If you set yourself the task of writing about war experiences you set yourself the task of battling everyone from Wilfred Own to Leo Tolstoy. It’s a fight most don’t win. Even with tales that are singularly compelling, the conventions of the genre intervene to make them strangely stylized and predictable. There’s a kind of pattern these stories run.
A guy comes back from the a war – check
He is haunted by some traumatic experience that he won’t tell us about – check
Gradually his sense of alienation grows – check
Finally he tells us a harrowing crime committed by him or witnessed by him – check
War is a terrible thing – check
The result is made even worse by our very high expectations of being moved and learning from such horrors, while of course being at the same time titillated by them.
However sometimes a writer is so in command of his material and so much ahead of the expectations of his readers that he creates something wholly unexpected and utterly stunning.
Such is the case with Phil Klay’s ‘Redeployment’ from the very first lines of the opening story; we know we’re in for something extraordinary.
‘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 a lot about that.’
Klay has a way of thinking around his subject, tackling it from every angle yet with a controlled skill that makes it look effortless
His tales encompass Dartmouth University students, New York lawyers, government contractors and Army Chaplin’s, each character giving him a different view on the subject of war and men’s attitude towards it.
Most tellingly we note how difficult it is for each man to fully understand his feelings towards what he is engaged in. The last story ‘Ten Clicks South’ displays this brilliantly. A young soldier who wants to know if his artillery unit really has killed the enemy.
At first he seems to want to confirm the deaths so he can prove to himself that he has joined the ranks of those soldiers with confirmed kills but then it becomes clear that his feelings are far more complex, that there is guilt here and a feeling that goes beyond the bravado of the men in his unit.
He is so keen to discover the truth that he visits the PRP division (the personnel retrieval and processing unit) Surely they can tell him if they have recovered the bodies of his supposed victims. But no the kindly, portly Marine he talks to tells him that they only collect American dead not Iraqi.
And then the sucker punch of the story comes, seemingly out of nowhere. The PRP soldier casually remarks on seeing the artilleryman’s wedding ring if he’d mind taking it off and wearing it round his neck with his dog tags
‘We need to collect personal effects. And the hardest thing to take off (a corpse) is wedding rings’
In one sentence the soldier’s reality is made clear to him and us. In his search to discover if has wrought death on others he has been led to realize just how close it is to him on a daily basis. And as if to emphasis the point he walks into four corpsmen carrying a stretcher draped with the American flag,
‘Everyone standing on the road as the body went past had been so utterly silent, so still.
There was no sound or movement except for the slow steps of the Corpsmen and the steady progress of the corpse. It’s had been an image of death from another world. But now I know where the corpse was headed to the old gunny and the PRP. And if there were a wedding ring, the gunny would have to slowly work it off the stiff dead fingers.
Then it would have gone b 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.’
A beautiful and moving ending to a moving and beautiful collection of stories.