Austin Anderson

Dr. Kimon Keramidas

Science Fiction

The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil

George Saunders’s The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil is a geopolitical border war leading to genocide disguised as pithy novel about two races of assemblage-human-like-figures. As Saunders puts it, “[Phil is] a kid’s story about genocide” (1). Saunders begins Phil with, “It’s one thing to be a small country, but the country of Inner Horner was so small only one Inner Hornerite at a time could fit inside, and the other six Inner Hornerites had to wait their turns to live in their own country while standing very timidly in the surrounding country of Outer Horner” (1). This area of Outer Horner is the “Short-Term Residency Zone.” One day, Inner Horner shrinks, and three quarters of Elmer—the current resident of Inner Horner—impedes on Outer Horner and is beyond “[t]he green piece of string that constituted the boundary of the Short-Term Residency Zone” (3). The panic surrounding the accidental “invasion” leads to Phil’s rise to power after he suggests taxing the Inner Hornerites “Four smolokas,’ which is the entirety of the Inner Hornerites’ capital. Phil is given the title “Special Border Activities Coordinator,” which is repeatedly called “national security work” (47). Every day, Phil returns to collect the taxes of the Inner Horneites until he takes the clothes off their bodies. Eventually, Phil begins to torture and systematically murder the Inner Hornerites until he is finally stopped by the neighboring country of Greater Keller.

Released in 2005, the cultural context is clear; Saunders would never be accused of subtlety. The book was written during aftermath of the US-Iraq war, and it clearly references the politics of the day. I would like to focus on the possible references to the torture of detained Iraqis at Abu Ghraib. During the US-Iraq war, American soldiers tortured and abused prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. After the horrifying photos were released by CBS News, certain political commentators rationalized the violence as necessary. We see an eerily similar situation in Phil. After the Inner Horneite Cal attacks Phil for attempting to purchase his wife, Phil receives unanimous approval to disassemble Cal, which will lead to his death. Saunders writes:

And the citizens of Outer Horner, casting nervous sideways glances at one another, unanimously votes to support Phil in his decisions to disassemble Cal, for the good of the nation, in the interest of stopping further violence.

“Kindly enact the will of the nation!” Phil said to the Special Friends.

The Special Friends leaned down over Cal, and using a socket set and a pair of pliers, enacted the will of the nation (62-63).

This rhetoric is strikingly similar to the rational for the Abu Ghraib torture. Phil rationalizes the torture as “for the good of the nation” (63). Similarly, prior to the release of the Abu Ghraib photos, the Bush administration defended the use of torture in the infamous “Torture Memos.” The Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo wrote, “we conclude that the Fifth and Eighth Amendments, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, do not extend to alien enemy combatants held abroad” (1). Phil reflects a reality where any ill can be enacted upon the “enemy” in the name of “national security.”

The entire Abu Ghraib fiasco was rationalized as necessary to prevent terrorism. Phil similarly rationalizes his violence. Phil later tells the President of Outer Horner, “I’m happy to report that I was recently able to gracefully quell a disturbing outbreak of violence at the border by enacting certain physical rearrangements designed to prevent further outbreaks of violence” (75). It is not difficult to imagine then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld saying something similar. In this world filled with “mirror-faced advisors,” Phil is allowed to rise to power and committee war crimes because the citizens of his nation are afraid of an external threat. Thank god that would never happen in real life.


Saunders, George. The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil. Riverhead Books, 2005.

Saunders, George. “Why I Wrote Phil.” Amazon, 2005. Accessed 23 Feb. 2020.

Yoo, John. “Memo Regarding The Torture And Military Interrogation Of Alien Unlawful Combatants Held Outside The United States.” ACLU, 2003. Accessed 23 Feb. 2020.