Phil Klay is a former Marine who served in Iraq. He says the dozen stories in his new best-selling, critically acclaimed book, Redeployment (Penguin, 304 pp., $26.95), are partly autobiographical.
These are not Johnny-one-note stories, all using the same point-of-view, or showing us the same protagonist. These are stories about war told from many angles and with many different voices. All are convincing, interesting, and spell-binding. Klay is a master storyteller.
This is not an all-male war book. There are well-imagined female characters in the book, including a soldier who spent the war filling potholes until she got blown up and disfigured.
These stories make the innocent reader aware of the horrors of all wars—including the Vietnam War. In one story a female veteran who is severely injured in Iraq, says, “My dad was in Vietnam.” And her granddad was in Korea. She thought of Platoon and Full Metal Jacket when she went into the military. Her dad had been a REMF. But she was out in the shit.
Her friend comments about the films: “I’ll bet that more Marines have joined the Corps because of Full Metal Jacket than because of any fucking recruitment commercial.” He goes on to say that there is no such thing as an antiwar film. I agree. They all make war seem like an adventure.
We get the stories of a Lance Corporal grunt, a Mortuary Affairs Marine, a chaplain, and a young foreign service officer assigned to bring baseball to Iraqi street kids. Another story deals with veterans in a bar who take part in an interview for a school project, one of them so badly burned that he looks like a horror show villain.
In the story “Unless It’s a Sucking Chest Wound” there is a Fobbit, or REMF, who says: “I went for an MOS that wouldn’t put me in harm’s way. My Iraq War was a stack of papers.”
The Vietnam War continues to pop up. One of the best stories, in fact, is entitled “In Vietnam They Had Whores.”
The narrator tells us: “My dad only told me about Vietnam when I was going over to Iraq.” The story “Psychological Operations” contains one of the funniest jokes about Vietnam veterans I have encountered, and I thought I had heard them all.
It starts with “How many Vietnam vets does it take to screw in a light bulb?” But I won’t ruin it by telling you the punch line. It is a good one, and true.
There is humor in the book, and I often laughed aloud. But it is dark humor. One example: the plague of herpes that infests a platoon where there are no whores available. Finally it is tracked to the serial use of an infected and unclean “pocket pussy.” Funny stuff, but very dark.
Redeployment has been compared by reviewers to Tim O’Brien’s The Things We Carried. That’s fair enough as a quality comparison, but the book is more like John A. Miller’s Jackson Street or John Mort’s Don’t Mean Nothin or even Robert Olen Butler’s A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain.
The great strength of the book—aside from the fine writing and the dark humor—is the honesty and how the stories are presented from a kaleidoscope of experiences. Klay generously thanks a long list of folks who helped him, but he must get the final credit for this powerful book of people at war who then try to survive after their war.
No book better makes us aware of the butcher’s bill of modern war.