The OF Blog: Phil Klay, Redeployment

Monday, November 17, 2014

Phil Klay, Redeployment

We shot dogs.  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.

First time was instinct.  I hear O'Leary go, "Jesus," and there's a skinny brown dog lapping up blood the same way he'd lap up water from a bowl.  It wasn't American blood, but still, there's that dog, lapping it up.   And that's the last straw, I guess, and then it's open season on dogs.

At the time, you don't think about it.  You're thinking about who's in that house, what's he armed with, how's he gonna kill you, your buddies.  You're going block by block, fighting with rifles good to 550 meters, and you're killing people at five in a concrete box. ("Redeployment," p. 1)
For as long as the United States has existed as a nation, nearly two hundred and forty years, its wars and literature have been inextricably intertwined.  From Thomas Paine's "The Crisis" to Francis Scott Key's "The Star-Spangled Banner" to the soldier letters and memoirs from the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, and the Civil War; to the accounts of the Spanish-American War and the searing novels by the likes of John Dos Passos and Dalton Trumbo on World War I, soldier voices have been heard in one form or another.  Kilroy was there in World War II; before Apocalypse Now, so many found madness in the killing fields of Vietnam and somehow managed to express it in letters, memoirs, and novels.  It is little surprise that eleven years after "Mission Accomplished" was declared, that veteran voices of the plains of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan are now clamoring to be heard.

The Iraq-Afghanistan postwar/war novels have grown in number and popularity over the past five years, ever since troops began to be withdrawn from Iraq.  Some, like Kevin Powers' 2012 National Book Award-nominated novel The Yellow Birds, were written by Iraq War veterans.  One of the latest to emerge (itself a 2014 finalist for the National Book Award) is Phil Klay's debut collection, Redeployment.  In the twelve stories that comprise this collection, Klay manages to explore various facets of the war experience in Iraq and postwar life in ways that shine more insight on soldier experiences in this war.  It is a powerful collection, one that easily holds its own with Three Soldiers and The Naked and the Dead in regards to the power of the narrative and Catch-22 for exploring the ridiculousness of it all.

The eponymous opening story begins with soldiers shooting dogs.  Told in terse prose, the reader is immediately jolted from her comfort zone.  Why dogs?  Why shoot creatures often valued as much (if not more) than many human beings?  There is a purpose behind this, one beyond showing stereotypical desensitization of the soldiers.  If anything, there is a greater sensitization that is transpiring, as seen in this passage:

So I'm thinking about that.  And I'm seeing the retard, and the girl, and the wall Eicholtz died on.  But here's the thing.  I'm thinking a lot, and I mean a lot, about those fucking dogs.

And I'm thinking about my dog.  Vicar.  About the shelter we'd got him from, where Cheryl said we had to get an older dog because nobody takes older dogs.  How we could never teach him anything.  How he'd throw up shit he shouldn't have eaten in the first place.  How he'd slink away all guilty, tail down and head low and back legs crouched.  How his fur started turning gray two years after we got him, and he so many white hairs on his face that it looked like a mustache.

So there it was.  Vicar and Operation Scooby, all the way home. (p. 3)

"Redeployment" is a somber tale, one of readjusting to home life after returning from a deployment, but it is also a merging of the war with one of the toughest things any pet owner has faced, that of their pet suffering from terminal disease and choosing to end that life there instead of paying another to do it.  In re-reading it just now, I remember when I was 8 and our dog of roughly a year, Bo, came down with an illness that even today I don't know if it was rabies or a paralyzing sort of distemper.  What I remember is my dad, himself a Vietnam War vet, taking out his shotgun that he rarely used and telling us not to look outside.  I didn't.  But even tonight, I remember the shotgun blast.  It still reverberates within me, as I can imagine it doing in the narrator's mind after the story's end.  The responsibility for a life, even a dog's life, weighs heavily on those forced to choose to end it.

Yet not all the stories in Redeployment are as somber as the first one.  Some, like "In Vietnam They Had Whores," are full of the type of baudy humor one might expect from young soldiers full of lust and life.  Others, like "Psychological Operations," contain a sort of macabre humor alongside a tale of cultural misunderstandings that underscore so much of what transpired in Iraq during the war and its bloody aftermath.  "War Stories" takes some of the motifs of Vietnam war stories and warp them, make them into something more applicable to the situation in Iraq a generation later.  When I read part of this aloud to my dad on Friday when we were on our way to the urology clinic for my kidney stone surgery, he grunted a bit at some of the biting humor, something that I partially got and I suspect he understood more than he let on.  Some things, after all, do transcend specific wars and are shared grounds for veterans, I suppose.

By the time that I finished reading the final story, "Ten Kliks South," I felt as though I had read something both familiar and strange at once.  The twelve stories in this collection showed a wide range of soldier experiences, from horror to dazed bemusement to a callous attitude toward civilians to something hard to define, and each were presented in such a way that civilians such as myself could understand much of what was transpiring.  Yet there was enough of a sense of something being left unstated, something whose silence was even louder than the powerful passages contained within, that I suspect would say even more to those who were there, those who do not need to put voice to what they experienced.  Even more, there are elements in common with the wartime classics that I mentioned above that I suspect will make Redeployment not just one of the best Iraq-Afghanistan war fictions, but also will enshrine it in a rich national history of war of literature.  Redeployment is my favorite out of a strong 2014 National Book Award for Fiction finalist slate.

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