The Short Version: A returning soldier has to put down his dog. An Foreign Service officer tries to get a water plant built but bureaucracy (both US and Iraqi) gets in the way. A lance corporal takes credit for a killing he didn’t commit, but neither he nor his comrade are sure that’s okay. These stories and more, all from the heart of the defining conflict of the last decade.
The Review: There’ve been plenty of war books in the last ten years or so about our seemingly-intractable Middle Eastern clusterfucks. But I’ve never read something quite like Redeployment. This is the sort of book that gets held up at the end of the day alongside something like All Quiet on the Western Front for its skill at capturing the particulars of a given conflict.
And it’s all the more astonishing to know that the title story, which leads off the collection, was also Klay’s first published story. And that single piece alone will knock your socks off: it’s a little funny, a little scary, a little sad… and very human. The line that got me wasn’t the opener (“We shot dogs.”) but the end of the first paragraph, the line that bookends that opener: “I’m a dog person, so I thought about that a lot.”
The bolt of electricity that went through me as I read this was undeniable. This was so honest and so humane that I thought, for a split second, that maybe this was just stories told by actual vets that Klay has compiled – but no, they’re all out of his head. They are all, even as the voices change, this brand new single voice from a guy called Phil.
The voices do change and, as with any collection, some stories stand out stronger than others. “OIF”, the collection’s shortest piece, stands out for its nearly (but not quite) overwhelming use of acronyms – which is, of course, the point. “Money as a Weapons System” feels the most outright humorous of the bunch, leaning towards the Catch-22 and droll-British schools of humor at times. Others fall more squarely in the traditional war narrative vein, like “Frago” and “Ten Kliks South” – but even that doesn’t lessen their visceral impact. There’s something rock-solid about Klay’s stories, a sense of bedrock seriousness about it all.
And that seriousness, more often than not, comes out as something melancholic. I don’t think anybody can deny, these days, that the war has really fucked up a significant portion of the men & women who’ve served (to say nothing of the very civilizations that they were tasked with fucking up) – but I just don’t know that I’ve ever seen it done quite this way, or at least had it affect me in quite this way. Klay forces you to stay with these stories and their characters right to the bitter end, so even if you don’t remember which particular PFC or lance corporal you were reading about, their circumstances are unshakeable. I’m not going to say something like “you feel like you’re there” but Klay seems to be trying to bring the war back home in a way that so many authors have been far less successful in doing. And that makes it a difficult collection to get through, but ultimately a worthwhile one. Because even as each story punches you in the gut, you get up again. You owe it to them, those few and proud who put their lives on the line whether or not they believed or wanted to.
“Psychological Operations”, perhaps my favorite story in the collection, brings it home, too. It’s not just about what’s going on abroad but it’s about what’s going on right here. Set in Amherst, conscious of the privilege enjoyed by so many of the students there, the story (as you can no doubt guess from its title) has to do not only with the PsyOps done in combat but those done to combatants and those done by the combatants when they’ve returned home – and also the PsyOps done by ordinary people on a daily basis. Several characters ask each other why they’ve done something, why they want to talk about these things or deal with this issue, and you get the sense that Klay is driving at the human need to discuss and contemplate and to be understood. Things are so much more complex than “he’s bad, I’m good” or “we must go fight for X” and Klay delivers that complexity so, so well.
Rating: 5 out of 5. A potent collection, easily the best Iraq War fiction I’ve read. It might not have the humor of a Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk nor does it wear its heart too much on its sleeve: it is, instead, simply honest. It is unadorned, although Klay (as a writer) enjoys a couple of tricks with form that are fun to see. He’s trying to bring these stories home, make them matter – and make you, when you look at the book cover, feel a pang in your conscience. Is that solider being redeployed? You hope not. Is he happy? Is he sad? Is he numb? Who does he wait for? What does he wait for? The existential human questions of war are all here – and the country would do well to read the book and realize just what it is we’ve done the last decade.