Cover Image: Uncertain Ground

Uncertain Ground

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Member Reviews

UNCERTAIN GROUND proves Phil Klay's nonfiction stories of the Iraq War and its aftermath are no less compelling than the fiction stories he's written (which, in their first collection, REDEPLOYMENT, won the National Book Award). Unlike that collection, however, which did largely focus directly on soldiers and their experiences in and surrounding the war, the focus broadens to a variety of secondary or tertiary subjects as well as war experiences: These include but are not limited to conflicts of faith, Klay's uncertainty over his views of the war in a political sense, the history of firearm development, the rise and fall of the Islamic State jihadist movement, an internal debate over the role of trauma as a formative experience, wartime literature and more.

Arguably the high point of the collection is its only (as best I can tell from the galley's copyright page) previously unpublished piece: "A History of Violence," which charts firearm homicides in the U.S. from the very first of its kind (a pistol shooting of a single man in 1630) to the Vegas massacre of 2017 (58 dead and more than 420 wounded in barely 10 minutes, with two more dying from their wounds later). Klay thoroughly and surgically tears the arguments of the pro-2A movement to shreds without even directly aiming to. He simply illuminates that gun sales are more the result of marketing and racism than any societal conditions actually creating a need for the public to possess AR-15s. None of this is about war as Klay experienced it, but it makes perfect sense that he would write it: A soldier might be capable of persuading a civilian "gun rights activist" that they've been systematically lied to. Maybe.

Elsewhere, Klay tackles the rise and fall of former DEVGRU (commonly known as SEAL Team Six) operative Eric Greitens, who attempted to parlay his warfighter background into a Republican political career and was undone as much by opportunistic lies as the hideous, credible sexual assault allegations against him. This is one area where Klay's lack of blatant political partisanship serves him well: As he is, as best I can tell, some form of centrist, his analysis of the situation cannot be written off as partisanship by GOP critics. (Along those lines, he doesn't directly attack Robert O'Neill, the supposed DEVGRU soldier and right-wing Twitter troll who claims to have shot Osama Bin Laden and was a supporter of Greitens until convenience departed the situation, but the few lines he spends on the man are enough to indicate he may share the doubts many have about O'Neill's contribution to the UBL mission.) 

If there's one area where the book falters, it may also be the result of Klay's tendency toward the apolitical. His essay "Public Rage Won't Solve Our Problems," while well-intentioned in its criticism of polemical political criticism that tends to be Manichean about good and bad, also stumbles because of its belief that the "civility politics" so beloved by centrists can still work. (In fairness to the writer, the essay was from 2018, before the protests that shook 2020 showed their necessity; in criticism, Klay and his publisher chose to include this essay knowing it likely wouldn't read as well in 2022.) 

Nevertheless, UNCERTAIN GROUND is still an extremely engaging read and often a thought-provoking one, just as Klay's fiction collection was. His voice is an essential one in this strange era of forever wars.
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This book really shed a light on a lot of things I have always wondered about.  It really helped me be able to finally talk to my family members who have and are currently serving in the military.  I have always felt guilty about the way that I sometimes view war because I love and respect the women, men, and non-binary individuals  who serve in the military.  I am a huge fan of Phil's writing and this was just incredible.  I'm so thankful I had the opportunity to read it!  I am a better person because I did.
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Phil Klay's brilliant, incisive writing is eye-opening and moving. The understanding he imparts as both a veteran and civilian author deepens empathy while providing a raw look at the realities of war for those tasked with carrying it out. Edifying, emotional, and wrenching, yet without slant - it's a rare talent. Klay's unique insights would broaden any reader's knowledge of our geopolitical world and the human toll of war. A must-read for history and military buffs and anyone seeking a deeper understanding of global conflicts from a uniquely American perspective.
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Thank you Netgalley and PENGUIN GROUP/The Penguin Press for an ARC for an honest review.

Uncertain Ground covers a series of essays that Phil Klay has written over the course of the Obama and Trump administrations regarding topics such as war and citizenship in a country that has been at war for decades when most of the American public has been oblivious to or indifferent about the issue at hand,

As a former (retired?) U.S. Marine, we see things in his eyes, following the topics that he covers, not only in his thoughts but also in his questions on said topics, as well as what these say about being American.

As an Australian reading about the topics of America, I found this quite interesting, especially reading this through the eyes of a Marine.
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Phil Klay's latest is a collection of nonfiction essays about war, citizenship and what it means to live in a country that's been continuously at war for two decades when most of the American public is oblivious to or indifferent about that fact. This was a really insightful read, and if you're familiar with Klay's work from the short story collection Redeployment, you'll find the same thoughtfulness about the meaning of war and the obligation of civilians to consider the moral dimension of war familiar. That said, the nature of an essay collection on one topic is that there's a fair bit of repetition between some of the essays, and I found myself getting a little tired of some of the threads that felt similar between pieces. Klay's greatest strength is in pushing civilians to consider both what war is like and why we're able to distance ourselves from it, and I think this collection accomplishes that admirably.
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What a powerful book. Klay is an engaging, thoughtful, and skilled writer. These essays touched my heart and expanded my thinking. As someone who doesn't have any relatives or friends in the military, I appreciated his insights into what it has been like for the past decades. Americans of all political persuasions would do well to read this collection. Thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for the digital review copy.
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US involvement in 21st century warfare is ignominious at best. Written by a former (is there such a thing?) US Marine, this is a clear look at what we have done to a generation of soldiers who were sold a bill of goods by a succession of politicians. It also quietly underscores how this country has betrayed another nation of people who looked to us for help and guidance in defeating their own enemies. To read this series of essays is to feel a deep sadness for what the US has become and how its young brave ones have been reduced to cannon fodder. We owe the veterans more than the meagre honor they've been given. This book needs to be read.
I requested and received a free ebook copy from PENGUIN GROUP/The Penguin Press via NetGalley. Thank you!
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Thank you to NetGalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

This book is made up of a series of essays that the author wrote over the course of the Obama and Trump administrations. He has ambitious goals in his writing as he grapples with figuring out how we got involved in a war that just kept going; what war meant to him personally; what war says about Americans; how the war(s) have distorted our politics and culture; how politics have shifted to shield war from our view; how war relates to questions of faith; how we respond to collective and individual trauma and how to reckon with guilt and atonement. 
Klay touches on each of these aspects throughout his essays and he shares plenty of stories regarding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. His writing is clear and heartfelt as he talks about his views/feelings about the wars.
Unfortunately, I couldn't give this book more than 3/5 stars. I didn't really learn anything new or gain a better insight into the conflicts and people involved. I'm a bit of a news junkie so I was already aware of many of the issues discussed in his essays. Also, I would have appreciated some links/advice to veterans looking for help rather than primarily focusing on the hopelessness and disappointment of postwar America.
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Absolutely loved this. Have loved everything by this author, so I’m very happy to have this one in my collection. Will be purchasing a copy when it’s out. Such an engaging writing style, Klay always seems to defy genres. Utterly immersive, you forget you’re reading.
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