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

Penguin Press

National Book Award winner Phil Klay's new novel Missionaries takes readers around the world, from the chaos in Iraq and Afghanistan to turmoil in rural Colombia.

"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," Klay explains. "I wanted to talk about the ways these wars bleed into each other."

Along the way, readers meet a U.S. Army special forces medic, a burned-out 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.

"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," Klay says.

Interview Highlights

On the violent scenes in the novel

I never want to put violence in simply for shock value. ... 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.

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.

On what Lisette, the foreign correspondent, is she's looking for when she gets to Colombia.

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.

On Abel, a little boy who gets drawn into the vortex of militias and drug dealers in his small village near the Venezuelan border

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 presence of the Colombian state ... 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 ... 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 together.

On avoiding overly simple "good guy" and "bad guy" narratives

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?

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.

Peter Breslow and Hadeel Al-Shalchi produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.