tv QA Author and Veteran Phil Klay on Americas Wars and the Responsibility... CSPAN June 6, 2022 6:00am-7:01am EDT
corps and then started writing about the war, fiction and nonfiction. at first i thought my job was to make sense of the past. there was major testimony before congress and ambassador ryan crocker and a real, aggressive debate about military strategy and if it was working and what we were doing there and if it was sustainable. so i thought it was an important time in looking back on it would be a significant portion of what i was doing as a writer. but the were cap going on in the way we waged war changed. -- but the war kept going on and the way we waged war changed. it is deeply important complex
in many ways. then society, you are reintegrating. how do you make sense of what happened overseas and how to make sense of the society at home, because it looks different than when you left for war. that process, people i know kept going overseas. sometimes they were shot, blown up, killed. and so grappling with what it meant to be a citizen in relationship to the wars became a moral question for me in this book is my attempt to try to work through both sides. the challenges and difficulties i see and my concerns about the direction of american wars, and also my concern about what it says about american citizenship. it touches so many aspects of
american life. our relationship to firearms, our relationship to immigration debates. so essays go through history and the present day and concerns with the philosophical, moral, and spiritual questions that war bring about. susan: how did you decide on the title "uncertain ground." phil: in many ways, i think it is a somewhat forbidden title. at the same time, my approach when i go into right an essay is even if i am extremely morally exercised about something, is that i never want to feel as if i am pontificating authority that worked it out. i am making arguments of the book but hopefully also inviting
readers to navigate uncertainty -- uncertain territory filled with doubts as we filled out how to go forward as a nation and how to go about with these issues. susan: the essays are not chronological. how did you structure this? phil: there are four different sections. essays concerned with military policy and experiences of soldiers overseas and what binds people together when they serve. essays about citizenship, coming home and thinking to yourself, who was i fighting for? what commitment -- what is this commitment i swore to my nation and what does it mean about my
responsibility to american civic life and how should i think about those in relationship [indiscernible] and then there is a section on art, which sounds-looting -- sounds high saluting -- faluting. but it is not about high culture. it is the question concerning me in that question is about depictions and conversations about war and how to talk about this. when you come home, you have been part of an experience that is very important but it is difficult to communicate. it is not like everyday experience and you might still be trying to parse out what you went through yourself and try to make sense of things that
happened to you. and communication is very important for that and the past centuries of war literature offers some tools and i situate that within american political debates. the final section is faith. i think service in war brings to mind not simply moral and clinical questions, but spiritual ones. on that section delves deeply into those personal questions. susan: you are not only a fiction writer but you teach writing at fairfield university. i am wondering, as a writer having both formats available to you, when you choose to use one versus the other to convey things that are similar. phil: fiction, you are inviting
someone to experience from the inside. you are inviting them into situations that you want them to respond to with their creative imagination as well. and in essays, it is not so dissimilar, but you are bringing them into a line of argument, as well. and also it is a way for me to work through things that have happened directly in my own life. in some of the men were type essays, there is -- memoir type essays, i am excavating memories and ideas. susan: you are a product of jesuit education. do i recognize in your essays the method of asking questions of your readers?
phil: absolutely. [laughter] discernment and emphasis on the particularity of things. i am deeply interested in the human experience, the ways in which individual experience will not neatly map onto broader mythologies around soldiers and combat. and fairfield university, in the mfa program we provide assistance for veterans and one third of the program is veterans. one of the wonderful things there is not just the experience of teaching, but also encountering other student and veteran stories. susan: we are taping this conversation right before memorial day. in one essay you wrote that memorial day is not particularly happy for you and you also wrote about visiting arlington
cemetery over the holiday, calling it a holiday best suited for healing wounds of past wars. what is on your mind this memorial day? phil: the people i knew who died, first and foremost. i think that is common for veterans. it becomes very specific as a holiday. and more than that, i think it is a time for me to think very seriously about what that sacrifice demands of us. there are a lot of ideals that americans say we are about. ideals that need idealistic men and women to join the military. and the course of american history is always a struggle. it brings us closer to the ideals, or we fall away from
them. so i think hopefully at the end of each memorial day, i come through it with a renewed sense of dedication to the purpose of engaging in that struggle. susan: we are unfortunately talking on the heels of the mass shootings in buffalo, new york and uvalde, texas. you have an essay about american society and guns, entitled a history of violence. what do you explore and that and what do you want people to know about the relationship with guns in this country? phil: it began as a straightforward history of ballistics. the development of more efficient and devastating ways to kill people. i began with america's first convicted murderer, who came forward on the mayflower and his weapon of choice was a gun. but it was rudimentary. almost prehistoric era of
ballistics. he shot and struck his target and if he did not come up that guy probably would have gotten away. there was a whole process to reload. charge the gun and shove in the bullet and these other things. we look at present day, the shootings that just happened. you have unimaginable firepower compared to that. not just in terms of the rate of fire. the las vegas shooter fired over 1100 rounds in 10 minutes. it would've taken that first convicted murderer something like six hours to fire that many bullets with the weapon he had at the time. but also the bullets have greater wounding power. they cause more damage to human tissue then the projectiles at
the time. they go very fast and create a wake, a temporary cavity in the human body. i go through how precisely we wound flesh so devastatingly. i quoted a report on wounds ballistics by the surgeon general of the army, who noted that the importance of studying this is that people will not encounter these in times of peace. and it is not true. we have multiple accounts of this. and it is important to understand the development not of the hardware of the gun itself, but the way it is marketed. despite our mythologies about the prevalence of guns and the gun culture of early american times, it was not a civilian
market. this was a big problem for gun marketers -- manufacturers like samuel colt. they knew they needed a civilian market. he wants saturated the texas market. it's crazy to think about now. one thing he did was not just invent new types of firearms, but new types of marketing for firearms. he was a showman and had previously performed in london and new york and did shows. and he used that flair for advertising. he hired artists to show someone under threat and they are using a gun to show it off.
gun -- a gun was how you secured your passage through this dangerous world. he amped up the threat. after the civil war as other gun manufacturers like winchester was cap -- were catching up, that mythology got tied closely to american ideals. one slogan was abraham lincoln freed the slaves but samuel colt made all men free. the idea that your security and aspects of who you are as an american are dependent on having this weapon. that is what advertising continues to do when you trace it through to the present day with the types of weaponry we have now and the ways the mythology has grown and changed. gun manufacturers had a good
time during the crime wave of the 1980's but as crime went off and the fear was not driving sales the way it did, war on terror helps them. fears have always been good for gun manufacturers. there were advertisements that thrived on the sense that it is a chaotic world but the gun will be the way you can secure yourself, your family, who you are, and your liberty. last year we had 20 million gun sales in this country. susan: the boom was predicated
on the thought that there would be gun restrictions and people were afraid their guns would be taken away from them. in a country with more guns than citizens and in the wake of these two events, what questions do you think society should be asking itself? phil: it should be asking about the need for the weapons and the social cost of having so many of them. it is clear that the level of gun violence in america is not at all comparable to similar societies. the main different ingredients is the prevalence of guns. susan: and the essays, the overall -- they overall explorer american citizens -- citizenship, you said war
fighting has changed over the past 20 years. can you explain how and why? phil: sure. when i was in iraq, the main effort of the american military was done with conventional troops and they had journalists with them. it was not necessarily a golden age of transparency for military operations but there is more than today. we had another surge of troops in afghanistan under obama. then he moved troops out of iraq and then they got drawn back into the country and america has had a schizophrenic mood about the wars we are engaged in. they do not like long-running wars but when bad guys pop up, they really want us to be able to strike them. when isis emerged in iraq,
president obama started reintroducing troops and for a while they were cagey about it and said they were not putting boots on the ground, just special operators who were assisting missions. then troops would end up in combat and in combat situations. the obama administration did not feel when they decided to engage in the war against isis that they needed to go to congress. they argued they could still use the authorization from 2001. they also used that to strike a variety of other groups. earlier this month, president biden signed the order to send troops into somalia for an ongoing campaign of killing the
leader of a terrorist group. congress did not vote on that. because we are using the same authorization from 2001 from military force that was intended to go after the taliban, al qaeda, and those in afghanistan. so we have this sprawling justification for the use of force and well -- and if they were doing large ground deployment, there would be more debate that they are relying heavily on special ops, mercenaries, drones, airstrikes, and working through proxy forces. so it is a style of warfare which is not very transparent. there is not a lot of congressional accountability. and also it is a style of warfare with limited engagement
with a lot of the countries. long-term, that is a problem in terms of accountability and military policy. susan: to clarify, do you see isis and affiliates as a threat to the united states? is your concern over communication to the public and buy-in from the public rather than identifying them as a threat or not? phil: i agree with some of the missions. i am skeptical of others. somalia is a debatable prospect. i think it is a good thing that we help fight against isis. i have traveled through some of
the regions that were devastated by them in iraq. i have spoken with people who survived the genocide and topped with women who were held as slaves by isis. i am glad we helped in that fight. but i think we need democratic accountability for making war and we are in a dangerous drift. i find it troubling to have a situation when biden announced we were pulling troops out of afghanistan, he announced the war was over but then said we will continue to fight terrorists using over the horizon strikes. so the war is over but the killing continues. and i think that if we are going to be killing people, we should not be telling ourselves we are not at war and it should be something we are engaged in politically.
is using our military to kill people the most moral thing we can do as a country? i think we should all debate it. if we are going to have troops do this overseas, the president needs to regularly come before congress and explain why we are doing it, what is the cost, what are the benchmarks of success, and each member of congress should vote on it. susan: you have explained what we should ask of our president. you write in the book that they have become accustomed to lien casually about war. -- liana -- lying casually about war. what are our responsibilities as citizens? phil: we should not just accept the state of affairs. i think we should demand more from our elected leaders.
i think it should be deeply troubling to all of us that the department of defense has not allowed journalists to be with troops for a long time. the lack of democratic accountability and the secrecy is something politicians should be punished for. and i think those politicians who are working to create more accountability and transparency, and there are those on both sides of the aisle, those should be embraced. susan: what should we be asking of the news media? phil: thoughtful informed coverage. there has been fantastic journalism over the past 20 years and some superb reporting. more of that.
susan: do you think the interest or resources devoted to coverage diminished when active troop movements moved into counterinsurgency? you referenced some of the journalist you worked with over there but once the big troop movements move, reporting diminishes as well. phil: there was diminishing in reporting and american people are less interested in the stories. if it is not being actively debated, it passes out of consciousness because there are so many other things in life to be discussed. at the same time, there has been some phenomenal reporting. the new york times analyzed u.s. airstrikes and civilian casualties and that militaries report about civilian casualties
in finding a lack of accountability and lack of responding to problems that led to civilians being killed and finding that the numbers of the dead were higher than the military told. that is valuable reporting. it is morally important. it is dangerous if one of our branches of government is lying about what it is doing. it makes it less effective as a force in the world. susan: what would you like to see happen in the congressional election as a result of the issues you raised? phil: all the things i mentioned, i would like to see those as things american voters are concerned about and they are asking their representatives to represent them on their behalf.
susan: let's go into your stories so people understand your perspective. you graduated from dartmouth and join the marine corps in 2005. how many members of your class joined that your? phil: there were two other marines. i am not sure the total number of military. susan: you write that your friends and families -- you write that your friends and family were surprised. why did you sign up? phil: when i was in high school i wanted to join the state department. but we were at war when i was in college. i went to college in september of 2001. we were in afghanistan and pretty soon, iraq. if you wanted to serve the country, that was the way to do it. susan: since only 1% of the population has served in the past 20 years, what are the
greatest misperceptions by the public about those who choose to serve in those who don't? phil: some veterans complain about a dichotomy in terms of how veterans are perceived as either the hero or broken soldier. whereas the sense of being in the military is just doing a job. and performing as a professional . in the complex array of things people can do. there is an essay in the book about the perception of veterans as being broken and i have encountered this. in one way it emerged out of a positive thing, the issue of
mental health. i started encountering this thing where people would assume not that i had the symptoms of ptsd, but that i had a particular psychological wound, but more a general sense that i was kind of messed up. one person told me that all iraq vets would snap after 10 years. i had been home for three so i had seven left and i should enjoy them. it was a way in which the discussion could sometimes be used to taper over the more difficult things. i got the sense of, are you angry, are you bitter,? maybe it is ptsd and hopefully one day there will be a pill for that.
there was this sense of are you not angry and feeling betrayed when you survey military policy and how we have abused the lives of men and women entreated the people of iraq? if you are not, maybe there is something wrong frio and one day it may be there will be a pill for that. -- if you are not, maybe there is something wrong with you and one day there may be a pill for that. but they can go the other way around. there is a way in which the veteran coming back from work and have a chip on their shoulder. it is common to feel alienated and frustrated with civilian society that does not see the issues the way you are. i felt that deeply in the years i got back.
one thing marines used to say is we are at war and america is at the mall. we are doing the important stuff and americans are at the mall. it is a way of putting down civilians. i thought of it years later because i was at the mall when america was still at war. i was looking at baby clothes. and i thought to myself, ok, america is at war and i am at the mall but this is the way it is supposed to be. i am getting baby clothes for my son. the contempt i saw for civilian life, in a way it is crazy. the whole point of joining is that civilian life is worth
defending. that it is something beautiful and we should deplete respect and appreciate the work of every day americans who respond in their own way to obligations of civic life. so that is another piece of the puzzle in terms of the gulf between the two. susan: you referenced the phrase, there are no atheists in foxholes. and yet you mentioned that being at war made you question your faith and relationship with god. phil: there are certainly atheists in foxholes and some who are atheists because of what
they experience there. i quote a vietnam veteran who says that war can sometimes force a moment of choosing. that you either have to believe in god or cannot believe in a god. for me, when i was in iraq, it was different. in some ways, my deployment was relatively easy. i was in a violent place but i was mostly safe. i saw the after effects, particularly in the surgical platoon that was part of our unit. but by the end of my deployment, i felt very good about what we had done because the violence had gone down. i felt justified and smug and it caused me to walk away from
faith for a while. then as i started writing about the wars and undermining that smugness i felt and asking myself more difficult questions about my experience and what it meant, i started relying more [indiscernible] on asking the deepest and most difficult questions. so the essays in that section are trying to explore the difference between that smug, certain kid who thought there was no role for faith in his life, and the somewhat older and much more skeptical person for whom a sense of faith and mystery and beauty and a complex
relationship to suffering became deeply important. susan: and that section we meet someone named pat mcglocklin. why is his story demonstrative? phil: he was not feeling smug at the time. he was the chaplain in my unit. we had a surgical shock trauma platoon. they would receive casualties coming in from the battlefield. u.s. marines and sometimes civilians or enemy fighters. and when you have a mass casualty event, military triage goes into effect and it is a cold process. if you cannot help someone, you do what you can to make them comfortable and you move on to someone you can help. you do not want to leave anyone to die alone in a corner. chaplain mcglocklin ministered
to children as they were dying. eventually, he was built combat rocking chairs. he would hold the children as they died. it was only later that i learned some of the spiritual reflection he was writing in his notebook at the time and the questions it called to mind about being a member of the military force in a war that is taking place in cities and homes, which means children living in fear, hurt, dying. it is his experience and what he did with it that continues to move me profoundly. susan: i wanted to talk to you about presidents. congress has ceded authority to
the president for the authorized use of military force. i wanted to go through the recent president and have you talk a little bit about how you think they might be viewed through the lens of history. let's start with george w. bush. lots of coverage about him intending to talk about ukraine. >> the thought that one man could launch a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of iraq, i mean ukraine. iraq. anyway. [laughter] susan: he was responding initially to 9/11. through the lens of history of 20 years, how do you think his decisions about how we deployed military force will be viewed? phil: i think it is very clear
that the military decisions made were disastrous. the planning was poor. the execution was poor. they did not listen to a lot of the folks who were warning about the things that happened. i think the use of torture is a moral stain of great consequence that hurt us practically, inspired enemies around the world, limited our intelligence and cooperation with other nations during a critical time. it was stupid, cruel, and people in every way. susan: you have already spoke about barack obama. is there anything you want to say about the way he addressed foreign policy and security concerns while in office? phil: under the obama administration we began shifting towards a less transparent style
of warfare and away from larger troop deployments. and also a time when the executive is aggressively arguing for the expanded scope of powers and targeted killing around the world. and i think that is a significant part of his legacy and a troubling aspect of it. susan: donald trump. when he was running for president, you had an opportunity to question him the way you think citizens should of political candidates. tell me what you thought of his response. phil: what is your plan for the region to ensure a group like isys doesn't come back? trump: part of the problem we have is we go income it defeat somebody and then we don't know what we are doing after that. look at what happened with iraq and how badly it was handled.
then when obama took over, likewise, it was a disaster. it was somewhat stable, it's a war we never should've gotten into in the first place, but he came in and said, when we go out, and he took everybody out and really isys was formed and i think you know because you have been watching that for a long time, i have always said, shouldn't be here, but if we are going to get out, take the oil. if we would have taken the oil, you would not have isys because it forms with the power and wealth of that. susan: when he campaigns to end involvement? phil: a ridiculous response. it is hard to even respond. how would you take the oil? is it like taking money out of an atm? what would it mean? i don't think he thought it through. it is kind of difficult to go through all that is wrong with
that. it just suggest someone who has not thought very deeply about the question. in many ways the trump presidency come as you might expect from someone who gave an answer like that, kind of continued and the trajectory is the obama presidency. there was a lot more continuum than many people think. but there is even less transparency. and donald trump expanded the scope of military operations, even beyond what obama had done. the pace was described as frantic during the trump years. he loosened restrictions around targeted killing and airstrikes and that resulted in a lot more dead civilians. so that would be, and also there is a certain amount of erratic foreign policies where he pulled troops out of syria, then some
state, then some left. i met some of the refugees who had to flee syria in the wake of the ethnic cleansing by turkish backed militia that moved in after some of our troops left. it was somewhat erratic at times but in some ways more callous and cruel, but a continuum of the obama years. susan: after biden signed the official and -- end and then the withdrawal from afghanistan. your thoughts. phil: i supported the withdrawal from afghanistan. some believe if we had kept a presence there the afghan government could have fall down. -- could not have fell down. how many troops will be have to keep?
you are talking about substantially increasing the troop present -- presence. for what? the afghan government was dysfunctional and you could have poured infinite resources into it and it would not have been self-sustaining. it made sense to leave. the question about how it was conducted, particularly, in my community there was a great concern about the lack of concern for afghans and their families. the biden administration did not prepare to evacuate those people and get them through our immigration system. it was a tremendous crisis when the taliban started taking cities. we were unprepared. people had been desperately arguing for preparation of this
for months. i met people complaining about being ignored from the biden administration in april. so there was a devastating human toll paid by those who had trusted america and believed our promises to them. i remember talking with a veteran who was trying to do this and he said, my interpreter saved my life and he has family over there. why would i ever stop doing everything i can to help him? our government failed their obligation and now this obligation has been put on me. but he is just one citizen and only so much he can do. i know people who were working with someone and then they found out that person had been murdered.
brutal. and it continues. so that was a tremendous flaw in the withdrawal. but i support the withdrawal. susan: what do you think about the biden administration and congress support for west efforts in ukraine? phil: i think it is good. it is a straightforward war of aggression. i think it is a good standard to set that wars of aggression will rouse the international community to support the victim. we do not want this to escalate in dangerous ways but it is a good thing we are supporting ukraine. it does not mean there are things we should not be thinking about now, because in some ways the decision to hope that
ukraine is able to defend itself, it's easy. the willingness to aid them within certain concerns. it is a relatively easy position. but we should also be thinking on the one hand about what could happen down the line. a friend of mine who is a researcher and former service member said he will be tracking the weapons given to ukraine and i think we should be thinking about the international border. the invasion of iraq and ukraine are not the same but nonetheless the prohibition against wars of aggression is a very important one. but we need to think about the international norms we would
like to see around the world and the kinds of institutions we need to support to realize those. and we need to think about ways in which we all restrain ourselves. you cannot advocate strong norms in terms of how the international community operates but reserve certain parts out for yourself. susan: does it apply equally to the president's announcement that we would support taiwan militarily? phil: [laughter] i think we certainly would like china to not feel as if it had the ability to go into taiwan. we want them to think it would be a very dangerous and painful course of action for them. i think there are broader
concerns about policy and whether it was wise to say so directly, but certainly as we look at ukraine, one of the hoaxes that other countries will consider restraining themselves. susan: let me learn more about your community of veterans of the iraq and afghanistan wars. you referenced earlier that joining the military is an act of faith in one's country and an act of faith that your country will use your life well. in one essay you observed that your fellow veterans volunteer more and vote more and join more civic groups.
what is the state of veterans of your eric today -- your era today? phil: it is diverse in many ways . i think there is a sense of the same idealism that drove you to join in the first place. it continues in people in american civic life. i also think, a lot of people i knew were veterans and in august many of them were feeling leak and angry at -- feeling bleak and angry at america because they feel like they really put themselves out for america and their lives were being ruined without a second thought.
i spoke with one a couple months later. he had been working on resettlement for afghan refugees and a lot of the people in his community had come out. people with no connection to the military. he said, i always thought americans did not care but if you ask people, americans do step up. so part of the problem, he felt, was that for a long time when it comes to war, we have not asked anything of americans. so i think there is that sensibility, the desire to be part of a shared project, not with everybody, but i think it is one thing you often find in
the veteran community and it is extremely gratifying to people when they find those places in american civic life where they fit in and find a common purpose. there are many options for that. susan: what are some solutions you think would be effective? i have heard you describe a chasm between united states citizens and those who serve. what are some mechanisms to address that? phil: when you look at the total of problems, it is easy to become discouraged and despair. and yet we know progress is possible and change does come and whatever area of military policy or veteran life that concerns you, there are organizations making
differences. resettling afghans, like my friend. being more involved in policy debate about the issues i am talking about or concerns about transparency. i also feel like even if someone is not interested in wars, if they are deeply engaged in civic and political life and they bring those virtues of american life more fully to realization, it is the same project. one thing i will say is that at the end of the day, despite everything, i am grateful i served in the military and i think there is something deeply noble about serving the nation. i wish there were more avenues
for young people to pursue national service. not just in the military, but more broadly. i think it would be good for the country. susan: some countries have one required year of national service. is that something you would like to apply here? phil: i don't think you should start that it once but i think you could expand opportunities for people to serve. susan: should serving in the military be required? phil: i understand why some people feel it would lead to more engagement but ultimately i do not think it would make sense. i do not think we would know what to do with all those folks. if we had mandatory national service but service of a wider variety of types of things, that would be better. not everyone belongs in the military and i am sure that first sergeants would agree with me. susan: you talk about one way
forward being to engage in thoughtful policy debates. you have an essay on rage and it seems national politics are filled with that right now. how do we get beyond the rage for us -- beyond the rage to civil debate? phil: debate can be raucous. but i think there is a danger when we become utterly blind to opponents. it is not because they might be right, they might be terribly wrong. but i think it is important to learn what motivates other people, how they are arguing, and how you might sharpen your own side in response. sometimes we talk about -- on one hand, i think it is good to
be civil to your fellow citizen, just as a baseline. i think it is dangerous to get so caught up in self-righteous rage that you are unable to see your own blind spots. a commitment to civility tends to make us smarter about what we argue. it makes us more aware of things we might have missed initially and ways in which we can improve ourselves and more effectively reach out to our fellow americans to persuade. susan: you are not quite 40 years old and has become a dad. you are raising two children in our society. phil: three children. susan: congratulations. when you survey united states right now and your participation and your kids growing up, how do you feel about the direction of our country?
phil: i am a short-term pessimist and long-term optimist. we need to have a cold look at present reality and feel extremely exercised about the flaws. but at the end of the day i do have faith in the american people and i think, i keep going back through history in this book. when you do, you find people who over time have successfully improved us, brought us closer to who we should be. so it is very clear that that is always possible. susan: the book is titled, "uncertain ground: citizenship in an age of endless, invisible war." as you are speaking about it, what will make you realize if
the book has made a difference? phil: [laughter] at the end of the day, i just want to know from individual readers that it moved them, it caused them to deeply reflect, to think about war and american citizenship differently and that it echoed concerns in their life, whether in civic life or in deeply personal things as well. i do not ask any book to radically change the world. i do not think that is possible. but i do strongly believe that books can draw people into important conversations in deeply profound and intimate ways. i know that they have changed how i think about things and hopefully it can do a little bit of that for some of the readers.
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