There’s an instinct in most of us to respect the warrior, the soldier, who has been to battle and seen the worst of war. That natural instinct is triggered, then rebuffed, ridiculed and reignited in the stories found in REDEPLOYMENT, a collection by Phil Klay, a United States Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq. The tales are set in Ramadi, New York City and Fallujah, and show the psychological and physical anguish of war.
The narrator in “Unless It’s A Sucking Chest Wound” comes home from a night of drinking with Joe-the-lawyer and Ed-the-banker and clicks on the link “DoD Identifies Marine Casualties.” After all the drunken stories and dirty jokes, he wants “to recover whatever it is that I am when I look at the names of the dead.” He sees the name James R. Vockler, whom he remembers as “the guy Deme died saving” in a firefight in Fallujah. These memories of Vockler intrude on his studies for law school, and he “snaps his night in half.”
The story, though, is actually about Boylan, a captain in the USMC the narrator knew from service in Afghanistan who comes to New York to get blacked out. It’s also about NYU law school students who were “the insufferable public interest crowd, who hated the war” but paid lip service “to the idea that I deserved some sort of respect.” Additionally, it’s about a connection between Sisyphus-like termites in an existential crisis that roll dirt endlessly. What is the analogy? The USMC? Or maybe corporate lawyers? The story ends with an unspoken tribute to cold hard courage, and we are left wondering who gets to be the hero.
Klay layers his stories with the understanding of what cannot be understood from war. The only certainty is the honesty of the storytellers. Their voices come from moments before an IED killed a fellow Marine, to a brainless night on the PSP readying himself to go out on another mission, to the Marine stuck in an American Eagle Outfitters dressing room in Wilmington as he is realizing people have no idea where Fallujah is. Their voices are true even when they lie.
"Each of Klay’s stories is spare and austere, with only the necessary identification of situations and faces."
The narrator in “Bodies” collected remains in the Iraqi war, and his anger at what he had seen and done prompts him to exaggerate the horror. If people wanted to know what he had done in the war, he would lie. He would begin telling a story about a half corpse and how it had lain on the street in the sun and become swollen and gaseous. He thinks we’d be surprised at how many in the audience wanted him to keep going.
In “Prayer in the Furnace,” the chaplain asks of the men, “Who here thinks that when you get back to the States no civilians will be able to understand what you’ve gone through?” Who believes, like the sergeant major, that death needed to be sensible? A reason for each casualty? The narrator is Chaps, a boxer turned priest who does his tour in Ramadi and watches and tries to prevent the atrocities from within and without the Marines. He begins with the death of Fujita, the 12th casualty for that company, and for his memorial he reads from Second Timothy: “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.” He watches the squad kneeling together, leaning into each other and forming a solid weeping block, and he knows that “[g]eared up, Marines are terrifying warriors. In grief, they look like children.”
Chaps attempts to thwart the actions of the company commander after he learns that Fujita was doing naked jumping jacks on a rooftop to attract attention. Once he was fired upon, the Marines were justified in returning fire no matter who the victims were --- the enemy, an insurgent, a hajji, or a nine-year-old boy. But Chaps is reprimanded and knows there will continue to be harm, abuse and loss of grace. He has let down Rodriguez, a Marine coming to him for solace, and he will let him down again. His attempts at comfort --- “You can only control your own actions, not what happens” --- fall far short of what Rodriguez wants to hear. Their final meeting comes months later when Rodriguez makes clear that the cross and the chaplain and Christianity, 20 centuries of it, are not worth more than a spit in the grass.
“OIF” is four short pages. The narrator assumes we understand the military acronyms and assures us that he did his 24 missions, even though he never wanted to be “the twitchiest guy in Iraq.” His jeep is hit by an IED, and because another Marine died and he tried to save him, he receives a NAM with a V. He names other Marines as KIA, which means they gave everything. The WIA means he did not.
Each of Klay’s stories is spare and austere, with only the necessary identification of situations and faces. He understands the isolation and torment of soldiers, in the moment of war and in the years of solitude after, and through his words the idiocy and pain of war is realized.
Reviewed by Jane Krebs on March 21, 2014