Writing dabbles in many currencies, it seems to me, but none so valuable as translation. That this thought hadn’t quite crystallized until reading Phil Klay’s latest book on military veterans and society, democratic citizenship and war, Uncertain Ground: Citizenship in an Age of Endless, Invisible War, may be the most eloquent testimonial I can give of the project the award-winning retired US Marine has seemed to have embarked on, after war. A collection of his essays previously published in various outlets between 2010 and 2021, Uncertain Ground is, as the cover blurb puts it, a “fever graph of the effects of twenty years of war in a brutally divided America.” That’s indeed one way of putting it—not very satisfactorily, either, as another wordsmithing bridger of worlds culturally and geographically, TS Eliot, might say.
The book is every paragraph a journey. Step by step, we wander from civilian youngster to youthful soldier to 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, only to return to the harsher because less serious climate of the US Congress and similar halls of power. Uncertain Ground is not meant to be a history lesson of the twenty years of America’s post-9/11 wars, and so it is not chronological in terms of days and dates. But it does have an internal chronology of the broadening considerations about what these particular wars meant and might mean, to the individuals fighting them, the people dying in them, the taxpayers financing them, the politicians forgetting to lead them, and including the consequences to the nation of the same. Dodging about that chronology is a journey about war and civic faith, the loss of faith, and a re-awareness of what a democratic citizenship is and what it requires to flourish. Interwoven with this story is yet another 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 American institutions like the military, and even in religion—to distrust and skepticism, but onward to a more reflective, mature, 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. Certainly true is that there are a lot of bodies in Klay’s writings. But no less true is that a great deal of soul is undeniably also there, throughout.
Klay, in fine, is a translator. Uncertain Ground is a work of translation, about soldiers and the contemporary state who gives them birth, and burials; for the civilian and military lookers-on.
I do not mention Charon, the hoary ferryman and psychopomp of the river Styx, forebodingly, as though Klay’s writings are lethal to those seeking to understand either the particular soldiers of this particular American war or war and soldiers in general. Charon migrates souls between two worlds, and that transmigration has everything to do with bodies and the lack of bodies and changing states of being and awareness and all the grief and grievances accompanying such journeys. Even more, because Charon translates from the living to the dead, he is engaging with the transmigration of disembodied souls. The atmosphere around Charon is heavy with exile and diaspora, and the sense of physical removal from one’s country and the known place of one’s birth to some other and unknown state. Etymologically, the old French source transmigracion nods to the exile and the diaspora, while the older still late Latin transmigrationem, a combination of trans (across, beyond) and the verb migrare, evidences the change of country inherent in the word’s sense, as well as, historically, the biblical removal of the Jews to Babylonian captivity, and thus also the woeful lamentations voiced by the Prophet Jeremiah.
Translation has ever been a work of transmigration—of carrying across unembodied to embodied thoughts and back again. In the mediaeval world, translation in fact had a specific meaning related to bodies: The translation of a saint’s relics from one resting place to another, usually grander church or cathedral was the act of removal of the saint’s bones from one physical location to another, to bring that new place and that saint more fame and glory. It was an occasion of reverence and remembrance, as also of joy and celebration. It was, in actual fact, an act of transmigration. Here too, etymology certifies this truth: Translation is the marriage between trans and ferre (past participle, latus), so translation is not only a bearing across and a carrying over, but it is also a movement of bringing, which is why to this day many European meanings for the concept of translation do not distinguish between translating and interpreting—the latter what English speakers think of specifically as localizing, adapting, and modifying the style and context of a text in order to empathize with an audience.
While the Latin roots of translation are shared by the many European Romance languages, the French (traduction), Spanish (traduccion) and the Italian (traduzione) terms for this word come rather from trans + ducere, which is the verb of regal leading that underpins our English concept of education (e + ducere, a leading out of one darkened negative state of being and into a new, enlightened, one). Thus the subtlety inherent in the art of translation as revealed by the Romance languages is that translating is an act of taking the lead across thought and language barriers, rather than serving as a mere carrier of static meaning. It is an essaying forth from the trenches. Meanwhile, even for the stalwart Finnish, translation or kaans is a turn, or a turning. And a turning, as we all should know, can be both inward and outward, simultaneously.
Translating is every bit as complex as its etymological moorings would suggest. Translating is a transmigration of words, of embodied thoughts and emotions. 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.
This drama of the essays in Uncertain Ground is not immediately obvious. But the explorations toward knowingness are undeniably there, as are the waves of uncomfortable facts crashing on the shore of reality, demanding to be heard.
Phil Klay has had enough of the half-heard stillness between such waves.
Klay asks what it means to be a citizen-soldier and a civilian-citizen, to be both a US Marine and a peaceful citizen post military service in the context of contemporary America and during 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 public awareness, our political policy debates, and what David Brooks once referred to as “the attics of our hearts.”
What are the generations of man? Twenty years is a generation born and entering adulthood, armed with political rights of suffrage and the moral and civic rights and obligations of a liberal democratic citizenship. Our rights Americans are increasingly activist about; our civic duties, not so much—as a palpable lack of national interest in a non-transactional civic education in our institutions of learning only bears witness to. The lack of civic consciousness especially as it bears on any sense of a duty of public service is something Klay first senses, then feels keenly. This is not because he is advocating for a more militaristic society; rather, he sees the extension of that first lack in the lack of public engagement with our public—notably defense—policy, and of what American defense policy has increasingly demanded of a decreasing number of citizens. Twenty years of war requires twenty years multiplied by hundreds of thousands of individual men and women’s lives, but fifty years of a volunteer, professionalized military has meant that compared to the three hundred thirty million plus citizens who did not think of enlisting their bodies in their nation’s service, the four million-ish who did since September 11, 2001 are unseen, unfelt, unknown.
This, Klay is certain, is not as it should be. The—what can only be comprehended as willed unawareness by America’s millions of citizens about America’s decades-long war—could then 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 through billions of dollars, thousands of lives, and hundreds of promises without ever really having to render an account to any one of any of these. And so the war floundered on, along with the wounding and the dying and the spending. This is also not as it should be in a representative democracy of free and equal citizens, is Klay’s conviction. Only distrust can—and did—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, and thus necessarily understanding, who and what America’s military is and how it operates because of what it must do. Despite the political science 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. For the majority of Americans, this is in part because lazy, monolithic media representations of soldiers have replaced the actually knowing of one in real life in the 21st century. 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 reacts like an allergy to any critique of the same as inherently unpatriotic. Klay takes on both these attitudes, albeit with a much more vested interest in the second.
This sense of veterans being something too wonderfully weird for the average civilian ever to comprehend actually has roots in the former conscript armies of the United States, beginning at least with the Civil War when those soldiers described their combat experience as having been akin to a sacramental baptism “by fire” (which is how influencer-in-his-day Civil War veteran Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes put it). 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.
Why ever does a person choose to serve at the risk of all his future days? But especially why 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 answer it with, “Well, we find them were 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. Those men who rushed out under fire were formed by our civic body. Raised in our American democracy, with its love of liberty, strong civic institutions, and glorious past, those men would fight courageously as, in George Washington’s words, “Freemen” and not as “base hirelings and mercenaries.”
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, rather than reechoing 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. It’s 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 smaller, “indeed almost pathetic,” ends—such as State of the Union photo ops—rather than to “articulate a vision of American ideals, or outline our broader moral purpose in the world.”
The question about those bonds is as much about the dynamics of individual as of national character. The mysterious and oft-lauded military-forged bonds come down to a camaraderie rather than a true friendship per se (friends don’t seek to lose their identity, but to find it through each other); a “submersion in a collective” that manages a transition from what J. Glenn Gray called the “frail, timid ‘I’” to the “gallant, intelligent ‘We.’” The dynamic is set in play when a diverse group of unconnected individuals choose to join the military, together “submit to arduous training, and pledge to leave no one behind.” Because each knows that the other may be called to die for them, and that the other has chosen that possibility too, creates a powerful system of choice, responsibility, and trust that allows for a certain type or “peculiar love” to emerge. 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.” It takes a certain type of selflessness to volunteer to maybe die for someone one doesn’t know. But there’s also an inherent awareness of and need for great purpose in such souls. There is thus necessarily in play a rough appreciation of character and virtue among fellow soldiers, but as much as this in ensemble can nourish the collective national character at discreet moments, it is nonetheless also reliant on the shared civic virtue and character of the nation and its leaders to help bring it into being generation after generation.
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 when a one-size-fits-all COIN approach was reflexively imposed on the Afghanistan conflict and kept in place even as it floundered, any such purpose was increasingly not communicated, even silenced, if not either lied about or forgotten. And it was the soldiers with their literal boots on the ground who suffered first. And it is the nation who suffers now, Klay senses.
“The clarity of purpose so central to bonding men in combat cannot emerge purely from the military itself.” True, America, and American’s sense of self, is deeply entwined with the American military, perhaps even more so after the Second World War than before it, and if only because the US military is “the force that has undergirded the post-World War II international order,” Klay argues. But that only ever goes so far. Its military is a derivative product of America. The lanky young recruit who shows up at Basic Training is no tabula rasa. He or she has been being 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 on coordinated missions and return back home, having succeeded. 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. And when that marriage of purpose and mission is missing, and when the political leadership is everywhere absent or shuffling its feet, only bad things like twenty years of war happen.
“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 has a volunteer and not conscript military it is engaging in war. And that a crucial aspect of that statesmanship is re-communicating both what the American experiment and principles are, and are for. Teddy Roosevelt was not wrong to grasp the latent powers of the presidency in this rhetorical regard. Ironically, for the last century the American people have grown so accustomed to having a presidential bully pulpit that they’ve seemed to have collectively stopped listening to whether the words have substance to them any longer.
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 American military-civilian divide.
Like any work of translation, those of us who dabble in the related languages and words and concepts can have our subjective pickiness about certain terms and images and precise formulations used. It’s undeniable that Klay is a craftsman of words; he has read widely toward understanding his subject (in which Ernest Junger seems to appear, a lot); 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 actually see, much less do, 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 WW2 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”—gunmakers seemingly uniquely endowed with wizardy powers to completely recast American ideals of freedom and equality in martial (thus violent) terms, by defining “self-reliance, respect, and freedom of movement” by the “capacity to kill” is a disappointingly simplistic thesis from an author skilled in bringing forth the nuances.
But I was most struck by Klay’s absolute silence about what uniquely defined this American war—the hiding of what it means to go to war by using contractors and private military firms rather than increased amounts of uniformed soldiers—and what this says about the state of our sense of citizenship, the civil-military relationship, and our nation. How do we translate the fact that more contractors hired by the United States died (around 8,000) than uniformed soldiers (around 7,000); that in many instances operational or battlefield contractors came to outnumber 3:1 military personnel in theater; that in many instances contractors are preferred to uniformed soldiers because easier to recruit, hire/fire, and with less bureaucratic delay to gum up their movements; that contractors have now become a permanent element of the American military force structure? Not to mention: 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. We can collectively—from either side the military-civilian divide—shrug our shoulders (“they knew what they were getting into, and they were well paid for it, those mercenaries”) about their fate, but the very fact of their presence demands some public reckoning, too. Barring a public reckoning with the dynamics our politics and our warfighting capacities have that are pushing us toward ever-increasing use of contractors in wartime, I do not think that we can do what Klay wants us to do by assembling this book—to “do better.”
Klay can’t but help to end on an ultimate note of warning, in “American Purpose after the Fall of Kabul.” But his penultimate note is much more interesting, because it has to do with trauma and real evil and also just banality, and a word seldom used in today’s parlance—grace. “Trauma has less to do with a person than with how that person has grown around it. You cannot understand the harm that has been done without understanding the good suffusing the rest of life.” The courage to move forward and the hope that Klay invokes is something he shows how he, and other soldiers, have wrestled with in the margins of their day to day activities. He does not neglect to cite from a wide variety of secular 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 St. Ignatius of Loyola to the late Senator John McCain are not rare in finding “in their suffering a strange and terrible blessing.” Wisely, Klay chooses to show some instances of how this can be said to be true, rather than to attempt to prove it through some algebraic argumentation. The showing is much more convincing. That can be felt.
If war leads to moments of choosing for individuals, to join a military, to rush onto an exploding grenade, to retrieve a buddy’s body in a landmined road, or not to do any of those things, then war should also be a moment of choosing to choose (to the extent possible) how that war should be fought, by whom, with what, and for what immediate and ultimate purpose. There is a great grace in being a democratic nation able to be an active participant in the choices it makes. There’s grace in the ability to question and self-critique, to learn and 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 America’s post-9/11 wars. There’s grace in the great national 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, painful, grievous, as it might be, is necessary for America’s translation back into a land of peace.
Whether he succeeds with that migration more as a Charon than an Odysseys is on you.