Update, November 20, 2014: Phil Klay won a National Book Award for Fiction for “Redeployment.”
Phil Klay’s debut collection of short stories, Redeployment, explores the human impact of the war in Iraq. The New York Times calls it “the best thing written so far on what the war did to people’s souls.”
Klay is a veteran of the U.S. Marines who served as a public information officer in Iraq’s Anbar Province during the surge. After being discharged, he earned his MFA from Hunter College and penned this work based on his experiences as a soldier.
It’s an absolute page-turner: full of humor and violence, sex and sadness. It shows the brutal realities that many soldiers faced in Iraq and what they dealt with upon their return. Here’s an excerpt:
I looked down at my hands and then back up at Zara. I didn’t know how to tell her what coming home meant. The weird thing about being a veteran, at least for me, is that you do feel better than most people. You risked your life for something bigger than yourself. How many people can say that? You chose to serve. Maybe you didn’t understand American foreign policy or why we were at war. Maybe you never will. But it doesn’t matter. You held your hand up and said “I’m willing to die for these worthless civilians.”
At the same time, though, you feel somehow less. What happened, what I was a part of, maybe it was the right thing. We were fighting very bad people. But it was an ugly thing.
Think Out Loud invited veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to join the conversation with Phil Klay. Below are some edited excerpts from the program.
Dave Miller: What was one scene, or character, or something that you carried back with you that had to come out in a story?
Phil Klay: The dislocation of being in a community that is at war. As a society it doesn’t feel like we’re at war. So, going from Anbar — if you do 13 months, you get 2 weeks leave — I flew right to New York. And I’m walking down Madison Avenue thinking, “We’re not at war. The Marine Corps is at war. There’s a small portion of the population at war. But this does not feel like a society at war.” And that dislocation only continued when I got out. I’m living in New York. People hardly even talk about the wars we’re engaged in. Yet I know people who are going over five, six, seven times.
Kristin Powers: I was in Iraq from ’03-’04 with 82nd. I did notice that disconnect when I came back, too. You get the comments about ‘Oh, we’re just out there for oil’ or you get some questions like ‘How was it?’ Which personally I think is the worst question you can ask a veteran.
Dave Miller: ‘How was it?’ is the worst question?
Kristin Powers: For me personally, I think so.
Dave Miller: Why?
Kristin Powers: It’s too vague. It’s like something you say when you don’t know what to say. I don’t feel like it’s very authentic. I don’t think people really want to know. Maybe they do, but at the same time they don’t.
Phil Klay: I absolutely understand that. Those conversations are difficult. It’s important for veterans to speak about the issues because we’re such a small percentage of the population. Yet we’re engaged in things that have such huge consequence. There’s always going to be that knowledge gap.
When you meet somebody and they find out you’re a veteran. Certainly for me, living in New York where I’m often one of the few veterans they know, they want you to be one thing. Either you’re a hardcore master killer who can kill you 19 ways with your pinky. Or you must be this passive, traumatized shell of a man.
Dave Miller: A hero or a victim.
Phil Klay: Right. And that’s not it. There’s a more complicated, interesting discussion to be had. You need to negotiate your way through it on both sides.
Justin Gombos: I got a little tired of people asking, ‘How was it?’ ‘Did you kill anybody?’ So instead of asking ‘How was it?’ or ‘What was it like?’, if you know a veteran ask them, ‘How are you?’
The title of the book Redeployment really spoke to me. To me that meant, it’s time to go home. Going home is hard because I had to leave my team. I’m an athlete and I’m used to being on a team. And coming home to what I thought was my team, group, and it not being what I thought it was going to be like — It was very frustrating.
Sean Davis: There are certain things that people don’t talk about. War is fun. It was a lot of fun. You’re amped up on adrenaline. You can see further, you can lift more weight, you can run faster and it’s awesome. You were a part of history and you were a superhero. Then you come back and you’re just a regular person again and that is really difficult to get through.
Dave Miller: We got a comment: “Very bothered by the comment that one guy just said, ‘War is fun.’” Let’s dig into this. What did you mean?
Sean Davis: What I mean is that you have the power of life and death in your hands. And you have all that adrenaline going through your veins. You are part of history, undoubtedly. There’s something about that. Kicking doors down … I was in the infantry. A lot of people think all we did was shoot people and blow stuff up. But what we did, we helped out a lot of people. We did a lot of stuff. I played soccer with kids. Always get packages from home, pens, candy [and] give them out. And that part is a lot of fun too.
When I say war is fun, I don’t mean I’m going to go out and kill people and that’s awesome. No, I think that’s horrible. Killing people is horrible. The infantry’s role today, how it’s evolved, we’re not over there to destroy stuff. We’re over there to fix stuff and we’re over there to help people. And that part is fun.
David Taylor: I had to do a casualty assistance call officer, one of my close friends … notify their parents.
David Miller: Can you explain what that is, what that means to be that officer?
David Taylor: There’s been a casualty and you have to notify the family before they find out through other means. You have to assist them through all the paperwork and benefits so they can have time to grieve. I just happened to know this Marine.
David Miller: So it’s up to you to go to the front door?
David Taylor: Yeah. You have to be stoic because they’re not. Even though inside you’re a human being. And I happened to know him. I was asked to be an escort through the whole process. I spent three straight days alone with him. Sleeping on the floor in my blues. It’s an experience you can’t even explain. You can’t explain it. And afterwards, in one day it’s over. You get leave, they send you home to be better.
I remember I was at my ex-wife’s brother’s house. They were playing Call of Duty, just laughing up a storm, good times. And I go outside and I can’t stop drinking. I just can’t stop. I can hear them inside talking about me. Her brothers come up to me and say, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ And you don’t know what to say. You say some expletives and freak out. People can look at you and think you’re a Marine, you’re a statue. But you’re a human being inside. There’s no book that says this is how you overcome things.
To listen to Think Out Loud’s full conversation with Phil Klay and the audience of veterans, click on the audio player at the top of the page.