“WE SHOT DOGS,” writes Phil Klay in Redeployment, a collection of 12 stories about the war in Iraq. “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.”
That ball-busting first paragraph shows the author to be a man of great compassion and creativity, with an ear for the voices of hurt men. A former Marine, Klay is very much in the process of figuring out what coming home might really mean for the two and a half million American service men and women who have served since 9/11.
“We shot dogs.” It’s heartbreaking and infuriating, this idea that a soldier must shoot in this way, even if it’s because the animals were eating corpses. Klay is most concerned with what happens to such men, how such men will function, when they return home, to the soft shades of a suburban summer. Now, after all the violence and danger and drudgery and sacrifice, their own wives are afraid of them — they quickly come to learn that “How are you?” can actually mean “Are you crazy now?” What can these men say now to family, friends, or to a community that can’t remember what Fallujah is, let alone help the former killers now that they’re home?
Consider the opening lines of the final, superb story, “Ten Kliks South”:
This morning our gun dropped about 270 pounds of ICM on a smuggler’s checkpoint ten kliks south of us. We took out a group of insurgents and then we went to the Fallujah chow hall for lunch. I got fish and lima beans. I try to eat healthy.
Again, we see the collision that so interests Klay — that we, as Americans, have either demonized or made heroes of dudes who simply need to eat, who are concerned about their circulatory systems and colons. There’s a great deal to learn in the collision, about the vulgarity of war as well as about the tender underbelly of soldiers with a pulse.
Not every story is as strong. In “Money as a Weapons System,” for instance, Klay attempts to capture the stupidity and profound incompetence of the vast bulk of US infrastructure projects. With its almost comic details — the big-time donor who wants Iraqi kids in baseball uniforms — it feels more like a parody than a story about aid programs and their failures, that toxic and moronic mess treated better and at greater length, for instance, by Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s 2006 nonfiction book Imperial Life in the Emerald City.
Klay is clearly a gifted writer; he is an Iraq war veteran, a former public affairs officer, as well as a graduate of Dartmouth and the Hunter MFA program. Still, there is a chief difference between Klay and Kevin Powers, whose novel The Yellow Birds is, I think, the more serious and insightful book. Both deal with war and how to come home. Both are written by men with obvious talent and big hearts, scorched by a real Middle East and reshaped later by mentors and the hush of time back home with a laptop. But whereas Powers’s novel was dense and ornate and had the hefty sweep of a big project with a big message — roughly that we ruined a whole generation by training them to, essentially, destroy themselves — Klay’s has the charms and penalties of a collection, doing the less sustained work of bringing together a dozen stories with a dozen individual viewpoints; they are all pieces of a puzzle that the reader must assemble for herself.
Maybe war is such that it requires, or seems to ask for, a large work with an organizing principle, rather than the kind of fragmentation a collection delivers. Issues of responsibility and luck come into play as well: after all, you can’t write unless you got out. And maybe I’m the one imagining there’s a tremendous burden — this sense that you have to do right by the guys who didn’t get out. Klay, as good as he is — and he’s very good — seems content in Redeployment merely to get it right, to put on the page exactly what men like him went through, and are still going through. “What happened in Iraq was just what happened, nothing more,” a character says. That character may very well be a stand-in for Klay and for his writerly ambition in Redeployment.
One story, “Unless It’s a Sucking Chest Wound,” which takes place not in Iraq but in a West Village townhouse and at a white-shoe law firm and in Manhattan bars, shows flashes of the writer that Klay may yet become — a kind of Updike for the veterans walking among us. It will be something to see what Klay does when he turns his attention to, let us say, the more pacific things we can do together.