Phil Klay’s slender volume of short fiction, coming from a 13 month tour in Iraq, delivers what we want from all fiction, especially war fiction: attitudes, observations, reflections, relationships, language — all under extremis– are transplanted from one observant mind to others.
Twelve stories, each with first person narrators, each narrator a different person: a marine returning home, a Foreign Service officer with orders to organize baseball teams, a Catholic Chaplain trying to make sense of suffering, an army vet back in school wanting to tell the truth and be understood, a best friend standing by a burn-wounded vet, his face a mass of scars and out of hope that any woman will love him. Klay steps out of the fictionalized biography kind of war fiction and does his best to invent and inhabit others and, through their eyes, to understand war and its off-spring, offering us the chance to do so also.
Were all of the stories carried on with the same force as the first, we would scarcely be able to endure it; we would wonder how the author had –just the writing, much less the experience from which he writes.
All are interesting but not in the same way.
The title story, “Redeployment,” starts with a guaranteed attention grabber in a country which spent $370 million on pet costumes for Halloween in 2012:
He makes an interesting choice for the opening story — not a full in, middle of battle, story, but one about coming home, the narrator still tied into the palbability of his experiences, barely even memories yet, while holding his wife in his arms, and his dog. Redeployment — going back– happens not as it’s usually understood, but as he re-experiences the opening lines. The method works well for many of the stories — the narrators, neither fully there, nor here, live in todays and yesterdays barely disentangled. We get a sense of what it might be like as the narrator, shopping with his wife, goes into a changing room and locks the door.
You close the door and you don’t want to open it again. Outside there are people walking around by the window like it’s no big deal. People who have no idea of where Falluja is where three members of your platoon died….
“Psychological Operations,” later in the book, starts out the least promising and turns into surprising depths – about language, its power for understanding, its power to humiliate and enrage. A vet returning to college, Amherst of all places, and a sketch of a PC complaint by an African American woman, a recent convert to Islam, for soldier talk that made her feel threatened. At first feeling a bit contrived, it picks up in a long conversation they have, at his invitation. Attracted to her, he tries his level best to not bullshit her, but even so, he thinks, “psyops works best when you’re being honest.” It turns out he is from an emigrated Coptic Egyptian family, living in Northern Virginia, and is often mistaken for a Muslim though, as he tells Zara, the young woman, in his religion they can kill Muslims as much as they like, “it’s how you help an angel get wings.” He describes in their conversation how he tried to keep young Iraqis from being killed, and how he tried to lure them to their death.
In an unprecedented image of war, he tells her about watching, through the thermal scope of a rifle, the heat drain out of a dying man’s body. He tells her about using the language of insult to draw snipers out in the open, made crazy by what they are hearing. And he tells about the abuse from his own father for not defending strongly enough family tradition. He sets up, and answers the question of why he is talking to her, why he is writing:
Every time she contradicted me with her smug little assumptions about who I was and why I did what I’d done, it grated. It made me want to shut my mouth and hate her. Hate her for her ignorance when she was wrong, and hate her for her arrogance when she was right. But it you’re going to be be understood, you have to keep talking. And that was the mission. Make her understand me.
The power of language; the power of insult, of shame and honor. It’s a fascinating story which, for me, gets at some of the fundamental triggers of human emotion, of persuasion, control and dominance, through violence if need be.
“Money As A Weapons System,” is a wonderful gray-humor story anchoring the middle of the book. Some have noted the strains of Joseph Heller as Klay tells of Foreign Service superiors insisting on using American little league baseball uniforms to build democracy in Iraq — “just like it was done in Japan!”
There are interesting explorations of army–civilian incomprehension, if not, at times, contempt; of the odd, recent rise of “thank you for your service” said to anyone in uniform. He tangles with what a man feels, regardless of the rightness or wrongness of the war, when he has raised his hand and sworn to die for others. He tells us about Marine culture and no one wanting to be without a kill.
“War Stories” begins as two vets talk about the utility of war stories in getting laid. Two women come in, one a vet and disfigured. The other, an actress and stunning, wanting to interview the burn victim for a possible play. In the conversation, as the actress persists in listening to only what she wants to hear, the narrator says:
“I’ll bet more Marines have joined the Corps because of Full Metal Jacket than because of any fuckin’ recruiting commercial.
“And that’s an anti-war film.”
“Nothing’s an anti-war film. There is no such thing.”
He then suggests that a true anti-war film would have little or no war in it, just a man being shot as he makes his first beach assault, or another facing 54 surgeries… That bit of insight aside, none of the characters grapples with, having seen what they’ve seen and done what they’ve done, why they are there. What on earth possessed them? They are not alone in this of course. In none of the fictional representation of war I have read is this question get asked, much less answered. Why they are there is sort of answered by one man, thinking about pulling the trigger:
…the urge to shoot is like the urge to fuck, bareback, dangerous but hard to control …
As fine as these stories are there is a curious lacunae in them. All are about single men. Not one of the stories is about a veteran returning to a family and the tensions and surprises on all sides. The first, “Redeployment,” includes a wife but the story is really more about the vet’s dog and the war he is still being “redeployed to.”
Yet, according to recent statistics just under half of active duty military are married, 71 percent of officers and 44 percent of enlisted personnel. Of these 34 percent have children, the largest group of which is between 12 and 18 years old.
Not all the women in Klay’s stories are only sex objects, but only by a shade. When they appear it is mostly as subjects of conversation. Those who appear are real enough, but not deep, not the center of attention…. No children appear, except dead Iraqis, which fucks up the soldiers involved in their deaths.
There is much to be explored here, as he surely knows. It’s hard to be intimate with a wife when friends have been closer, have been more intimate, have been maimed or died to keep you alive, doing what we’d never ask of a wife or a child.
We should give Klay the same benefit of belief we do any writer of fiction and not ask for what he didn’t provide. Perhaps more stories are still to come, from him or others, stories which might seep down into the American character and provide antidotes to the too easy belief in necessary wars and too quick an acquiescence in sending others off to promised glory. What he has given us is character invention coming from deep, raw emotion and experience. Invention, yes but you know he’s got something personal in it. He dedicates the volume to his parents “Who had three sons join the military in a time of war.
And he has taken on that most difficult of tasks, not opting out of talking about experience. As he says eloquently in an February 8, 2014 opinion piece,
To enter into that commonality of consciousness, though, veterans need an audience that is both receptive and critical. Believing war is beyond words is an abrogation of responsibility — it lets civilians off the hook from trying to understand, and veterans off the hook from needing to explain. You don’t honor someone by telling them, “I can never imagine what you’ve been through.” Instead, listen to their story and try to imagine being in it, no matter how hard or uncomfortable that feels. If the past 10 years have taught us anything, it’s that in the age of an all-volunteer military, it is far too easy for Americans to send soldiers on deployment after deployment without making a serious effort to imagine what that means. We can do better.