This Book Review was submitted as a guest post by Patrick Jourdan, a student in the Security Studies Program (SSP).
In the Summer of 2021, America watched the evacuation of Afghanistan. Terrifying images of Hamid Karzai International Airport filled our screens almost every day. Marines and Paratroopers deployed to the most chaotic of situations, holding a perimeter against people trying desperately to save their families and their own lives. Live videos, Tweets, and updates poured out of Kabul. When Chris Donahue, the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, stepped onto the last C-17 out of HKIA, there was a strange sense of relief, coupled with immense sadness.
Sadness turned to frustration and confusion in the weeks following in the barrage of opinion pieces and media discourse about the war’s end. No President is above criticism in wartime; in fact, it should be encouraged. There were so many valuable points to be made and questions to be asked of our leaders. Why had our government not corrected the Special Immigrant Visa program’s failures? Why did we not implement a plan to defend the airfield earlier? What other evacuation plans were considered? What are we going to do now?
Instead, what was on display was the clear lack of understanding of the most basic elements of the conflict from both the American public and our elected lawmakers. There were hundreds of tweets and statements focusing on the dollar value of the equipment we left behind. People were confused that the government was blaming ISIL for the Abbey Gate bombing rather than the Taliban, some even claiming that it was impossible; ISIL is not in Afghanistan. Pundits who avoided discussing the war while it was ongoing were suddenly counterinsurgency experts and knew exactly what should have been done. There were immediate calls for hearings, investigations, and punishments for those responsible. Many influential figures clawed desperately for the spotlight, while the public sought to assign blame.
Americans saw the withdrawal as the failure of one administration, either the current or the last, rather than the death rattles of a failed twenty-year strategy. This was our war, not Joe Biden’s, not Donald Trump’s. The gap between the military, our government, and the people had never appeared wider. The heartbreaking truth is that even as Americans faced the uncomfortable end of our longest war, our focus remained too narrow to have a meaningful discussion of how and why America fights.
This is the America that Phil Klay sought to make sense of in his latest book. In my time as a nonfiction reader, I have never encountered a book quite like Uncertain Ground. At first glance, it is a book without an obvious overarching message. If you were to look at the table of contents, you would be forgiven for thinking this was simply a greatest-hits collection of Phil Klay’s published essays. However, what seems like a collection of standalone works contains a much larger message about modern U.S. civil-military relations. This book is a wonderful reflection on the personal experience of volunteering to serve, and the dangers of an American society that treats conflict with apathy rather than caution.
Phil Klay first gained prominence for the excellent Redeployment, a collection of short fiction published in 2014 about the American experience of the Iraq War. Klay, a Marine officer who deployed to Iraq during the 2007 surge, told a different story than many of the other war accounts that have emerged. Although his novel was fictional, it held truths about the complex nature of war that resonated with both the public and veterans. Instead of tales of heroics in violence, Klay told stories of the mundane moments of war, touching on uncomfortable themes of loss, guilt, comradery, and absurdity. Its message and Klay’s gifted writing earned it the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction.
While Redeployment was subtle in its commentary, Uncertain Ground is unrestrained. It revolves around a central theme: the flawed way in which America fights its recent wars, and the impacts that our methods have on American society. Klay chooses to address his point in four parts: Soldiers, Citizens, Writing, and Faith; each of which reflects his personal journey as a Marine, a veteran, and an author. He doesn’t hold back, freely calling attention to the distance in the relationship between our military, our people, and the civilian leaders that interact with both. Throughout the book, Klay juxtaposes his lived experiences with commentary about wider society. He shares personal anecdotes of his time in Iraq, stories of his conversations with fellow veterans and citizens, and memories of his childhood, each of which drives home his larger theme with an emotional punch.
As a veteran, I was struck by how approachable Klay’s writing is, not simply because of the language he chooses to use, but because it is so unpretentious. Much of the nonfiction that has come out of the Global War on Terror has told tales of valor, because that is what Americans want to read. We have gotten used to stories like Chris Kyle’s American Sniper, Dakota Meyer’s Into the Fire, and Mark Luttrell’s Lone Survivor, where elite warriors courageously fight against the odds for each other and their country. Phil Klay’s stories of war give a more subdued account of a staff officer in a support unit, rather than a special operator kicking down doors. He is writing as an observer, more in the style of a war journalist than a participant. Klay tells stories that American veterans and members of the public will relate to because they are closer to readers’ lived experiences. Klay was both a witness to and participant in conflict, allowing him to skillfully walk the civil-military divide.
Klay’s grounded stories give way to sweeping indictments of an American political system that is all too eager to commit forces to battle and avoid the inevitable consequences of doing so. The best example comes in one of his longer essays, Citizen-Soldier: Moral Risk and the Modern Military. Klay highlights an American habit of focusing only on the small victories in war, rather than the larger costs. We can point to wins like the killing of Osama bin Laden, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and countless other terrorist leaders, and feel good about our actions even as we ignore the irreparable damage that is caused in our wake. Klay declares poignantly, “If you narrow your scope sufficiently, there’s no end to what you don’t have to deal with.” Its power again comes from its ubiquity. All Americans, including veterans, politicians, and private citizens, fall into the trap of chasing the easy win and ignoring the effects.
Many of the essays in Uncertain Ground are like Citizen-Soldier: statements about American Society. However, some of the most affecting pieces in the book are about the personal journeys of Klay and his fellow veterans. I found Fact and Fiction, one of the essays in Klay’s section on writing, especially moving. It details the challenges that he and hundreds of other authors have faced in creating understandings of war through writing. Klay gives thoughtful commentary on the most effective ways to convey the feelings of war, as well as the importance of doing so. A good war story should unsettle a reader beyond a simple feeling of “weak empathy;” it can change peoples’ understandings of national policy. Underpinning the entire section is Klay’s own journey as a writer following his time in the Marines. Klay has clearly found purpose and healing through the works he produces, and his writing will inspire others to do the same.
Klay’s final essay of the book is a short but poignant reflection on our country’s experience in Afghanistan, titled simply: American Purpose After the Fall of Kabul. Penned amid the evacuation in August 2021, Klay works the raw perspective of thousands of American veterans. He captures the pain and frustration of the moment, using them to drive home his book’s cautionary message. Over a few short pages, Klay brings his book’s overarching theme full circle: American society still misunderstands the responsibility that we all bear for the outcome of our wars.
In the wake of the Afghanistan War’s undignified end, Klay’s words ring truer than ever. The narrowing of our scope has allowed America to avoid grappling with the consequences of how we fight. Public figures who tried not to think about Afghanistan can go before our people and earnestly say that what happened was the fault of one man, or a few people, or one policy decision. Klay’s work is an excellent refutation of this concept of limited responsibility for war in American society. As I finished Uncertain Ground, I found myself wishing that all Americans could internalize the message within. Perhaps if we do, we can think more critically about when and why we send young men and women to fight and say, confidently, that we have done our part.