My first encounter with Phil Klay’s book of short stories about Iraq, “Redeployment,” was a few weeks back.
I had been invited by one of my professors at Georgetown to talk about my experiences overseas as a Marine infantryman and how I processed them, namely through writing. In conjunction with my visit, she had assigned her freshman-writing seminar an essay I wrote for the New York Times “At War” blog and Klay’s book, which last week was named a finalist for the National Book Awards.
As the class started and the students started asking questions, it was obvious they had invested something in “Redeployment.”
Klay’s writing had penetrated that thick fog of freshman year and exposed something that many veterans swear doesn’t exist in their college-bound counterparts: empathy.
With a live subject of Klay’s writing in front them, they spent that next hour and 15 minutes asking about war. Not the “No sh–, there I was” stories; they wanted the ones they could feel, the stories that can make people stare at the ceiling long after the lights are turned off.
One student with a crop of dusty brown hair and a Nantucket T-shirt asked about one of Klay’s stories in which his protagonist, a Marine, shoots a teenager with an AK-47.
He couldn’t understand why the Marine, after shooting the teen, felt remorse.
“He had a weapon, and he shot him,” he said. “That’s war, right?”
To some, yes, but to Klay, his war was never that simple. As a public affairs officer who traveled to various parts of Iraq, it was never about one experience, but rather, an attempt to understand many.
“War is complicated and intense and it takes time and thoughts to understand what it was,” Klay said in an interview. “You have to imagine yourself in other heads.”
It was Klay’s desire to get into other heads that birthed “Redeployment,” a 300-page collection of stories that gives the reader a number of camera angles on a war that probably requires a million.
Klay, 31, who grew up in New York before attending Dartmouth College and serving in the Marines, will tell you up front that he wasn’t in the thick of it. To get war right, he drew on his own experiences of traversing Iraq during the dark days of 2007, and also a painstaking amount of research.
“I did a lot of interviews and probably rewrote each story 15 to 20 times,” Klay said. “I had a friend figure out that he had read 90,000 words for one story and the whole book is only 77,000 words long.”
As Klay accrued interviews and his stories took shape, he found that the way he perceived his own war and the events he was writing about changed as he kept writing.
“Invariably, whatever idea I had about things when I started out, the process of writing the story and doing the research for the story would completely alter my sense of what this war was all about before,” he said.
But while war is a large focus of “Redeployment,” Klay also addresses the homecoming experience — something he thinks is just as important to the soldier’s identity as fighting the war itself.
“You come from this environment where decisions are measured in lives,” Klay said. “And then you come back to a country that is extremely removed from that and it’s a strange, strange situation to be in.”
This stark juxtaposition of the two worlds, the front and the home front, became clear to Klay when he was on leave in the middle of his yearlong Iraq deployment. Before flying home, he had watched a Marine die in a field hospital; seven days later as he strolled down Madison Avenue, he remembered feeling that “it seemed like our country wasn’t at war at all.”
“I think that changed relationship to America is pretty central to many veterans’ experience of coming home,” he added.
Yet, for Klay, “Redeployment” isn’t an extension of his experience, nor is it something he wrote to rectify his war. Instead, the more he worked on the book, the more he realized that it was anything but cathartic.
“It made me angry, it opened up a lot more questions about the war,” Klay said. “But it was exactly what I wanted to do, what I felt I needed to do….But not everything in life is about feeling better, either about yourself or the world.”