Author and Marine Corps veteran, Phil Klay, discusses his essay, The Citizen-Soldier: Moral Risk and the Modern Military

A veteran of the United States Marine Corps, Phil Klay served in Iraq’s Anbar Province from January 2007 to February 2008 as a Public Affairs Officer. A Dartmouth undergrad, Klay continued his education after discharge by earning a Master of Fine Arts. Thank goodness he did.

Following in a long line of American veterans including Ernest Hemingway, Herman Wouk, James Jones, and Karl Marlantes, Klay utilizes fiction to explore his own combat experience. His first book, the short story collection Redeployment, won the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction and was either shortlisted for or won numerous other prestigious prizes, including the 2015 Marine Corps Heritage Foundation’s James Webb Award. Redeployment is a gritty, honest look at what war does to the soul’s of those who walk the battlefield. That it does so makes Redeployment important. That it does so while avoiding both cynicism and sentimentality makes it indispensible.

To “redeploy” is to return, and many of the stories explore the encounter—and sometimes collision—between homecoming combat veterans and those civilians who stayed behind. Despite having been at war almost non-stop since 9/11, the civilian-military divide—that gap between the military and civilian worlds—is widening. Less than half of one percent the US population serves in the military, and less than 2% of Americans have a direct family member currently serving.

In a recent event at the Brookings Institute in Washington, DC, Klay was invited to discuss his recent essay, The Citizen-Soldier: Moral Risk and the Modern Military. The essay is a wide-ranging exploration of the character of the American military from the Founding to the present day, noting the differences between Father’s conception of the warfighter as a citizen-soldier versus the professional. While lauding and recognizing the necessity of professional men-at-arms, Klay is cognizant that the shift brought certain hazards– among them that the burden of national defense has shifted from the whole of society to a few. While Klay rightly dismisses the idea that “the few” are the poor and disadvantaged—“it’s actually the middle class that’s best represented in the military, and the numbers of high-income and highly educated recruits rose to levels disproportionate to their percentage of the population after the war on terror began”—it remains true that it’s not the Marines alone who are, relative to the general population, the few and the proud. The cost of letting a relative few carry the martial burden, Klay notes, is that those who have never served will often have a hard time understanding the experiences of those who have and may not be cognizant of the needs of redeploying combat veterans.

The American civilian community owes its returning veterans something more than simply material benefits. Klay points to a remarkable essay in Harper’s Magazine titled, “It’s Not That I’m Lazy,” published in 1946 and signed by an anonymous veteran, who writes, “There’s a kind of emptiness inside me that tells me that I’ve still got something coming. It’s not a pension that I’m looking for. What I paid out wasn’t money; it was part of myself. I want to be paid back in kind, in something human.”

There are many aspects to this. I want to explore one, helping the warfighter to navigate the moral traumas of combat. I suggest this involves three stages: before service, during service, and following service.

At the Brookings event, Klay was asked what had prepared him for combat. Among the things he noted was something profound in its simplicity: family dinners. Klay noted that meals with his family—his whole family—were integral to his own moral development. This is crucial. The military receives our sons and daughters when most of their basic ethical and moral assumptions are already largely in place. When these assumptions are inadequate for, or antithetical to, handling the duties and the moral turbulence of combat, it cannot be expected that a few ethics seminars during basic training or a conversation with a chaplain will unseat years of habituation. Just as it is too late to develop a sexual ethic when you are already in the backseat of a car, so too is being hustled off to boot camp or deployment not the time to begin reflecting seriously on the ethics of killing.

Happily, the Christian intellectual tradition grounds a cadre of moral traditions to help us find our way. The ethicist Jean Bethke Elshtain took for granted that the Christian just war tradition takes account of the dual nature of human being, our simultaneously fallen and redeemed character. “Just-war thinking,” she wrote, “presupposes a ‘self’ of a certain kind…one strong enough to resist the lure of seductive, violent enthusiasms; [and] one bounded by and laced through with a sense of responsibility and accountability.” This self is latent in children and families are on the front line of kindling, fanning, and feeding the moral habits necessary to bring it to the fore. They are not, of course, alone. Among other partners, especially in an age of terrorism, our pulpits ought to be occupied by those who can help parishioners navigate the moral complexities of war.

While it’s clear that the civilian community’s task of morally forming, and maintaining, their military sons and daughters will continue once they redeploy home, it’s less clear that the community has much to do with shaping the conditions of the martial environment in which they will find themselves while deployed. But there’s much to suggest this isn’t entirely the case.

Klay begins his Brooking’s essay with an anecdote about the Sergeant Instructor from his cycle at Officer Candidates School. The Sergeant was a Marine’s Marine. Rumors abounded that he had killed an enemy combatant with his bare hands, throughout training he led his candidates as they sang cadence about how tough they were, or had them scream “kill!” with every movement. But he also did something else. He would also pace down the squad while Klay and his peers were at attention in front of their racks, and he would grill them with, “Would it bother you, ordering men into an assault where you know some will die?” and “Say you think there’s an insurgent in a house and you call in air support, but then when you walk through the rubble there’s no insurgents, just this dead civilian with his brains spilling out of his head, his legs still twitching and a little Iraqi kid at his side asking you why his father won’t get up. So. What are you going to tell that kid?”

Klay saw this as a profound corrective—a counterbalance perhaps—to the training components that helped a Marine hone their lethal abilities. “In his own way,” Klay wrote, “that Sergeant Instructor was trying to clue us in to something few people give enough thought to when they sign up: joining the Marine Corps isn’t just about exposing yourself to the trials and risks of combat—it’s also about exposing yourself to moral risk.”

The take away here, it seems to me, is that just as the civilian community is responsible for shaping future military personnel, they are also responsible for shaping those military instructors, like that Sergeant, who will train them. This includes not simply those instructors who will teach them to fight, nor only those combat commanders who will shape the kind of command environment that either encourages or discourages warfighters to talk about their experiences, express doubts or heartache, and seek moral counsel. It also includes military chaplains tasked with the difficult job of helping warfighters attend their own moral sorrows, at the right time and in the right way.

Just as the civilian community has a role to play prior to deployment and, if only indirectly, during deployment, so too does it have a clear responsibility to create a home for redeploying veterans to come home to.

This will include communities coming around the families of deployed military personnel: helping them keep the hearth fire burning, caring for their kids, inviting them over, cooking them a meal, listening, mowing their lawn, taking them to church, and checking in.

When it comes to helping warriors attend their moral trauma, Veterans Affairs psychiatrist Jonathan Shay cautioned that the clinic can only do so much—the community, he insisted, is where the real healing happens. This doesn’t mean treating ever returning veteran like a victim or a moral casualty. It does mean becoming the kind of friend, home, and church that can listen to stories when the veteran wants to talk, that can talk back when the veteran seeks counsel, and that, simply, be a friend. This won’t always be easy and it won’t regularly be clear how to go about it.

In Redeployment, Klay tells the story of a military chaplain who is, himself, struggling to help combat veterans deal with their trauma. At various times, he missteps, he says too much, he says too little, he says the wrong thing altogether. But, in the end, he promises the combat veteran in front of him a single thing: you will not suffer this alone. Such help might be bungling, inadequate, and modest. But it is a far sight better than nothing and, in any case, human help is often bungling, modest, and inadequate.

But help we must. General George Marshall insisted, that “the Soldier’s heart, the soldier’s spirit, the soldier’s soul are everything. Unless the soldier’s soul sustains him he cannot be relied upon and will fail himself, and his commander, and his country in the end.” Phil Klay lays the contours of the task before us.

It falls to us to make a start.