The war in Iraq was monumental in my life. Not in the sense that I knew anybody who shipped off and never came back. It didn’t even give me a sense of patriotism pulsing though my body. They were just there, looming over my life in a post-9/11 world. I picked up Phil Klay’s short story collection Redeployment because I read a review claiming it was the first book to shed a light on these wars with a realness than no other writer has yet to capture.
In a sense, it did. I read twelve short stories that were honest, but before I can praise them and tell you why you should read this book, I think it’s best to say what didn’t work and just get that out of the way. Klay is a veteran. He is a member of the U.S. Marine Corps and served in Iraq before getting an MFA from Hunter College. He knows what it is like to be over there. His stories sound like a veteran relaying them to the audience. Each story is told in the first person, and as far as I can tell, they are all mostly white, young kids. This isn’t bad, but each narrator – though they had different jobs and experiences while in Iraq, feels like the same extension of Klay. Sometimes the stories feel repetitive. Sometimes I question whether or not it’s the same voice over and over again. Then I realize that maybe that’s the point. We’re tying all of these experiences together to show one common bond. The other aspect of the collection that was troublesome to me was the use of acronyms that soldiers use. While this gave off the sense of realness that was praised by so many, it was difficult for me to understand what ECW, CASEVAC, MRAP, TQ, or countless others meant. It made me scratch my head, but it didn’t take me out of the story altogether.
For the most part, the collection was stellar. There were some stories that dragged and didn’t hold my interest, but then there were ones that made me angry, distraught, and there was one even one point where I laughed out loud. One common theme I noticed was, of course, the discussion of PTSD. A lot of the stories took place outside of Iraq. The narrators were stateside after their deployment. While the stories themselves grappled with PTSD, the narrator themselves almost always said that they didn’t have it. Narrators questioned the war, but a lot of them defended it.
I have a few friends who served some time, in some capacity, throughout the last decade. They all talk the same way Klay’s narrators talk. Maybe not to the extreme – like I’ve never heard someone refer to an Iraqi as a hajji – but in some sense of their voice. So again, all of the narrators sounded the same, but if you can get past the lack of diversity, some stories really pop off of the page.
Standouts include the first story, which is where the collection takes its name from, “Redeployment.” It is the typical post-war homecoming tale, but really sets the tone for the entire collection. It’s short and raw. There are no frills when it comes to Klay’s stories, and this is perhaps the pinnacle of his writings. “Bodies,” which is about a soldier whose job was to clean up dead bodies off of the streets, offers the most intimacy of the collection. “In Vietnam We Had Whores” is a solid look at the different generations war has effected, while “Prayer in the Furnace” was one of stories that best highlighted actual time spent in Iraq.
Phil Klay’s collection does in fact offer a real look into the Iraq war. But it doesn’t read like a patriotic war story. Instead, it attempts to humanize the soldiers. Klay tries, and succeeds, in putting us in the mind of men in the Army and Marines. I’ll never be able to relate to my friends who spent time in the Middle East, but Phil Klay’s book let’s me know that it’s okay that I won’t. And sometimes it’s best not to try.