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With ‘Missionaries,’ Phil Klay Looks at the Wounds of War

The power of violence—and a power beyond it.
November 16, 2020
With ‘Missionaries,’ Phil Klay Looks at the Wounds of War

by Phil Klay
Penguin, 407 pp., $28

What does it mean to win a war? George W. Bush was roundly mocked for his premature “Mission Accomplished” declaration in 2003, but Barack Obama’s claim, as he withdrew troops in 2011, that “after nearly nine years, America’s war in Iraq will be over” proved to be just as toothless. In the last decade we have remained heavily involved supporting Iraq’s attacks on ISIS, and in March of this year two Americans—a contractor and a soldier—were killed in a rocket strike north of Baghdad. Closure remains elusive.

“Forever” wars like Iraq and the even-longer American entanglement in Afghanistan may seem like peculiarly modern problems, but philosophers and poets have always understood that “war” and “peace” better describe conditions of the heart than discrete periods in history. In her reflections on the Iliad written during the Nazi occupation of France, Simone Weil defined force as “that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing.” She argued that force itself, rather than any character, was the “hero” of Homer’s epic:

For those dreamers who considered that force, thanks to progress, would soon be a thing of the past, the Iliad could appear as an historical document; for others, whose powers of recognition are more acute and who perceive force, today as yesterday, at the very center of human history, the Iliad is the purest and the loveliest of mirrors.

In Weil’s view, war is a terminal condition. In claiming that our mission in Iraq had been accomplished, Bush was wrong, but his error is ours, too, whenever we assume that progress can render violence a thing of the past.

Phil Klay, a writer and teacher of writing, is a Marine veteran who served as a public affairs officer in Anbar Province during the Iraq War surge. Redeployment, his  collection of short stories about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, won the National Book Award in 2014, garnering favorable comparisons to Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, and establishing Klay, a practicing Catholic, as a writer who brought spiritual questions to bear on modern warfare. With his debut novel, Missionaries, Klay pursues these themes more broadly, examining the effects of American military involvement on lives around the globe. As Weil did before him, Klay understands that violence is both cause and effect: War is a perpetual state of the soul, and it shapes the identities of its perpetrators and victims alike. As the title suggests, Klay has written a thoroughly religious war novel, and its unflinching journey into the heart of suffering ultimately uncovers, in the midst of the effects of war, the roots of peace.

The story, which spans several decades, centers on the lives of several individuals in Colombia, where, since the late 1990s, the United States has been involved in the government’s attempt to combat various insurgent groups. The similarity to situations in Afghanistan and Iraq is not superficial: Military strategies and personnel are swapped from one theater to the other, and Klay’s American characters—Mason, a medic, and Lisette, a journalist—both spend time in the Middle East before arriving in Latin America. Though they are fatigued from the war on terror, they are not ready to leave war behind them, and are drawn to Colombia because it appears to be a place where the United States is winning.

Klay’s Colombian characters complicate that notion. Abel, a native of the tumultuous rural region at the center of the novel, loses his entire family at the hands of a paramilitary group when he is a boy. In need of protection and a home, Abel joins the very same group, leaving his former self behind as he forges a new identity in violence. Yet as his biblical name suggests, Abel is more victim than assailant, and throughout the novel, his character straddles the realms of war and peace, never quite at home in either. On the other side of the Colombian conflict is Juan Pablo, a high-ranking military official who has spent his life battling groups like Abel’s for control over the remote region, whose hard-to-police terrain makes it ideal for growing coca. Many bands of violent groups grapple for power, and Abel himself struggles to make sense of them:

Paracos and guerrilla and narcos and bandits and police and soldiers and even a few smaller groups, local militias put up by Motilones or other indios. And there were different types of guerrilla, and different types of paracos, and different types of narcos. . . . It was all too much.

Even for native Colombians, there is no clear distinction between the good guys and the bad guys. On one hand paramilitary groups murder uncooperative local officials, but on the other they offer protection to the small towns they control, and the farmers rely on their presence to ensure the successful transport of their crops. When certain groups are driven away, new ones sprout like weeds. Voids of power rarely go unfilled for long. All of this makes it quite confusing for the reader, but this is purposeful on Klay’s part. The effect is to destabilize our understanding of what power is and how it operates. He is not content to let his readers associate violence with a certain band of rebels or military insignia: As with Weil, for Klay the desire to impose force resides within each of us.

Likewise, the novel calls into question many of the perceived distinctions between U.S.-led military action and that of the Colombian guerrillas or the Taliban in Afghanistan. One way Klay achieves this is by describing the material conditions of the poor Colombians as largely dependent on the detritus of American culture. Every group fights with the weapons of the military-industrial complex; those used by American soldiers are just newer and more powerful. Communist guerrillas wear Van Halen t-shirts; the most powerful paramilitary leader watches Steven Seagal movies, dreams of mutilating his opponents by hand like Tommy Lee Jones, and even goes by an American mononym: Jefferson.

The main events of the novel occur in the run-up to the 2016 referendum on a peace treaty between the Colombian military and the FARC guerrillas (the real-life referendum was narrowly defeated, only to pass shortly after in a different form in the Colombian legislature). Though the international community viewed the peace treaty as a potentially historic agreement, Klay’s characters have mixed feelings about it. Juan Pablo opposes it because it would hinder the military’s ability to draw upon American support to keep law and order in the region. Most Colombians view it apathetically, aware that, like war itself, any official peace would be vague at best. Missionaries suggests that the roots of conflict lie too close to the human heart to be successfully counteracted by any bureaucratic agreement, however strongly buttressed by military might. In this novel, peace is not the opposite of war—at least not the kind of ceremonial, “Mission Accomplished” peace by which the Western world measures its success abroad.

In spite of this, Klay does not resign his story to despair. War may not have an opposite, but in the firefights of Afghanistan and the remote villages of Colombia, he locates its antidote. It is not something found in politics or activism, he implies, but in the very effort of coming to terms with human suffering. Throughout the novel, he draws our attention to the wounds inflicted by warfare and the ways in which characters tend to one another’s pain. At certain points the descriptions border on graphic. In an early scene Abel’s paramilitary group marches an uncooperative mayor into his town square and cuts him in half with a chainsaw (Klay leaves little to the imagination). Later he vividly describes Mason the medic packing the wounds of fellow soldiers in Afghanistan so that their internals would remain in place during transport to field hospitals. Gut-wrenching though these scenes may be to read (they will cause some readers to put the book down), their purpose grows clear as the story unfolds: We must not look away from suffering, for in facing pain and helping each other bear it, Klay’s characters possess an otherworldly strength, over which violence itself possesses no power.

This power is perhaps best exemplified in Klay’s juxtaposition of child-bearing with the ravages of war. One particularly powerful scene describes a very pregnant young refugee whose body, with the exception of her bulging belly, is crisscrossed with black stitches, the marks of an attempted murder by machete. In another scene, Jefferson, the ruthless paramilitary leader, by mistake wanders into a darkened hut where a young mother is in labor, surrounded by nuns. When they see the imposing armed man enter the room, a nun scolds him sternly and shoos him away. Though Jefferson is shamed, he lets it go:

He had been scolded like a child. It had happened in front of his men. He considered heading back in, but to do what? Beat her? That wouldn’t regain him any respect. Nuns have a power. And women giving birth, they also have a power. He’d never understood it.

Jefferson doesn’t understand this strength because, unlike violence, it is a force that disarms rather than fights back. While he embodies a “pure power built of fear and envy and desire,” these practitioners seek to unite themselves with suffering, rather than inflict it upon others.

The Catholicism that Klay and his Colombian characters share gives context to the relentless focus on wounds. Crucifixes abound in Klay’s story—often of the garish variety common in Latin American culture—and various characters contemplate the connection between the suffering Christ and the suffering around them. Juan Pablo recounts how, on a Jesuit retreat as a schoolboy, he had a mystical experience of God, in which he “felt as though the material world had been pierced, and life itself was flooding out from the wound.” Though he later falls away from his faith, the birth of his daughter reminds him of this, as he senses “eternity wounding the material world, wounding the boundaries of my own brain and body, and making me part of a larger story.” Klay’s story is suffused with traces of an incarnate God, and is buoyed by the distinctly Christian notion that redemption is achieved not by the raising of swords but the opening of wounds.

Ultimately, the novel implies that violence arises from a failure to approach another human being with the intent to understand his or her predicament. Lisette, though well-intended, struggles to live up to this calling in her role as a journalist. She journeys to Colombia with hopes of selling a longform story to a major American magazine, and bristles at her editor’s notion that local knowledge is essential, instead confident that her experience reporting on the war on terror thoroughly acquainted her with all systems of violence: “she did know Colombia, because she knew Iraq and Afghanistan.” Mistaking data for understanding, she plunges headlong into the rural region and ends up the hostage of a start-up group of rebels. Lisette’s capture, and the subsequent mission to rescue her, ushers in the novel’s bloody denouement.

At the novel’s moral center lies a quiet, strong, Colombian woman named Luisa. We are first introduced to her as a victim—her father was the man who was publicly ripped in half with a chainsaw. Years later, Luisa finds herself at the head of a university-sponsored endeavor to rehabilitate those who have fought in and suffered from the decades-long rural conflict. She holds no grudges: Abel, who oversaw her father’s execution, is one of her clients, and her foundation helped him open a successful convenience store. Luisa and her group spend their time recording the stories of those who have suffered at the hands of the various violent groups, processing their data, so to speak, and applying on their behalf for government money. Though the money doesn’t always arrive, the storytelling itself, the novel suggests, helps characters to get started in the process of reclaiming their identities. The foundation’s operating principle is a simple one: “Come tell your story.” Sharing suffering is cathartic, something that even Lisette has experienced through her journalism, though she won’t admit it to herself.

To return to Simone Weil’s definition of force as “that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing,” force’s opposite, then, would be the giving of one’s total attention to another person, treating him or her as a human subject, rather than an object. This is what Luisa does through her foundation, and what Mason does in packing the wounds of his fellow soldiers. Weil herself famously likened this kind of attention to prayer, remarking that

the love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: “What are you going through?” It is a recognition that the sufferer exists, not only as a unit in a collection, or a specimen from the social category labeled “unfortunate,” but as a man, exactly like us, who was one day stamped with a special mark by affliction.

If we are united in our shared affliction, hope for peace is found in the scars of war. Missionaries is an often-brutal tour of those scars, but it never succumbs to despair. Near the novel’s end, two young workers at Luisa’s foundation rather carelessly release information that results in the killing of two individuals connected with the project. They are grief-stricken, but a more experienced human-rights worker points out their naïveté: “To live in a country like this was to have blood on your hands. . . . ‘This is no kind of work for saviors. We only want the guilty here.’” For the work of rehabilitation to begin, one must collapse the distance between the conquerors and the conquered. It matters little if the conquerors use physical force or collect data in order to exert control: Both keep their subjects at arm’s length.

The drive to dominate unites all factions in the story. Jefferson dreams one day of controlling all the drug routes between Colombia and Venezuela. In a few years, he muses, “I could be Pablo Escobar. I could be Che Guevara, Osama bin Laden, Barack Obama.” That he has aspirations to be men who were mortal enemies of each other does not seem to deter him from identifying them all with the drive to accomplish a singular mission, to vanquish and declare victory. Not all those who intervene in the Colombian conflict are driven by such ambitions, however. The thoughtful medic Mason functions as a kind of military conscience in the novel, and near its close, he offers something resembling a verdict on American involvement in Colombia: “This was a messy war, but that was the nature of war. And as wars went, it was a good war.”

But what can wars, even good ones, really accomplish? As a postscript to the events in Colombia, Klay closes the story by sending Juan Pablo to the Middle East as a mercenary helping to fight guerrilla outfits. The missions he directs there are similar to those in his native Colombia: air strikes on insurgent leaders that are carried out with Western technology and precision. The culture, though, is unfamiliar to him, and the reader imagines the violence continuing ad infinitum, as the police of the liberal world order, no matter how well intended, grow no closer to the lived complexities of those on the other side.

For all this, Klay does not give violence the upper hand. Modern warfare is brutal and the wounds it inflicts can be horrible, unpredictable, and lasting. But Klay’s novel suggests that, like a forest fire that as it burns provides the nutrients for new growth, war’s terrible effects can contain the seeds of peace. In its often unbearable wounds war creates occasions for us to share in each other’s suffering. And that impulse, as even the arch-villain Jefferson recognizes, is something with which brute force can never reckon.

Mike St. Thomas

Mike St. Thomas is the head of the English Department at the Portsmouth Abbey School in Rhode Island. Homepage: