At one point in “Redeployment,” the extraordinarily powerful debut collection of short stories by Phil Klay, a former military PsyOps specialist refers to an old joke: “How many Vietnam vets does it take to screw in a lightbulb? You wouldn’t know, you weren’t there.”
This character, who has recently traded the real bullets of Iraq for the rhetorical bullets of Amherst College (where he takes classes like “Punishment, Politics, and Culture”), has seen his share of wartime horrors. But that doesn’t stop him from appreciating the way the joke’s punch line gets at a truth that he and all of the other battle-hardened characters in Klay’s book understand: To those lucky men and women who survive, war grants a lifetime supply of gravitas — perfect for starting, or for stopping, almost any conversation.
In these dozen stories, Klay draws from his own experience as a U.S. Marine captain to give us one of the most compelling depictions to date of the Iraq war, and especially of the psychic toll it continues to exact on those who fought in it. In this regard, “Redeployment” will inevitably draw comparisons to “The Things They Carried” (1990), Tim O’Brien’s masterful evocation of the Vietnam War. Somewhat remarkably, given Klay’s age (he’s only 30) and his admittedly mild deployment in Iraq (one defined mostly, he has written, by “long hours at a cheap plywood desk in a cheap plywood hut”), the comparison is apt. Have you been seeking the Tim O’Brien or the Joseph Heller or the Erich Maria Remarque for our foray into Iraq? Mission accomplished.
Although they hail from different generations and fought in different battles, O’Brien and Klay share a burden that the fiction-writing chroniclers of World War II (think James Jones or Herman Wouk) didn’t have to endure: serious doubts about the legitimacy of their war’s underlying casus belli. A warrior’s ambivalence, however, is a writer’s gold mine. Klay’s graphic but concise depictions of firefights and IED attacks are terrifically tense. His ear for the poetically profane language of gun-toting grunts, high on adrenaline and their government’s permission to take out the bad guys, is unerring. But in story after story, after he has ably fulfilled the nonnegotiable requirements of the war-fiction genre, he gets down to the melancholy business at hand: exploring what it really means not only to train young men to kill strangers but to encourage those young men to shout with glee and high-five one another upon doing so.
That experience makes for difficult transitions between worlds. In the book’s first story, a Marine returns home from Fallujah to Camp Lejeune — and to his wife — and tries to make sense of daily life in the absence of mortal danger. He reaches for his gun and is repeatedly startled to discover that it’s not there. Gradually, he accepts that his time in Iraq has altered him, irrevocably, at the basic sensory-processing level. “You don’t see or hear like you used to,” he notes in his self-diagnosis. Back in Fallujah, he says, “I could spot a dime in the street twenty yards away. I had antennae out that stretched down the block.” Now he’s trying on clothes inside the cramped dressing room of an American Eagle Outfitters and feeling like he never wants to come out.
For him and others who have endured what he’s been through, the post-traumatic stress disorder they bring back home doesn’t necessarily feel like a disorder: It just feels like being fully awake and doing one’s job. When the same Marine must later make what seems like a heart-wrenchingly difficult decision, his training kicks in reflexively. What would for most other people constitute a thorny existential question registers for him as a purely practical one. Like any good Marine, he has been taught to break emergent crises down into simple binaries and subject them to instantaneous cost-benefit analysis. Or, as a character in the story “After Action Report” puts it: “There aren’t a lot of times in your life that come down to, Do I press this button?” When you’re a Marine sniper, and when the button in question is actually a trigger, thin-slicing becomes more than a Malcolm Gladwell buzzword: It becomes a strategy for survival.
It’s not only the grunts getting an unsentimental education in Klay’s Iraq. In the story “Prayer in the Furnace,” a Marine chaplain is sickened by his unit’s moral mission creep — from peacekeeping to acts of aggression to what sounds a lot like war crimes. When he voices his concerns to the unit’s top brass, he discovers that inertia and professional jealousy are by no means limited to civilian workplaces. And in what may be this collection’s richest and most fully realized story, “Money as a Weapons System,” a Foreign Service officer is gradually made to understand how small-bore politics and bureaucratic bean-counting have combined to make the postwar rebuilding effort into a horrendously wasteful free-for-all. The Iraqis need potable water and adequate health care; meanwhile, he’s under pressure from the State Department and self-interested lawmakers back home to teach these desperate people “job-creating” beekeeping skills and introduce them to the character-strengthening institution of baseball.
“There’s a perversity in me that, when I talk to conservatives, makes me want to bash the war and, when I talk to liberals, defend it.” That’s how the self-aware PsyOps specialist-turned-Amherst undergrad sums up his ambivalence about his service to his country. Conservative and liberal civilians may not get it. But Phil Klay, whose admiration and affection for his fellow Marines is as clear as his worry that they may have ultimately been misused, certainly gets it.
Our fighting men and women deserve many things, from ticker-tape parades to decent veterans’ benefits to truthful rationales from the policymakers who send them into harm’s way. But at the very least, they deserve the right to challenge the perceptions of anyone who wasn’t there.
Turrentine, an editor at OnEarth, is a frequent Book World reviewer.
On Thursday March 13 at 7 p.m., Phil Klay will be at Politics and Prose Bookstore (202-364-1919). On Friday March 14 at 7 p.m., he will be in conversation with novelist Jennifer Vanderbes at the Hill Center at the Old Naval Hospital (202-549-4172).
By Phil Klay
Penguin Press. 291 pp. $26.95