Redeployment sells itself on the cover as being the real deal. I think that’s a fair enough assessment.
This is a collection of short narratives – some running to a dozen pages or more; others just a page or two. Each tells a story of American involvement in Iraq from a different perspective. Understandably, most are voices from the military, although there is the occasional voice from the civilian involvement.
Phil Klay avoids the temptation to create heroes or play politics. Naturally some of the narratives involve doing heroic things, but these are outweighed by the stories of medics, body collection, office jockeys and logistics. The narratives feel authentic and don’t waste time with background information or explanations. One (mercifully short) story is told almost entirely in indecipherable acronyms.
Despite the variety of narratives and voices, the striking point is that the participants’ motivations are almost always personal, and often venal. There is no hint of creating a stronger community; of ridding the world of weapons of mass destruction; of promoting democracy; or protecting the Kurds. Even when coming under direct fire, the motivation is purely on protecting colleagues, winning medals or impressing girlfriends.
Some of the narrators are more likeable than others; and a couple are completely repellent. But they are never less than totally engaging. Despite the commonality between the narratives, they never feel repetitive; never feel too longwinded; yet always feel complete. The language seems spot on and it can be difficult to believe these are not direct transcripts of interviews given to camera.
The result is a multi-faceted picture of the US engagement; of the challenges faced by those involved in the operations; and the struggles they face in readapting to a normal life when they return home. Of course, one can always point to missing perspectives but for all that, it is worth celebrating the many perspectives that are included. It is the most complete fictional portrayal I have found of the current US engagement in Iraq and, Richard House’s The Kills apart, the most credible.
on 27 April 2014
Authentic and very moving. What is it, about War, that it brings out the best and the worst and (still) remains one of the major experiences that bring us face to face with the deepest moral issues? I treasure this collection and have recommended it to many others.
on 1 November 2015
Not my normal cup of tea, but I picked it up to read as it has been short listed for the Warwick Prize for Writing. The cover and blurb suggest this is going to be a succession of tales of suffering infantrymen but it has a far richer cast of protagonists with chaplains, civil servants, pysc-ops specialists, and body clearers also taking centre stage.
For me there are two absolute stand out stories in this collection. “Money as a Weapons System” which is a tale about reconstruction attempts that is the closet the collection gets to comedy, and provides gives an opportunity for almost every faction and function in the conflict to be held up to ridicule. I particularly loved the relatively briefly appearing but long suffering interpreter. “Prayer in the Furnace” by contrast is a tale of the anguished attempts by a military Chaplain to do and say the right thing. The collection is worth reading for those two stories alone.
A dozen often bleak and brutal stories carry an authentic ring based on the author’s first-hand experience as a marine in Iraq. Although it is deliberate in the case of “OIF”, some are too cluttered with military acronyms, either meaningless or distracting if you pause to work them out or look them up. Others which focus on the fighting have nowhere to go after ramming home the way young soldiers are trained as unquestioning killing machines, kept in this state by psychopathic officers, then swear, take drugs and get drunk to blunt their fear, guilt and confusion.
What held me more were the issues raised by the “redeployment” of the title : how these men might deal with the return to “normal” life and communicate with non-combatants.
The brilliant opening story, “Redeployment”, describes with great clarity and insight a young man’s sensations on returning home from a seven month stint in Iraq. Having been trained to function at an “orange” level of alert all the time, he cannot adjust at first to a world of people “who’ve spent their whole lives on white”. He cannot cope with walking down the high street alone, rather than in a line of men, each detailed to scan ahead at a different level: tops of buildings, lower windows or at street level. “You startle ten times checking” for the gun that is no longer there. By the end of the trip, the man is too “amped up” to drive. “I would have gone at a hundred miles an hour.”
In “War Stories”, a young man whose face has been hideously scarred agrees to be interviewed by a chilly young actress “with a splinter of ice in her heart” who wants to use his experiences for a play. She is only interested in the drama of his injury, so never discovers his pragmatic decision, being unlikely to “pull” a girl like her, to give his undamaged sperm to a bank, so that his genes can be passed on in a new life. “I’ll have some baby out there. Some little Jenks. Won’t be called Jenks, but I can't have everything, can I?”
I also recommend “Prayer in a Furnace” where a sensitive and well-intentioned chaplain’s faith is unequal to dealing with the horror which a cynical young soldier confesses to him, and “Psychological Operations” which explores the complex emotions of an American of Coptic Egyptian origins who, because of his assumed knowledge of Arabic, is sent to deliver propaganda which involves insulting Iraqi extremists to goad them into coming out to die under fire.
Less harrowing than the other stories, but chilling beneath its humour is, “Money as a weapons system” in which an idealistic man sent out on a “Provincial Reconstruction Team” learns painful lessons over the extent of corruption, tribal division and American ignorance which bedevil any serious attempt to rebuild the country.
I don’t know how cathartic is was for Phil Klay to write this, but it would be a mistake to “write these stories off” as the scripts for yet another violent war film – into which they could well be twisted. Most of them provide salutary lessons on the folly of ill-prepared engagement in Iraq.
'Redeployment' is a collection of short stories linked by the theme of the second Iraq War. Each story is told in the voice of a different person. The narrators are all male, and are either serving Marines or closely and recently associated with the military. These voices necessarily have a certain uniformity of tone, but the speakers represent different arms and ranks, and over the length of the book the reader is given a fairly wide view. I say fairly wide, because the views of officers are largely unrepresented, as more expectedly are those of women, American civilians and Iraqis. The focus is firmly on the experience of service, and the aftermath of service: the perspective is that of the lower and middle ranks – infantrymen, specialists, NCOs, occasionally a lieutenant – and so of men in their late teens and early twenties. The atmosphere of their virtually all-male environment, with its easy obscenity and pervasive military jargon, will be familiar to anyone who has read fiction written during the last century on the subject of men at war.
The stories are broadly in the confessional mode familiar from journalism, in which the author merely records the other's words, refraining from intrusion and comment. The reader must read between the lines to infer the author's purpose and detect a connecting thread. This is standard writing workshop stuff: show, don't tell. Klay has been open about the amount of research his writing demanded, and the payoff is there, in that the scenarios Klay describes feel both authentically detailed and lived. (In one of the more successful stories, Klay makes use of the military's weakness for jargon by giving us a narrator whose every third or fourth word is an acronym, with no explanation provided. The reader immediately feels the distancing effect of this 'precise', 'efficient' language, and how it allows men to keep the truth of their actions at a bearable distance. The book as a whole could have done with more moments like this.)
'Redeployment' is competently written, and very readable. Nonetheless, there are two large problems here. One is that there is already a considerable body of first-rate nonfiction writing, and a little fiction, about the Iraq conflict, to which 'Redeployment' quite frankly makes rather a small addition. The second is that there is an even larger body of fictional and nonfictional writing about the experience of serving in the American military. Particularly relevant is that produced by veterans of the Vietnam War, which casts a long shadow over later writers. For any reader familiar with that literature, 'Redeployment' will provide a strong sense of déjà vu, and more importantly a feeling that one has seen this done elsewhere and with greater power. Klay's indignation at, for example, the amoral careerism of some senior officers, or the military's indifference to the difficulties of reintroducing able-bodied but psychologically traumatized veterans to a society for which war is something that happens on television, is clearly felt: but it has been rehearsed before, and to far greater effect, by other writers. The points that Klay makes are valid, but he lacks both the authorial equipment to make them fictionally compelling and the sheer rage that drives the best earlier accounts.
The sticking point for me was that even at the end it was never completely clear to me why these stories were being told as fiction. Klay has limited talents as a writer of fiction, or he has laboured hard to conceal them. The stories read like good, honest reportage: but there is nothing compellingly fictional about them. In fact, one of the oddities of this book was that, like a collection of journalistic articles, it had no detectable artistic structure. The individual stories accumulate, rather than build or coalesce: the pieces never make a picture. The impression is of material filling a book, rather than of a book conceived as such.
The stories in 'Redeployment' are worth reading, for anybody interested in the subject of the tales, rather than the manner of their telling. In its rather detached way, it provides a truthful account of one kind of contemporary war. Nonetheless, this debut volume isn't the stuff of prize-winning fiction. I can only see the book's recent triumph in the National Book Awards only as an instance of patriotism winning out over aesthetic sense.
on 8 February 2015
Phil Klay's short stories cover a wide range of experiences of the Iraq war. These range from those who killed insurgents in firefights to artillery men to those engaged in psychological warfare and chaplains. And of course the aftermath of adjusting to civilian life and maybe doing so after eg terrible burns. There is a wide range of imaginative identification and also a sense of the reality of the war in each story.
This is a very impressive achievement and I look forward to his next book.
on 23 February 2015
A very good collection of short stories. Initially, whilst reading the first story, I felt that this would be a jargon laden ordeal. Thankfully, I was wrong. Each story is different, yet, together act to build a multi dimensional view of war and the effects of war. A well worthwhile read- found it difficult to put down
on 10 June 2014
It is through the filter of art, rather than terse, academic accounts, that history increasingly gets judged. Facts may blur and the truth warp through re-telling, like in Chinese whispers, but that is how the past is received, down the passage of time. As sports pundits often quip, ‘…the winners laugh, and the losers make their own plans.’ Quite.
It is admittedly with such reservations that I picked up Redeployment, a collection of short stories by Phil Klay, on the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan – as seen through the eyes of the American soldier. And within the first two pages I had my preconceptions – my prejudices – reinforced:
‘…I hear O’Leary go, “Jesus”, and there’s a skinny brown dog lapping up blood the same way he’d lap up water from a bowl. It wasn’t American blood, but still, there’s that dog, lapping it up.’
Part of me – the Pavlovian part – jumped up, ‘…so here it is, the world divided into two, neat categories – American and non-American.’ But of course, that’s rubbish – the author is simply communicating the mindset of the man at war, who, quite sensibly, reduces an equation of mind-numbing complexity down to two, simple parts: friend or foe. But then…
‘…you see the body parts in the locker and the retarded guy in the cage. He squawked like a chicken. His head was shrunk down to a coconut. It takes you a while to remember Doc saying they’d shot mercury into his skull, and then it still doesn’t make sense.’
That one can mention, in passing, that a mentally disabled man somehow ended up in a cage and had mercury injected into his skull, before swiftly picking up the exposition of one’s personal ennui, is an open-sesame onto a whole other review. For this review, though, I must firstly make clear that Redeployment is vividly – and brilliantly – written. Indeed, there are many levels at which to enjoy this work. At the most basic, if you want to experience the ‘thrill’ of the front line, the energy and intensity of mortal combat, this work will not disappoint. Indeed it is quite possibly without equal, in offering that vicarious pleasure. The author puts you right in the boots of a US Marine – the reader requires no leap of imagination to see, hear, smell and taste the situation.
The first short – which, consciously or otherwise, bears a resemblance to ‘The Pugilist at Rest’, by Thom Jones – captures the shredded mental state of the soldier, returning home from war. From the staccato, hop-scotch, disjointed threads, to the coarse soldier’s vernacular – it is written with breath-taking skill. The dialogue throughout is full of military acronyms – DFAC, PFC, TQ BOS,… – some of which you get and some you don’t, but it doesn’t matter – it creates a surround-sound, fully immersing the reader in that world. I particularly loved that the characters – individual soldiers – were not described. No-one was pinned down as black, white, Hispanic, short, tall, a bespectacled introvert or a muscular bragger – but through their words alone, they were fully realised. Indeed it is a masterclass in storytelling, through dialogue. Furthermore, it deserves mentioning that the collection does not comprise some all-pervading, testosterone-fuelled ‘war porn’ – there is surprising variegation, depth, change of pace, even introspection.
Redeployment is, without doubt, an arresting piece of work, written by a fresh, perceptive and immensely talented new author. My only reservation is not about the stories per se, but rather their wider milieu – that a book on, say, the emotional scars carried by German soldiers in WWII would seem bizarre; offensive, even. But meditations on the psychic harm done to American soldiers, from Vietnam through to Iraq and beyond, feels right, and important, and necessary. But that, perhaps, is best left for another review…
on 16 January 2016
This is a case of he's got one good story. Once you're onto the third one the shock is gone and its routine, even boring. That being said, the title story deserves to be in anthologies of war stories for a long time.
on 16 April 2014
Reading the cover blurb you'd think this was to be a modern classic of war literature. It isn't Two of the stories are good: Money as a Weapons System, about a civilian official trying to push through reconstruction work, and Prayer in the Furnace, about a conflicted military chaplain, Others are clunky (War Stories), some over-long and frankly tedious (Psychological Operations). The combat stories are like an American war movie, sound and fury and acronyms.
If you want to read about combat, read Tolstoy's The Sebastopol Sketches, Arkady Babchenko's One Soldier's War in Chechnya, Guy Sajer's The Forgotten Soldier, or Patrick Hennessey's The Junior Officers' Reading Club: Killing Time and Fighting Wars, all brilliantly written and deeply moving. For a civilian perspective on reconstructing Iraq, read Rory Stewart's Occupational Hazards: My Time Governing in Iraq.
Leave this one on on the shelf.