The IED replaces the rock. Walking, breathing, soulless cadavers come home, missing their adrenaline fix and those who never made it back. Boys are numbed into fragile journeymen killers. The corrosive effect of the Sisyphistic Iraq war is masterfully explored from different vantage points in Phil Klay’s short story collection, “Redeployment”. Stereotypes are challenged.
The first two stories are so raw that they seem not to be stories at all. It begins:
“We shot dogs. Not by accident. We did it on purpose, and we called it Operation Scooby. I’m a dog person, so I thought about it a lot.”
There is no sentimentality in this book. Rotating moments of terror followed by boredom. There is hatred, revenge, love, mockery, hypocrisy and a litany of military acronyms and slang. I am indebted to the blog Book Scribbles for compiling a glossary of the latter. If you did not serve in the military and particularly in Iraq, it is required reading before you read the third story in the book. The story is more glossary than a story. It may have been included to add cred to the book. https://bookscribblesbyjen.wordpress.com/2014/05/08/making-sense-of-redeployment-a-glossary/.
What earned this book the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction is its complexity. Humans are not a zero sum game and the characters are not one-dimensional. There is humor, cynicism and satire.
“There is a joke Marines tell each other.
A liberal pussy journalist is trying to get the touchy-feely side of war and he asks a Marine sniper. ‘What is it like to kill a man? What do you feel when you pull the trigger?’
The Marine looks at him and says one word. ‘Recoil’. ”
Phil Klay was a public affairs officer in the Corp during the surge in Iraq. He is a Dartmouth graduate. His satirical (or realistic) take on foreign service officers assigned to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqis for the Congressional folks back home is sadly comical. In “Money as a Weapon System” a green foreign service officer is trying to get his Shi’a Iraqi counterpart to show up to meetings and to move his water project forward. He wants to know why the Iraqi missed their last meeting and is told he went to Iran, which makes his military escorts nervous. The Iraqi explains to get married and shows pictures. The foreign service officer’s Sunni translator explains that Iranian women are beautiful. The foreign service officer congratulates the Iraqi.
“On the drive back, the Professor explained the marriages to me in the tone you’d use to speak with a mentally deficient golden retriever.
‘Nikah mut’ah, he said. ‘Shi’a allow temporary marriages. Shi’a marry a woman for an hour, the next day marry another.’
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Prostitution.’
‘Prostitution is illegal under Islam,’ said the Professor.”
The Iraqi gets approval to replace a necessary water pipe for the water project after it is explained to the Shi’a hierarchy that the water pressure in the new pipe would explode toilets in the Sunni area.
“Prayer in the Furnace” is a test of faith. A chaplain who is informed about a perceived war crime has confront morality, religion, chain of command and kill scoring in a war zone.
Returning stateside is a separate war for veterans. Two great stories are “Psychological Operations” and “War Stories”. The author addresses the disdain for civilians; the hyperbole of the badass hero and the broken hero- all ploys to get laid. Some were fixing potholes and got shot up. “Thank you for your service” but with consequences.
” You’re angry with your father because people thanked you for your service?’ , she said. ‘ Or is he why you’re angry with those people?’
‘He’s part of it’, I said. ‘That sentiment.’
‘So should I thank vets for their service?’, she said. ‘Or spit on them, like Vietnam?’
I thought for a moment and then gave her a crooked smile. ‘I reserve the right to be angry at you whatever you do.'”
A Egyptian Coptic soldier attending Amherst College under the G.I. Bill has a confrontation with the only African American in his class. She comes from an upper class family and she has been a Muslim convert for a few months. She does not understand how he can fight for a Corp that exhibited bigotry towards him, even though he was not Muslim.
“You’re thinkin about it the wrong way,’ I said. ‘That shit is just people. It was alienating. This ‘- I waived my hand toward the college- ‘this is alienating. All these special little children and their bright futures. Look, if Travis was the type to die for his buddies, and he might have been, I think he’d do it for me just as soon as for anyone else wearing Army cammies. That he hated me, and that I hated the ignorant fuck right back, well there are circumstances that trump personal feelings’. ”
Humans and circumstances are different even in a war zone. Klay avoids a singular theme. I would really like to have comments from Vets who served or serving in Iraq or Afghanistan about what they thought about this book. Would it be helpful to Vets in counseling?
The penultimate story “Unless It’s a Sucking Chest Wound” is about vets who try to reconcile living after the death of their heroic Sargeant. One “successfully” returns to civilian life as a lawyer who finds the civilian world to be meaningless. The other will likely return.
“Agamben speaks of the difference between men and animals being that animals are in thrall to stimuli. Think a deer in the headlights. He describes experiments where scientists give a worker bee a source of nectar. As it imbibes, they cut away its abodomen, so that instead of filling the bee up, the nectar falls out through the wound in a trickle that pours as fast as the bee drinks. You’d think the bee might change its behavior in response, but it doesn’t. It keeps happily sucking away at the nectar and will continue indefinitely, enthralled by one stimulus– the presence of nectar– until released by another– the sensation of satiety. But that second stimulus never comes– the wound keeps the bee drinking until it finally starves.”
This is a must read.