The following is excerpted from Phil Klay’s latest novel, Missionaries, about modern war and globalized violence. Klay is a veteran of the US Marine Corps, and his short story collection, Redeployment, won the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction and the National Book Critics' Circle John Leonard Prize for best debut work in any genre. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and more. He currently teaches fiction at Fairfield University.
Two bombings in a day is new. New is bad. But for the moment, I have work to distract me. The AP beats me on the urgent. Suicide bombing in Karte‑ye Mamurin. As I’m grabbing my bag Aasif calls and I put him on speaker.
“Just civilians,” he says from the site of the first bombing. “Broken glass everywhere. Shops and houses. No possible military target.” He has Wahidulla, at the Health Ministry, confirming fifteen dead and possibly up to three hundred injured, Police Chief Rahimi confirming they’re all civilians.
I’m nervous. Kabul has felt increasingly dangerous the past year and a half, since the attack on La Taverna du Liban, since the Swedish reporter shot randomly in the street, since the suicide bombing at the Christian day care, since the attack on the Serena Hotel, since the two Finns shot in broad daylight, since the Cure Hospital attack. But I’m smiling as I exit the door.
Moments like these, they’re the best part of the job. The part where something awful happens, and I get assigned to do something about it. To write the story. To sort through the chaos and find narrative, meaning. Sure, it’s not giving blood, picking up the bodies, or hunting down the killers. And maybe those lines we recite about journalists writing the first draft of history, maybe those lines will rub the wrong way after you’ve filed the story. You’ve sent your work out into the void enough times with only the smallest hope that anybody will care. It even becomes funny when a colleague sends you an email from Washington telling you, “You know I got back from Afghanistan only a month ago and already I catch myself talking about the war as if it’s not still happening.” And you think, what am I doing here? But before I file, when I’m talking to survivors, when I’m gathering the pieces, and finally when I’m writing, when I’m piecing together the awful parts into some kind of whole that readers can accept and digest, I’m a believer. Doing something means believing in it. It means faith. So when horror happens I don’t just have to endure it, the way most people here do. I get to act.
I arrive at the second blast site, where there are still dead in the street, and two shrapnel‑riddled cars. Both of them have those back window stickers so popular here. One reads: “Don’t Cry Girls, I Will Be Back,” and the other, “Don’t Drink, It Is Sin,” complete with an image of a champagne bottle spilling alcohol onto, oddly, Che Guevara’s face. I take photos of the cars, of a can of incense on a chain, still smoking. A woman holding a baby sees me and begins yelling, so I put my phone on record as she shouts. I can’t always understand what interviewees are saying, especially when they’re upset, but I can always play it for Aasif later.
Later in the day we’ll get the official count for the police bombing—fifty‑seven casualties, twenty‑eight killed, twenty‑nine injured.
“I was feeding my baby,” she eventually tells me, after she’s calmed down a bit. Her baby is covered in bandages. “I saw the roof fall in on me and fell unconscious. Then I heard my husband shouting over and over. He came to me. I was bleeding from my face, my hands, and my shoulders. My brother‑in‑law lost both of his eyes. My son . . .”
She holds up the baby so I could see the injuries, though he is so swaddled in bandages it’s hard to tell. The mother herself looks young, with a pretty face still covered in grime and dried blood.
“My husband, he was saying . . . he was shouting, ‘Where are the others? My father, my father? Where are the others?’ He was bleeding from the top of his head. He was wild, he did not know where he was. We have lost everything.”
Later in the day we’ll get the official count for the police bombing—fifty‑seven casualties, twenty‑eight killed, twenty‑nine injured. Add that to this and we haven’t had so much death in one day since the Ashura bombing four years ago.
So this is different, this is dangerous, this is news. I should be excited. But midway through the interviews I realize I’m running out of steam. Or maybe I’m running out of fucks. Afghanistan has a way of leaching those out of you, which is why every wannabe war correspondent adopts an attitude of casual cynicism well before they’ve earned it. It’s our version of the military veteran’s thousand‑yard stare. And I’m looking around nervously, worried about an attack on first responders, worried that I’m putting myself at risk, which is not where my head should be. I push those feelings away, and decide, fuck it, I’ll fight the Kabul traffic and head to the first blast site, too. Double the risk, you coward.
When I get there I see this was a much larger blast. The bomb has blown in storefronts, leaving the concrete posts and steel beams and metal railings behind, baring the architectural bones of the market. Walking through a city after a bombing is like coming upon the decayed body of an animal in the woods—enough has been destroyed that you can see the rib cage, a bit of skull and jawbone poking through, the long delicate metatarsals of the feet, enough hints to imagine for yourself the whole skeleton that once structured life.
I call the military press office and they’re in the dark about the blast as well.
I walk through the crater, see the edges come up to my waist. Beyond the crater, there’s a man sweeping glass and rubble out of a ruined store. I see a young man searching for valuables in the rubble. And then, shadowed in a doorway, a toddler beams at the world, a chunk of rubble in her fat hand, raised high. She brings it down on a battered piece of metal, making a loud clanging noise.
“Ba!” she says, delighted. “Ba ba BAH!”
And she strikes the metal again. And again. And starts laughing. I take out my camera and photograph her joy.
As the sun’s going down I head back to the office. Everybody is there—Denise typing away, Omar sifting through photos, Aasif and Bob reading transcripts of interviews with Taliban leaders. I file around 9:40, scroll through my photos from the day. Log in to Facebook, where journalists who’ve left the country are posting news of the blast with posts like, “I’ve been there so many times, terrible to see . . .” “More violence in my beautiful Kabul . . .” “Two years ago I did an interview just around the corner from where this bomb . . .” I pull up the photo of the little girl, the happy toddler with the piece of metal in her hand. The girl’s face is in focus, well lit, and the background is a nicely unfocused blur, though you can see the devastation clearly enough. I save it to a folder labeled “Memories.”
Not much later, around ten, we hear a third explosion.
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” says Bob.
“That was big,” Omar says. “Far away, but big.”
There’s a moment of silence. We’re tired. We’re all tired.
“Didn’t NDS pick up a couple of Daesh recruiters yesterday?” Denise says quietly.
“The Islamic State?” says Bob. “Nah . . . I don’t think so. You don’t go from base‑level recruiting to three linked attacks in a day.”
I call the military press office and they’re in the dark about the blast as well. “We’re not giving out any information at this time,” says Staff Sergeant Johnathon Burgett, in a lovely, honey‑dipped Tennessee accent. But Aasif gets a source telling us there’s been a big blast at the gate of Camp Integrity. Everybody turns to me.
“Integrity is run by Blackwater, right?” asks Bob.
“They call themselves Academi now,” I say.
“Whatever,” says Bob. “You’ve fucked half the mercenaries in Kabul, you’ve got to have a source.”
The room goes quiet. Nobody likes that I’ve dated contractors. Two, to be specific, though one was more serious and the other was more casual fucking. It’s none of their business, none of anybody’s business, but it got around. Even military folks tend to hold mercenaries in contempt. And then Bob realizes before I do that maybe some ex of mine is dead, killed in the explosion.
“I’m sure all the Blackwater guys are fine,” he says.
“They subcontract the outer ring of security to Afghans,” I say.
Bob looks disappointed. “Of course they do,” he says. “Those fucking cockroaches. With their fucking high‑speed gear and their cool‑guy shades and their wizard beards. So how much are they getting paid to have Afghans take the risks for them?”
“At least it’s not civilians,” Denise says.
“You know they finally sentenced the Blackwater guys in the Nisour Square massacre. Life for Slatten. The other guys got, I think, thirty years . . .”
I ignore them, mostly. But it occurs to me that I could dial Diego’s phone number. At least, the number I think is still his, if he’s still in country, or in Kabul. More likely, he’s out doing counternarcotics work in God knows where. Or on one of his R&Rs in the backwoods of Chile, drinking maté and pretending not to be out of his goddamn mind. “I’m not a normal person anymore, Liz,” he told me once. “And I don’t want to be.”
I pull out my phone. We hadn’t closed things off in any real way, we just slowly stopped talking. He was always off in a different country anyway, doing work he claimed was “like James Bond, but boring.” When I’m reporting on something like this, something that matters, it makes it easier if I can become nothing more than a pane of glass, the medium through which people can look out the windows of their normal lives and see what’s happening over here. Diego complicates things, raises up emotional turbulence, changes the weights and measures of what I think is important and worth telling. But if he’s in country, he’ll know something.
Along the graph were little markers indicating various points at which the U.S. launched multibillion‑dollar counternarcotics efforts.
I dial his number. The phone rings and rings, but he doesn’t answer, and I’m not sure if I’m disappointed, or happy, or worried. I end up heading to Integrity on the back of Omar’s motorcycle, cold wind whipping my head scarf as we head out to the base. Camp Integrity. Sometimes I’m not sure if the U.S. government is just trolling us when they name these things. What else would you name a giant 435,600‑square‑foot compound run by the most notorious mercenary outfit of the modern wars? Blackwater, Xe, Paravant, Academi. They secured a $750‑million contract in 2012 for “information” related to the counter-drug effort in Afghanistan, and they’ve been running Integrity ever since.
When we were dating, I once asked Diego how the drug effort was going. He pulled out an iPad and showed me a graph tracking opium production against the price of wheat over the past ten years. When the price of wheat was high, opium production went down. When the price of wheat was low, opium production went up. Along the graph were little markers indicating various points at which the U.S. launched multibillion‑dollar counternarcotics efforts. They didn’t seem to have had the slightest effect on overall production.
“So what’s the point of what you do?” I asked him.
He shrugged. “We affect things on the margins. What kind of narcissistic asshole would think he could do more than that? But, hey, there are lives in those margins.”
I rolled my eyes.
“You ever known a heroin addict?” he asked. “I mean, you ever seen it?”
“The shit is evil, Liz. Pure evil, no lie.”
“And Blackwater pays well,” I said.
“It’s Academi now,” he said, and sighed. “Nobody ever asks a homicide detective if they’re going to end murder. The question isn’t whether we can win. It’s whether it’ll be worse if we stop fighting.”
Afghan police stop us as we approach the blast site. There are a couple of NDS pickup trucks, two unmarked white vans, an MRAP in overwatch, a lot of people standing around with guns, a few interested onlookers. Inside the ring of police I can make out some damaged blast walls, but can’t actually see much else.
“No good shot,” Omar says. “But . . . I can work magic.”
He gets off the bike and starts walking the perimeter. I head into the crowd and ask people what happened. A couple of people give me the same story—one big boom, then some smaller booms, maybe grenades, and small arms fire. An assault, not just a suicide bombing.
“Dead bodies?” I ask.
Heads nod yes. I’m exhausted, and though this should be exciting, I don’t care. Three bombings in one day. Does it mean anything? Yes, no, who knows? I call Diego again. This time he picks up.
“What do you expect me to tell you, Liz?” he answers, sounding frustrated and hostile.
“That you’re okay,” I say.
“Oh,” he says softly. “I’m okay.”
Around me, the crowd is thinning. There’s little more to see here. Little point, even, to having come. Omar will get decent shots but nothing to beat his work from the earlier bombings. Those are the photos that will run.
Omar sees me and approaches. He can see I’m upset.
“Well then,” he says. He sounds tired, or sad. There’s something there. “Thanks for thinking of me.”
“Diego . . .”
“What, you want a quote?”
I sigh. “I could do it off the record . . .”
“How’s this?” I hear him shuffling through papers. “Human lives are brief and trivial. Yesterday a blob of semen; tomorrow embalming fluid, ash.”
“It’s Marcus Aurelius. Seriously.”
“He doesn’t really qualify as news.”
Suddenly I’m angry.
“You know what, Diego? Fuck you. Would you feel this way if it wasn’t just Afghans who were killed? If it were one of you?”
Omar sees me and approaches. He can see I’m upset. He raises the camera and snaps a photo. I draw my breath in sharply. Later, I’ll ask him to delete the photo. I’m here to observe, not to be observed.
“Look . . .” I say.
“We lost one too, Liz. Not Academi. U.S. military.”
Omar puts the camera up to take another shot of me and I give him the finger. He smiles and snaps the shot.
“Did you know him?”
“He was Seventh Group.”
“Oh.” Diego’s old unit.
“You know you can’t print anything until . . .”
“I was with him in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he says. “We went way back.”
“Oh,” I say. “I’m so sorry.”
“Yeah,” he says. “A good guy. Great soldier. I think he’d have thought it was okay, going out like this. In combat, you know?” He didn’t sound sure.
There’s more to be done, but Bob texts me, he wants us back at the office. Bob’s got better contacts in the military anyway, so I figure, let him work it. On the way back, I look at the windshield stickers of the cars we pass. “Fighter Car. If You Follow Me Will Be Die.” “You Are My Heart Always.” One has an insignia of the presidential palace, and former president Hamid Karzai. Another, the face of the mujahideen Ahmad Shah Massoud. And then a Toyota Camry with “I Hate Girls.”
Bob takes this to mean it was an accidental early detonation, a bomb headed for somewhere else, aimed to ruin other lives.
The next day, we find out the name of the 7th Group soldier—Master Sergeant Benjamin Kwon, “Benjy” to his friends. We don’t get the names of the eight Afghan armed guards who also died, not that there’d be much point in hunting the names down. UNAMA claims zero civilian casualties for that attack, though they put the days’ total at 368—52 killed and 316 injured, with 43 of the dead and 312 of the injured civilians. Diego doesn’t pick up the phone when I call him to get more detail. The Taliban claims the police academy attack and the Camp Integrity attack, but not the first bomb. Bob takes this to mean it was an accidental early detonation, a bomb headed for somewhere else, aimed to ruin other lives.
The day after, while we’re still scrambling, there’s a fourth bomb, this one at the entrance to the airport, killing and injuring twenty‑one people, though by this point the numbers have blurred to just numbers. As I finish typing up the latest death toll it occurs to me that I’d been pumping out articles on how violent Kabul has become, this city that I’ve always told my family is safe, that I’ve told them is the one place in Afghanistan they don’t need to worry about me, and that if they’re following the news at all they’re probably freaking out.
So I call my mom. And my mom is concerned for me, and worried for me, like she always is, but it’s pretty obvious she has no idea that Kabul has been exploding. She goes on about how Uncle Carey’s mind is a touch battier than it always was, and they’re thinking about moving him in with my sister so that Linda can help look after him. And when I tell her about the bombings she just says, “That’s why I don’t like you over there, Lisette. All those bombs.” And when I get angry and tell her this is different, this is new, that hundreds of people have been killed or injured in the past three days alone and that doesn’t happen here, she tells me as soothingly as she can, “I know, my love, it’s terrible.” Because to her, to my mom, a woman who follows the news, who is smart, who is interested in foreign policy, who has a fucking daughter living in Kabul, this is certainly terrible but also just what happens over there. It’s not a surprise. And I realize that no matter how jaded I’ve become, I’ll never be as jaded as the average American.
“I don’t think you know what it feels like to have a child in a war zone,” she tells me. “To be a parent is to always have . . .”
“. . . a piece of your heart,” I say. “I know, Mom.”
“A piece of your heart,” she says, “traveling around outside your body.”
And I’m ashamed, talking to my mother, though I’m not sure why, just that I feel foolish, and that I also have the absurd desire to crawl into my mother’s lap, my very petite sixty‑seven‑year‑old mother’s lap, though at the same time I’m so angry, or maybe just feeling betrayed, and if I showed up at her house tomorrow I know I’d sit in stony silence while she made me tea and talked about how America is falling apart and it’s mostly George Soros’s fault. But then she asks me what she always asks me: “When are you coming home?” And I surprise myself with what I realize is an honest answer.
Excerpted from Missionaries by Phil Klay. Excerpted with the permission of Penguin Press. Copyright © 2020 by Phil Klay.