Positivity Is Relative, Depending on Which Side of the Fighting You’re On

U.S. Army soldiers from Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division in the Amariyah neighborhood of west Baghdad, 2007. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

Phil Klay is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran of the Iraq War and the author of Redeployment, which won the National Book Award in 2014; in Iraq, he was a media officer, reporting on major news stories but also responsive for finding the “Positive News Story of the Day” — something he and the Iraqis saw very differently. In an essay in America, The Jesuit Review, he traces his understanding of America’s and his role in the war through the lens of his waxing and waning (but ultimately waxing) faith.

My understanding not simply of the war but of myself shifted. I was not a fallen creature in a broken world reliant on grace, but a Marine in a successful army that had all the answers. I was justified not by a cross, but by an interpretation of public policy, not by the cruel and barbaric torture and murder of an innocent man, but by politics. If the surge had saved lives, turning a monthly death toll of 1,802 to 554, then the month of January did not just make me right and the antiwar folks who had opposed the policy wrong, it made me morally better than them by exactly 1,248 dead Iraqis.

It did not occur to me that I could be right about public policy and still be a sinner, or wrong about public policy and still be redeemed. And so I set aside the moments of doubt. I set aside the experiences that gave me pause. Like, for example, that moment I stood in that small Iraqi town, the town I thought I knew everything about, stared down a street and heard a voice, my voice, saying: I do not know where I am, or what I am doing or what we are doing, and none of the Marines around me do either.

Read the essay