Phil Klay's new novel, Missionaries, asks whether there's such a thing as a 'good war'

Soldiers in Bogota, Colombia. Picture: Shutterstock
Soldiers in Bogota, Colombia. Picture: Shutterstock
  • Missionaries, by Phil Klay. Canongate, $29.99.

In 2014, Phil Klay, a veteran of the Iraq War, published Redeployment, a collection of short stories set in Afghanistan and Iraq. The collection is notable for its kaleidoscopic tonal range, with Klay inhabiting more than a dozen different voices - artilleryman, chaplain, engineer - to paint two altogether more comprehensive portraits of the wars that have defined the post-9/11 era than any non-fiction accounts published to date have managed to do.

With Missionaries, his debut novel, Klay returns to the subject of war, and to a handful of different protagonists. Set in Colombia against the backdrop of negotiations between the government and Farc rebels in the lead-up to the signing of the 2016 peace treaty, Missionaries explores the lives of four main characters, two American and two Colombian.

The story of Abel, an ex-paramilitary foot soldier, follows a familiar arc, from victim to perp to seeker of redemption. Juan Pablo is a worldly officer in the Colombian Army who knowingly sends his daughter to "Nacional" in Bogota in the hope that her exposure to Che Guevara sympathisers and left-leaning academics will legitimise his worldview in her mind. There's Mason, the US Special Forces soldier who loves his job in spite of the horrors he's witnessed. And, finally, Lisette, the simultaneously jaded and naive American war correspondent.

After a slow first half, where Klay almost seems preoccupied with getting six years' worth of research onto the page, the action picks up when Lisette leaves Kabul and messages a former lover. "Are there any wars right now we're not losing?" she asks. "Colombia," comes the one-word reply. After landing an assignment in the country blighted by 50 years of fighting between government forces and various rebel groups, Lisette decamps to Bogota where the plot thickens and Klay considers the virtue of war, often by way of wince-inducing scenes.

"Here is what happens when a man is chainsawed in half in the public square of a small village," begins one particularly gruesome passage. Needless to say, the dullness of the sentence contrasts sharply with the horror that follows it. But as we know from the countless accounts of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and other wars before them, horror appeals to some.

As a Special Forces medic, Mason has seen so much death he wonders "if there's a heaven for limbs, a waiting room in paradise where the severed parts await reunion with their owners". Nevertheless, despite spending his days dispensing morphine to dying innocents and treating patients who are missing vital body parts - or perhaps more likely because of these things - Mason loves his job. Recalling an especially memorable operation that involved pinning down a group of Taliban in the Shah Wali Kot valley and Mason says, "after all our time in Colombia - all training, no fun - here was our chance for a mission that was no training, all fun".

"Fun" is not something we typically associate with war, but as the Brereton Report and numerous media accounts have recently revealed, it's undoubtedly something that defines some soldiers' wartime experiences. Interestingly, and somewhat puzzlingly, Klay has his fun-loving medic lament the degeneration of what many military observers regard, or perhaps used to regard, as the most professional outfit in the military.

"Special Forces, which was supposed to be the unit of warrior-diplomats, of language and culture specialists who could learn the cultural terrain, build up host-nation forces to fight so Americans didn't have to, was already becoming more and more a direct-action unit..."

It's an interesting observation. It's also one that's hard to argue with, having seen images of Australian soldiers drinking beer out of a dead Taliban fighter's prosthetic leg. More to the point, however, Klay's observation goes to the heart of some of the bigger questions that Missionaries asks, one of those being, is there such a thing as the "good war" that Mason is searching for?

Missionaries doesn't answer the question definitively one way or the other, but it's fair to say that Klay isn't entirely convinced by jus bellum justum, or by suggestions that the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars satisfied the just war standard. On the other hand, through its characters' rotating points of view, Missionaries betrays a profound belief in humanity, in our capacity for redemption, reflection and, one hopes, recalibration.

Nothing of any value whatsoever comes from the unspeakable violence that punctuates Klay's ambitious novel. In fact, at the end of the book, after the characters' paths have crossed in a hellish town in northern Colombia, I found myself wondering something that comes to mind whenever I have occasion to contemplate what Carl von Clausewitz referred to euphemistically as "the continuation of political intercourse with the addition of other means". Why?

This story Is there such thing as a 'good war'? first appeared on The Canberra Times.