War Literature

11.25.14 10:45 AM ET

The Veteran Who Took Home the National Book Award

Phil Klay, who served in Iraq, talked to The Daily Beast after winning the National Book Award about the fascination of war, whether Brooklyn is ‘cancerous with novelists,’ and more.

Redeployment, Phil Klay’s National Book Award-winning book of short stories, opens with the lines: “We shot dogs. Not by accident. We did it on purpose, and we called it Operation Scooby. I’m a dog person so I thought about that a lot.”

“We shot dogs.” You can’t help but hear it, the bravado fading but still there over the final notes of remorse. It starts to sound like you said it yourself. The book goes on like that, examining the war in Iraq through the eyes of its combatants, providing some of the war’s only reliable narrators.

I met Klay, a Marine veteran of Iraq, in 2008 at a writing workshop for veterans run by New York University. Together we edited an anthology of short fiction by veteran writers, Fire and Forget: Short Stories From the Long War, along with Roy Scranton, Matt Gallagher, and Perry O’Brien, three other veterans we’d met at the workshop.

Klay spoke to me after winning last week’s National Book Award for Redeployment about the fascination of war, whether Brooklyn is “cancerous with novelists,” and police militarization after Ferguson. The interview has been edited and condensed.

In your acceptance speech at the National Book Awards, you said, War is too strange to be processed alone.Part of that strangeness is the feeling veterans sometimes have that their lives will never be as important as they were overseas.

The choices that individuals make in that place matter tremendously. They don’t get to decide whether the country is at war or not, where they get sent in Iraq. They don’t get to decide so many things, and yet the choices that are presented them are tremendously constrained and nevertheless momentous in their consequences. They’re not simply cogs in the machine, they are people presented with clearly high stakes in which what they do matters.

Do you worry about glorifying war, even inadvertently, by depicting it as something sacrosanct?

War has a fascination to it. “Ten Kliks South,” the last story in the book, deals with that; the deep appeal that war has. If you’re not talking about that and thinking about it, then you’re not fully approaching the subject.

I’m generally not a fan of didactic art because it papers over many of the hard experiences about war or anything else in life. I wanted to explore various aspects of the experience without an eye towards delivering any particular message.

Everywhere has its Brooklyn now, but you live in the original Brooklyn, in New York City. The novelist Jonathan Lethem wrote: Brooklyn is repulsive with novelists, its cancerous with novelists." Does that repulsiveness affect your writing?

I’ve never bought that argument. It’s like saying that England during the renaissance was cancerous with playwrights. It’s not a problem to be surrounded by other writers if that’s the craft that you’re doing. I suppose if you get obsessed with the notion of being a writer more than the writing itself, that would be bad. But I live near really smart, thoughtful people who take writing very seriously, and I can meet them for breakfast and talk books.

I’ve talked with Matt Gallagher [another editor of Fire and Forget–ed.] about this, how lucky are to have been surrounded by all these other writers who have improved our work.

Youve just entered the American literary pantheon. The rule is that every time a new writer enters the canon an old one has to get the boot. Who are you kicking out? Hemingway? Mailer?

Oh, Jesus, Jake. I doubt the premise.

Are you conscious of a war literature genre? Science fiction and fantasy books, in particular, have always been focused on war yet arent often thought of as part of war literature.

Vonnegut straddled both realms, so there are always exceptions.

The war literature canon is one thing, but there’s a lot of war literature out there.

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You could cause a lot of confusion talking about the two Forever Wars. There’s Dexter Filkins’s The Forever War [a nonfiction book about the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan] and Haldeman’s The Forever War [a military sci-fi novel written by a Vietnam veteran].

I’ve been asked what differentiates war literature as a category, and I don’t think there is anything.

I think part of what makes the sci-fi treatment of war unpalatable to some readers is that it often has a boyish fascination with war. If you put the war on a distant planet, you dont have to be squeamish about cheering it on.

That boyish enthusiasm is a part of war, it’s something that people feel. If you write a novel where war is nothing but hell and no one experiences excitement or cracks a dark joke, then you’re not actually admitting the full experience.

For a lot of veterans, its very hard to draw a connection between what you did overseas and the bigger national narratives about the wars that dont reflect failure or futility.

I knew a unit that spent around 16 months in Iraq. When they left in early, mid-2007, some of the guys were feeling incredibly dark and cynical about what the war was and what they had done. Then the unit who replaced them came in and literally did their exact same job but through the latter part of the surge, when violence declined tremendously in Anbar province, where they were stationed. For those guys it seemed like, “Oh, we won the war.” Then of course you fast forward to the present day and look at what’s going in Iraq right now, and how do you make sense of that? I think that’s something a lot of veterans are trying to figure out.

But by the way, that weirdness of trying to reconcile yourself to the cultural narrative didn’t just start with Iraq. I interviewed a WWII veteran who hates the idea of the greatest generation. He said, “war ruined my life,” and told me an absolutely horrific war story.

If you’re a pilot bombing Dresden, you’re part of the greatest generation. But if you were an MP [military police] doing a good job in Iraq, looking after your troops, behaving lawfully in a complicated environment, your feelings about what you did still get tied up with this much broader thing that’s out of your control. People make their peace with that in different ways.

Theres a generation of veterans and veteran writers looking back and trying to make sense of the past, both the wars and their own experiencesalmost like theyre over. But the president just doubled the number of troops in Iraq and extended the combat mission in Afghanistan. It seems like were writing memorials for wars that havent ended but transformed.

I think it’s good that we have so many veterans writing now, particularly because the wars keep going on and they have an informed skepticism. I want to see what veterans have to say. Elliot Ackerman’s book, Green on Blue, for example, one of the things it’s trying to do is understand the continuing nature of the conflict in Afghanistan.

It’s important to think about when we’re going to use military force and what we’ll allow ourselves to believe it can do. I also thought it was interesting to see there were a lot of veterans after Ferguson talking about police militarization. They brought a real understanding of how the equipment we were seeing on the streets was supposed to be used and offered some really thoughtful analysis.