.

That Klay piles country name on top of country name here is one way he makes concrete “abstract systems of violence moving around the world.” Making these real and visible is the work of Missionaries. Without that legibility, the individuals who experience violence are like Lisette, who, after her kidnapping, says, “I don’t know what happened to me.” Uncertainty results from a lived experience torqued by abstract systems of violence.

Missionaries insists that writing, story-telling, and fiction have the power to show how individual lives are shaped by abstract violence and that abstract violence becomes legible through its effects on individuals. Lisette pitches the New York Times Magazine the story of her kidnapping. When it is picked up, she realizes, “Her pitch was bullshit, but her story couldn’t be.” The pitch is terrible because she does not know what happened to her, because she cannot make sense of her own concrete experience, “But shitty things happen to people all the time. It doesn’t make a story.”  The story — the thing Lisette wants to write, the thing that Missionaries is — links individuals to systems and systems to individuals. In doing the same, the post-9/11 novel cannot afford to be shit even when it is about shitty things happening to people.

Klay uses sweeping geographic range to make violence intimate and precise local knowledge to show violence on a global scale. In this way, Missionaries does not orient or fix war by making war look and feel only a certain way or have a specific nature. It showcases the capacity of fiction to interpret war by telling the story of individuals coming to terms with their own experiences of war.



Katherine Voyles holds a Ph.D. in English from U.C. Irvine. She uses that background to write on the cultures of national security and national security in culture in a wide variety of places including Public Books, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and Foreign Policy. She also serves as co-managing editor of The Strategy Bridge.

Image: U.S. Air Force (Photo by Capt. Kip Sumner)