Phil Klay On Telling War Stories Without Telling War Stories

Reployment by Phil Klay

A character in Redeployment, the debut short story collection by Phil Klay, describes the ideal anti-war film like this.

It’s not Platoon or Full Metal Jacket. It’s just a story of a kid who grows up and falls in love and joins the Army. He’s sent to Korea. Then, before any heroic war scenes have time to materialize around him, “he’s shot in the water and drowns in three feet of surf.” There’s no sweeping close-up. Don’t glorify it. The movie’s over.

Maybe that’s what Klay had in mind when crafting, over a period of four years, the stories that comprise this collection, published in March by Penguin. They are war stories that turn away from combat, from heroism, from war itself even, refocusing their lens on human effects—and aftereffects—of the Iraq conflict.

And when the raw ingredients of war are witnessed, they are frequently filtered, mediated, experienced secondhand. In “Psychological Operations,” the stories are delivered from an alienated veteran Amherst student to an initially hostile Muslim interlocutor. In “Prayer in the Furnace,” the reader receives snippets of war in confession form from the perspective of a chaplain stationed with a platoon abroad. “Unless It’s a Sucking Chest Wound” filters a battalion’s most momentous experiences through the squarely bureaucratic duties of an adjutant and his paperwork.

Drawn intimately in bracing first-person prose, those intermediaries don’t shield the reader from Redeployment’s vision of war. They are its vision of war—a stark, if unflinchingly human, glimpse of how Iraq’s survivors talk about, comprehend, and still grapple with it. Klay would know—he’s one of them. The book’s mediated perspectives, and its handle on a scattered variety of roles within the military, reflect his service as a public affairs officer in the Marines.

“I met with a lot of different types of folks with a lot of very radically different types of jobs,” Klay tells Newsweek of his experience. “But it's not just the different jobs you had, but the time you were there. It means everything in terms of what your deployment was like and how you felt about it.”

Klay, who describes his experience as “much milder than some folks’,” was deployed in January 2007. He remained in Iraq for 13 months. Shortly after returning in early 2008, he wrote the opening lines of what would become the eponymous, opening story of Redeployment. “Pretty much everything else in that story changed," he said. "But I had the first line for about two-and-a-half years.”

He intended to write a novel, but found the form ill-suited to the multitude of experiences and perspectives he envisioned. That story, Klay’s first to be published, eventually landed in Granta Magazine in 2011—the same year he received an MFA from Hunter College. There, he spent years writing and workshopping the stories—and so the resulting work is as informed by the struggle to readjust to civilian life as it is by the war itself.

“It's one of those weird things about the all-volunteer military where you get back home and it doesn't feel like there's much talk about war, but you used to be part of this community that is very much at war,” Klay says.

In particular, Redeployment takes as an obsession the chasms and moral superiorities that emerge between those who have been to war and those who have not. One narrator, a former Psychological Operations officer who finds himself skulking around a New England liberal arts campus and serving exaggerated war truths in his classes, muses, “The weird thing with 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.”

Whatever the intimacies a first-person narrator engenders, those sentiments aren’t Klay’s own. Or if they are, the stories are his attempts to confront them, to keep them at a distance. Klay is humble when pressed on it.  

“There’s a tradition in war writing that the veteran goes over and sees the truth of war and comes back,” he acknowledges. “And I’m skeptical of that.” The risk, if you take a veteran writer entirely at his word, is “unexamined writing,” stories bolstered by moral authority that supersedes literary authority. “I think that just because you’ve been through an experience doesn’t make you the ultimate arbiter of what it means. We figure things out, we work things out through the help of other people who can engage with us but also be intelligently critical.”

There was an NYU Veterans Writing Workshop that Klay credits with help on the collection. Fellow servicemen were never far away. But the writers and mentors who prodded the stories, offering guidance and critiques, were mostly not veterans. Some—teachers at Hunter, especially—didn’t shy away from the task.

“I was studying with Peter Carey, Colum McCann, but also my fellow students were really critical readers for me,” he recalls. “Colum McCann was certainly not afraid to call me out on my BS.”

Fittingly, the collection is shaped by characters struggling to grasp experiences beyond their moral authority—killing, in particular. The book opens with a Marine’s confession that his battalion killed dogs. It closes with an artilleryman’s trip to Mortuary Affairs, a hapless attempt to grasp the results of an operation that killed a “platoon-sized element” of insurgents. “After Action Report,” an especially strong story in between those bookends, finds its hero inadvertently taking credit for a fellow soldier’s kill.

Does he see himself in any particular protagonist? “I see myself in all of them,” he answers. “That’s how you try and figure these things out from the inside.”

Klay is already at work on a new book, though he declines to reveal more. (“I’m trying to protect it a little.”) But in the meantime, he’s overwhelmed by the reaction and critical accolades his collection has sparked, including a fairly glowing assessment by The New York Times’s Michiko Kakutani.

“I’m bowled over,” he says. “I never expected anything like this reaction.”

From a burgeoning writer, few expected anything like this book.

Redeployment by Phil Klay, Penguin Press HC, March 4 2014.

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