Good writing gives shape to chaos. Stories have the power to make paradox survivable, useful, beautiful. There is a particular urgency, then, to literature about war.
Phil Klay’s collection of short stories, Redeployment, is an astute and achingly sensitive portrayal the effects of the War in Iraq for American combatants. Through twelve first-person narratives, Klay captures the disorientation and adrenaline of a “morally bruising battlefield,” as well as the trauma of re-assimilation into American society.
Redeployment does not serve to paint a coherent, unified picture of the war in Iraq. Instead, Klay’s diverse protagonists remind us that there is no single experience of it. Redeployment is a patchwork of characters and points of view, ranging from chaplains to lance corporals, mortuary affairs marines to contractors. Each story reveals a world that is complex and three-dimensional, bringing to life the famous lines from Tim O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story”:
War is hell, but that’s not the half of it, because war is mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead.
Klay is brave enough to confront these contradictions. Redeploymentserves as a reminder that war stories are human stories—and the traumas our armed forces endure abroad are mirrors for understanding ourselves.
The “civilian-military divide” is our term for the distance war narratives travel, the growing chasm between the American people and their armed forces. Phil Klay’s stories represent a step towards closing this divide because they expose its prevalence and, at the same time, reveal its substantive fallacy.
The service men and women who people Klay’s stories are, themselves, attuned to the coercive potential of storytelling (one former soldier refers to his war stories as “automatic panty droppers”). Whatever their context, war narratives—spun to win votes in Congress or women at bars—tend to conceal and reveal simultaneously, not just preserving a story but also locking it down, invoking the coercive power of omission.
Klay’s own story begins in White Plains, NY. He went to high school a couple blocks from my family’s apartment on the Manhattan’s East side. (Personally, I remember his alma mater, Regis High School, for its monthly co-ed dances and eager all-male student body). After graduating from Dartmouth College, Klay enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. He served as a public affairs officer in Anbar province during the 2007 surge. “East Manhattan,” it turns out, is also a section of Fallujah north of Highway 10.
Today, Klay is a writer. Redeployment,his first book, explores the visible and invisible injuries that veterans bear during and after their service. Klay’s narrators bring the war home with them but find limited outlets to make sense of their experiences. In the book’s eponymous story, for instance, a soldier remembers the moment he returned his rifle:
It brought me up short. That was the first time I’d been separated from it in months. I didn’t know where to rest my hands. First I put them in my pockets, then I took them out and crossed my arms, and then I just let them hang, useless, at my sides.
For many of Klay’s narrators, coming home means a feeling of homelessness. Vets struggle to carve out a role for themselves in the civilian world, negotiating new notions of duty and masculinity. Most of Klay’s narrators find themselves alienated in the communities they fought to defend and the houses they call home.
Part of Klay’s strength as a writer is his knack for avoiding the pitfalls of his genre. His stories are neither waylaid by sentimentality nor distorted by political polemics. Instead Redeploymentis strong because its scope is ambitious and yet consciously bounded: he writes about the American experience of war in Iraq for an American audience.
This approach contrasts the work of Brian Turner, another veteran of the war in Iraq, whose poetry aims to bridge the gap between American soldiers and Iraqi civilians. His books, Here, Bullet and Phantom Noise,seek to convey the human cost of war, drawing parallels between American and Iraqi experiences. Turner’s capacity for empathy and commitment to understanding Iraqi culture is laudable. For me, though, his readiness to speak for the Iraqi dead betrays a certain hubris, even ignorance, which characterized our invasion from the beginning.
Klay’s stories, on the other hand, remind us that the tasks and responsibilities required of American troops are different today than ever before. In “Money as a Weapons System,” Klay considers the peculiar position of service men and women increasingly tasked with “nation-building” projects like constructing a women’s health clinic, establishing a water treatment plant, and—more ludicrously—teaching Iraqis to play baseball. The story’s protagonist is a Foreign Service Officer and leader of an embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team, who quickly discovers that summers spent working for Habitat for Humanity are not adequate preparation negotiate the cross-cultural and financial challenges of development work.
Throughout Redeployment, soldiers struggle to distinguish between enemy combatants and civilians—between their enemies and the people they are charged with protecting, even “liberating.” In “After the Action Report,” a young soldier named Timhead is haunted by his “first kill” of a teenage boy, while his peers and superiors applaud his boldness and valor: “‘It’s not that I killed a guy,’” he says, “’it’s that his family was there.”
Similarly, “Prayer in the Furnace,” features a Marine chaplain in Ramadi who perceives that infantrymen are knowingly shooting noncombatants. Their violence, it seems, stems not only from the poor leadership of their commander, but also a fundamental lack of coherence about mission objectives, ethical standards, and exit strategies.
While Klay is clearly interested in what makes the War on Terror historically distinctive, he also considers what holds across war: the social dislocation, loss, and heroism. In giving shape to this chaos, Klay’s stories ease the paradoxes of war. Today, as the U.S. purports to wind down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, our generation must contend with the public and personal consequences of the so-called “War on Terror.” To this end, Redeploymentis required reading.