With his new collection of short stories Redeployment, Marine Corps veteran Phil Klay has written brilliant, true, and winning fiction on the Iraq War, writes Brian Castner.
This book is profane, and in just about every possible way.
The following words appear on nearly every one of the first fifty pages: blood, fuck, hajji, dead, love, scream, rifle, kill, balls. In those first pages, I feared I was going to run out of synonyms for “visceral” while trying to write this review.
But language (while important and powerful) is still all superficial, so when the stories then shift, drill through the violence of the body to the spirit underneath, they became profane in new and deeper and lasting ways. An Iraqi girl sold to a brothel by her parents is later sent to prison to avoid being stoned to death. A new recruit desperately tries to eat the glossy photographs of his naked girlfriend before his drill instructor can grab them and hang them in the toilet stall for everyone’s inspirational use. A Marine’s gung-ho father cheers combat, but then kicks his son out of the house when he learns the depths to which his son shamed the enemy before killing him.
Phil Klay’s Redeployment is a clinic in the profanities of war and not a lick of it is gratuitous. His collection of twelve short stories uses the immediacy of the first person via twelve different narrators to explore Iraq and its aftermath. If there is a flaw to be found here it is only one of narrowness; all of these narrators are American men and most are Marines. But the voices are strong and varied, and we hear from enlisted men and officers, chaplains and lawyers, State Department do-gooders and college students, and, of course, many grunts. The book contains plenty of blood-dead-hajji-fuck-kill-love, but also stories that violate innocence and faith itself. If obscenity scrapes just the skin then through the narrative arc of tragedy and suffering Klay has managed to dig down to the organs.
Klay was a Marine Corps officer himself, and one can imagine that when he deployed to Anbar Province in Iraq in 2007, he took with him a pile short stories by Frederick Busch (that master of clarity and the deceptively simple sentence) for inspiration and a little black notebook to scribble down every detail of what he saw. If this collection is the product of such meticulous noticing and note taking, he saw wide and well. General James Mattis, who led a Regiment in Afghanistan and a Division in Iraq, once told his Marines “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everyone you meet.” The detailed logical outcome of such mind-bending duality fills much of this book; when the city gets too polite, Klay’s Marines do naked jumping jacks on rooftops to draw fire.
The first story, also titled “Redeployment,” appeared in Fire and Forget, a volume that in time may prove to be a great predictor of the prominent veteran writers to emerge from these wars. “Redeployment” sets both the tone and the theme for the rest of the collection, following a Marine unit home through all the dizzying stages: rifles on civilian airplanes, the soft joy of reunion, a whiskey-fueled bender when you find an empty house instead of your wife, putting down your sick beloved dog with the same know-how you just used in Iraq. Klay starts with the shooting of dogs and ends the book with the burying of Americans, and in between it’s not any safer for the reader because the stakes are high: war and death and the damage done even when you win and come home. There is great nuance and reflection here, and no straight-forward morality tale, for or against the war.
The opening stories are told at a breakneck pace. Klay’s Marines agree there is no space to think during one’s tour either, and it’s better to go see “the wizard” when you’re back home. But as the stories progress and build on one another, loop around and circle back, to the war and back, to the war and back, deploy and redeploy home, Klay eventually provides us the space to consider and reconsider, in sad strip clubs outside of Camp Lejune and smoking the hookah at Amherst College and in the grassy quadrangle of a Jesuit retreat.
This consideration is possible because Klay’s focus is always on his characters. There are no long views of Iraqi deserts or rivers or cloud-filled skies here, though he does get all the little details right: the way the skin slides off a corpse when carried in a body bag, how the lingering smell of roasted flesh turns many veterans into vegetarians. As one Marine notes, “the hippie chicks in Billyburg sometimes think I’m like them, which I’m not.”
More importantly, Klay takes this same care with the little details of human nature. One veteran realizes he doesn’t just need to “share” a war story, he needs to “unload” it. Another struggles to get a buddy laid; the friend is a burn victim, and any girl he hits on will take it as an insult. This could be just another Brooklyn bar scene, but Klay provides a gravity that is all too often missing in the many clever and ironic short stories currently fashionable in the literary world.
Fortunately, Klay relieves the tension with dark comedy (depths-of-hell dark, to be sure), and even the most disturbing stories have moments of levity. In “Money as a Weapon System,” a reconstruction team trying to fix a water plant is ambushed by a Congressional requirement to teach Iraqi children to play baseball, an American game that will transform the culture. This unfortunately realistic effort is led by Major Zima, a buffoon straight out of Catch-22; when he is confronted with the fact that the children are wearing the donated uniforms as clothing and are not actually playing any baseball games, his response is even: “Of course not, they don’t have bats yet.”
In “Psychological Operations,” Klay proves himself a masterful technician as well, intertwining the war with life on a college campus. A veteran reluctantly opens up to a fellow student, and Klay calls her listening to the war story a “mix of voyeurism and kindness.” But of course we are all voyeurs when Iraq is so far way, not least the readers of this very book.
Klay doesn’t spare his own characters the voyeur label, though, and when he considers the power of story generally, he does so through those who collect the tales of others. Klay’s collectors are always unworthy of the story entrusted to them: a paper-pusher hasn’t seen enough action, an actress is dismissive. After so much listening, it is finally that college student who asks the obvious question, a question that America could be posing generally to her new story-telling veterans: “So that’s your story, the story you wanted to tell me. Now what?”
Yes, after so much violence and darkness, what is the point? Klay’s characters, and Klay himself in a recent opinion piece in the New York Times Sunday Review, provide an answer. That we should all muster our human empathy, and create from this profanity a shared understanding of the Iraq War.