Truth Be Told

From Iraq to Colombia, acclaimed writer Phil Klay ’05 delves into crucibles of conflict and the unintended consequences of America’s muddled military moves.

Phil Klay took an unusual approach to the physical rigors of U.S. Marine Corps training. To distract himself from all the running, digging, and marching, he turned to the poetry of T.S. Eliot. 

“The field is really boring,” Klay (rhymes with “sky”) recalls from his apartment in Queens, New York. “You can’t really bring a book. So I decided I would bring ‘The Waste Land,’ and I memorized the whole damn thing.” The poem’s vision of an apocalyptic postwar landscape (“April is the cruellest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land….”) suited the military grind. “Perfect,” says Klay.

The newly minted Marine deployed to Anbar Province in Iraq in 2007-08 as a public affairs officer. At the time the U.S. surge was helping to tamp down the country’s sectarian violence. “Why would you not feel good about that?” Klay says. The good feelings did not last. After his four-year commitment, Klay left the Marines with the rank of captain—and a hunger for a literary career. Since then his writing, both fiction and nonfiction, has traced the arc of his disillusionment with America’s military adventures.

In 2014 his collection of short stories, Redeployment (Penguin Press), introduced an assortment of military men, including a chaplain and a mortuary affairs officer, grappling with the absurdities of war and the disorienting return to civilian life. In a New York Times review, Dexter Filkins, a New Yorker staff writer and author of The Forever War, called Klay’s debut “hilarious, biting, whipsawing and sad.” Redeployment won the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction, the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize for Best First Book, and a passel of other honors. Not a bad start. 

Now he’s published his first novel. Missionaries (Penguin Press) melds Klay’s gift for characterization with a complex narrative anchored in the history of Latin American terrorism and drug wars. Kirkus Reviews praises it as “an unflinching and engrossing exploration of violence’s agonizing persistence.”

Klay focuses on three men and one woman whose lives converge in the murderous chaos of Colombia. The narrative begins with Abel, a boy whose family is killed by guerrillas and who becomes embroiled in confusing battles among Colombian “paracos and narcos and guerrillas and criminals.” Mason, a coal miner’s son and veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, is a U.S. Special Forces soldier who trains Colombians in the art of war. Juan Pablo is a Colombian army officer partnering with the Americans, and Lisette is an American foreign correspondent, fresh from Afghanistan, who blunders, ill-prepared, into these dangerous rip tides. Among the many vivid secondary characters is Jefferson, a charismatic, sociopathic paramilitary leader with “the body of a pit bull crouched to strike,” whose orbit Abel can’t seem to escape.   

Actual missionaries—at Abel’s school and Juan Pablo’s Jesuit retreat—play only an ancillary role in the novel. The title is meant as metaphor, evoking what Klay calls the “moral and spiritual worldviews that we consciously or unconsciously espouse and put into action.” The results, Missionaries suggests, can be deadly. 

[Read an excerpt from Missionaries here.]

Klay, 37, grew up in New York’s suburban Westchester County, the third of five brothers. His father, a retired banker, did a stint in the Peace Corps in Nicaragua. His mother worked in development for international medical aid organizations. One older brother served in the Marines, and a younger brother is in the Army Reserve. His maternal grandfather, Thomas R. Byrne, was U.S. ambassador to Norway and Czechoslovakia in the 1970s. 

Klay contemplated becoming a diplomat. “I believed very firmly in service,” he says. That ethic was promoted when he attended Regis High School, an elite, tuition-free Jesuit school in Manhattan whose motto is “men for others.” (Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is an alumnus.) Klay, whose Catholic faith remains important to him, joined the debate team and participated in a Catholic literature discussion group that included volunteering at an AIDS hospice. 

Kevin P. Carmody ’05, a Regis classmate and now a vice president at Goldman Sachs, says his friend has remained largely unchanged since they met at age 13. Regis “drew out Phil’s immutable character traits,” Carmody says. He describes Klay as “very easy company,” an athlete who also is “really sensitive and has a really perceptive mind.” 

Klay heard about the 9/11 terrorist attacks while hiking the Appalachian Trail on his freshman trip. In his sophomore year, with the country at war in Afghanistan, he decided to join the Marines. “This was the momentous thing that America was doing in terms of foreign policy,” he says, “and I wanted to be part of it.” He spent his summer after junior year at officer candidate school in Quantico, Virginia. 

At Dartmouth Klay played rugby, boxed, and majored in English with a focus on creative writing. At the start of his sophomore year, Jessica Alvarez ’06 knocked on the door of Klay’s New Hamp dorm room, curious to meet the newcomer. He answered shirtless, with music blaring. As he tells the story, Alvarez emailed Klay’s roommates, whom he had yet to meet, and warned: “Your roommate is a real weirdo.” Despite this unpromising start, a friendship blossomed, then a romance. In 2014 they were married in the resort town of Cartagena, Colombia, convenient to Alvarez’s extended family in Bogotá and Medellín. They now have three sons.  

Klay also forged a strong friendship at Dartmouth with Tom Sleigh, a poet and former professor of English who served as his thesis advisor. “He told me he was headed for the Marines,” says Sleigh. “And I said, ‘Okay, that sounds good. If you’re going to get your head blown off, then you need to actually read some authors who have been to war, so that you know what you’re getting yourself in for.’ It was all very jocular. Phil was a kidder. I’m a kidder, so he immediately took to that. And I liked his sense of irony. He’s incredibly funny and dark.”

One book Sleigh recommended was Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry, about a Jewish intellectual who joins a Cossack Red Army regiment. He figured the autobiographical stories would resonate with Klay, “this egghead setting himself up for the Marines.” Klay laughs at the memory. “The egghead’s game is to exert some degree of mastery over what is observed through intellectualized, analytical distance,” he says. “Babel’s lesson seemed to be [that] this experience will not be something you observe from a distance. It will become a part of you.” 

In Iraq’s Anbar Province, Klay’s duties included supervising Marine journalists and escorting civilian journalists on patrols. Because his logistics unit had a field hospital, he witnessed the agonies of the wounded and dying. But he never saw combat. His deployment, he wrote in a 2014 New York Times op-ed, was “mild,” consisting mostly of “long hours at a cheap plywood desk in a cheap plywood hut in the middle of a desert,” punctuated by “a handful of alarming but anticlimactic mortar attacks.” In 2018, in the Jesuit review America, Klay described himself as having had “a safe job in a dangerous place, the sort of place where moral heroism was needed, and where I had not the slightest clue what that kind of heroism would even look like.”

After Iraq, Klay continued to wrestle with his experiences. “It’s very strange leaving the military while war is still going on,” he says. “It’s very strange to be living a very civilian life in a country that really doesn’t feel like it’s at war.” While the United States seemed mostly indifferent, he kept hearing of Marine friends being killed or injured overseas. The broader news was bad, too: “The security gains we thought we had made clearly unraveled in the most horrific way. The rise of ISIS shook a lot of people.” 

In 2008 Sleigh, who had become director of Hunter College’s master of fine arts program in creative writing, urged Klay to apply. Novelist Colum McCann (Let the Great World Spin), who oversaw fiction writing with novelist Peter Carey, quickly “picked him out of the pile” of applicants, Sleigh says. At Hunter Klay’s teachers included fiction writers Claire Messud, Patrick McGrath, and Nathan Englander, who would play a role in Klay’s breakout literary success. 

Klay spent Saturdays in the NYU Veterans Writing Workshop, launched by Jean Kennedy Smith, a former U.S. ambassador to Ireland and John F. Kennedy’s sister. (Smith died June 17 at 92.) “I had fond memories of her showing up at our readings and just chatting with us,” Klay says. “One buddy of mine, this big burly, tatted-up vet, had no idea who she was. He’s just telling her his girl trouble. At a certain point, she goes, ‘You know, my brothers had problems with blondes, too.’ ” Still clueless, the veteran replied: “I’m so sorry to hear that.”

Another workshop participant was Matt Gallagher, a former U.S. Army captain looking for a serious venue to polish his literary skills. “I showed up, day one,” he recalls, “and Phil was talking about Flaubert. So I knew I was in the right place.” 

Gallagher still treasures Klay’s advice. “He said Dostoevsky always gave the villain the most compelling argument—the idea being that every character in a piece of good fiction is well-rounded and dimensional, even the villain,” he says. “It was such a smart lesson.” When Gallagher coedited a 2013 anthology of veterans’ writings, Fire and Forget (Da Capo Press), he included a story by Klay that became Redeployment’s title story a year later. 

After completing his M.F.A., Klay began his first semester at Columbia University’s Teachers College and was student teaching at a Manhattan middle school when he had an “incredibly lucky” break for an unknown author. Englander recommended his work to the literary magazine Granta for a 10th anniversary commemoration of 9/11. There it caught the eye of Scott Moyers, vice president and publisher of Penguin Press. The imprint made an offer for “an as-yet-unfinished collection.” Klay left school and plunged into completing the book. 

Redeployment married Klay’s talent for creating distinctive voices with an off-kilter view of the inanities of the Iraq enterprise. Benjamin Valentino, associate professor of government and coordinator of Dartmouth’s war and peace studies program, is an admirer. Redeployment is “an amazing work, right up there with the all-time great works of war fiction—Hemingway, Joseph Heller, Tim O’Brien,” says Valentino, who was Alvarez’s thesis advisor. “It deserves to be in the conversation with those novels”—books such as A Farewell to Arms, Catch-22, and The Things They Carried—“that have shaped generations of thinking on war.”

This has been a challenging year for Klay. Both his wife, nearing the end of her third pregnancy, and his mother-in-law, who has been staying with the family in their two-bedroom apartment, fell sick with Covid-19 in March. For weeks Klay cared for them and his two sons, ages 2 and 4, who he says “knew something scary was going on.” After giving birth in April, Alvarez, associate legal counsel at Hunter College, was quarantined in a Manhattan hospital room where, amid the stresses of the pandemic, Klay says, “she was essentially ignored—they would forget to feed her.” Both women have since recovered.

One bright spot for Klay was being named a Montgomery Fellow, a Dartmouth honor reserved for “distinguished luminaries.” This summer he participated in the first virtual version of the fellowship. It included online conversations with other Dartmouth veterans, among them President Emeritus Jim Wright. Klay plans a pandemic-delayed residency in Hanover in 2021. 

For Missionaries, a six-year project, Klay traveled repeatedly to Colombia to research its troubled history of narcoterrorism and civil war. He bunked with his wife’s relatives and conducted interviews in Spanish, with an occasional family assist. The novel is steeped in the complexities of the country’s recent convulsions. One of its epigraphs is a quote from “Kinship,” a Seamus Heaney poem: “report us fairly/how we slaughter/for the common good.” The lines capture Klay’s revulsion at America’s propensity for pursuing senseless, or at least strategically muddled, wars. 

“It’s not that I’m a pacifist or necessarily opposed to the use of armed force,” Klay says. “But I worry about our increasing ability to project violence safely from afar,” whether by air power or the use of specialized commando teams. Klay’s characters seem perennially endangered by political and martial currents they don’t even understand. “The missions…did make sense. It was the war as a whole that was insane,” Klay writes, channeling Lisette’s thinking and conjuring the canon of anti-war novels.

U.S. involvement in places such as Colombia—where it admittedly has helped reduce drug-related violence—may produce adverse unintended consequences, Klay argues. It may, he says, prop up military and economic structures “that treat human beings not as people with souls, but as parts.” Klay worries that America’s ill-defined “forever wars” in the Middle East, Latin America, and elsewhere are too remote to inspire much political debate. He hopes Missionaries will help change that, sparking a necessary conversation “about what we’ve created, how it impacts the world, what it means to the people in regions like Abel’s little town.”                

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