Saturday, November 08, 2014


Redeployment, by Phil Klay, was shortlisted for the 2014 National Book Award - they haven't announced the winners yet.  After reading a glowing review, I grabbed a copy from the library and, I have to tell you, it was one of the most stunning books I've read this year.

It's a group of short stories about the war in Iraq, with each story told from the perspective different figures in the military.  Klay was a Marine (who earned an MFA from Hunter College after his service) and brings a sense of immediacy to each story making the conflict all the more real for someone like me, for whom the war is really just sort of an abstract reality.  Reading books like Redeployment and the breathtaking Be Safe, I Love You, by Cara Hoffman, provide a way for me to make the war more real and better understand the daily reality for soldiers.  It was interesting, having read those two books this year, the dramatic difference between gender roles presented in each author's book.  Hoffman's story is about a female veteran with PTSD - her story is fairly universal, however she certainly had a unique story as a woman at war.  Klay's book is definitely male-focused.  There are very few instances of women characters in his stories, and their appearances are full of meaning.  Treated mostly by his male characters as mere concepts or receptacle, Klay's integration of women comes as a shock - helping the reader realize what a male-dominated arena most soldiers live in.  In one story, for example, a woman makes a short appearance, first smelled by the narrator.

That sort of thing would normally infuriate me if it wasn't so obvious that Klay's treatment of women in his stories was so thoughtful and specific.  In "Psychological Operations", a returned soldier in college wants to unload his stories on a female classmate.  A she struggles to avoid being his emotional receptacle, he pointedly ignores her, undeterred in his new mission of relief.  Finally she gives in and listens, as if choosing to paying the price for his service - allowing herself to be the vessel he's looking for.

For me, one of the more powerful stories was "Frago", a story full of military lingo and acronyms that I could barely understand.  It further exemplified how soldiers lives are so different from civilians - so much that they have their own language.  It must be so difficult for a soldier to simply talk to someone without a military background.  "I'm across from PFC Dyer, and he's not eating much. I'm next to some Navy O4 from the BOS, and he's chowing down. when he sees we aren't exactly FOBbits, he starts talking.  I don't tell him what we're here for, I just say a little about our COP and how it's good to eat something that's not an MRE or the Iraqis' red shit and rice."

I feel fairly confident that Redeployment will earn a spot next to The Things They Carried and Catch 22 in the annals of war literature.  It will be exciting to see what Klay writes next - I would love to see a long-form novel from him.

Here's a last quote from the book which I think beautifully summarizes this incredible group of short stories:
He would have gathered all the personal effects and prepared the body for transport. Then it would have gone by air to TQ. And as it was unloaded off the bird, the Marines would have stood silent and still, just as we had in Fallujah. And they would have put it on a C-130 to Kuwait. And they would have stood silent and still in Kuwait. And they would have stood silent and still in Germany, and silent and still at Dover Air Force Base. Everywhere it went, Marines and sailors and soldiers and airmen would have stood at attention as it traveled to the family of the fallen, where the silence, the stillness, would end.

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