I usually enjoy former President Barack Obama’s recommended reading lists but, after reading Missionaries, I confess that its presence on his list kind of bugs me. This book is, among other things, a strong handed critique of borderless imperial war and I think it takes a certain kind of cynicism to set that aside and appreciate it solely on its literary value.
Because, damn, this book is cynical. How could it not be? Frankly, I knew little about Colombia until reading it. I knew Simón Bolivar liberated it from the Spanish. I knew Pablo Escobar was a major force in the 80s. I knew about the tragedy of the 1994 World Cup soccer team. Beyond that? Nil.
And maybe a white westerner isn’t the best gateway for that knowledge but Phil Klay does a great job of making the place feel real and making it matter. Having experienced perhaps the most cynical of wars itself in Afghanistan, Klay applies those lessons to the secret war we’ve been running in Colombia since…??? Post-9/11? The last ten years? It’s impossible to keep up anymore and Klay realizes that from a USian reader, so his critique of it is stinting.
This is a very good book with well-written characters and an intricate plot that has payoffs. I just wish it would have worked for me more. I think the cynicism takes away from a deeper characterization of some of the major players. I also didn’t care for Klay’s criticism of the student left being a daughter of a military commando. I’m sure he’s proud of the irony but maybe a little too proud. The book is seeped in that kind of worldview that by the denouement, I really didn’t care.
And maybe that’s the point! Maybe its supposed to reflect back on me (and ostensibly, Obama too). So if that’s what you’re looking for, you may be able to appreciate it more than I did. It’s still a very good book.