Redeployment was written by Phil Klay and won the National Book Award for fiction last year. It’s a collection of short stories written from the perspective of men serving in the U.S. Marine Corps in Iraq and Afghanistan, as Klay himself did. This is Klay’s first book, though his stories have been in a number of publications. You can see Klay’s moving acceptance speech here.
When I started reading, I wondered if Klay had written primarily for other veterans, or for civilians like myself. I figured the tone of the book would be very different depending on the audience he was trying to reach. Is he trying to explain war to those who have no experience with it? Or is he really writing for those who have served? In other words, is he going to put the war in terms I can understand?
The answer is a combination of both, I think. I was immediately engaged by his writing style, although it became clear that he wasn’t going to dummy down any of the military jargon. Reading this book is at times a puzzle of acronyms and terminology, like MRAP and kliks and hajji and O3. In one chapter, a character describes something as an “arty mission”, which I thought meant something like “artsy.” No, “arty” means “artillery”.
I like puzzles, and figuring out what words mean is fun for me. Klay is such a good writer that the important terms are embedded in enough context to be understandable. And fortunately my husband knows a lot of military terminology so I had a good time quizzing him as I read. I did give up on one chapter, which was written mostly in acronyms. But I think if Klay had explained every term, he couldn’t have written the kind of powerful fiction that’s in this book.
More importantly, realizing how much we don’t know is kind of the point. This book made me think about whether civilians and soldiers inhabit such different worlds we can never understand each other, and that’s a recurring theme in the book. In one chapter it’s a joke: “How many Vietnam vets does it take to change a lightbulb?” “You wouldn’t know, you weren’t there.”
Each story in this collection is powerful, and for me they really grew in intensity. Some of the ones I found most striking were:
- “After Action Report”: about a Marine who takes the credit for another soldier who kills a boy, and then has to deal with the emotional aftermath.
- “Money as a Weapons System”: about bureaucracy and systems-building, and trying to set up programs that help people.
- “Psychological Operations”: about race and religion, political correctness, and dealing with difficult memories.
- “War Stories”: about three friends adjusting to civilian life and how civilians and the media portray war.
- “Unless It’s a Sucking Chest Wound”: about an adjutant adjusting to life in law school, who meets up with an old friend.
- “Ten Kliks South”: about an artillery unit’s first mission and first experience killing insurgents.
Klay’s characters, while all Marines, have different jobs and responsibilities, and have to deal with different types of physical and emotional trauma. Not every veteran has been in combat, or killed people. And yet we tend to see all veterans as the same. Some of Klay’s characters are insecure about these misconceptions, and some use those misconceptions to their advantage (to hit on women, for example). They aren’t all heroes, nor are they all emotionally traumatized or physically violent. Some characters are conflicted about the role they play in the war, whether because of the futility of their efforts, or the relative safety of their position:
…the sound of his voice sending me nostalgic, as if I’m missing Iraq. I’m not. What I’m missing is the idea of Iraq all my civilian friends imagine when they say the word, an Iraq filled with honor and violence, an Iraq I can’t help feeling I should have experienced but didn’t through my own stupid fault, because I went for an MOS that wouldn’t put me in harm’s way. My Iraq was a stack of papers.
I was most interested in the stories relating to the transition from military to civilian life, and as the title suggests, that was certainly one of Klay’s messages. The characters in this book have to constantly fight feelings of isolation as they adapt to the civilian world. They need to tell their stories and don’t always appreciate the response. In “Bodies” a mechanic tells a veteran that he respects what he went through. The response? “I don’t want you to respect what I’ve been through… I want you to be disgusted.”
One thing I appreciated is no character was oversimplified, whether military or civilian. While the civilians often say and do the wrong things, in most cases they are trying and portrayed as well-meaning (such as a character interviewing a burn victim about his injuries in order to put on a play about veterans). And sometimes (many times) the veteran character is conflicted, not sure what he wants to hear.
In “Prayer in the Furnace”, a chaplain says this:
We are part of a long tradition of suffering. We can let it isolate us if we want, but we must realize that isolation is a lie. Consider Owen. Consider that Iraqi father and that American father. Consider their children. Do not suffer alone. Offer suffering up to God, respect your fellow man, and perhaps the sheer awfulness of this place will become a little more tolerable.
I recommended this book to my husband, and while this isn’t his usual type of read, he loved it. Which tells me that Klay has written a book that will have meaning for very different people, whether you’re a veteran or interested in military history or just a reader of good fiction. I think we all have a lot to learn from this book. And I hope this doesn’t sound trite, but I think we owe it to those who serve to at least try to understand their experiences.