Redeployment by Phil Klay (Penguin 2014)
Redeployment may be the strongest and most literary work of fiction to have emerged from America’s recent wars, deserving comparison with Kevin Powers' The Yellow Birds . It is a collection of short stories, presenting different voices of soldiers, all back from war and all trying to process their various experiences. Together the voices have the quality of a person directly after an accident, still trying to ascertain the extent of their injuries.
The author, Phil Klay, served from 2007-2008 as a Public Affairs Officer in the US Marine Corps in Iraq. While he describes his own experience as “a very mild deployment”, it is clear that he was a skilled observer of military experience. His characters seem highly believable as they go through the many stages of returning home, including emotional numbness, anger, heightened alertness, and disillusion.
Klay is clearly writing for a civilian audience, to whom the minds and experiences of new veterans are largely inaccessible. In some stories, he shows readers how an experience at home can trigger memories and re-traumatize them. In the first story, a Marine, a dog lover who had to shoot feral dogs in Iraq, finds that his girlfriend has kept his ancient and sick dog alive for his return. He refuses the services of a veterinary, and decides to put his dog down himself. “That’s how it should be done, each shot coming quick after the last so you can’t even try to recover, which is when it hurts”. In other stories, characters struggle to make themselves understood to civilians, sometimes using their “war stories” as weapons to wound and alienate their listeners.
Redeployment is a distinctively American book and the experiences of US Marines in places like Fallujah do not closely match (thankfully) those of CAF personnel in Afghanistan. However, as a starting point in learning to understand the many ways in which contemporary war both wounds and stays with its survivors, it is a useful book. Two stories will be of particular interest as they both feature chaplains. In one, “Prayer in the Furnace”, a Catholic chaplain finds few words of comfort for a Marine who wonders how “somebody can live and fight for months in that shit and not go insane”. As a Catholic himself, Klay imagines the priest’s pastoral and theological struggle with great sympathy and integrity.
While a work of fiction, Redeployment offers some understanding of the traumatic effects of war and the post-traumatic effects of survival and return from war. For chaplain readers of this blog, since we who are called to walk with soldiers, and seek to understand their often concealed interior worlds, it is a useful book to have on our shelves. Using war fiction as a means to explore issues of moral injury, spiritual resilience, and ethics may also be a useful way for chaplains to connect with other CAF members through one-on-one conversations, study groups, or talks. Other recent fiction which chaplains should know about include Kevin Powers’ Iraq war novel The Yellow Birds and two classics of the Vietnam War, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn.