Another paper I did for my class.
In the widening chasm between civilians and soldiers, there’s an IED on the bridge. Phil Klay’s short-story fiction collection, “Redeployment,” blows up platitudes like, “Thank you for your service,” and “Support the troops.” Humans tell stories to make sense of the condition of our being. War changes that dynamic with its inherent unknowableness and extremism. Easily digestible bumper-sticker phrases tell the story we’d prefer to hear, laden with abstractions of heroism, self-sacrifice and patriotic duty. Civilians aren’t interested in examining the contours of the soldiers’ experience in hell. Nor are the soldiers interested in trying to explain, anymore than a lion could articulate the aftertaste of a gazelle on its breath.
Klay served in the U.S. Marines in 2005, joining, he told The Dartmouth, to be part of a cause greater than himself. He served as a public affairs officer, not seeing much action, but certainly hearing stories from fellow soldiers. After his service, Klay earned his MFA in Creative Writing at Hunter College in NYC, completed in 2011. The strongest parts of the collection are when Klay conveys the attitudes, feelings and words of those soldiers, rather than the more creative writing aspect, like characterizing non-soldiers or describing scenes.
For instance, in, “Psychological Operations,” Zara Davies is the cliche characterization of an anti-war college student. She’s converted to Islam and she makes such proclamations as, “It doesn’t matter what the pawns on a chessboard think about how and why they’re being played.” The whole dynamic between Zara and Waguih feels forced, something out of a Lifetime movie, “I’ll push your buttons, you push mine; the crucible of friendship and/or love is born.” Fortunately, we have other sections, like “Prayer in a Furnace,” to show off Klay’s skill.
Peppered throughout the section, especially in the interplay between Rodriguez and the Chaplain, is the style that defines the book: punchy dialogue punctuated with f-bombs and crudeness. The high point of “Redeployment,” comes when the Chaplain, frustrated with his inability to connect the God message to soldiers killing and being killed, gives a gritty sermon. The Chaplain says, “We can either feel isolated, and alone, and lash out at others, or we can realize we’re part of a community.”
Ultimately, the collection of essays amount to navigating the contours of that isolation, whether over there or here at home. The narrator in, “Money as a Weapons System,” has to figure out a way to bureaucratically nation-build a nation the U.S. destroyed. In “Bodies,” the narrator, after returning from his position in Mortuary Affairs, tries to rekindle his high school fling with a girl named Rachel. Then the most awkward, pathetic cuddling happens in Rachel’s basement. Fret not, however, as they remain Facebook friends despite the flame of romance drying out like the Iraqi air.
The best example of the communication divide comes from a short essay called, “OIF,” where Klay gives the reader an abundance of military acronyms, some familiar and most not. The point being, the military not only has their jargon civilians can’t understand, but the military has its jargon for euphemistically glossing over the essence of military service: killing and being killed.
Klay has presented us a way of breaking the code of silence between the military and civilians; the sort of arrangement that says, hey, let’s not talk about this. It’s not a picture one can gaze upon easily. It’s filled with Marine grunts bantering with f-bombs galore and blatant misogyny. Or the descriptions of injured soldiers, like Jenks in, “War Stories,” where he’s described as having no hair and no ears. To be fair, hell never did promote itself as paradise.
Written 11 years after the first bombs dropped on Iraq, “Redeployment,” presents the uncomfortable reality that most Americans languish in the cognitive dissonance of a war not at their shores. For the men and women that served, again and again, the war is always at their shores, seeped into their brains. Klay’s book with such critical acclaim, like being the winner of the National Book Award in 2014, ought to bring more clarity to the conversation. The book is not about the messiness of whether we ought to have gone there or not; it’s about “now what.” As in, we sent them over there, they did, saw and had horrible atrocities done to them, now what?
We look. We listen. We read. We owe them that much, at least.