I’m tired of telling war stories,” says a narrator in Phil Klay’s powerful debut collection, Redeployment. Like most of the characters in these dozen first-person tales, he’s a veteran of the Iraq War – in this case, a Marine back home in New York struggling to reconnect with civilians, frustrated by the cold curiosity, the knee-jerk sympathy, the discomfort his stories elicit. But like all the narrators here, he keeps telling them anyway, trying again and again to get across something essential. In a book that’s drawing comparisons to classic war literature like Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, Klay examines the deep conflict, in all of us, between wanting to tell our stories and wanting to protect them from being diminished or misunderstood.
Klay, 30, grew up in suburban New York and joined the Marines while attending Dartmouth. “I signed up in 2003, as the case was being made to invade Iraq. I thought, regardless of whether it was a good idea, I could be part of the moment, try to impact it in some positive way. And I liked the ethos of the Marines. I’m a physical guy – I was a boxer, played rugby.” Klay’s duties as a public affairs officer in Iraq from 2007 to 2008 gave him access to a wide range of people – troops, Iraqis, contractors, medics, embedded journalists. That diversity of experience is reflected in a collection that ranges from the horrific to the ironic, from military bravado to the suffering of Iraqi civilians, from the battlefield to the home front.
In the title story, a vet struggles with the abrupt transition to civilian life: One moment he’s in the desert, shooting dogs to keep them from eating Iraqi corpses; the next, he’s walking through a Jacksonville mall, scanning the windows for snipers. Klay also writes about the banality of war, but in these honed stories, even the lull between battles vibrates with energy, with a “kind of low-grade terror that mixes with the boredom.” There’s dark humor, too: In “Money as a Weapons System,” a foreign service officer finds himself in a Helleresque nightmare of wartime bureaucracy, determined to get an abandoned water-treatment plant running but ordered to focus on teaching baseball to Iraqi kids (because a wealthy Congressional patron insists the American pastime is the gateway to democracy).
While Klay had trouble writing overseas – “You just don’t have the space of mind” – he kept careful notes and on his return did extensive research, including talking to other veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. He hopes Redeployment will help inspire a dialogue about the wars. In a nation with an all-volunteer military, ever fewer Americans are directly involved in the wars we wage. For Klay, reaching out to them is critical. “It’s very frightening to try to express something that feels so important to you, that’s difficult or that you have a lot of pride in, or a strange mix of all these things. But the only other option is staying quiet, not feeling able to be known by other people. It’s my offering to the conversation – I want people to engage with it.”