He sings of arms and men, but not like we’re used to. Phil Klay’s first novel isn’t interested in clear-cut victories, easy morals, noble or even particularly knowable quests; his is a picture of modern war as high-tech chaos, hellishly sophisticated, and fragmented beyond any possible cohesion.
Partway through Missionaries we find Mason—formerly a medic in Iraq, now a special forces liaison for the US Embassy in Colombia—watching a raid on a drug lord’s compound in the far north of the country. “Intellectually,” Klay writes, “he knew this killing wouldn’t change much. . . . But still, in that room, it was hard to resist the feeling of a momentous victory. A cleanly executed raid is always deeply satisfying to watch. There is something beautiful about the operation of a perfectly engineered machine.”
Klay’s novel is powerfully alive to the false consolations of technology and the “rational insanity” of modern war: how the use of machines, working as they were built to, elides the cognitive dissonance of bloodshed for those called to participate. People everywhere, Americans especially, engage in a kind of magical thinking with technology and data, mistaking tactics for strategies, small victories for real progress. The killing of bin Laden, say—superbly executed, by superbly trained operators—makes for a proud display of American competence and a powerful sense of symbolic catharsis, but what about afterwards? In the Colombia of the novel, after the narco’s been taken out, a new, fearsome militia, the Mil Jesúses (elsewhere referred to as being “like ISIS”), rushes in to fill the power vacuum. Machines can do their work, Klay seems to be saying, and missions can succeed, but will the world be any safer? And whose job is it to contemplate the broader picture, when each player’s so concerned with his or her target—not to mention his or her neck—to look beyond it? When our leaders have abdicated such responsibility, maybe a novelist will have to do.
Missionaries feels like something new for the canon of war stories, which, broadly speaking, seem to swing between triumphant portraits of valor or visions of hell. Klay’s novel is its own beast—fluent in the fog of war but hardly antiwar. His is not a stinging indictment of American overreach nor an uncomplicated pledge of its noblesse oblige. It feels instead like a true twenty-first century document: respectful of its antecedents but blazing its own path; a big, straight-faced, but subtly accommodating book that makes room for the absurd and the humane, for a sense of purpose and a sense of futility in equal measure