In 'Missionaries' Novel, Phil Klay Explores How 'Wars Bleed Into Each Other' In a new novel, the National Book Award winner takes readers around the world — from the chaos in Iraq and Afghanistan to turmoil in rural Colombia. It is not a "nice, clean, moral story," he says.
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In 'Missionaries,' Phil Klay Explores How 'Wars Bleed Into Each Other'

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In 'Missionaries,' Phil Klay Explores How 'Wars Bleed Into Each Other'

In 'Missionaries,' Phil Klay Explores How 'Wars Bleed Into Each Other'

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National Book Award winner Phil Klay's new novel "Missionaries" takes us around the world, from the chaos in Iraq and Afghanistan to turmoil in rural Colombia. Along the way, we meet a U.S. Army Special Forces medic, a burned-out female foreign correspondent, a Colombian military officer and a cascade of other fascinating characters whose allegiances seem to change weekly from narcos to rebels to militias. And Phil Klay joins us now from Queens, N.Y.

Welcome to the program.

PHIL KLAY: Thank you so much for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I will mention at the outset that you are a former Marine who served in Iraq. And I should also say that I am a former foreign correspondent who has spent a lot of time in all of the places that you mention in this book. So I guess we know of what we speak. But I am curious. Why did you set this story in Colombia?

KLAY: Well, Colombia is this fascinating war, but it's also one where there are a lot of connections with the wars overseas. And one of the things that I wanted to do - you know, my first book was about the Iraq war. And yet, the more that I thought about the way that we wage war in the 21st century, the more it seemed to me insufficient to just talk about one theater of conflict. I wanted to talk about the ways these wars bleed into each other. You know, when you can have a Colombian mercenary on an Emirati air base who is viewing a Yemeni tribesman through the camera on a Chinese-made drone before killing him with an American-supplied missile, you know you're in a different stage of warfare where things get very, very complicated.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. I mean, and part of that, of course, global industry of war is journalistic. I mean, you have the correspondent Lisette, who is in Kabul when we first meet her early on. She heads to Colombia because she's looking for a war the U.S. is quote-unquote "winning." So tell me what she's looking for when she gets to Colombia.

KLAY: Yeah. So she's become burned out covering Afghanistan, and she sort of toggles between this idealism and sense of purpose and the real importance of the work she's doing with the lack of interest back home. And she heads back home. But then very quickly, she wants that sense of purpose again. She wants that sense of meaning. She still wants to be a war correspondent.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's interesting. As someone who's covered Latin America and the Middle East, people never understood why I would go back and forth between the two of them. And there's a lot of things that are similar, and you got a lot of those details right. But you don't just stay among the familiar landscape of sort of foreign correspondents and foreign military officials. You introduce, right at the beginning, the character of Abel. And we meet him as a little boy, and he gets drawn into this vortex of militias and drug dealers in his small village near the Venezuelan border. Can you talk a little bit about that character, Abel, and his evolution?

KLAY: Sure. That whole region has been tied up in conflict his whole life, whether it's between right-wing paramilitaries or left-wing guerrilla or drug traffickers. And the Colombian state has never been that heavily present and has never provided that much order. But the state can dole out violence.

But I was concerned with, well, what happens in the regions where the violence is done afterwards? And Abel is the person who has to live through the aftermath. What changes in the power structure of that region? How does it reshape things in ways that people who are operating sort of at a higher level who can just tell the story of the raid where they go in, do violence and then go home that they're unaware of? And so that raid leads to a whole set of changes in this region that end up drawing in the four main characters of the novel all together.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I have to say there are some extremely violent, even gory scenes in this novel. How did you approach them? Why did you feel you needed them?

KLAY: You know, I never want to put violence in simply for shock value. I think it's very easy, especially with a novel about war, to descend into a kind of trauma porn. You know, I don't think that's ethical. At the same time, if you're talking about these kind of conflicts and you're not giving the reader anything that will make them uncomfortable, if you're not showing the violence, then you're also lying. Some of the images that I do choose to show, they're images that I show because they are things that stay with the characters and haunt them, whether it's a particularly horrible public execution done by right-wing paramilitaries or, with the American Special Forces character, this moment where he's caring for one of his fellow soldiers who's been grievously injured.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As in all stories about conflict, there's a lot of gray in the world you portray, and it comes to this very thunderous conclusion. I guess my question to you is, we always want a simple narrative about conflict, right? We always want a good guy and a bad guy or gal and that our wars have clear purpose and direction. This book shows something completely different. What is your takeaway about the foreign interventions of the United States that this is meant to show?

KLAY: Right. One of the things that in theory we have learned intellectually from the past 20 years of American wars is the limits of the application of violence, the way in which the use of force can lead to second- and third-order consequences that we never anticipated and that can often be disastrous. And in theory, we've learned the necessity of bringing in other tools of American power, nonviolent tools. But in practice, what have we built? - the ways in which we have developed a highly sophisticated, industrial-scale mechanism for targeted killing around the world.

And so I wanted not the nice, clean, moral story of, there's a bad guy, and Navy SEALs go and kill him and then go home. I wanted to look at what happens in these places after the violence is done, what is being bred in the wake of that violence and how should we think about the ways in which this is reshaping not just the world, but also the various communities and institutions that these characters lived through?

And so I wanted a novel where, when you put it all together, you could see the way the decisions made by an American and the American Embassy in Bogota, by a Colombian officer, by people on the ground in this one small region - how they affect each other and create consequences that no one anticipated.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Phil Klay's new novel is "Missionaries."

Thanks very much.

KLAY: Thank you so much.

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