“The violence I had seen has left me feeling hollowed out,
unable to guild all the agony with some beautiful meaning.”

– Phil Klay

Across centuries and civilizations, human beings have found themselves struggling to come to terms with the grim and horrific realities of war.

Perhaps nothing is as heartbreaking as holding a dying child in your hands—one that has been ripped apart by shrapnel or one whose final moments are marked by a labored agonizing breathing.

Iraqi War Veteran Phil Klay, who has a young child of his own, confessed that he understands people who are atheists in the foxhole. “Some of them are atheists because of what they experienced in foxholes,” he said at a breakfast event on “Religious Faith and Modern War” (Oct 21) held in downtown Chicago.

A public affairs officer in the Anbar Province of Iraq, Klay didn’t have to kill; he never experienced the trauma of having a human life on his conscience. Nonetheless, what he heard and saw through others—especially the deaths of innocent children—convinced him that “none of us walks away without blood on our hands.”

If the tragedies in the Middle East seem too remote for us, there is a tragedy closer to home that we perhaps overlook. Whether we live in New York or Fallujah, Chicago or Baghdad, “we are regularly failing to protect our most vulnerable, our poor, our desperate,” said Klay.

Klay spoke openly and candidly about his struggles with faith. 

Faith in God does not make it any easier to understand suffering, to accept pain as a transformative and transcendent experience.

On the contrary, suffering makes one question God—question what sort of God he must be to allow all the anguish.

Nonetheless he quoted Vietnam War Veteran Karl Marlantes who described the combat experience as inescapably spiritual: “Mystical or religious experiences have four common components: constant awareness of one’s own inevitable death, total focus on the present moment, the valuing of other people’s lives above one’s own, and being part of a larger religious community such as the Sangha, Ummah, or Church. All four of these exist in combat. The big difference is that the mystic sees heaven and the warrior sees hell.”

Indeed, Klay witnessed hell.

“The violence I had seen has left me feeling hollowed out, unable to guild all the agony with some beautiful meaning,” confessed Klay.

Later that afternoon, Klay engaged in an informal conversation with Scott Moringiello, Assistant Professor of Catholic Studies at DePaul University. Before students at the University of Chicago, the two discussed how literature helps us reflect on themes of brutality, faith, fear, and morality .

For Klay, literature has been a vehicle to express what has haunted him. After being discharged, he went to Hunter College and received an MFA. He then went on to write a collection of short stories titled Redeployment for which he was awarded the National Book Award for fiction in 2014. A review in The New York Times described it as “the best thing written so far on what the war did to people’s souls.”


The conversation with Moringiello on literature was particularly meaningful given that it took place at the Divinity School where war veteran Joshua Casteel had been a graduate student prior to his diagnosis and eventual death from stage IV lung cancer in 2012.

Casteel, like Klay, was a veteran of the Iraq War. His time as an interrogator at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison led him to seek early discharge as a conscientious objector.

When he returned home, Casteel similarly turned to literature to express the moral quandaries he experienced during war. Having earned an MFA at the University of Iowa, he then started advanced studies at the University of Chicago in theology, philosophy, and religion and literature. Casteel was a graduate associate of the Lumen Christi Institute and was assisting in the process of editing Cardinal George’s final book when he learned of his diagnosis.

The witness of both Klay and Casteel challenges us not to accept religious platitudes when it comes to exploring the darkest corners of the human soul.