"Marines and soldiers don't issue themselves orders, they don't send themselves overseas," says former Marine Phil Klay. "United States citizens elect the leaders who send us overseas."
In his new collection, Redeployment, Klay, who served in Iraq, tells a dozen vivid stories about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from the perspectives of the people who experienced it — combatants, civilians and children alike. Taken together, the stories give a grim — and occasionally funny — picture of war and what happens next to those who survive it. Once the soldiers return home, Klay says, that dialogue between veterans and civilians is essential.
"The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are as much every U.S. citizen's wars as they are the veterans' wars," Klay tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer. "If we don't assume that civilians have just as much ownership and the moral responsibilities that we have as a nation when we embark on something like that, then we're in a very bad situation."
On telling the story from several perspectives
I decided very early on it was going to be all first-person narratives. A lot of times you're interacting with people for whom you're one of the very few veterans that they've met or had a lot of interactions with, and there's a temptation for you to feel like you can pontificate about what the experience was or what it meant, and that leads to a lot of nonsense. I wanted to have very different viewpoints, very different experiences, just so the reader could kind of think about what they were trying to say and how they clash with each other. There's not a single narrative about this war.
On his own homecoming
I don't want to act as though my deployment was particularly rough, because it wasn't. I had a very mild deployment; I was a staff officer. But just a few days before [I returned to the U.S.] I'd seen people coming into the medical facility ... horribly injured. And then a few days later I'm walking down Madison Avenue in the summer and there's just zero sense that we're at war. It's very strange and difficult to deal with the disconnect. And, of course, if veterans just talk to each other about wars, then that disconnect's only going to continue.
On how veterans must be able to share their experiences with civilians
You know, this is not the World War II generation. We have a much smaller percentage of the population that has gone overseas. But also I think it's important personally — the notion that you can't communicate these very intense experiences. It just means that veterans are going to be isolated, that something incredibly important to them that they went through, something that they can't share, you know, with their friends and family who didn't serve, and I don't think that's true, and I think that that isolation's a terrible thing to feel.
On why he wrote the book
What I really want — and I think what a lot of veterans want — is a sense of serious engagement with the wars, because it's important, because it matters, because lives are at stake, and it's something we did as a nation. That's something that deserves to be thought about very seriously and very honestly, without resorting to the sort of comforting stories that allow us to tie a bow on the experience and move on.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
"Redeployment" is a compelling collection of short stories about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, written by a former Marine who served in Iraq during the surge. Phil Klay tells a tale of a Foreign Service officer stationed just outside Baghdad, who gets an order passed down from a congressman: Teach Iraqi children to play baseball so they'll understand democracy. There's a sergeant who processes bodies. He asks a soldier to make his job easier: Put his wedding ring on the chain with his dog tags. Can you do that for me? The collection feels real; a grim, upsetting but sometimes funny picture of war, and what happens next to those who survive it. Klay makes it all the more vivid because his characters tell their own stories.
PHIL KLAY: I decided very early on that it was going to be all first-person narratives. A lot of times, you're interacting with people for whom you're one of the very few veterans that they've met or had a lot of interactions with. And so I wanted to have very different viewpoints, very different experiences, just so the reader could kind of think about what they're trying to say, and how they clash with each other. There's not a single narrative about this war. And I didn't want to come and say, you know, this is how it was. This is what Iraq was.
WERTHEIMER: One of the ways you do that, of course, is that the stories have a very different tone and the narrators are very different, one from another. Most of the stories are serious, and some of them are really tragic. But there are also some funny bits in this book. In one story, you load up all the acronyms for which the military is justly famous. And you use these cryptic initials to tell a story. The story is called "OIF," and I started laughing at the first line. So maybe you can read that for us.
KLAY: (Laughing) All right, sure. Let me flip to it here. (Reading) EOD handled the bombs. SSTP treated the wounds. PRP processed the bodies. DO8s fired DPICM. The MAW provided casts. The O3s patrolled the MSRs. Me and PFC handled the money.
WERTHEIMER: Now, of course, if you translate it, it's fairly grim, right?
KLAY: Yeah. I mean, you're talking about explosive ordnance disposal techs who are going out on the roads and dismantling IEDs. You're talking about the surgeons who are treating the people who are coming in, who are injured in the battlefield; the mortuary affairs Marines, which changed their name to PRP, which is personnel retrieval and processing.
WERTHEIMER: I thought one of the best stories in the book is the one that's called "Prayer in the Furnace." It's about a military chaplain, and he tells the story - who is trying to guide and comfort an exceptionally fierce and increasingly disturbed group of Marines. You include some selections from the chaplain's journal. I wondered if you could read one of those to us.
KLAY: All right. (Reading) I'd at least thought there would be nobility in war. I know it exists. There's 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.
WERTHEIMER: And this is one of the main things that you talk about in the book, and that is having conversations about war between those who served and those who didn't.
KLAY: It's a very difficult topic to engage on and yet also, I think, vitally important. I think that if we can't talk with civilians about war, then we're in a really bad situation because Marines and soldiers, they don't issue themselves orders. They don't send themselves overseas. United States citizens elect the leaders who send us overseas. And the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are as much every U.S. citizen's wars as they are the veteran's wars.
I think one of the really bizarre things - coming back, I went straight to New York in the summer, and there's just zero sense that we're at war. And it's very strange and difficult to deal with the disconnect. And of course, if veterans just talk to each other about wars, then that disconnect's only going to continue. You know, this is not the World War II generation. We have a much smaller percentage of the population that has gone overseas. But also, I think it's important personally. It just means that veterans are going to be isolated.
WERTHEIMER: Is that why you wrote the book?
KLAY: I wanted people to engage. What I really want, and I think what a lot of veterans want, is a sense of serious engagement with the wars - because it's important, because it matters, because lives are at stake. And it's something that we did as a nation. And that, you know, that deserves to be thought about very seriously and very honestly, without resorting to the sort of comforting stories that allow us to tie a bow on the experience and move on.
WERTHEIMER: Phil Klay, thank you so much for talking with us.
KLAY: Thank you for having me.
WERTHEIMER: Phil Klay's new book, out now, is called "Redeployment." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.