“Brutally realistic” – Redeployment by Phil Klay

If World War One’s contribution to literature is the poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, the war in Iraq has produced acronyms (the perfect method for a society saturated in mass media to avoid the reality of war):

“EOD handled the bombs. SSTP treated the wounds. PRP processed the bodies. The 08s fired DPICM. The MAW provided CAS. The 03s patrolled the MSRs. Me and PFC handled the money.”

Phil Klay finds the rhythm in military jargon, while his sentences find further echoes in rap music. In ‘Frago’ Klay gives us an Iraqi equivalent to Ice Cube’s rap about Los Angeles, repeating the song’s key line: “Today’s a good day.” Like Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams, Klay’s characters focus on actions, they are attentive only to the present, keeping memory and thought at bay: “You’ve got to do the basic things.”

The numbness of Klay’s characters is as much the result of childhoods spent playing video games as the incomprehensible and inconsequential real-life violence that surrounds them in Iraq. Their reaction to the violence and violent confusion of Iraq is essentially American: “We took my combat pay and did a lot of shopping. Which is how America fights back against the terrorists.” Materialism and irony are all they have to fall back on.

Redeployment has the irony of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, “I wasn’t sure if Major Zima was brilliant or insane”, the pop culture vim of Michael Herr’s Dispatches but, perhaps because it takes time for history to be understood, presents the war it depicts as chaotic and avoids trying to understand it. Klay’s soldiers have little curiosity in why they are in Iraq, why people are trying to kill them and why they are killing the locals: “Bob… had an existential view of the Iraq war. We were fighting in Iraq because we were fighting in Iraq.” None of the soldiers portrayed here ever marched against the first Iraq War (they are too young for one thing) but nor are they American patriots, their loyalty is only to fellow soldiers. The narrators of these stories are more reflective, they try to place their experience in a wider context but the span of that context makes the individual even more irrelevant: “Sunni dead, Shi’a dead, Kurd dead, Christian dead. All the dead of all Iraq, even all the dead of Iraqi history, the Akkadian Empire and the Mongols and the American invasion.” 

Even the chaplain at the heart of the finest story of the collection, ‘Prayer in the Furnace’, eschews a wider perspective, his faith undermined by those assumptions he was taught in the US and their meaninglessness to the soldiers he tries to comfort: “How do you spiritually administer to men who are still being assaulted?” The best his religion can do is provide hope: “I asked God to protect the battalion from further harm. I knew He would not.” As an Iraqi translator for the American troops points out: “Even without hope, you must try.”

Redeployment is a clear-sighted and brutally realistic account of war, and not only war in Iraq, as well as empathetic portraits of the damaged men who wage all wars. Above all, it is a masterly evocation of futility and the impossibility of victory on a contemporary battlefield: “Success was a matter of perspective. In Iraq it had to be. There was no Omaha Beach, no Vicksburg Campaign, not even al Alamo to signal a clear defeat. The closest we’d come were those toppled Saddam statues.”

Any Cop:? The obvious comparisons, such as Catch-22 and Hemingway’s stories, serve to highlight Phil Klay’s talent, while the stories’ embrace of twenty-first century pop culture brings his characters into a fresh reality. Redeployment is as much a portrait of the twenty-first century as it is a portrayal of the Iraqi War.

 

James Doyle

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