Penguin Press, 2014
304 pp., $26.95
James Calvin Schaap
War stories usually take on the motif of initiation because no one, thank goodness, is ever prepared for watching friends—buddies—die and die fitfully; war stories are always about men and women whose lives and visions are changed by warfare, changed forever.
Experiencing the horror of war leaves those who do with memories as sharp as cut glass, stories you either tell or you do not. Many do not, but not talking about one's experiences often means those stories create a din within the mind and heart. PTSD can result—at least that's the common wisdom.
The stories Phil Klay tells in Redeployment, a riveting collection of tales dug out of the Iraq war (does war used in that phrase get upper case yet, I wonder?) are not so much about not telling war stories. They're not about what veterans suffer for their silence. What Klay does so poignantly is explore the heartache one feels in telling them.
All vets, I suppose, are achingly conscious of the stories they have and can tell because they discover that some people really do want to know them, for reasons that are both noble and ignoble, for everything from soulful empathy to sick entertainment. Many do want to know.
But the stories that changed the hearts and souls and minds of the vets who tell them can be manipulated or altered, reshaped for listeners simply because they do hold such monstrous power. Tell them right and they can get you laid, as several of Klay's vets come to learn. (Or, as Brian Williams learned, get you ratings.) But those storytellers also learn that toying with war experiences is its own minefield because manipulation risks discrediting both the stories and, they come to understand, the storytellers, which is to say, themselves.
What distinguishes Phil Klay's Redeployment from Tim O'Brien's Things They Carried has little to do with narrative power. Phil Klay had to have known and read O'Brien; O'Brien's influence is everywhere. Some of Klay's stories, given a few deft time-and-place edits, would fit snugly within the covers of Things They Carried.
But Redeployment does something else: it studies war stories and their varied effects even while it tells them, which means it tells stories about telling stories; a hail of bullets becomes a hall of mirrors and, sadly enough, yet another form of PTSD. Klay's storytellers are haunted not only by what happened but also by how they try to explain and detail what happened. In Redeployment, Klay has added another dimension—yet another dangerous one—to what we commonly refer to as the really impenetrable "fog of war."
Redeployment creates its own echo chamber, and the effect is stunning. Klay walked away from the National Book Awards in 2014 with the top prize, an award that is, to me, completely understandable. Like Things They Carried, Redeployment is not just a book you read, but a book you experience.
Phil Klay was there in Iraq, a Marine, and it's evident throughout.
When I got to the window and handed in my rifle, though, it brought me up short. That was the first time I'd been separated from it in months. I didn't know where to rest my hands. First I put them in my pockets , then I took them out and crossed my arms, and then I just let them hang, useless, at my sides.
It may well be possible for someone who wasn't there to imagine that unique emptiness, but such sharp perception creates authority that's totally convincing.
Redeployment takes us, time after time, into the equation all of us experience when we are suddenly forced to grow up, and it does it with war, something none of us really want to experience.
James Calvin Schaap is the author of more than twenty books—novels, short stories, poems, nonfiction—including, most recently, the story collection Up the Hill.
Copyright © 2015 Books & Culture. Click for reprint information.