The formation of the soldier

Rebecca Burgess

Writing dabbles in many currencies, but none so valuable as translation. This thought hadn’t quite crystallized for me until reading Phil Klay’s latest book on military veterans, democratic citizenship, and war. It is one lesson to be drawn from the award-winning retired US Marine, whose latest book, Uncertain Ground: Citizenship in an Age of Endless, Invisible War is, as the cover blurb puts it, a “fever graph of the effects of twenty years of war in a brutally divided America.” That is one way to sum up this remarkable collection of essays, previously published in various outlets between 2010 and 2021. It is hardly satisfying.
The book is every paragraph a journey. Step by step, we wander from civilian youngster to youthful soldier to a slightly seasoned veteran, from New York City and the post-9/11 college campus to Fallujah and back again, and back again to Mosul and Kabul and the harsh topography of Iraq and Afghanistan. Then we return to the harsher, because less serious, climate of the US Congress and the halls of power. Uncertain Ground is not chronological in calendar terms, but it does have an internal chronology of the broadening considerations about what these particular wars meant to the individuals fighting them, the people dying in them, the taxpayers financing them, and the politicians forgetting to lead them.
Interwoven with this story is a more personal narrative of Klay’s path from citizen to soldier to veteran-citizen; from nascent adult to the father of an infant son. That too is a journey built through paragraphs scattered here and there across the twenty-two essays. And that too, it turns out, is a journey from a type of reflexively felt faith—in America and the United States military, and even in religion—to distru-st and skepticism, but onw-ard to a more reflective, m-ature, and conscious faith, perhaps in Faith itself.
Klay’s words are not uncertain, in Uncertain Ground. Rather, like so many masted barques, his words commerce between shore and unfamiliar shore of the civil-military straights, ferrying meanings for the emotions and experiences of some who went off to America’s “Forever War” and of some who’ve since returned. But whether as ferryman he himself is more an Odysseus or a Charon is perhaps best left for the individual reader to say. There are a lot of bodies in Klay’s writings. But there is a great deal of soul also throughout this book.
Klay, in fine, is a translator. Uncertain Ground is a work of translation, for ci-vilians and military looke-rs-on, about soldiers and th-e contemporary state who gives them birth, and burials.
The Weight of Civic Obligation
Translation has ever been a work of transmigration—of carrying across unembodied to embodied thoughts and back again. It involves leading and being led; leaving from and returning to home as to some place in need of rediscovery; willingness and unwillingness; grieving and reverence; celebration and remembrance. It transfers, from an unknowing state to a knowing one. And here is where the concept of writing as translation, of translation as education, and of the civilian yet military-veteran-turned-author Phil Klay as translator of the ones who go to war, comes into focus as the action of the drama of Uncertain Ground.
Klay asks what it means to be a citizen-soldier and a civilian-citizen through a twenty years-long American-led war that was fought not so much in the physical shadows as in the shadows of our national consciousness, our political policy debates, and what David Brooks once referred to as “the attics of our hearts.”
Americans are increasingly activist about our rights; our civic duties, not so much. There is a palpable lack of national interest in civic education in our institutions of learning. Without civic consciousness, Americans have little sense of duty with respect to public service, which is something Klay first senses, then feels keenly. Our general public has little interest in engaging with the obligations of citizenship, especially in terms of defense policy, and in consequence, American defense policy has demanded more and more of a decreasing number of citizens. Across twenty years of war, millions of citizens have lived under the American flag without ever thinking of enlisting their bodies in their nation’s service. In light of that, the hundreds of thousands who did enlist since September 11, 2001 are unseen, unfelt, unknown.
This, Klay is certain, is not as it should be. The obliviousness of America’s millions of citizens about this decades-long war could only have deleterious effects for America’s honor and reputation, its politics and civic soul, and for its always-delicate civil-military relationship. “There’s something bizarre about being a veteran of a war that doesn’t end, in a country that doesn’t pay attention,” he writes. Because American citizens would not pay attention to America’s contemporary wars, American politicians were allowed to fritter away billions of dollars, thousands of lives, and hundreds of promises without ever having to render an account to anyone. And so the war floundered on, along with the wounding and the dying and the spending. This also, Klay believes, is not as it should be in a representative democracy of free and equal citizens. Only distrust can grow in such soil.
And yet Klay also acknowledges that the mere fact of an All-Volunteer Force means that there are necessarily some barriers to seeing who and what America’s military is, and how it operates. Despite the statistics which continue to show that American soldiers resemble the many flavors of America—that they are, in Alexis de Tocqueville’s words, “a faithful image of the nation”—soldiers and thus veterans have become stranger than fiction to the average American civilian. This is partly because, for many Americans, lazy, monolithic media representations of soldiers have replaced the experience of knowing one in real life. And thus we have, on the one hand, the myth of the “broken veteran,” and on the other, a type of pedestaled hero worship of those who serve, that dismisses any critique of the same as inherently unpatriotic. Klay takes on both these attitudes, albeit with a much more vested interest in the second.
The idea that veterans are too wonderfully weird for the average civilian to comprehend actually has roots in the former conscript armies of the United States, beginning at least with the Civil War. The soldiers of that war described their combat experience (in the words of Civil War veteran Justice Olivere Wendell Holmes) as something akin to a sacramental baptism “by fire.” Ever since, veterans and civilians have had a growing sense that the veteran is in need of some translation for civilians to understand him—and now, her. And as Klay illustrates, today’s veterans are also asking for a translation, not just for what it means to be a civilian and a citizen, but also for what their own service ought to mean to their nation.
The Formation of the Soldier
Why does a person choose to serve at the risk of all his future days? Why, especially, in the 21st-century, when there are so many other economic options available? What happens to a human being in combat? And what is it that impels a soldier knowingly to run into a death trap, either to save some fellow soldier or to retrieve their body? America “has a very particular set of answers” to these questions, Klay writes. It revolves around a national mythos about a dedication to freedom, democratic courage, and the sturdy character this enduringly breeds in American souls.
Ronald Reagan once posed the author James Michener’s question about the heroes of the Korean War—“Where do we find such men?”—only to ans-wer it with, “Well, we find them where we’ve always found them. They are the product of the freest society man has ever known.”
In this view, ours is a democratic courage, the purest reflection of the nature and quality of our society…. Raised in our American democracy, with its love of liberty, strong civic institutions, and glorious past, those men would fight courageously…
In turn, we, as members of that body from which they came, are to take heart from their example and commit ourselves with equal vigor to sustaining an American civil society that will continue to inspire such courage.
Klay could have turned on this patriotic explanation with the all-too-easy cynicism of a modern New Yorker nicely graduated from Ivy League writing programs. Refreshingly, he does more than reecho for the thousandth time the Lost Generation’s lament about the “old lie” proffered to “children ardent for some desperate glory”—Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. Klay shows how such cynicism continues to be bred, and not gently, either. The problem is not simply that today’s partisan politicians use the images, stories, and the “fraternal bonds of combat” for political purposes. Such has ever been the case. It’s that today’s political leaders have no true respect for the dynamics of those combat-necessary bonds, and consequently use them for increasingly petty, “indeed almost pathetic,” ends—such as State of the Union photo ops—not to “articulate a vision of American ideals, or outline our broader moral purpose in the world.”
Bonds are essential to a functioning military, and they reflect both individual dynamics and the national character. Military-forged bonds come down to a camaraderie; a “submersion in a collective” that manages a transition from what J. Glenn Gray called the “frail, timid ‘I’” to the “gallant, intelligent ‘We.’” Diverse, unconnected individuals join the military, together “submit to arduous training, and pledge to leave no one behind.” Each knows that the other may be called to die for him, and that the other has chosen that possibility too, creating a powerful system of choice, responsibility, and trust. But, writes Klay, “no less important is their commitment to something outside of the unit. They need a mission—one that is achievable, moral, and in keeping with the values of the society they represent and whose flag they wear on their uniform.” Soldiers thus have a rough appreciation of character and virtue among themselves, but this is reliant on the shared civic virtue, and character of the nation for which they fight.
In fine, at the heart of the mystery about soldiers’ battlefield selflessness and frequent heroism is a sense of shared commitment to a task—a willing subsuming into a collective that has some greater-than-individual meaning. That action works only so long as America, especially its elected leaders and opinion-making class, consciously provide a coherent rationale and even moral purpose to those soldiers about what the task actually is. Klay appears to believe that in the instances of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, at least from 2008 onward, any such purpose was buried, lied about, forgotten, or nonexistent. And it was the soldiers with their literal boots on the ground who suffered first. But, Klay senses, it is the nation that suffers now.
“The clarity of purpose so central to bonding men in combat cannot emerge purely from the military itself.” America, and Americans’ sense of self, is deeply entwined with the American military, perhaps even more so after the Second World War because, Klay argues, the US military is “the force that has undergirded the post-World War II international order.” The military we have derives much from this broader ethos. The lanky young recruit who shows up at Basic Training is no tabula rasa. He or she has been shaped for eighteen years by a family environment, education system, civil community, and political regime, in formal and informal ways. The military takes that amalgamation and further shapes it to field soldiers who can work together on coordinated missions. But it takes leadership—political as well as martial—to formulate and communicate clearly what those missions are and for what purpose lives are potentially sacrificed in their execution. When that marriage of purpose and mission is missing, and when the political leadership is everywhere absent or shuffling its feet, only bad things happen, like twenty years of war.
“If we choose to believe that America is not just a set of borders, but a set of principles, we need to act accordingly.” What does not get lost in Klay’s translation of human war-faring and democratic society is the (perhaps) surprising degree to which a democracy in fact needs a visible statesmanship among its elected officials, especially when it fights wars with a volunteer and not a conscript military. A crucial aspect of that statesmanship is re-communicating what the American experiment and principles are, and explaining what they are for. Teddy Roosevelt was not wrong to grasp the latent powers of the presidency in this regard. Ironically, the American people have grown so accustomed over the past century to the presidential bully pulpit, they seemed to have collectively stopped listening to the words, or evaluating their substance.
But soldiers in wartime with their lives on the line don’t have that luxury of hearing without listening. Perhaps, at the very heart of it, this is the true fault line in the contemporary Amer-ican military-civilian div-ide.
Saving Grace
Like any work of translation, those of us who dabble in the related languages, words, and concepts can be picky about terms and formulations. Klay is undeniably a craftsman of words. He has read widely in his subject (especially the work of Ernest Junger); he is honest and visceral, delightful and raw. He gives us the unvarnished barracks smells and impolite humor, mixed in with the meditative moments and the astringent horror of a dying, blown up human being. And he’s faithful to today’s composition of the Armed Forces: He repeatedly reminds his reader that he was a public affairs officer who “never saw combat, only its aftermath.” Very, very few of the modern military ever do see, much less participate in, combat. Less than 10 percent are even designated as combat forces, in fact, of which an even smaller percentage do the actual fighting. I appreciate that reminder to the American public, who reflexively assumes the US military is much larger than it is and that every soldier is somehow an infantryman in a WW II battle.
At the same time, I wasn’t fond of his morality tale about Americans, guns, and violence in the chapter “A History of Violence.” He endows gunmakers with uniquely wizardy powers to completely recast in the minds of seemingly all Americans American ideals of freedom and equality in martial (thus violent) terms through firearms marketing campaigns. It’s a disappointingly simplistic thesis from an author skilled in bringing forth the nuances.
But I was most struck by Klay’s absolute silence about a distinctly contemporary feature of American warfare: the dramatically increased use of contractors and private military firms in place of uniformed soldiers. Few Americans know that more contractors hired by the United States died (around 8,000) than uniformed soldiers (around 7,000), and that it was not unusual for operational or battlefield contractors to outnumber 3:1 military personnel in theater. In incr-easingly many instances, contractors are preferred to uniformed soldiers because they are easier to recruit, hire, and fire, and there is less bureaucratic delay to gum up their movements. Contractors have now become a permanent element of the American military force structure. What does this shift say about the state of our sense of citizenship, the civil-military relationship, and our nation?
Contractors have families and communities to return to, too—whether in person or in coffins—but without any of the supporting infrastructure of DoD or the Department of Veteran Affairs. From either side of the military-civilian divide, we can collectively shrug our shoulders, telling ourselves that these “mercenaries” knew what they were getting into, and were well paid for their services. Still, their lives and deaths demand some p-ublic reckoning, too. With-out some acknowledgement of this new reality, I do not think that we can honor Klay’s demand for Americans to “do better.”
Klay can’t but end on a note of warning, in “Am-erican Purpose after the Fall of Kabul.” But his pen-ultimate note is much more arresting, because it has to do with trauma and real ev-il, with banality, and with a word seldom used in toda-y’s parlance: grace. “Trau-ma has less to do with a pe-rson than with how that person has grown around it. You cannot understand the harm that has been done w-ithout understanding the good suffusing the rest of life.”
Klay draws on a wide variety of sources from psychology, anthropology, and sociology to show both that healing and growth are possible, and that not all who suffer can accept their trauma or heal. But with a full recourse to his Catholic upbringing, Klay notes that soldiers from the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste to St. Ignatius of Loyola to the late Senator John McCain have sometimes found “in their suffering a strange and terrible blessing.” Wisely, Klay chooses to illustrate this by example, rather than attempting to prove it. The showing is much more convincing. That can be felt.
If war provides moments of great political decision-making, it is also full of choices for individuals: to join a military, to rush onto an exploding grenade, to retrieve a buddy’s body fro-m a landmined road, or not to do any of those things. Statesmen, and society at large, should also be deliberate in choosing how a war should be fought, by whom, with what, and for what im-mediate and ultimate purpose. There is a great grace in being a citizen of a democratic nation, able to be an active participant in these deliberations. There’s grace in the ability to question and self-critique, to learn a-nd course-correct, to renew the moral wellsprings of its national character. There’s grace in the sufferings and sacrifices of the four million-plus soldiers and their families who did the twenty years of fighting in Amer-ica’s post-9/11 wars. Ther-e’s grace in the great nati-onal trauma of 9/11 itself. But this grace is not free, and it whitewashes nothing. Rather, it provides the opportunity to reckon—soldiers to civilians, civilians to soldiers—with what we hath wrought in the twenty years since we went to war. And for Klay, this reckoning, as uncomfortable, pai-nful, grievous, as it might be, is necessary for Amer-ica’s translation back into a land of peace.