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The many faces of war – ‘Missionaries’

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Ever since there has been warfare, there has been art about warfare. The visceral nature and high stakes of combat are fertile ground for creative expression, providing the backdrop for uncountable stories and images that attempt to convey the violent eternal present of war.

Most of the time, the art that comes from wars is born after the conflict concludes. However, that isn’t the case with the creations inspired by this country’s operations in Iraq and Afghanistan – those fights remain ongoing, but artists have nevertheless mined them for inspiration.

Author Phil Klay made a massive splash on the literary scene with his debut book “Redeployment” in 2014 – it won the National Book Award that year, as well as the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize, awarded for a best first book in any genre (as a member in good standing of NBCC, I actually cast my vote for “Redeployment” to win the John Leonard).

Klay is back with his first novel. “Missionaries” (Penguin Press, $28) is a look at the global war machine, the world-spanning business of warfare writ large and small. Through interconnected perspectives and narrators, it’s a look at the many ways in which the horrors of war can impact those who participate – willingly or otherwise.

Spanning decades of time and thousands of miles, “Missionaries” is a tale of the damage war can do and the influence it can have on the choices that those involved ultimately make. It’s also about the high cost, in money and in blood, exacted by the act. And it’s a tacit admission that if you’re in it, you’re in it – all are complicit, regardless of what they might tell themselves.

Lisette is a war correspondent, a stringer who has spent years in war zones. Mason is an army medic, but not just any medic – a Special Forces medic, with all that that entails. Both were in Afghanistan for a long time, reupping whenever the time came. Both have become numb in their own way to the constant anger and fear surrounding them, but are self-aware enough to be unsettled by that numbness.

Juan Pablo is a Colombian military officer, one committed to retaining the assistance of American forces in an effort to take down the various militias and gangs associated with his country’s drug trade. Abel is a young man who was forced into one such paramilitary group as a teen – barely more than a boy – but through intelligence, cunning and luck, managed to not just stay alive, but thrive.

The paths of these four people converge in Colombia, where each is left to fight his or her own battle. Blood and tears are shed. Alliances are murky and morality is questionable; the truth is, everyone believes themselves to be on the right side. But is that belief enough to justify the decisions that are ultimately made? And ultimately, in a fight like this … does the right side even exist?

“Missionaries” is an intense and powerful exploration of modern warfare. Klay – who served four years overseas in the Marines – is writing from a place of first-hand perspective. He has seen the impact that 21st century wars have on not just the battlefield, but on those simply trying to live a life. There’s a degree of remove now, with long-range weapons and drones and the like; it’s much easier for those pulling the trigger to view their targets in the abstract. War has always been viewed as a game by some in the upper echelons of power, but when so much of it takes place on a screen, that sense of gamification is even more prevalent.

The regular shifting of perspectives allows for a much broader storytelling net to be cast – Klay is unafraid to evoke memory, lending his timelines a soft-edged flexibility. His understanding of the social and geopolitical ramifications of war is exceptional, the product of not just his own deployment, but years spent in research. That combination of real-world and academic knowledge allows him to give us a vivid and richly-realized portrait of conflict as it exists today; his is a keen and thoughtful voice, one that is both authoritative and transportive.

At times, things get a bit shaggy. One gets the feeling occasionally that Klay is trying to do too much, forcing the story instead of letting it flow freely. Only occasionally, though – those moments are both rare and brief. Most of the time, we’re simply swept away by the author’s ability to craft fully-formed pictures of men at war; he’s at his best when he lets loose on creating the fight, giving us a sharp and aggressive glimpse at the details of the battlefield.

“Missionaries” doesn’t quite ascend to the level of “Redeployment,” but that’s no sin – it’s not like you can win the National Book Award every time out. It reaches quite high enough, a compelling work of literary fiction that drops the reader into the midst of the action, giving us an unexpectedly close-up look at the machinations of war. War is a crucible for artists as it is for other men – and Phil Klay is an artist.

Last modified on Wednesday, 28 October 2020 07:40

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