In Redeployment, Phil Klay joins some heady company in American writing about war. His short stories here may be favorably compared with those of Tim O’Brien in The Things They Carried or with E.B. Sledge’s memoir, With the Old Breed. Unlike them, however, Klay allows twelve different narrators to tell their stories. The stories do not present the same scene from twelve different perspectives. Each narrator has his own unique story to tell about the early years of the war in Iraq—different places, people, circumstances, and times. The stories often connect events in Iraq to the American home front—Marines returning from Iraq, Marines preparing to redeploy to Iraq, an ex-Marine discovering his Marine identity while in law school. Winner of the National Book Award for fiction, Klay’s Redeployment is neither for the timid nor the easily offended.
In After Action Report, Suba, a Marine MP, recounts the day that his armored vehicle was blown up by an IED. In the succeeding chaos both he and Timhead, his roommate, return fire towards a building fifty meters away obscured by smoke and dust. Timhead aims at a person. Suba follows suit but doesn’t see anyone. Soon they discover that Timhead has shot and killed a nine-year old boy who was firing a semi-automatic rifle at the Marines. Timhead, shaken and remorseful, asks Suba to take credit for the shooting which Suba does. His acquiescence makes the after action report, a hallowed part of military record keeping, into a mockery. The Iraqi boy is also the first “enemy” killed by the Marine MP unit. The remainder of the story concerns the repercussions of these events, particularly the deception, on the two men and their relationships. Suba doesn’t know what to make of his newly acquired “hero” status as the first Marine in the unit to make a kill. His sergeant talks to him about the fog of war. He consults a chaplain in a vain attempt to learn something he can tell Timhead to relieve him of his apparent but unacknowledged guilt. Timhead’s response to Suba’s efforts is to deny all and to lose himself in his video games. Suba seems lost in the futility of his self-reflection.
Klay’s characters have all experienced the crucible of war in one way or another and in Oliver Wendell Holmes’s words, their “hearts were touched with fire.” A Union survivor of the Civil War (grievously wounded at Antietam), Holmes became a spokesman for the Grand Army of the Republic in later years. (He was also a noted Supreme Court Justice.) For him “touched with fire” connoted glory, a war fought for a worthy cause, and “passion of life [experienced] to its top.” Klay’s characters have hearts “touched by fire” but the fire they feel seems less about passion and high emotion than it is about damage or disorientation or ambivalence.
The Iraq War fire burns no hotter than that of the Civil War but leaves scars mixed with regretful memories. They return home to hear “thank you for your service” but that, too, seems beside the point. Klay’s Marines (and one foreign service officer) are not apologetic for their experiences and attitudes, but neither are they satisfied. At some level they miss the intensity provided by deployment. In one case, an ex-Marine officer envies a friend’s combat experiences, ones that he never had from behind his administrative desk in Fallujah.
One of Klay’s characters says of war movies: “There are no anti-war movies.” So it is with these stories. These are not anti-war stories. Pro and anti are civilian categories, mostly irrelevant in the moments of and the moments after the intensity of modern urban warfare. -Neal Ferguson
2014 NATIONAL BOOK AWARD WINNER, FICTION