I’m recommending the book Redeployment by Phil Klay. This is a collection of 12 short stories written in 12 different voices, but each of which speaks to a soldier’s experience in the Iraq War. Klay himself is a combat veteran, a Marine who served in Anbar province during the 2007-2008 Surge. This book won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2014.
My previous experience with war literature was mainly through teaching Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried every year in a Western Civ class. O’Brien, of course, is a masterful writer, not just a soldier recording memories, who tells stories in an artful way that recreates the emotional landscape of what it was like to be a soldier in Vietnam.
What O’Brien did for Vietnam, Phil Klay does for Iraq. Every page of this book is layered, textured, and brutal narrative. Klay writes not only of the moral ambiguity of war, the extreme fatigue and confusion, but also recreates the incredibly disorienting and often violent experience of returning home in prose that is spare and haunting. Take this example:
“So here’s an experience. Your wife takes you shopping in Wilmington. Last time you walked down a city street, your Marine on point went down the side of the road, checking ahead and scanning the roofs across from him. The Marine behind him checks the windows on the top levels of the buildings, the Marine behind him gets the windows a little lower, and so on down until your guys have the street level covered, and the Marine in back has the rear. In a city there’s a million places they can kill you from. It freaks you out at first. But you go through like you were trained, and it works.
“In Wilmington, you don’t have a squad, you don’t have a battle buddy, you don’t even have a weapon. You startle 10 times checking for it and it’s not there. You’re safe, so your alertness should be at white, but it’s not.
“Instead, you’re stuck in an American Eagle Outfitters. Your wife gives you some clothes to try on and you walk into the tiny dressing room. You close the door, and you don’t want to open it again.”
One of the most striking chapters in the book is a first-person account written from an Army Chaplain’s perspective. It’s an amazing piece of work, hitting on the theological, practical, moral, and political ambiguities of war. There is a character in that chapter, Rodriguez, who is struggling with the fact that he’s killed a civilian, or at least someone he thinks might have been a civilian—it’s really hard to tell. Rodriguez is a Catholic, and he comes to the priest with his concern about hell. The Chaplain writes in his journal:
“I had at least thought there would be nobility in war. I know it exists. There are so many stories, and some of them have to be true. But I see mostly normal men, trying to do good, beaten down by horror, by their inability to quell their own rages, by their masculine posturing and their so-called hardness, their desire to be tougher, and therefore crueler, than their circumstance. And yet, I have this sense that this place is holier than back home. Gluttonous, fat, oversexed, overconsuming, materialist home, where we’re too lazy to see our own faults. At least here, Rodriguez has the decency to worry about hell. The moon is unspeakably beautiful tonight. Ramadi is not. Strange that people live in such a place.”
I think it’s really important for us to read war literature. I think it’s a civic duty for those of us who haven’t or will not serve: we need to understand what goes on in the wars we fight overseas, and we need to understand what soldiers undergo, both the literal battles and the emotional battles fought back home. This is a book that’s incredibly foul-mouthed, emotional, difficult, funny, horrifying, and cleansing, and it is thus a humanizing and spiritual experience to read.
Andrew Armond, PhD, is a chaplain and religion teacher at the Episcopal School of Acadiana.