What does it say about a society when its civilians scratch at the highly subjective experience of war with clichés? “ ‘It will make you a man.’ ‘It’ll destroy you.’ ‘It’ll make you an animal.’ ‘It’ll turn you into a monster.’ ‘It will make you sadder but wiser for the rest of your days.’ ‘You’ve touched the heart of darkness.’ In fact, it’s a complicated mix of an incredible range of experiences,” says Phil Klay, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and author of Redeployment, a stellar collection of gritty, gladiatorial short stories.
Klay (pronounced KLY) served a 13-month deployment as a public affairs officer during Operation Iraqi Freedom, an assignment that brought him into contact with all levels of military personnel, contractors and civilians. Those interactions illuminated the diversity of people engaged in the day-to-day operations of a continuing conflict.
Redeployment portrays the execution and aftermath of both Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom/Afghanistan from multiple points of view. The book’s titular story provides a particularly jarring account of a returning soldier’s reckoning with the psychological effects of killing not the enemy, but animals. “ ‘We shot dogs.’ That was the first sentence I wrote, though finishing the story took a couple of years,” says Klay. The story continues: “Not by accident. We did it on purpose, and we called it Operation Scooby. I’m a dog person, so I thought about that a lot,” Klay writes.
While civilians may find such actions hard to stomach or fathom, they can be equally difficult to process for the men and women who perpetrate them. “When I came back I had all these questions to think about that were interesting or important for me, and writing the book was one way for me to grapple with both what the experience meant to me and what the war in Iraq meant to our country and culture,” says Klay.
Each of the 12 stories introduces a new narrator. Readers hear from infantry soldiers patrolling IED-laced streets, a chaplain questioning his faith and fealty, a contractor who fears he’s “a fraud and a war tourist,” soldiers who kill by remote, wounded warriors sucking down beers in an American bar, a veteran who still scans bulletins for familiar names on the lists of the wounded and dead and a veteran who applies his PsyOps training to wooing and debating a Muslim classmate at Amherst, among others. Some are tough and thoughtful. Others are immature, immersed in an intense culture of machismo, horseplay and homophobia.
“I knew early on that I wanted to have a lot of different voices, and that I wanted these voices to talk to each other,” says Klay. “You know, you come back and people ask you what it’s like, and they think that you can tell them definitively, ‘This is what it’s like,’ but it’s not so simple. I’ve felt different things about my own experience over time—what it meant at the time and what it means now.”
In some cases the telling can come to shape the experience. In “Bodies,” Mortuary Affairs personnel tasked with handling decedents alter their grim tales depending on the audience. “There are two ways to tell the story. Funny or sad. Guys like it funny, with lots of gore and a grin on your face when you get to the end. Girls like it sad, with a thousand-yard stare out to the distance as you gaze upon the horrors of war they can’t quite see,” Klay writes.
One voice is notably absent: There is no female narrator. (According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 6.8 percent of active duty Marines are women.) It wasn’t initially a conscious choice, says Klay, who counted at least one female-led piece among those that didn’t make the final cut. As the collection developed, however, he didn’t want to risk showcasing one outlying narrator to the detriment of others. “I didn’t want one character to define the answers to those questions, because the process of working through them all was the point,” says Klay. “There are female characters in the collection, some important ones, and I certainly wanted to deal with the Marine Corps and its relationship to women. The story ‘War Stories’ certainly tries to highlight that—out of three veteran characters, the female in the group has seen more combat than the other two by far.”
Writing and selecting the final roster of stories was a meticulous process. Klay worked on it at Hunter College, where he received an MFA, and at the NYU Veterans Writing Workshop. Additionally, he relied on a team of early readers to ensure that each story properly communicated different aspects of the experience. He credits fellow writers, friends and his editor Andrea Walker for their commentary, as well as readers formerly associated with the U.S. Department of State. In addition to mining memories, Klay consulted research materials in libraries and online. “I wrote and rewrote all the stories so many times, I ended up spending a lot of time with a lot of materials that very much upset me. The stories all have their own unique challenges. If you’re writing about an experience that’s not your own, there’s a desperate need to get it right. You have to respect that experience and also be able to think about it critically,” he says.
Klay hopes Redeployment will spur an understanding of American soldiers’ experiences that transcends clichés. “We’re still engaged in conflict and there are questions that should not stop being asked. This is my offering to the conversation,” he says.
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.