Here's an old joke you may have heard: "How many Vietnam vets does it take to screw in a light bulb?" Answer: "You wouldn't know, you weren't there."
This joke gets told in Redeployment, a stingingly sharp short story collection that itself addresses the gap between the American soldiers who've fought in Iraq and those of us back home. It was written by Phil Klay who does know because he was there. After graduating from Dartmouth, he enlisted in the Marines and served as a public affairs officer in Anbar province during the 2007 troop surge. Klay's time there gave him something valuable that, consciously or not, he was surely looking for — great material.
Of course, countless writers start with great material and reduce it to mulch. Klay takes his experience and clarifies it, lucidly tracing the moral, political and psychological curlicues of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Like Tim O'Brien in his great Vietnam book, The Things They Carried, Klay is conscious of how lived life gets translated into stories.
His first-person tales take us inside an array of characters, from a Marine who tells us about handling dead bodies to a chaplain offering guidance to soldiers whose closeness to violent death makes them skeptical about God.
In the blackly hilarious story "Money As A Weapons System," a provincial reconstruction official tries to rebuild the area near Tikrit only to have a fortune in American aid be lost to local corruption and an American millionaire's demented mission to teach the Iraqis baseball. The wrenching title story, "Redeployment," begins the whole book with two short, chilling sentences — "We shot dogs. Not by accident." — and weaves this into a metaphor for both the war and for returning home.
Now, writers in earlier times often took a grand, even godlike view of war — think of Leo Tolstoy in War And Peace — or at least they stayed comfortably inside the action in novels like Norman Mailer's The Naked And The Dead or James Jones' The Thin Red Line. War stories these days tend to be fractured and self-conscious, as if a grand overview would be false. Klay quite pointedly doesn't offer a big vision, only a mosaic of smaller ones. In fact, what makes him so good is the way he can carry us from the battlefield to the strip bar, from the funny to the harrowing to the heartbreaking.
This may have something to do with the nature of America's most recent wars. Where World War II felt conceptually clean — our soldiers were fighting an evil enemy's army — the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan have been anything but. They've involved moving among civilians you're theoretically trying to save but who may try to kill you — and whom you may kill back, sometimes accidentally. Such warfare is more surreal than clean. And it feels even more disorienting when, stoked by video games, knocked out by Ambien and speaking in the obfuscating patois of military acronyms, the soldiers are performing a dangerous and brutal mission they suspect their country doesn't really believe in and would rather not think about. Heck, Americans won't even go to movies about our ongoing wars.
Klay makes you feel the physical and psychic cost demanded of our soldiers in Iraq. And he may be even better on what it means to return to an America that pays gaudy lip service to honoring the troops yet doesn't try to understand their service. Because we have a volunteer army, our soldiers and vets remain weirdly invisible to their fellow countrymen
Some of Redeployment's keenest moments show us returning soldiers' frustrations in trying to communicate their disturbing, often ineffable experience to people who greet them with clichés, however well-meaning. As one vet tells us, "There's a perversity in me that, when I talk to conservatives, makes me want to bash the war, and when I talk to liberals, defend it."
Redeployment is so wonderfully written, it's a pleasure to read. Yet it's hard not to be saddened by what an ill-conceived mess the war in Iraq proved to be. After so much money and sacrifice, you'd hope to wind up with stories happier than the ones Klay tells us. Which isn't to say that he smacks us with an obvious or strident political message. On the contrary, you're struck by the gnawing, sometimes stunned ambivalence that Klay's characters feel about the whole enterprise. His vets usually wind up feeling diminished, even soiled by what they had to do in Iraq, but also superior to the America they were doing it for.
"You risked your life for something bigger than yourself," one explains. "How many people can say that?"