When I was in my late teens and early twenties, the war in Vietnam was a throbbing pulse that I tried unsuccessfully to keep buried beneath layers of defiance and hedonism. But the newspapers kept reporting the body counts and publishing photographs of soldiers wounded in battle, of civilians dead at My Lai, and representatives converging on the Paris Peace Talks. I was a skinny, artistic, closeted weakling, and the expectation of traveling to the county seat all alone on a bus to register for the draft on my 18th birthday took all the pleasure out of the notion that I was now entitled to the vote and the purchase of beer at the corner deli. The summer after I turned 20, I was hit in the head by a piece of equipment at the electrical parts factory where I worked, and for a week or so thought I’d punctured an eardrum in the event. The possibility of permanent hearing loss made no difference to the surge of euphoria I felt at realizing I might be disqualified from armed service. And a few years later when the draft lottery was announced and I secured a number just barely high enough to ensure that someone else my age would have to take my place, the relief was more intoxicating than a whole case of brew.
A decade later I came to appreciate my naiveté and my luck at being a member of the educated middle class who never really stood a chance of being shipped off to war. By then, it was the late 70s, and veterans were beginning to enroll at the college I was attending and to appear on the stools at my favorite bar in town. And inevitably, I started to hear a few stories from them. Most of the vets I listened to had provided logistical support of some kind, far enough away from the combat jungles to feel more resentment than fear at the conditions they lived under. Most of them also burned with resentment at the assumptions that civilians everywhere made about their experience of the war. In time, I read Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and Phil Caputo’s A Rumor of War. Eventually I watched the movies, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now. But I was a voyeur. Like Conrad’s Lord Jim, I had jumped.
Forty years later, the war in the Middle East came to me courtesy of CNN, more vivid even than the reportage of Vietnam. And me, more of a voyeur. The literature of these latest conflicts seems to have arrived more slowly. I’ve watched Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker; I’ve also seen innumerable documentaries detailing the business of the Bush Administration. I read Sebastian Junger’s War and Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds, but it seems lie did so from a distance. Junger’s book was lacerating, and just as we cannot really remember pain, I cannot really remember his book. Powers’ novel was beautifully written, but the moments that have stayed with me could have come from almost any novel; those unique to Iraq have somehow faded.
So I’m surprised that Phil Klay’s collection of short stories, Redeployment (Penguin, 2014), whose message seems to be the impossibility of the veteran communicating the experience of war to anyone who did not serve, is still resonating in my head as though it were a cathedral bell—and I had been standing in the tower when it struck.
As I began reading the book, I suddenly realized that I wasn’t exactly sure what the word “redeployment” meant. In the newspapers I’d read about troops being deployed to Iraq, but I couldn’t be sure I could accurately use redeployment in a sentence. So I googled it and landed smack in the middle of a minor flame war. On one side were the veterans who defined it as standard military terminology for troops being returned to the home base from which they were deployed. On the other side were people who claimed it was classic example of politico-military doublespeak, an Orwellian disguise for “retreat.”
And so from the book’s very first word (and also the title of the first story), Klay pitches us into the maelstrom, not so much of misunderstanding as of incommensurable experience. The distance between the soldier and the civilian, between the independent military contractor and the military, between the Marines and the Iraqis, surfaces again and again in these stories. And no matter how hard the parties try, if they try at all, the distance seems unbridgeable, the stories unresolvable.
The narrator of one of the late stories in the collection, “Psychological Operations,” has redeployed from Iraq and enrolled in college under the G. I. Bill. Another first-year student, a young black girl who has recently converted to Islam, reports him to the Dean of Students for engaging in threatening hate speech. The narrator, you see, is Egyptian, and the girl cannot understand how he could have gone to Iraq and murdered members of the Ummah, the supranational community of Muslims. She has made the mistake of assuming that as an Arab he is also a Muslim, when in fact he is a Coptic Christian. After the confrontation in the Dean’s office the two spend a long evening in conversation, although in the end, it is the narrator who does almost all of the talking. He wants to convince her of the reality of his experience and he wants to provoke her, into argument or agreement he’s not quite sure. But finally all she has to say to him is “It’s good you can talk about it.” If there is understanding and communication, it remains unspoken and oblique, aslant like their identities ass a Christian Arab and an American Muslim.
The fluidity of identity is another theme that courses through the book’s stories, and one aspect of that surprised me. The soldier/civilian dichotomy is an easy one to grasp, even when, as in many of the stories, the two have merged for the man who has redeployed, who has come back home. But returning home and being discharged sometimes effects another change in identity: a discharged soldier back from Iraq is no longer simply a civilian, he is a veteran, too. And few of the characters in the book seem to have been prepared for that identity, with its badges and responsibilities. Even to accept a “thank you for your service” can be a complex act, for the veteran knows as little about what the civilian means by that phrase as the civilian does about what that service has entailed. Does anyone expect an Iraq War vet to have spent his tour fixing potholes or running a supply room far from combat? “Thank you for your service” is a code phrase; the sad irony is that all too often neither party is capable of deciphering its meaning.
And that conceit is at the heart of one of the shortest pieces in this collection and one that has been largely maligned in the reviews that I’ve read of Redeployment. “OIF” is a mere four pages long, and if told almost entirely in the initialisms that form a lingua franca for the military. Here are the opening paragraphs that describe the routines of combat during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
EOD handled the bombs. SSTP treated the wounds. PRP processed the bodies. The 08s fired DPICM. The MAW provided CAS. The 03s patrolled the MSRs. Me and PFC handled the money.
If a sheikh supported the ISF, we distributed CERP. If the ESB destroyed a building, we gave fair comp. If the 03s shot a civilian, we paid off the families. That meant leaving the FOB, where it’s safe, and driving the MSRs.
I’ve heard veterans speak like this, without thinking that I wouldn’t catch the meaning, wouldn’t know what an MOS is, for example. Klay here is making a point: either you were there and you understand, or you weren’t and you don’t. But he’s not being cruel, or arrogant. The way in which he piles up one instance of grunt-speak on another ultimately has a humorous effect: it’s almost like a stand-up comedian trying to top himself with every new spitfire line. But the point remains, and “spitfire” isn’t such an inapt analogy. This is serious business. But the fact that Klay can inject some humor is evidence of just how nuanced the writing in this book can be.
“OIF” is about death and glory. It’s about fear and shame, the desire to serve and the desire to live. It’s not impossible to decode, but it takes work.
And that may be what Klay wants to tell us, what his larger project is about in this book. Understanding war and the men who fight it, whatever that encompasses, takes work. That is one of the reasons, I suspect, why Klay has chosen to write short stories rather than a novel, because he needs the multiple points of view this dozen of tales affords him. He needs different voices and different moments on the spectrum of service: fighting, fear, honor, and regret. He shapes a mosaic that does not glitter, but is brilliant nonetheless. I have rarely read a book so fraught with difficulties and dead ends, and so replete with intelligence and nuance and sympathy.