Tim O'Brien taught us "How to Tell a True War Story." His short story, now more than 25 years old and part of "The Things They Carried," instructed:
A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a war story seems moral, do not believe it.
In "Redeployment," Phil Klay follows in O'Brien's tradition, unspooling visceral truth about the Iraq War in a dozen fictional stories. These stories — caked in dust and sweat, stinking of death and bureaucratic rot — are not moral, but they are driven to parse out morality's place during wartime.
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.
Klay, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq and received a master of fine arts from Hunter College, shifts point of view throughout the collection. The reader sees the war and its consequences from the perspective of infantrymen, a chaplain and a foreign service officer whose reconstruction efforts are frustrated to the point of near futility. At times, Klay offers glimpses of uninvolved Americans through his characters' filters.
In a New York Times op-ed last month, Klay wrote of the "especially discordant note" struck when a civilian tells him, "I could never imagine what you've been through." He wrote, "(I)t's the civilian counterpart to the veteran's 'You wouldn't know, you weren't there.'" Klay seems determined to bridge this yawning gap with "Redeployment." His characters demand empathy from one another, and in turn, from us.
In "Prayer in the Furnace," a chaplain receives a letter of guidance from his mentor back home:
The sense that I am alone, that none can hear me, none can understand, that no one answers my cries, it is a sickness over which, to borrow from Bernanos, "the vast tide of divine love, that sea of living, roaring flame which gave birth to all things, passes vainly." Your job, it seems, would be to find a crack through which some sort of communication can be made, one soul to another.
Klay excavates this crack, inviting us to imagine the trauma of shooting dogs that eat corpses, clearing a house of suspected insurgents and collecting the mangled bodies of fellow soldiers — and then what it would mean to return home to shopping malls and ex-girlfriends. In each of these stories, characters — often 19-year-old kids — struggle with what Iraq demands of them.
There is humanity here, as in "After Action Report," when one soldier takes responsibility for the (justifiable) shooting of a teenage Iraqi so his friend won't have to. There are questions of guilt here, as in "Psychological Operations," where a soldier questions the honor in taunting men literally to death. There is also sharp writing here, as in "FRAGO," in which Klay strings together military jargon into a rat-a-tat rhythm that amps up tension while insulating the reader from the violence that's about to ensue. "SALUTE report says there's a fire team-sized element armed with AKs, RPKs, RPGs, maybe a Dragunov."
"Redeployment" ends with one the collection's most powerful stories, "Ten Kliks South," which can be read as an allegory for the disconnect between the front lines and the homefront, the disproportionate burden on servicemen. It opens on an artillery unit that has just completed its first mission:
This morning our gun dropped about 270 pounds of ICM on a smuggler's checkpoint ten kliks south of us. We took out a group of insurgents and then we went to the Fallujah chow hall for lunch. I got fish and lima beans. I try to eat healthy.
One of the men who loaded the gun — it takes six men to operate it — wanders away after lunch, "like I'm finally fully awake." Their target had been six miles away, and although command had confirmed the hit, the mission feels disembodied, so to speak. So our lance corporal goes in search of casualties, but he doesn't find the ones he's looking for.
Instead, he stumbles upon a stretcher draped with the American flag. "Everything was silent, still. All down the road, Marines and sailors had snapped to," Klay writes. "Everywhere it went, Marines and sailors and soldiers and airmen would have stood at attention as it traveled to the family of the fallen, where the silence, the stillness would end."
Klay knows how to tell a true war story, because he knows the truth about war stories. O'Brien put it so well:
(I)n the end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It's about sunlight. It's about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do. It's about love and memory. It's about sorrow. It's about sisters who never write back and people who never listen.
Jennifer Day is editor of Printers Row Journal.
By Phil Klay, Penguin, 291 pages, $26.95