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Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Veteran and Best-selling Author Discusses Religion, Humanity During Iraq War


U.S. Marine Corps veteran and author Phil Klay discussed at an April 18 event the interaction between theology, art and society in his three award-winning books — as well as the role of faith and humanity throughout his life.

The Office of President John J. DeGioia and the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs, a teaching and research center committed to advancing peaceful cooperation, hosted the event. Vice President of Mission and Ministry Mark Bosco began the event by presenting Paul Elie, a Senior Fellow at the Berkley Center, who moderated the conversation with Klay.

Klay said that because of his upbringing, he identified as Catholic for most of his life until his time in the military. 

“After Afghanistan, I stopped believing in God because it made it easier, because it meant there were some questions I didn’t have to ask,” Klay said at the event.

Klay said witnessing the extreme disfigurement of children contributed to his loss of faith, compounded with the feeling of victory and growing peace on both sides near the end of his deployment.

“I’d never seen the kind of injuries that bombs do to bodies before,” Klay said. “By the end of my deployment, violence just dropped and everybody felt like we’re winning. So it felt to me like the world was this rational, controllable place, and the faith just kind of withered away.”

Klay graduated from Regis High School — one of the most prestigious, all-male Catholic high schools in the United States —  in 2001, after which he served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 2005 to 2009. Klay’s first collection of short stories, “Redeployment,” won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2014.

“Redeployment” is a collection of 12 stories that all follow people entrenched in war. The novel recounts the horrors of war as well as moments of faith and hope.

Klay also read the first page of “Missionaries” at the event.

“Missionaries” is Klay’s first novel, which follows four American and Colombian individuals post September 11, 2001. Klay said the novel, which was one of Barack Obama’s favorite books of 2020, exemplifies the human cost of battle and counters the prevalent dehumanization of war by highlighting what makes a human, human.

Klay said keeping one’s humanity during war is crucial for analyzing one’s actions on a moral, spiritual and political level.

“I think that having a richer sense of what a human being is, is just necessary for understanding what you’re doing when you’re waging war, what you’re doing when you’re killing people, and that’s essential,” Klay said.

“‘A person is what happens when there is a family and a town, a place where you’re known,’” Klay read from “Missionaries.”

Klay said he was not a pacifist and supported war on some occasions despite condemning the violence and death of war in his literature.

“I’m not wholly opposed to every aspect of American war,” Klay said. “There are places where I’m very glad that we have American troops.”

Klay said encounters with others off the battlefield illuminated the fragility of life and allowed him to envision a more concrete future with his family, which transformed him from an atheist back into a believer in God.

“I had this like image moving forward in time,” said Klay, of him and his wife “growing all together as us at the end of our lives. And after that experience, I drove slower, because I didn’t need to get my kicks from being a thrill seeker anymore.”

Robert Fanciullo (MSB ’23), an event attendee, said he was fascinated with how Klay interweaves violence and peace in his novels.

“I enjoyed Klay’s use of acts of war and acts of terror as tools when illustrating a narrative, rather than just having them as very suspenseful moments.” Fanciullo told The Hoya. “This unique artistic tool helps him convey a different message than seen in most other war novels.”

Fanciullo said he is ultimately impressed with how Klay communicates his message in writing.

“He’s a great novelist,” Fanciullo said.

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