After a six-week-ish lull, my pace of knocking out books has picked back up. I’ll likely finish another book later today, but wanted to go ahead and get this out.
Missionaries – Phil Klay
Klay’s second work about modern warfare is his first true novel; Redeployment was a series of short stories based loosely on his service as a Marine public affairs officer in Iraq.
Here he takes a broader view of war. He works with a wide swath of characters to show both the ridiculousness of war and how integral it has become to our modern society. In his cast are a few Americans, both soldiers and a reporter who begin the story in Afghanistan. And a group of Colombians of various backgrounds on various sides of that country’s endless civil conflicts.
This is one of those books that, while telling a story that is a bit meandering and confusing, it is building towards making grand statements rather than furnishing a satisfying series of plot points. While all those characters come together in Colombia just as a peace agreement is up for a national vote, Klay is far more interested in showing how confusing the conflict is to the people on the ground.
In the north east part of the country, Colombians have been facing a continuously fluctuating series of interactions with various armed group. There are paramilitaries, the narcos, communist guerrillas, Federal forces attempting to crush any/all of those groups, and lately armed militias who creep over from Venezuela. The ideology and mission of each of those groups means little to the locals. Other than if they are too friendly to one, they know that probably means when the next group comes along, it will mean reprisals and death for the townspeople who just want to carry on with their lives.
Meanwhile, at a higher level, the Colombian government and American military liaisons are working to find ways to extend the American mission and assistance to the national forces. For the Colombians, that means they get Americans weapons and training. For the Americans, it means they have what amounts to a practice facility to test weapons, techniques, and strategy before using them in Afghanistan or other places.
I don’t usually write down quotes from books as I read them. But I wrote down two from Missionaries that struck me as good summations of the high level points Klay is making.
The first comes from an American who served, and was wounded, in Afghanistan and moves on to Colombia as an advisor. He has some misgivings about the American mission. But, he justifies it by arguing with himself that the mission is, at its core, a good one.
His country was a force for good here. His was a good country. His service to it was a way of being a good man. That was the faith, anyway.
That’s the same justification that has been used, at a larger scale, to justify many of our military efforts this century. And to tamp down any domestic opposition to those efforts. We, as Americans, are a good people. Whatever are arguments with each other, we are on the side of democracy and freedom. And while the conflicts we get involved in may be messy, because we are good, that necessarily makes our policies in other countries good.
The second quote gets at the larger importance of war in modern society. War, and the machine that fuels it, is how we move forward as humans.
What mattered was the global, interconnected system that generated the wealth and technology that ultimately would determine the fate of this war, and the wars to come. That system was civilization. It was progress.
I wish I could argue that Klay was wrong.
The Ugly Cry – Danielle Henderson
I shared an excerpt from this memoir a month or so ago, in which Henderson ruminated on what summer days were like for latchkey kids back in the ‘80s. As soon as I read that I put this book on hold at the library. The book was wonderful.
The first half reminded me very much of a Jean Shepherd story. Henderson relates her childhood in upstate New York with her single, teen mother and brother. Their life is tough, but they get by. There all kinds of wonderful little details in her stories, and she exaggerates just enough to make them funny while keeping them believable. (Note: I think she exaggerates the dialog of the people in her stories, and her judgements of them, not the stories themselves.) I kept thinking of the Shepherd essays A Christmas Story was based on as I read it.
However, the book takes a huge turn midway through, when her mother’s new boyfriend moves in with them. He is an addict, doesn’t work, spends all her mother’s money, and abuses Henderson and her brother in various ways. If that wasn’t bad enough, Henderson’s mother eventually chooses the boyfriend over her kids and sends them to live with their grandmother.
The final third is Henderson trying to live through her high school years. She is deeply wounded by the experience with her mother, often dangerously depressed, and prone to bouts when her stress causes her muscles to lock up so she can’t move. But she finds a few like-minded friends, discovers punk and metal in New York City, and finds that she has some talents for art.
Her grandmother is the true star of the book. She is a profane chainsmoker who takes absolutely zero shit. She is more likely to be found sitting on the couch playing Nintendo than baking cookies and cakes. But in the moments when Henderson needs her most, she is always there, showing tenderness that she normally hides.
The book doesn’t have a proper happy ending, but rather an ambiguous one when Henderson goes off to college. We briefly learn that her first college choice was a disaster and it took years on multiple campuses to earn her first degree. It also took years of therapy to come to terms with her childhood. Eventually she became a successful print writer and blogger and is now a TV writer. She may not have overcome all the pain from her youth, but being able to still find the happy and hilarious moments in it is some measure of triumph over that past.