Phil Klay’s short story collection, Redeployment, was chosen as one of The New York Times Book Review’s Ten Best Books of 2014. Since that list is split evenly between five fiction and five non-fiction titles, it might be more accurate to call Redeployment one of The Review’s Five Best Works of Fiction of 2014. It is certainly worth such a designation.
Klay is a Marine veteran of the war in Iraq, and he uses the experiences and observations he gathered from there to great effect in his stories. His are not the kind of war stories that deal with battlefield tactics and combat. For the most part, the war in Iraq was not that kind of war. Instead of fighting a war of clearly defined battles, the soldiers of Iraq more often had to deal with the daily tension and pressure of expecting to die at any moment to a sniper’s bullet or to an improvised explosive devise (IED) placed in the path of their vehicle as they went about their business. Casualties in this type of war as often involve mental wounds as they do physical ones, wounds and damage that the men will struggle with for the rest of their lives. That mental damage is what Klay’s stories are about.
There are stories like “After Action Report,” in which a young Marine takes credit for a “kill” that belongs to a fellow soldier who does not want all the attention certain to follow such a dramatic one-on-one incident. And, surely enough, after his fellow Marines begin to treat him differently than before, the young soldier begins to suffer the same mental stresses as if he had made the actual kill.
Stories like “Redeployment,” in which a Marine, whose unit has taken to killing Iraqi dogs for sport, rotates home only to find his own dog to be suffering and dying from the cumulative effects of old age. Now, on his first day home, he must decide the fate of his old friend.
Stories like “Bodies,” in which a 19-year-old Marine, already scarred by his experiences preparing the bodies of dead comrades for shipment home from Iraq, himself comes home only to find that his pacifist girlfriend no longer wants anything to do with him.
And stories like “Prayer in the Furnace,” in which a Catholic chaplain suffers his own kind of mental anguish and ambiguity after a young soldier hints that his unit has been purposely killing innocent Iraqi civilians as a perceived form of payback for the casualties they have suffered.
What all of the stories in Redeployment have in common is a strong focus on the long term cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the mental damage and anguish that our soldiers will have to live with for the rest of their lives. We have created a generation of young men who never can, and never will, be what they could have been. Some will say that is just another cost of defending our freedom. Phil Klay’s stories are likely to make even those people wonder if it was all worth it.