It only makes sense that some of our greatest literary figures began their careers writing about war, the ultimate human drama of life and death, bravery and cowardice, grand adventure and stark terror. • Ernest Hemingway, James Jones, Joseph Heller, Erich Maria Remarque, Dalton Trumbo, Tim O'Brien, Norman Mailer, Philip Caputo, Michael Herr and, to be sure, Winston Churchill are but a very few to capture the insanity and the courage of the battlefield so vividly on the page. • There's a new name to add to that unique litany of writers who have turned their combat experiences into engaging fictional narratives. Redeployment is author Phil Klay's first book, a rich, compelling collection of short stories about the Afghanistan and Iraq wars influenced by his own time serving in theater as a U.S. Marine Corps officer.
Twelve unique stories make up Redeployment, each sharing one common thread — the struggle to come to grips with fundamental humanity after witnessing and often participating in the savagery of warfare. And Klay approaches his literary mission with the same zeal for doing his duty as he showed in uniform.
Klay demonstrates a remarkable skill for capturing not only the dialogue of the trenches, but a variety of disparate voices throughout the book, from a grunt trying to adjust to the banality of everyday life back home, to a tortured chaplain unsure of his spiritual chops to minister to so many damaged men coming off the battlefield, to a recently returned veteran — a Coptic Orthodox Christian from an Egyptian family — who finds himself in an intellectual battle of wits with a feisty Muslim convert over the meaning of 12 years of war in two Islamic countries.
Redeployment is one of those rare books meant for repeated readings, just like Heller's Catch-22 or Herr's Dispatches.
On that point, perhaps the most satisfying and funniest offering is Money as a Weapons System, a dark comedy of bureaucratic incompetence focusing on a young, idealistic foreign service officer fighting a losing battle to at least realize one small, tiny, minute positive accomplishment in the imploded rat hole of Iraq. The enemy in this story isn't Iraqis. It's the blitzkrieg of military regulations, the flocks of meddlesome congressmen, an avalanche of meaningless paperwork and the myopic optics of money spent for money's sake — all for nothing.
Klay is unsparing of both clueless civilians and self-absorbed veterans, noting the folks back home patriotically waved their unflinching support for the war effort by doing battle with their credit cards at the mall: "Which is how America fights back against terrorists."
And then there is the walking-on-eggshells line from Psychological Operations, in which Klay takes a not-so-subtle swipe at his comrades in arms with this joke: "How many Vietnam veterans does it take to screw in a light bulb? You wouldn't know. You weren't there." Only a veteran who was at war could probably get away with that.
And while it has become something of an obligatory template of modern social discourse when dealing with members of the military to thank them for their service, Klay cynically asks whether civilians truly understand just what service they are so thankful for.
So many years of war. So many body bags. So many funeral processions. Klay is not the first writer to delve into this fertile, cruel ground for inspiration. He won't be the last. But if Redeployment is any indication, he looms among one of the best emerging writers of his generation and military experience to afford the reader a front row view into the inner demons and struggles of those who stepped up to serve their country.
It is probably reasonable to suspect Redeployment will not simply be a one-hit wonder for Phil Klay. He has too fine a voice, too deft a storytelling touch.
And, of course, he has only barely scratched the surface of his source material.
Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman once observed that war is hell. And it is. But as Klay has once again proven, it also makes for one helluva literary experience.
Daniel Ruth can be reached at email@example.com.