As Phil Klay points out, stories are “products[s] of doubt, not of certainty. No wonder I thought Graham Greene was losing his edge as he got older. After the years 1955 The quiet American, “Greenland” – its almost imaginary landscape of “hot, poor and poorly governed places on earth” – seems to have undergone some kind of climate change. After all, what creative friction remains when the inner violence of Greene’s psyche sets in purely in realpolitik globe-trotting Jansenism? The trouble with Whitehall’s “grand strategy”? The numb chatter of the consulates? Despite all their political violence, there is nothing left for anyone to really to do in later novels like The comedians.
In Kabul’s wake, however, I changed my mind about Greene. Robert Stone’s fiction helped, and Klay’s ambitious novel, Missionaries. This month, Thornwillow Press is releasing a limited standalone edition of Klay’s short story, “Ten Kliks South,” to mark the 20th.e anniversary of September 11. The tale itself highlights Greene’s premonitory moral vision for the war on terror: in situations of limited action, description is the fundamental moral agon. Thornwillow’s edition, produced as part of the West Point Press Fellowship – an ongoing initiative sponsored by the Academy’s Association of Graduates – reminds us that moral description is also a shared job.
Ten kilometers south describes the aftermath of a field artillery strike near Fallujah during the Iraq war. This is notably bloodless prose, as the raw violence is paratextual for the story’s Marines gun team. “Doesn’t it seem strange to you,” asks a Marine, “after our first mission, to just eat lunch? A “klik” is one kilometer or 0.6214 miles or 3,280.84 feet. To kill someone ten kilometers away is to kill him ten kilometers away.
I hang the word “weird” in Klay’s sentence. In the college class, my students often use it to identify intellectual dissonance. Greene, for example, is “weird”. Klay’s dialogue would be very “bizarre”. I ask the students to identify precisely where the strangeness is, sentence and word. The problem for the gun crew, however, is that they cannot descriptively locate “weirdness” over a range of 32,808.4 feet. At the same time, the disjecta membra of their inner life can just as easily be dispersed over an equal distance between intention, action and meaning. For Klay’s Marine, “feeling” does not refer to a reflective emotional response. It is an intellectual problem, a problem of definition.
In a literature classroom, I would ask many of the same questions the shooting team wrestles with. In the center, what does “feel” mean in its precise context? How does it work as a “critical term?” How does it reveal the presence of an intellectual problem in the text? In Ten kilometers south, these questions are debated in the mess at the descriptive level. “It’s time we killed someone,” suggests one of the crew, but “someone” could mean “AQI” or “insurgent” or “platoon-sized element” or simply “the quadrant and the deviation that the FDC gives us”. “AQI has no platoons,” said a Marine. “The people” then.
For Klay’s artillery team, settling on “the people”, even inadvertently, spins the rapid, heavy-fire machine of their conversation on themselves. “How many did our gun, just our gun, kill?” Asks a crew member named Jewett. “Well, six guns, so divide and you have six, I don’t know, six point six people per gun,” the narrator calculates. A marine named Sanchez “pulls out a notebook and starts doing the math”, until “maybe a chest and a leg.” If I had to describe this action from a distance, the work of interpretation and calculation of artillery would be indistinguishable. Both occur in the service of the gun crew’s machines – military-hierarchical systems, political economies, reports, conversations and, of course, the artillery piece, which both causes and erases the problem of meaning.
In his introduction to Thornwillow’s Ten kilometers southColonel Dave Harper notes that “artillery technology, like printing technology, has remained relatively stable since its invention.” Indeed, one is closely struck by the magnificent, almost Promethean power of artillery and traditional printing presses such as those operated by Thornwillow at its headquarters in Newburgh, New York. Both have the aura of Blake’s Forges.
At the same time, Thornwillow’s edition, part of its monthly ‘Dispatch’ series, should remind us of the delicate, calculated precision that often comes with powerful and complex systems. The first fine press edition of Klay’s work, Ten kilometers south appears in a variety of editions, some bound in letterpress paper wrappers, others with hand-glued paper bindings, others hand-bound in fabric. The editions of the patrons and patrons of the centaur arrive numbered and signed by Klay and the publisher. Cadets who participated in the West Point Fellowship in Thornwillow worked on the production and design of the edition. Indeed, the surprising metaphor between the weapon served by the crew and the impression is implicit in the design aesthetic on several occasions. One cover, designed by a member of West Point, features a sort of arabesque artillery shell. Another chose the work’s “Caslon” typeface as an allusion to Caslon’s engraving rifle barrels early in his career.
In this potential elision of dangerous “talking” machines, the press, and the artillery piece, I am struck by the edition’s assertion that “we need to rethink issues like those in Afghanistan and how we answer questions like those raised by the protagonist of Ten kilometers south. ‘ In his book, Intention, British philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe uses the hypothesis of a man pumping poisoned water from a well to illustrate the paradox of responsibility and description that Klay’s story stages. In the man’s arm, Anscombe reflects, “certain muscles, with Latin names that doctors know, contract and relax.” The “man who contaminated the source,” says Anscombe, “has calculated that if these people are destroyed, good men will take power and rule well.” The well pumper works within several systems of cause, effect and possibility. “Now we ask,” concludes Anscombe, “what is this man doing? What is the description of its action?
Just as there are several potential descriptions that characterize action and intention in the Anscombe hypothesis, Ten kilometers south is a problem-causing machine. It appears in an abridged version in Guernica. It anchors the chorus of voices in Redeployment. The Thornwillow edition continues the structural and definitional recalibrations of history. In its current version, Ten kilometers south expands the types of discussions that take place In regards to texts like Klay’s in the humanities classes at West Point.
When I visited Thornwillow Press, Phil Klay was recording a podcast with Luke Pontifell of Thornwillow and Col. Dave Harper of West Point, extending the conversation by Ten Kliks. An army captain was working at a drawing board. The cadets explained the machines and how they work. Looking at one of the giant presses, I couldn’t help but recall a line from Klay’s story: “This is a weapon served by the crew. […] Crew. Served. Armed. It’s different.’ What was this machine doing? What is the description of the action of his crew?
Ten kilometers souththe production of marked the 20e anniversary of September 11. A month after the fall of Kabul, its exit coincides with a particular inflection point in the ongoing “war on terror” in the United States. The shift to a language of “emerging strategic realignment”, becoming “much more formidable to our adversaries and competitors” and of waging “the wars of the next 20 years, not the last 20”, perhaps suggests that our national psyche is shattering. is resigned to live in – and redeploy, redesign – our own endless global Greenland. I can’t help but note, in this regard, that America’s latest kinetic engagement in Afghanistan tragically echoed the descriptive crisis in Klay’s story. I don’t know what makes a machine, “on the horizon” or elsewhere, “fair”, any more than it knows the names of the people it kills. Corn Ten kilometers south remind me – remind me we – ask how the machines we serve work. What is the description of our action at their service? What is the description of their action on us?
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to listen The Colophon with Phil Klay, Luke Pontifell and Colonel Dave Harper here.