It is through the filter of art, rather than terse, academic accounts, that history increasingly gets judged. Facts may blur and the truth warp through re-telling, like in Chinese whispers, but that is how the past is received, down the passage of time. As sports pundits often quip, ‘…the winners laugh, and the losers make their own plans.’ Quite.
It is admittedly with such reservations that I picked up Redeployment, a collection of short stories by Phil Klay, on the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan – as seen through the eyes of the American soldier. And within the first two pages I had my preconceptions – my prejudices – reinforced:
‘…I hear O’Leary go, “Jesus”, and there’s a skinny brown dog lapping up blood the same way he’d lap up water from a bowl. It wasn’t American blood, but still, there’s that dog, lapping it up.’
Part of me – the Pavlovian part – jumped up, ‘…so here it is, the world divided into two, neat categories – American and non-American.’ But of course, that’s rubbish – the author is simply communicating the mindset of the man at war, who, quite sensibly, reduces an equation of mind-numbing complexity down to two, simple parts: friend or foe. But then…
‘…you see the body parts in the locker and the retarded guy in the cage. He squawked like a chicken. His head was shrunk down to a coconut. It takes you a while to remember Doc saying they’d shot mercury into his skull, and then it still doesn’t make sense.’
That one can mention, in passing, that a mentally disabled man somehow ended up in a cage and had mercury injected into his skull, before swiftly picking up the exposition of one’s personal ennui, is an open-sesame onto a whole other review. For this review, though, I must firstly make clear that Redeployment is vividly – and brilliantly – written. Indeed, there are many levels at which to enjoy this work. At the most basic, if you want to experience the ‘thrill’ of the front line, the energy and intensity of mortal combat, this work will not disappoint. Indeed it is quite possibly without equal, in offering that vicarious pleasure. The author puts you right in the boots of a US Marine – the reader requires no leap of imagination to see, hear, smell and taste the situation.
The first short – which, consciously or otherwise, bears a resemblance to ‘The Pugilist at Rest’, by Thom Jones – captures the shredded mental state of the soldier, returning home from war. From the staccato, hop-scotch, disjointed threads, to the coarse soldier’s vernacular – it is written with breath-taking skill. The dialogue throughout is full of military acronyms – DFAC, PFC, TQ BOS,… – some of which you get and some you don’t, but it doesn’t matter – it creates a surround-sound, fully immersing the reader in that world. I particularly loved that the characters – individual soldiers – were not described. No-one was pinned down as black, white, Hispanic, short, tall, a bespectacled introvert or a muscular bragger – but through their words alone, they were fully realised. Indeed it is a masterclass in storytelling, through dialogue. Furthermore, it deserves mentioning that the collection does not comprise some all-pervading, testosterone-fuelled ‘war porn’ – there is surprising variegation, depth, change of pace, even introspection.
Any Cop?: Redeployment is, without doubt, an arresting piece of work, written by a fresh, perceptive and immensely talented new author. My only reservation is not about the stories per se, but rather their wider milieu – that a book on, say, the emotional scars carried by German soldiers in WWII would seem bizarre; offensive, even. But meditations on the psychic harm done to American soldiers, from Vietnam through to Iraq and beyond, feels right, and important, and necessary. But that, perhaps, is best left for another review…