“War remains a large part of who we are as Americans,” he writes in his introduction, “with almost a sixth of our federal budget going to defense, keeping troops deployed in 800 military bases around the world and engaging in counterterror missions in 85. countries. And yet, thanks to a series of political and strategic choices, to the average American that’s mostly invisible. ”
Firsthand exposure to the country’s “long wars” has been almost unbelievably concentrated. All the Americans who have served in Iraq, Afghanistan or any other US combat theater at any time since the 9/11 attacks of 2001 together amount to around 1 percent of the nation’s public. The best of these essays combine reporting, with Klay’s observations from his own military service, with historical evidence and spiritual reflections, all to help illuminate the “invisible” world of this 1 percent.
For instance, “A History of Violence,” written after the 2017 Las Vegas gun massacre, explains how what is now America’s most widely owned rifle, the AR-15, arose from the military’s quest for a lightweight weapon that could do maximum damage through high-volume “area fire,” rather than relying on carefully aimed sniper shots. He also recounts the grisly sequence of experiments in “wound ballistics” that guided the choice of ammunition for the AR-15 and its military descendant, the M16. (According to his family, the AR-15’s designer, Eugene Stoner, never imagined this weapon in civilian hands.) With a slightly modified AR-15, the Las Vegas gunman was able to kill 58 people and wound at least 400 more. “There was nothing particularly remarkable about the shooter’s skills,” Klay writes. “His lethality was primarily a function of the sheer number of rounds he could put downrange.”
“Citizen Soldier: Moral Risk and the Modern Military,” originally a Brookings essay, is about the invisibility of the 1 percent who have worn the uniform – and the recent many veterans feel not for mistreatment but for cheap “thank you for your service! ” rituals that mask a deeper indifference to the physical, emotional and moral costs of war. Klay writes, “It’s that sense of a personal stake in war that the veteran experiences viscerally, and which is so hard for the civilian to feel.”
And in “Man of War,” for the Jesuit magazine America, Klay explains at length how serving in the Marine Corps gave him an almost religious sense of community and mission, whose absence he felt on return to civilian life. As a Marine, he writes, “I was given the stories of military saints – men and women who risked their lives under enemy fire, who jumped on hand grenades to save their buddies, who held faith with their fellow prisoners of war during years of torture. … Out of the Corps, I was deprived of that community and not yet fully absorbed into the civilian world. … I was alienated, as so many veterans have been before. ”