Book review

Out of all the human slaughter perpetrated both by evil men and armies in Phil Klay’s debut novel “Missionaries,” there is one fragile instance of unnecessary suffering, wrought upon a small child, that stands out.

A reader who has forged through the many dense, overlapping hells in Klay’s colossus of a book — from Afghanistan to Colombia to Yemen — may very well weep over the confused boy’s demise. Not only for the pointlessness of the tragedy but because of the enormity of the interconnected global war machine that caused it.

It’s a machine that Klay, a former U.S. Marine who served in the Iraq War from 2007 to 2008, methodically describes with grim precision and often startling language, no doubt based on battlefield experience. In the midst of a fight with the Taliban, an American commando named Mason describes his efforts to save a gravely wounded buddy’s life: “I didn’t like the blood flow. I pulled the stomach down, pushed two fingers past it. Slippery, rubbery, until I could feel the aorta. It pulsed under my fingers. This is life, I thought.”

Building on exhaustive research and a seemingly endless capacity to develop rich, psychologically complex characters, Klay captures the wretchedness of neglected Colombian villages brutalized by competing murderers. The story is told through four primary characters and a large, supporting cast who reveal much about life and death in the country’s provinces overrun by guerrilla fighters, narco-terrorists, paramilitary groups and official armed forces. 

Abel, introduced as an innocent rural boy, discovers his family burned to death by a would-be king, Jefferson, who violently forces the young man to become a lieutenant in Jefferson’s effort to legitimize his iron grip on the region by building schools and infrastructure. 

Mason’s love for firefights gives way to a bloodless desk job in Bogota, Colombia, for U.S. military intelligence. Juan Pablo, a seasoned officer in the Colombian army, has committed war crimes and is jaded about celebrated revolutionaries, like Che Guevara, admired by his daughter. Finally, there is Lisette, an exhausted reporter for an American wire service who transfers from covering regular urban terrorism in Afghanistan to writing about Colombia’s relentless horrors.


There is an unblinking forcefulness in Klay’s accounts of psychotic punishments whimsically inflicted on innocent people by renegade militia and the sometimes meaningless results of official tactical missions. In an example of the former, Klay describes a nightmarish scene in which Jefferson enforces his will on an independent-minded village:

“A chain saw appeared, and suddenly everyone who had watched, confused and amazed … knew what was about to happen.”

Yes, the unimaginable follows.

Lisette’s brutal beating and kidnapping while pursuing a story draws the four principal characters into a shared international crisis. Also caught up in the moment are other key figures, including a cadre of human rights workers and a madman, Javier, who represents a new generation of provincial tyrants. 

Klay won a National Book Award in 2014 for his collection of short stories, “Redeployment,” inspired by his service in Iraq. He has also been a frequent essayist and opinion writer about America’s lengthy wars and veterans’ issues. He believes it behooves us to listen to veterans’ stories about their experiences, no matter how appalling some of those narratives might be. 

But “Missionaries” goes beyond that, indicting American might for its complicity, with other world powers’ additional firepower and technical expertise, in massacring the innocent in places such as Yemen and the Horn of Africa. 

In a scene that finds Juan Pablo hired out as a drone-strike manager in the United Arab Emirates, where he visually monitors accidental carnage his team caused in Yemen, Klay summarizes the man’s bleak, resigned thoughts.

“Two of the men loaded a child-size figure onto a stretcher … Juan Pablo knew he was looking at the aftermath of a wedding party. He knew this war killed civilians by the thousands. He knew disease would soon claim worse … Regrettable. Very regrettable.”


Missionaries” by Phil Klay, Penguin Press, 416 pp., $28