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Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.

Veterans and Invisible War

Featuring Phil Klay

In the modern age of warfare, what does it mean for Americans to enter the armed forces? Zachary and Emma speak with veteran and author Phil Klay about the disconnect many people who serve in our current wars feel when they return back home, as well as the lack of understanding that American civilians have toward the complexities of these conflicts. Yet the military remains a major factor in the government’s budget and in Americans’ patriotic pride. This discussion leads to questions about the morals of modern warfare and the care the nation owes to the veterans who have provided their service and the allies who have assisted in our efforts.

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Phil Klay: It would actually be great if we had much more opportunities for national service and much more of a cultural sense that one ought to do something, right? Whether it’s in the military or otherwise, because I think that sense of civic participation, connection to the broader national project and also just like, you know, when you join the military, like you meet America, right?

Everybody, we all live in our little bubbles and then you join the military and you’re there with everybody, like every type of American. And it is a radically different experience than the kind of group of people that I knew growing up in New York and then going to an Ivy League school.

Zachary Karabell: What could go right? I’m Zachary Karabell, the founder of The Progress Network, joined as always by Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of The Progress Network. And what could go right is our weekly podcast where we try to look at, well, what could go right in the world. So today we’re going to talk to someone about a massively important aspect of American society and policy, the military. This is a vastly important aspect of our society that we don’t really talk about enough in some fundamental fashion. So we’re going to look at that today. Emma, why don’t you tell us who we’re going to speak with today?

Emma Varvaloucas: So we’re going to talk to Phil Klay. He’s a veteran of the U.S. Marines who served in Iraq, and he’s written a handful of books, both fiction and nonfiction about his time there. The role of the U.S. military and what he calls the endless invisible war of the U.S. His most recent book was an essay collection called ‘Uncertain Ground’. And he also teaches fiction at Fairfield University.

You ready to talk to Phil?

Zachary Karabell: I am ready to talk to Phil. Let’s do it. Phil, it’s a pleasure to have you with us today for What Could Go Right? We have not really touched on this subject of the American military. In many ways for most Americans, the American military is an idea that is often romanticized, I guess, in the 1970s and into the 1980s, vilified.

So it’s vilified or romanticized, but in many respects, it remains an abstraction, right? It’s just this thing that we use. It’s not something sort of geographically that touches many people’s lives.

Phil Klay: Yeah, there’s, you know, it’s very funny because Gaina read my book and he liked it ‘Uncertain Ground’, my book of nonfiction.

But he said, you know, this disconnect, I don’t really feel because everybody in like this little town in rural Maine where he lives, he’s like, everybody knows somebody who joined the military. And it’s like, yeah, you’re in one of those towns, those very specific places where it’s incredibly common.

So it’s not just that you have a small percentage of Americans who serve. But that small percentage tends to be clustered in very specific communities and also specific families. The military is increasingly becoming a family business. And that tends to sort of increase that, that, that disconnect.

Emma Varvaloucas: Maybe to make a bit of a connection with you, Phil, why don’t you just give us some background about how you ended up in the military, what your time there was like, and how you ended up writing so much about it?

Phil Klay: Yeah. Well, I was a kid who never thought I was going to join the military. My goal as a teenager was to ultimately. go into the foreign service. My maternal grandfather had served as a diplomat all over the world. My mother and my aunts, you know, grew up in Africa and Europe. Mostly, you know, they had stories about being followed by the secret police in communist Czechoslovakia and so on when my grandfather was there in the seventies.

And so I was always Fascinated by American foreign policy. And then when I went to college, I went to college September of 2001 and we had 9 11 and very rapidly we were going into Afghanistan. And then soon after that, we’re going into Iraq. And it seemed that if I wanted to serve my country, the best way to do that was to join the military.

So I joined the Marine Corps. I did the Officer Candidate School, which is the, you know, you do a lot of physical exercise and get yelled at a lot. A portion of military training during my junior summer in 2004, and then accepted my commission in 2005, which is kind of an interesting time, right? And a very different time from now in terms of our wars.

We had these large troop presences overseas, especially in Iraq. And the war was a topic of great political debate and it wasn’t going well. It was fairly obvious that the promises that it had made by people like Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had not come anywhere close to true about how.

Well, we would be received and how quickly we would be able to get out. And so you had a kind of spiraling, insurgency, spiraling, chaos in Iraq, a lot of violence. It was only getting worse. And so that was the context in which I, you know, swore my oath of office and signed the contract.

I ultimately went to Iraq in 2007 as a public affairs officer. So my job was working with the media right. Which was this interesting job because I was supposed to kind of be a conduit between the civilian and the military world, which I suppose is something that I’m still doing in a certain sense. And it also meant that I had to try and think about how things would be perceived from the outside, as well as kind of understand what the military was thinking about.

And I would go out on, you know, everything from going out on a mission with a bunch of infantry guys to hanging out with engineers or mortuary affairs specialists, or, you know, Navy doctors or what have you. So I saw a large range of what the military does, right? Not just, you know, the kind of sexier details of the military, but you know, how much discussion of fueling goes on in, in, in general officers meetings.

And so I came back from Iraq in 2008, the period where I was in Iraq, It was a part of the surge, which was this hugely contentious, politically fraught policy where we increase the number of troops in Iraq in an attempt to bring the level of violence down. And it’s interesting to think about that now in terms of the level and the anger of scrutiny and political debate about Iraq.

Our military policy in that country. Got back in 2008, feeling actually quite good about the mission as it had been carried out because violence had gone down a lot in Anbar province when I was there. You know, there are places that were extremely violent that, you know, there’s a route Fran, which was like, you know, it used to be, if you were going down there, you were going to get shot.

IED’d or hit in some way. And I remember a bunch of guys seeing like a bridal shop that had opened on route Fran. Is that a freaking bridal shop on Fran? You know, you know, we left feeling great about things. And then of course I get out of the military. I’m sort of. Trying to think through like, all right, what was that?

What was I a part of? What does America look like when you get back home? But the weird thing about being a veteran of these wars is like you leave the military and the war just keeps going, right? So as I’m working on my first book and thinking these through People that I know are going to Afghanistan.

In some cases, you know, I find out that somebody’s been injured or killed that I knew I remember being in a bar in Brooklyn in Greenpoint. It was like a, you know, the most hipster scenario you could possibly imagine. There was literally a band setting up with a ukulele player.

Emma Varvaloucas: Of course, it’s a ukulele.

Phil Klay: It was straight out of, you know, like an episode of Girls. And that’s when I get a call that you know, a guy that, that I’d served with got shot in Afghanistan. So it was this very weird kind of like split screen existence where you feel like you’re a certain amount of your consciousness and moral concern should be in this place that feels radically different from where you are. And then the places where I’d served over time, the political situation in Iraq starts to devolve. You have the rise of ISIS and then places that I had felt like, Oh, okay. You know, we brought a certain amount of security to these places.

ISIS comes through, there’s a tremendous amount of death and devastation. They sweep through in the North and do, you know, genocide in UCD areas and take over Mosul. And, you know, that kind of settled and firm opinion I had about my service and what we had achieved and what I thought it meant starts to be, starts to come under a certain kind of doubt.

Because of just trying to think through, you know, all the gains that we thought we made which turned out to have been, you know, sort of built with sand, right. Or written in sand. That’s kind of how I came to it, right. That, that I got back from Iraq. It seemed like this was the most morally significant thing that our nation was doing.

War is the most morally fraught thing a country can do. There was a tremendous amount of death and devastation overseas. I did not think the answer was as simple as being kind of pro war or anti war because there were places where I was not at all convinced that a withdrawal of American forces would lead to less violence, right?

But nor could I tell myself that the presence of American troops in Iraq was an unqualified good. The invasion as a whole, I think was a disaster and a lot of the policies that we pursued were pretty disastrous in various ways. You know, I mentioned Afghanistan, you know, those people that I knew who were, who We’re getting injured or killed.

We’re getting injured or killed. And as part of a surge, Obama’s surge to Afghanistan, which was a, I mean, complete failure in every way. Right. And whose main upshot was a lot of fighting and unnecessary death. And so I started writing about these things to try and think through, okay, what was that?

What are these wars? What do they mean? What are the complexities of being in these wars? What do they say about America? How should we think about them as, you know, American citizens, as veterans and so on. And that’s the path that I’ve been on.

Zachary Karabell: I think there’s still probably not a full American appreciation, domestic American appreciation of how radically different.

The United States is after World War II from like what it was before World War II. And one of the ways in which it is radically different is the maintenance of a massive standing army in what is at least in theory peacetime. I mean, there’ve been multiple periods of actual war in Korea and Vietnam and Iraq in 98, 91, and then Iraq again in 2003.

And then there’ve been a whole series of kind of not war, not peace realities, I suppose, to some degree, our current reality is a not war, not peace reality. And I don’t think most Americans recognize that just, you know, the maintenance of this massive army being all armed forces, I’m not just saying the army, obviously army, Marines, Air Force, Navy, and a concomitant military budget, which people might be more aware of is just a, you know, it’s a significant break and it’s not really that typical globally.

And one of the reasons that. There had been a traditional hesitation to maintain an army in the United States. The United States was unusual being a relatively large, dynamic, prosperous nation in the late 19th and 20th centuries by not maintaining a military of size. It had a military, just not, you know, comparable, was partly the awareness of, If you maintain a lot of people under arms and you spend a lot of money, it is both tempting and feasible to think of using that as a tool of foreign policy, right?

If you don’t have, I mean, Norway doesn’t sit around going, we can send our ambassador, we can not send our ambassador, we can spend money, we can not spend money, or we can invade. Like the invade part is not part of, you know, it’s not like on the top 10 lists of foreign policy options. So, I mean, do you think this is a healthy thing or is it just a necessary thing in an anarchic world that we’d be powerful and strong and armed?

Phil Klay:  I mean, it’s not like we didn’t use our military quite a bit in the 19th century too. And that was part of the kind of westward conquest of America. The founders did originally, they wanted Congress to have to vote every two years if there’s going to be even a standing army, right? And they were very skeptical of the idea of a large standing army.

They, they feared that would lead to despotism, right? Washington had a somewhat different view. I mean, the original thinking of the founders was that like, you’d have these militias where you’d have citizens who would maintain the arms that you would need for like a light infantry force, right?

You know, the basic small arms of the day, and that you could call these people up and as brave citizen soldiers, you know, motivated by patriotism and civic duty, they would be able to properly function. And I think that Washington was more skeptical of that than the other founders because he had experience at war with citizens called up with their arms and they got sort of their asses pretty roundly kicked particularly the battle of Brooklyn against Hessian troops.

And so we initially had this system in the second amendment is in part an artifact of this, where the idea was that you would be able to rely on state militias and then militias just got totally slaughtered in combat with American Indian tribes. And eventually, you know, they decided to kind of.

Beef up the American, the, you know, the American military. And we do use that military as part of the conquest of the West. You know, we have the Mexican American war, which Grant once said was, I think, one of the evilest wars ever fought. You know, we have a situation where we’re relatively secure. We’re bounded by two oceans and have this dynamic, powerful country at the end of the 19th century.

And then it’s like, you know, what role is this thing going to play in global affairs? And after the sort of massive bloodlettings of the first half of the 20th century, it’s like, okay, you know, we want a more stable global order that will benefit us. And the only way to maintain that is going to be to have a really robust military presence around the world.

And I think that there are lots and lots of moral hazards in that, right? And the number of. You know, there’s a huge number of misuses of the American military. In many ways, my career has been about writing about my problems with the way that the American military has been used in the 21st century.

But at the same time, I, and the reason that I don’t subscribe to a kind of more isolationist foreign policy is I don’t necessarily see a world in which the United States withdraws that presence as one where. That vacuum isn’t filled by other actors, including really malign actors. Just to give a very small example, I was in, I went through Northern Iraq in December of 2019.

And I went through refugee camps at one point in Northern Iraq that were filled with Syrian refugees. And they were all Kurds, mostly the folks who were meeting in this particular camp. So if you recall, we’d waged a war against ISIS, both in Iraq and in Syria. And so we had relatively small numbers of troops remaining in Syria, in particular regions of Syria.

And they were there to do a variety of things. But one of the things that their presence meant was a kind of check on other powers that might want to move in. And during the Trump presidency, Donald Trump, in this kind of bizarre incident, tweeted out that he wanted to remove troops from Syria.

News Clip: Well, we’ve been in Syria for a long time, and it was supposed to be a very short hit, a hit on ISIS, but it didn’t work out that way they never left. And they’ve been there for many years. We have to bring our people back home. And frankly, our great soldiers have been talking about this on the campaign. You go back three years ago and more. And you watch the speeches. We want to bring our soldiers back home. These are the endless wars.

Phil Klay: And then the military and diplomats in the region played this kind of game where they tried to delay things, push back, withdraw some troops, but not a lot.

Well, in the regions where we withdrew, Turkish backed militias moved in and ethnically cleansed that region of Kurds. And the refugees went to Northern Iraq, to the Kurdish regions of Northern Iraq. You know, they’re talking with this father who’s, you know, has two sons who are about the age of my sons and his wife is pregnant.

My wife was also pregnant at the time and he’s got pins all down his leg from a rocket attack. And he says to me, he says, you know, America relied on us to fight ISIS and then they just abandoned us. Right. Which is basically, yeah, that’s what happened. I’m The Kurdish politicians at that time were very concerned.

You know, somebody said to us like, all right, you know, right now there’s still like a couple hundred troops in Syria. And he goes like, they’re protecting the oil. And he goes, I don’t care what they say they’re protecting as long as they stay there. Right. Because they quite sure that if troops withdrew, the same thing would happen again, but at a larger scale.

And you’d have another flood of refugees, which would probably be incredibly destabilizing to that portion of Iraq. And Iraq, as we know, is not like. incredibly super stable country with a huge capacity to be able to help large numbers of refugees, let alone the kind of internally displaced people in the country.

And so that’s an instance where there’s a whole variety of reasons that it makes sense to me for there to be that presence. And there are sort of cases like that around the world. I think the invasion of Ukraine was a reminder to a lot of folks that we do still live in a dangerous world with really malign actors and.

In the absence of powers that are willing to check those forces, international affairs can devolve very quickly in extremely bloody ways, right? And the idea that we will be forever inured to that, especially in like the modern interconnected world is I think delusional. So no, I don’t think that it makes sense for America to move back to a, you know, more isolationist posture. But at the same time, to say that is not at all to say that we’ve necessarily been using our power extremely wisely.

Emma Varvaloucas: I mean, trying to balance that kind of moral imperative that you’re talking about as far as people in the region might want us to be there versus I think the absolute kind of like exhaustion and I don’t think disgust is the right word, but just, you know, it’s Tiredness from the American public about being constantly at war. What does that landscape look like to you, you know, a year plus from our withdrawal in Afghanistan, like both from the perspective there and from the American public’s perspective?

Phil Klay: God, Afghanistan, it feels like we’ve washed our hands of it, right? You know, there’s, you know, we’ve had major, several major other conflicts since then, Ukraine and the war in Gaza, right?

Which is currently generating the most attention, right? And the war in Ukraine is not going particularly well. We have. a contingent of folks on the American right who don’t want to help Ukraine repel Russian forces. Where does that leave Afghans, including, you know, Afghans who worked with us, whose lives might be at risk, who are trying to seek asylum, doesn’t leave them with a lot of options, right?

And there’s not a lot of political will to deal with that. Certainly not in the way that we did after the Vietnam war where we accepted large numbers of Vietnamese refugees, right? And I think that one of the things about. The current way we wage war, and we haven’t touched on this yet, but I think it’s significant because After my time at war, right?

And after the Obama troop surge to Afghanistan, America started shifting more and more away from large scale troop deployments where you have, you know, lots of infantry units trying to control territory in foreign countries to a reliance on a lighter footprint, working with local forces, sending in maybe special operators.

Using drone strikes and airstrikes when we want to have lethal effects and not having much of a presence on the ground. And one of the things that does is it makes it a lot easier for us to maintain a true presence without a lot of visible cost to the American public. And we also don’t really debate it in Congress anymore.

We have been using the same authorization for the use of military force for over 20 years at this point to justify America doing lethal things in a whole variety of countries, right? In Africa and in the Middle East and in the Philippines and so on. And so you have the situation where the president has a huge amount of authority. To do things with our military, without consulting Congress, and he’s doing them. with the tools of the American military that are the least visible, right? You know, special operators tend not to have media in beds drones, obviously there’s not even a human pilot, the details of which are not well reported among.

That situation means that like Americans are not having the kind of political battles about our wars. They’re just sort of like things off there in the distance that we’re sort of hazily aware of. And so the debates about these things, don’t have the kind of urgency that they did back in the early stages of the Iraq war.

Emma Varvaloucas: I mean, this is one of those things where, you know, in the season finale last season for us, Zachary and I, we were talking about how war has kind of moved to the periphery of people’s attention in the United States. And we were framing that as a positive thing, but maybe you could elucidate some of the downsides more specifically.

Phil Klay: Part of the problem is it would be fine if we weren’t deeply engaged in a lot of conflicts around the world, right? And so one of the reasons that war has moved to the periphery of people’s consciousness is a result of political choices to kind of evade accountability about wars, right? Barack Obama pulled troops out of Iraq.

There was a lot of fanfare and they touted it as an achievement. Okay. And then you had the rise of ISIS and you had a political problem for the commander in chief because He had come into the White House as the preferred candidate of the anti war left, right? And he was never anti war himself, right? He sort of distinguished between dumb wars and justified wars.

He seemed to have a different response to Afghanistan than he did to Iraq. And yet, you had this fairly horrific insurgent group rampaging across Iraq. That America had the capability of doing something. And so what he started doing was ramping up military airstrikes, drone strikes, while also introducing special operations forces into Iraq.

But instead of going to Congress and saying, hey, we’re reigniting the war in Iraq, Can we vote on whether or not this is a good idea? And I’ll go before Congress and I’ll explain, you know, what the commitment is gonna be in terms of troops and money and effort and what we expect to see out of this war and why we’re doing it, and why it’s in the national, international interest and why you should vote for it.

And then have every member of Congress vote on it. He used the 2001 authorization for the use of military force, as well as in 2002 on Iraq, didn’t go to debate, and then denying that the war was restarting. Right? So we were told that, you know, yes, we were sending special operations troops to Iraq, but we weren’t putting boots on the ground, a distinction that seemed particularly odd.

When the special operations troops ended up in combat, a Pentagon spokesperson explained that we weren’t sending troops into combat, but that sometimes troops could end up in a combat situation. In 2015, as this war is really amping up, I was in an event where the Ambassador Susan Rice claimed that the Obama, one of the Obama administration’s proudest accomplishments was having ended the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, right?

Two months later, Barack Obama said the same thing at a fundraiser. So we were being told that the war was over, even as we were ramping up our military involvement in a very bloody war. And that kind of rhetoric, I think, fits into this mood that you were talking about, of exhaustion, right? The issue that I think.

Politicians are facing is that the American public is kind of schizophrenic on wars. When they see a group like ISIS, they tend to want it crushed. Okay. But they are also war weary and they don’t want American forces Enforcing the peace in a foreign land that they don’t know much about. And those are very contradictory desires.

And so the easy thing to do, the easy option is to tell people that the killing will continue, but the wars are over. Right. And this, by the way, is the same thing —

Zachary Karabell: Can I interrupt on that. I mean, it’s more the easy option is to bomb, right? Cause we have this air force where you can use military force.

Cause the one thing people tend to want is they want to eliminate threats without people dying. I mean, bottom line, right? They want the immaculate war. Immaculate on the American side, not, you know, somewhat indifferent on the other side.

Phil Klay: What did Joe Biden say when he pulled troops out of Afghanistan?

That the war was over, but that we would continue to have over the horizon strike capabilities. So the war is over, the killing will continue, but we’ll be safe.

Zachary Karabell: And that is You know, that’s an additional problem. I mean, you write a lot about the out of sight, out of mind reality of a volunteer force that’s geographically selective, right?

So it’s not 2 million people spread evenly demographically around the country. And then there’s. You know, the increasing way of waging war either by the air force or by drones, which is obviously a form of air force where you can have massive amounts of lethal force without anyone necessarily of your own soldiers dying.

And that’s another whole issue that of course we can’t really look to constitutional precedent because it’s not as if the founding fathers were sitting around going one day there shall be autonomous airborne vehicles called drones that shall do massive harm without any Americans.

Phil Klay: I do think if you told the founding fathers like, Hey, we’re going to be using our military to kill people we don’t like in foreign lands. And they’d be like, okay, so a war and be like no, it doesn’t count as war. It’s just a thing, it’s a thing, it’s a thing we did. It sounds like war, you know?

Zachary Karabell: So would you be in favor, this is not going to happen, but it certainly has been talked about occasionally. Would you be in favor of a draft that had people actually serve? Meaning that there was, there would be more of a connection between our use of force and that’s a real choice, right? That’s a choice of our children, of our lives, and therefore should be taken as seriously accordingly.

Phil Klay: I don’t necessarily know. If that would solve the issues that I’m talking about, right? Because I was part of an all volunteer force whose use was hotly debated. Right? The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were a major issue of political contention in 2004, 2005, 2006, going into the 2008 election. Right? I mean, it’s it’s not particularly likely that Barack Obama wouldn’t defeat Hillary Clinton, right?

Had it not been for the war in Iraq. And then, you know, a decade later we’re using the war in a different way and all of a sudden it doesn’t have the same kind of political import to people because we’re not even using, we’re using a fraction of our military and the bit that is the most surrounded in secrecy that is most opaque to the American public and we’re not having regular debates about how we use that military as a result of political decisions that that commanders in chief multiple over the past, you know, two decades have made to insulate themselves from that kind of debate and scrutiny. And so I don’t think that a draft would necessarily solve that problem. I do think, however, that national service is a really good thing, right?

I do think that It would actually be great if we had much more opportunities for national service, much more of broad variety and much more of a kind of cultural sense that one ought to do something, right? Whether it’s in the military or otherwise, because I think that sense of a civic participation, connection to the broader national project, and also just like, You know, when you join the military, like you meet America, right?

Everybody, we all live in our little bubbles and then you join the military and you’re there with everybody, like every type of American. And it is a radically different experience. Then the kind of group of people that I knew growing up in New York and then going to an Ivy League school. Yeah, a great time at Dartmouth, but it’s just, you know, it’s a bubble, right?

t’s very easy for people to dismiss folks that they don’t know. I’ll tell you a story before the Trump election, you know, I’m going down to a Marine’s wedding. And this is a story that I like to tell in that kind of Ivy League circle. I told this story at Yale a couple weeks ago. It’s right before the Trump election.

And, you know, my buddy’s getting married in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. It’s coal country, right? So like we passed by like 17 Trump digs coal sign. And my wife, who’s Colombian American, turns to me and she’s like, am I going to be the only Hispanic person at this wedding? And I’m like no, it’s like some military guys get married.

The wedding is going to be super diverse, you know, which it was. But I go and I meet the other groomsmen and I text my wife. I’m like, and not only are you not the only Hispanic person at this wedding, but you’re not even the only Colombian American. And she’s like, really? And I’m like, yeah, and he already early voted Trump. The rationale for this guy was pretty straightforward. And he said to me, he said, he’s like, look, you and I were both in the military. We both know guys who’ve been overseas, gotten blown up, killed, whatever. And what do we have overseas? We have catastrophes. I mean, this is before the fall of Afghanistan, humanitarian catastrophes, shattered societies.

And who are the two candidates? One of them is Hillary Clinton. She’s a liberal hawk. She had General John Allen speak at her convention who wants to put a combatant command in Syria. She knows the military. She has good relationships with the generals. And her takeaway from the Libya intervention was that we should have been more involved. And so I think that if she gets in, she will intelligently and competently work to expand American military footprint overseas. And if the past is any prologue, that’s going to mean a lot of death. And who’s the other guy? Donald Trump. Does he know much about the military? No. Is he mainly a kind of isolationist?

Phil Klay: Yes. Right. Did he support the war in Iraq for like a second when everybody else did? And then within like a year was already saying we should declare victory and come home. So he’s like, I don’t think he’s going to do anything radical, but I don’t think he’s going to expand the war. So I’m going to vote for that guy.

Phil Klay: And the thing is, you know, I didn’t ultimately vote for Donald Trump, but that analysis is not totally wrong. And it’s not something that can just be waved away as. the attitude of an ignorant person from a region of the country that we dismiss, who’s just morally obtuse and not attuned to, you know, the true moral stakes of the election.

Emma Varvaloucas: And that’s very true. My partner is a veteran who voted for Trump. And for the reason, the very same reasons that you just described, among others, but those were among them. And he tells me all the time It’s not that uncommon.

Phil Klay: No, it’s not. 

Emma Varvaloucas: And also he tells me all the time, like, you need to go out and like meet more people because you’re in a bubble.

Emma Varvaloucas: I’m with you on the idea of civil corps, you know, some kind of like Boy and Girl Scouts of America type of thing. And, you know, I just don’t see a lot of interest in it. But other than that, I was also curious to go back to your statement of like a draft wouldn’t necessarily fix the problems that you’re talking about.

Emma Varvaloucas: I mean, if you had a magic wands, What would, I’m guessing that probably the repeal of the authorization of the use of military force.

Phil Klay: Sure. What else? I think we should create more, much more transparency about the use of military force and much more political debate about it. I think that if we’re going to be killing people overseas, the commander in chief should have to, on a regular basis, come before Congress and justify You know, what we’re doing, what the mission is, what it’s supposed to achieve, how much it’s going to cost, what the commitment is, you know, what the benchmarks of success are going to be.

Phil Klay: So if in a year he comes back and asks to continue the mission, we can actually judge whether or not anything that he said is true or has come to pass. And then every member of Congress should vote for it. Right. That’s not going to guarantee good policy, right? If you do that I don’t think there’s any solution that kind of cures things, right?

Phil Klay: Figuring out what to do with one’s military in a complex world, in the complex political environment is hard, but I think that if we create political structures and norms that allow us to evade regular accountability that will breed failures in the future.

Zachary Karabell: So let’s say you repeal that authority. One of the things that’s happened over the past three months is that the United States military has been bombing select targets in Yemen to try to take out Houthi capability to disrupt shipping in the Red Sea and the, and then that area.

Zachary Karabell: And has done so with the collaboration of the United Kingdom. While Congress and relevant committees were certainly informed of these actions before, as in picking up the phone saying, Oh, by the way, we’re going to. You know, we’re going to bomb Hutu positions in Yemen. No congressional authorization, no discussion, and no congressional objection to this, or at least not in any meaningful fashion.

Phil Klay: Yeah. I mean, one of the problems is that Congress doesn’t want the authority, right? Right. You know, they don’t want to be on the hook for difficult votes, right? Or votes that might split their coalition.

Zachary Karabell: But I mean, would you go so far as to say even that kind of action, which was responsive, immediate, that if it’s going to be ongoing, you need to have a, you need to have a congressional buy in?

Phil Klay: Yeah, of course. There’s, you know, there’s stuff like, obviously you, the president is able to take responsive action, right? If it’s ongoing, then yeah, it’s like, there’s no reason not to have that go through a more normal political process over time to, to, so that we can actually have a discussion, you know, one of the benefits of the discussion about the surge when I was there, even as a as somebody in Iraq at the time, Was I could see the public debates that were happening about the war and what our leaders were saying success was supposed to look like.

Phil Klay: I knew what I was supposed to do because there was a political debate. I think a lot of, I think there are soldiers who have been in countries where it’s like, they’re not even quite sure what the mission is supposed to be. Right. because we don’t actually debate them and force the commander in chief to make a full throated declaration of what we’re supposed to be achieving and how it fits in terms of the national interest and what success is supposed to look like.

Phil Klay: And that’s a significant problem. Right.

Zachary Karabell: And it would have radical implications even in how we construe our foreign policy insofar as You know, one of the touch points of China U. S. tensions is, of course, about future Chinese intentions about whether or not they’re going to take military action to integrate Taiwan.

Zachary Karabell: And the whole foreign policy approach to the American foreign policy establishment certainly acts as if the president in a time of that conflict essentially determine what U. S. military engagement would be to either prevent that or intervene in that.

News Clip: While the U.S. spent 20 years fighting land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Pentagon watched China, its greatest geopolitical rival of the 21st century, build the largest navy in the world. China has threatened to use that navy to invade Taiwan. An important American ally, as tensions with China continue to rise, we wanted to know more about the current state of the U. S. Navy and how it’s trying to deter China while preparing for the possibility of war.

Zachary Karabell: Without any real clear sense of, you know, is there actually an American democratic consensus that we’re going to have hundreds of thousands of U. S. troops and tens of thousands of casualties? in order to defend Taiwanese sovereignty against China. That question is not a, we shouldn’t therefore do that.

Zachary Karabell: It is the whole way we talk about our involvement in that is somewhat predicated on the president could just choose to do that or not.

Phil Klay: Right. And that’s one of the reasons it makes me very uncomfortable to have the situation where you do, where everything is so much about who the executive is.

Phil Klay: Right. It’s not like in the absence of scrutiny, you know, well, the adults will be in charge and they’ll make sure that the things make sense, you know, I don’t think there’s any reason to look back on the past two decades and think that’s the case.

Emma Varvaloucas: Although, I mean, from this perspective of choose your executive wisely, though, Trump, Obama, and Biden have all kind of done similar.

Phil Klay: The incentives are all there, right? I mean, the big thing that Biden did was pull out of Afghanistan, right? Why would Trump want a situation where he was more constrained, but didn’t have the ability to, you know, kill somebody from time to time, right? Sort of funny, like for both Obama and Trump, you know, when people talk about their military policy, there are these like signature achievements, which are them killing a guy.

Phil Klay: I remember Obama’s last state of the union. He was like, you know, if you don’t think I have a serious policy, counter terrorism policy, you know, ask Osama Bin Laden, ask the planner of the Benghazi attack, right? And it’s like, well, okay, like it’s good that we got Bin Laden, but killing a couple guys is not a coherent policy that you have to argue for.

Phil Klay: Trump killing of Soleimani, which happened in a very complex environment because there was a really delicate political situation in Iraq at the time and he was killed in Iraq. And it’s discussed as if it’s purely the killing of a guy. in relationship of like, you know, deterring Iran. And so there’s this sort of weird thing where it’s almost like the celebritization of military policy centering around like, you know, famous guys that we killed rather than a more rigorously articulated policy.

Phil Klay: But the political incentives for the executive are very clear. It’s just that Congress needs to take back its authority. It’s a new Jeopardy category. Famous guys who killed for 1000.

Zachary Karabell: Yeah. Yeah. At this point, there’s a bunch, you know, Anyway, Phil, I’m sure we could keep having this conversation.

Zachary Karabell: I think you’ve done great work bringing to attention this sort of hiding in plain sight reality of we have this massive military establishment, but unless you’re in certain parts of the country, you rarely interact with it, except of like, if there’s any veterans, please check in first to an airplane and that disconnect, it’s part of a whole lattice that you’re talking about, including the congressional abnegation of its own.

Zachary Karabell: Presumable constitutional authority to weigh in and be the ultimate arbiter of an authorizer of the use of lethal force abroad. And these issues are not going anywhere. Clearly global tensions being what they are. And the fact that we maintain this military means that we’re going to keep having these discussions, but I’m really glad that you have an unusual given your own demography choice to serve.

Zachary Karabell: And then you’ve continued that active service by trying to bring to people’s attention, something that. At least the more urban educated tend to treat as an out of sight, out of mind, and absolutely should not. And so thank you for that. And thank you for joining us today. Thank you so much.

Emma Varvaloucas: Thank you, Phil.

Zachary Karabell: So that was a meaningful conversation, albeit one that didn’t do much to resolve the various contradictions and conundrums that surround a all volunteer military force and what we do as it and what we don’t do as it. And. Look, I appreciate it very much. Phil’s willingness to live in ambiguity or live in this liminal space between moral certitude and not really knowing exactly what’s right or what’s wrong.

Zachary Karabell: I mean, he, Clearly has strong views about what he believes to be right and wrong, but his own experience in the military, as he talked about, led to a lot of questions more than it led to a lot of answers. Other than the answers that we talked about in the episode of, you know, there should be more congressional authorization of the use of force rather than just somebody sitting in the White House with this vast amount of unilateral power?

Emma Varvaloucas: Yeah, of course we want answers, right? And people listening to the conversation might be frustrated by the fact that there wasn’t, you know, an easy one, two, three step. Here’s the answer for U. S. foreign policy in various countries. But I think what Phil’s doing is asking the questions that he would like all of us to be asking a little bit more.

Emma Varvaloucas: Like I said, during the conversation, I had framed war moving to the periphery of, you know, our attention as a good thing, but certainly Phil is bringing out the Issues with doing that. One of them being that we’re, we’ve kind of relegated it to somebody else’s problem, but it’s our problem as citizens.

Zachary Karabell: I would have liked to get into more as this question of isolationism versus, I don’t know, globalism, or I don’t know what the perfect word the perfect opposite to isolationism, because.

Zachary Karabell: There’s a way you could say we shouldn’t, the United States should not be using force quite so promiscuously that isn’t therefore isolationist. It’s just saying we shouldn’t be using military force as a first or second resort really should be a last resort. And I’m sure there are many people in the government who would say, Oh, it is a last resort, but given how much the United States actually uses military force versus Other nations, it doesn’t appear to be a last resort.

Zachary Karabell: It may not be a first one. And you could argue for more military restraint without arguing for isolationism. We can be diplomatically engaged. We could be actively economically engaged. None of that’s isolationist. It just isn’t the use of force in quite the way we do now.

Emma Varvaloucas: I mean, it’s such a highly debated topic because there’s also the point that a lot of people have made.

Emma Varvaloucas: I think Greg Easterbrook made this point on our podcast a few seasons ago. The whole idea of Pax Americana, right? That there was this 70 year plus era in the world where conflict was less likely in part because the U. S. was everywhere, particularly with naval power. That was Easterbrook’s point. And whether overall we’re doing good or evil, I think, is a question we have not well settled on.

Zachary Karabell: And it’s not entirely clear that there has been less conflict over the past 70 years. There’s been less, what we would use to call great power conflict. There’s been no repeat of world war one or world war two or the Napoleonic wars for that matter. But there’s been a lot of regional conflict. And a lot of that regional conflict, the United States has been involved in either as a counterpoise to the Soviet union, or as we’ve seen since 1990.

Zachary Karabell: in the Middle East and in various conflicts, many of which we have chosen as opposed to not just in response to, right? The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a war of choice. It wasn’t like Afghanistan in 2001, 2002, it wasn’t a response to an attack. It was a, it was its own really nice, special thing. And that sort of Pax Americana question looms large.

Zachary Karabell: And we’ve talked about this a bit with some people, but do you need an American hegemon? Is that a vital, necessary factor in the world, or will the world just kind of fall apart into anarchic chaos without the United States bestriding it like a policeman colossus? So, Again, these are not questions that we’re going to answer right now.

Zachary Karabell: They’re not really questions we answered, but Phil, what’s interesting about the conversation we had is the degree to which on the ground, how messy things are and whether you want to serve and whether you’re patriotic or not, the messiness of military conflict, particularly as he said, when it’s not always clear what the actual end game is to even the soldiers on the ground, like what is our mission?

Zachary Karabell: What are we fighting for? What does it look like when it’s over? Or is it just open ended and eternal? And that is a real problem. And it’s a real problem for the men and women in the service in that if you don’t give a clear goal, that can also be somewhat innervating and debilitating.

Emma Varvaloucas: Yeah, I mean, if people are interested in reading Phil’s writing, he talks about that a lot as well as just all the conflicting emotions that go around being a veteran.

Emma Varvaloucas: And sometimes they are in direct opposition to one another. I use my partner as an example during the conversation, I’ll bring him up again now because he sort of leans right, he’s very against the U. S. getting involved in Ukraine. And on the other hand, if we decided to. help out Ukraine with boots on the ground.

Emma Varvaloucas: He’s like, I would go, I would sign up. So there’s a whole complex tapestry of things that are going on for people that serve in the military that if at least we didn’t provide answers, at least maybe we gave people a bit of an interior look into that with Phil.

Zachary Karabell: Indeed. All right. Onward to the news of the week.

Zachary Karabell: So we’re going to talk about the news du jour, du semin. I’m sure there’s other ways of phrasing it. Things that you might have missed. Whilst otherwise engaged in the dystopian desiderata of daily life.

Emma Varvaloucas: All right, let’s talk about the news. Happy progress news. So in April, construction began on the U.S.’s first high speed rail project, where it will be the first one that’s completed.

Emma Varvaloucas: This is going to connect Las Vegas to the Los Angeles suburbs. And we’ll see if they finish it because there have been other projects planned that have not. Gone through with construction. Delays, ballooning costs. There is some optimism around this one.

Zachary Karabell: I don’t know about Las Vegas to LA as the most important test case.

Like that one may be primed for, if not failure technically, but failure commercially just because it’s never going to become a metropolitan corridor, right? Like there’s too much desert between Las Vegas and Los Angeles. If you’ve ever done that drive, it’s not like that corridor is going to become a metropolitan Boston to DC, which, you know, in some sense is becoming ever more of a two, 300 mile Metroplex.

Zachary Karabell: So I don’t know. I mean, it’s an interesting one. Obviously the most, the one that would have made the most sense would be taking the current Acela, which is our version of high speed. I can see an electric car future seems to be like the United States in particular is so wedded to. And it’s economy is so bound up in interstate roads and driving, I guess we’ll see.

Emma Varvaloucas: So look, you can take that up with Brightline West, which is the company that chose LA to Las Vegas. And apparently the reason why they chose it because they have done some profitability reports, somebody, somewhere. That talks about the sweet spot, high speed rail projects being a certain amount of kilometers that might not necessarily be a commuter route or a metropolitan corridor.

Emma Varvaloucas: California is trying to build one between, I think, San Francisco and LA.

Zachary Karabell: Yeah. One of the two major cities. That’s been, yeah.

Emma Varvaloucas: They haven’t broken ground, apparently. There’s the cost of, like. Pintupled, sextupled. This one, they’ve actually started, so I’m giving them props. They are optimistic, or this Bloomberg article where I read it was optimistic about profitability.

Emma Varvaloucas: I’m assuming they chose it for a reason, but we’ll see.

Phil Klay: Let’s hope so.

Emma Varvaloucas: So did you know that in Japan, until April, that if you were a couple going through a divorce, you actually had to choose which parent got sole custody of the child? There was no negotiations for joint custody. Which I find rather archaic to be honest.

Emma Varvaloucas: They updated the law in April. So from 2026 onward, divorcing couples can file for joint custody. They can decide amongst themselves or decide amongst mediating attorneys, whatever the case may be, some kind of joint custody arrangement, which I imagine, I would imagine is better for the children. No?

Zachary Karabell: I would think so. You know, it’s certainly to to deny a child, not just a, you know, joint family, but an entire parent is, I think, adding insult to injury to say the least. And there’s some evidence that, you know, divorces where both parents remain heavily involved are profoundly better than any alternative, except for parents staying together, except if they’re in an abusive, unhealthy, toxic relationship, blah, blah, blah, blah.

Emma Varvaloucas: Good for Japan. They’ve had a rash of like, kind of liberalizing a lot of their sort of like, Marriage and social codes around women recently in the last couple of years, I’ve done a lot of stuff.

Zachary Karabell: Although it’s interesting. I mean, it’s all unfolding under the framework of rapidly shrinking and aging population, birth rates being well, well below replacement in Japan.

Zachary Karabell: They’re not quite as low as they are in South Korea, but still, you know, hovering around one, 1. 2 per couple, which is just, you know, Japan’s going to shrink precipitously in the 21st century. So it’s all sort of in the backdrop of that.

Emma Varvaloucas: Yep. And all of a sudden they’re also designing policies. Women into the workplace, same reason.

Emma Varvaloucas: So, yeah, I will probably continue seeing changes like this one. So last but not least for today, England and Wales has decided to make creating sexually explicit deep fakes. So, you know, and take someone’s face and put it on someone else’s body or just create a wholesale, a criminal offense. So it is a criminal offense regardless of whether you meant to share that deep fake or not.

Emma Varvaloucas: So the simple creation of it is illegal. Yeah, that has already led to two of the world’s largest deepfake porn sites, which was a category that to be honest, I didn’t really know existed. They already started blocking visitors from the UK.

Zachary Karabell: You know, one of the members of the Progress Network, Danielle Citron has been very active about this.

Zachary Karabell: We had a conversation with her and I think a few years ago. In pandemic Zoom events that we did, she’s been really active in like, this is an area where the law just hasn’t really caught up to technology. There actually had been no clear laws about something that is so clearly abusive and potentially, you know, aggressively destructive.

Zachary Karabell: So. I think you’re going to see more and more of this as people try to work out, you know, what the realm of free speech is and where that bleeds into abusive illegal behavior.

Emma Varvaloucas: Yeah. The article, and it was fascinating because they, it was a BBC article that I read it on, but they interviewed, I think a channel news reporter in the UK that had deep fakes created of herself.

Emma Varvaloucas: So it was a very interesting blend of like journalist you know, giving a quote on something that she was personally affected by. But I don’t know if it’s the first of its kind this law. I’m not sure. I didn’t check up on that, but as you said, we’ll probably see more and more of this coming into the future.

Zachary Karabell: And we’re going to see more and more of it, certainly in the political realm. I mean, you’ve already, I think all of us have seen hilarious sort of jokey, deep fakes of, you know, there’s, there was one going around a few months ago, maybe it’s still going around of like an AI enhanced Biden and Trump fighting or doing a dance.

Zachary Karabell: You know, all those are really kind of deep fakes and that they are taking the imagery and creating photorealistic videos that are so. You know, what I think will be even harder, although people I know who are working on this say that it may be harder to identify fakes increasingly being able to tell the difference between them and real.

Zachary Karabell: There’s also the technology of being able to identify whether they’re fake or real continues to get better as well. So. Kind of action reaction.

Emma Varvaloucas: Yeah. In studies of whether computer models or humans are better at identifying deep fakes, humans perform just as well as the computer models, because they’re able to ask like themselves, context clues about the situation, which the computer model can’t do.

Zachary Karabell: Right. So humans are able to go, really, does this scan with anything I know as being possible, whereas a computer may not have the context mechanism behind it. Interesting.

Emma Varvaloucas: Yep, 100%. So, a little point of silver lining, a little glimmer of hope in the AI deepfake world that’s coming towards us fast. So that’s it for today.

Zachary Karabell: That’s it. Thank you all for listening. Please send us comments to the Progress Network on the email on the site or on your mobile. Suggestions, sign up for the newsletter, which is also conveniently enough called What Could Go Right, and it is free and weekly and Gives you a little more of these stories of the week that you might’ve missed, as well as some bigger issue that Emma highlights.

Zachary Karabell: So thank you again for your time. And we will be back with you next week.

Emma Varvaloucas: Thanks everyone.

Zachary Karabell: What Could Go Right is produced by the Podglomerate. Executive produced by Jeff Umbro. Marketing by the Podglomerate. To find out more about What Could Go Right, The Progress Network, or to subscribe to the What Could Go Right newsletter, visit Thanks for listening.



Meet the Hosts

Zachary Karabell

Emma Varvaloucas


Being Jewish Today

Featuring Noah Feldman

What does it mean to be a modern Jew? How do Jews in America handle their relationship to Israel, especially after the atrocities of October 7 and the subsequent war with Hamas? Zachary and Emma speak with Noah Feldman, Harvard professor and author of the new book 'To Be a Jew Today: A New Guide to God, Israel, and the Jewish People.' The Israel-Hamas war, levels of Jewishness, and how Gen Z sees things are talked about in today's conversation.

America’s Next Economy

Featuring Natalie Foster

What is the cost of not investing in families in America? How can economic security be guaranteed? Zachary and Emma speak with Natalie Foster, president of the Economic Security Project and author of the new book ‘The Guarantee: Inside the Fight for America’s Next Economy.’ Baby bonds, student loans, why so many Americans dislike dealing with the government, and raising the economic floor are among the topics discussed today.

The Honesty of Our Economy

Featuring Allison Schrager

Many news stories tend to focus on the doom and gloom of our current economy. Zachary and Emma speak with economist and author Allison Schrager, who tends to see things differently. Climbing wages, retirement planning, and even the current state of inflation are all positive elements of today's economy. TikTok and the rise of younger generations living at home are also hot button topics in today’s conversation.