The literary Marine: Phil Klay’s remarks after winning the National Book Award
“I know there’s at least one Marine in the audience. Any more? Some backup? Just two of us? We can take ’em. I did not think I would be up here, so I didn’t write anything until this morning when my wife asked, did you write anything, and I said no, and she said, you ...
"I know there's at least one Marine in the audience. Any more? Some backup? Just two of us? We can take 'em.
“I know there’s at least one Marine in the audience. Any more? Some backup? Just two of us? We can take ’em.
I did not think I would be up here, so I didn’t write anything until this morning when my wife asked, did you write anything, and I said no, and she said, you have to write something. So…
I spent 13 months in Iraq, working with a truly exceptional group of Marines, combat correspondents who travelled Anbar province, which was in the midst of a seemingly decisive and very violent struggle with al Qaeda in Iraq, the group which is now known as ISIS. I met Marine truck drivers and mortuary affairs specialists, infantrymen and adjutants, Iraqi police officers, and so many civilians whose families had been caught in the crossfire. And I came back not knowing what to think about so many things.
What do you do when you’re struggling to find the words to explain to the father of a fallen Marine exactly what that Marine meant to you? What do you do when one of your best Marines calls to tell you that he’s been drinking too much, that he feels isolated at college, surrounded by 18-year-olds he can’t make sense of and who can’t make sense of him? What do you make of it when the middle-school students you’re teaching ask you if you killed anyone and are horribly disappointed when you tell them no? When strangers at a bar insist on treating you as though you must be psychologically damaged just because you’re a vet? Or when friends of yours who do indeed have post-traumatic stress find that they can’t express their legitimate feelings of grief and rage about what has happened and continues to happen overseas and at home?
I don’t actually have the answers to those questions, but the book was the only way that I knew how to start really thinking them through. Not just because there’s a rigor involved in trying to turn fictional stories into some kind of emotional truth, but because when you write it opens up the possibility of other people responding. The philosopher Peter Sloterdijk talks about books as “thick letters to friends,” unidentified friends who might read the work, even if across centuries, and join the conversation. And for me, writing this book, I can’t think of a more important conversation to be having.
War is too strange to be processed alone. And so I want to thank everyone who picked up the book, read it, decided to join the conversation. I want to thank the judges, the National Book Foundation, I want to thank Peter Catapano, who first published my work and has been a tremendous advocate for veteran writers. I want to thank the Hunter faculty, Colum McCann, Peter Carey, Patrick McGrath, Nathan Englander, who kicked my ass when it definitely deserved some kicking.
I want to give thanks to John Freeman, who published my first story. To Tom Sleigh, who has been a mentor to me since before I joined the Corps. To the Marines I served with and the community of veteran writers, especially those from the NYU veteran writers program who were essential to this book. To all the non-veteran writers who were equally essential to this book, pointing out the blind spots I didn’t know I had. To my wife Jessica, who has offered line edits alongside tremendous love and support. To my agent Eric Simonoff and the rest of the crew at WME.
To all the folks from Penguin Press, especially to the incredible editor Andrea Walker, to Liz Calamari, and to Scott Moyers, one of my earliest supporters in the publishing world.
To my family. To my grandfather, my grandparents, and Aunt Boo. And to all of you here tonight. Thank you so much.”
More from Foreign Policy
Saudi-Iranian Détente Is a Wake-Up Call for America
The peace plan is a big deal—and it’s no accident that China brokered it.
The U.S.-Israel Relationship No Longer Makes Sense
If Israel and its supporters want the country to continue receiving U.S. largesse, they will need to come up with a new narrative.
Putin Is Trapped in the Sunk-Cost Fallacy of War
Moscow is grasping for meaning in a meaningless invasion.
How China’s Saudi-Iran Deal Can Serve U.S. Interests
And why there’s less to Beijing’s diplomatic breakthrough than meets the eye.