Redeployment

  • Phil Klay
  • Penguin Press
  • 304 pages

These stories of combat veterans’ experiences go to the heart not just of war, but of how people act in impossible circumstances.

The first question asked of every military veteran returning from war is, “What was it like?”  It’s a tough question to answer, but Iraq war veteran Phil Klay does just that with his book of short stories, Redeployment. The author served in the Marine Corps from 2005-9, including a period of deployment to Iraq as a public affairs officer. After getting out, he went to Hunter College and received an MFA in writing — he apparently already had his sights set on telling the story of his war.  

Redeployment is his debut collection of 12 short stories chronicling the experiences of men going to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and what happens when they come home. When I picked up the book, I expected to see 12 stories about military officers. Although the enlisted make up the majority of the military and form its working core, few books, in my experience, tell their stories.

In contrast, Redeployment surprised me by its representation of a broad range of the military. “Prayer in the Furnace,” narrated by a chaplain, is the strongest of the stories. It involves the ethics of violence in war and what violating those ethics does to those who serve. At what point  does the violence needed for war become too violent?  “Money as a Weapons System” has a Foreign Service officer dealing with a civil affairs officer who is more interested in putting a positive spin on projects than actually completing them. “Psychological Operations” uses a college campus setting for the complex issue of Muslims fighting Muslims, an issue that the military faces, in various permutations, in every war.

The only voice completely absent is that of military women, and this is a disappointing omission. More than 200,000 women are active duty members of the military, but their voices and experiences still are often not represented.

Redeployment focuses on the impossible experience of war and the tension of trying to be a human being within it. The stories are accurate — they have, as the military mantra says, “attention to detail” — but they are almost too relentless for a reader curious about what that particular war was like. Rather than drawing us into the war experience gradually, the stories hit with a bruising one-two punch and don’t wait for us to recover. Readers may find themselves longing for a bit of humor or the brightness of hope.

For non-military readers, the jargon throughout may be an issue. This is where Klay’s precision and “attention to detail” work against the stories. Not all the jargon is obvious in context, even for me, with a military background. Readers unfamiliar with the military may struggle with some of the terms.

As a veteran of the first Persian Gulf War, I wanted to see something in these stories that would tell me these human beings will be okay in the future, that they will survive. The stories are very immediate, and there’s an undercurrent of anger that comes with being fresh from combat, when the experiences of war are so sharp they still cut. Perspective of time will change the views, and I look forward to the military stories that I hope Klay will tell in the coming years.

But, hopelessness aside, Klay set out to convey what war is like for the veteran. We all imagine soldiers marching off to war and marching back in triumph, but we neglect what happens in between, or afterward. “Prayer in the Furnace” shows us one slice of that experience: 

“I had at least thought there would be nobility in war. I know it exists. There are so many stories, and some of them have to be true. But I see mostly normal men, trying to do good, beaten down by horror, by their inability to quell their own rages, but their masculine posturing and their so-called hardness, their desire to be tough, and therefore crueler, than their circumstances.”

There are not enough voices speaking about war and what happens to people at war. Klay’s is one to pay attention to for his insight and his courage in writing about matters that go to the heart not just of war, but of how people act in impossible circumstances.

Linda Adams is a veteran of the first Persian Gulf War, when women at war still seemed like a strange and new thing. Her short stories have been published in Enchanted Spark and Fabula Argentea and will be included in the University of Nebraska Press anthology Red, White, and True: Stories from Veterans and Families, World War II to Present, due out in August 2014.

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