Book review

‘Redeployment’: Iraq War veteran Phil Klay turns to fiction to describe the brutality, fears, courage of serving

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Unless you’ve been through it, nobody really knows what a war is like. Words are probably inadequate to impart the experiences, but in his first book, “Redeployment,” Phil Klay comes as close as possible to relating the emotions of various people before, during and after the war in Iraq. The depth of his perceptions and clarity of his observations are remarkable.

By Phil Klay
The Penguin Press ($26.95).

A Dartmouth graduate who became a Marine and served in Iraq in 2007 and 2008, Mr. Klay has a straightforward, no-frills style. He expresses himself with a young man’s energy that directly and immediately pulls the reader into his narratives. It would be impossible to remain detached and just sit back and admire his skill as a writer. These stories are felt like shrapnel in the gut.

Mr. Klay also throws in pitch-black, totally non-PC humor. There are sentences that schoolboys will underline and adults will be offended by, but they are nonetheless hilarious. The crude jokes seem appropriate because all 12 stories are told by guys, mostly young Marines.

Mr. Klay liberally uses the lingo and abbreviations of the Marine Corps. One story, “OIF,” is written almost completely in acronyms. Just three pages long, “OIF” will leave civilians scratching their heads or jumping on Google.

In the rest of the pieces, context explains that DFAC means dining facility, FOB is the forward operating base, “cans” are the trailers used as sleeping quarters, hadji is a derogatory term for Arabs, and Rip It is the energy drink of the American military.

The one acronym crucial to know is IED, or improvised explosive device because IEDs pervade the Iraqi desert battleground as well as the Marines’ nightmares. IEDs kill and maim the most people, and what it feels like to watch buddies get blown up is one of Mr. Klay’s most prominent subjects.

In “Frago,” a Marine sergeant takes his team into a house where al-Qaida is making a torture video. Like many of the other stories in the collection, “Frago” is fraught with action, but these are not just adventure tales. Mr. Klay’s aim is to show the beating heart beneath the body armor.

“Frago” reveals the split-second decisions a squad leader must make in combat, and how his men need to be taken care of afterward, even if it means putting spoons in their hands to get them to eat. In “After Action Report” set in Fallujah, the concern is not wounded friends but how a Marine deals with his feelings after killing someone in battle by playing video games.

“Bodies,” which switches back and forth between Iraq, boot camp and home, is told by a superstitious Mortuary Affairs Marine whose girlfriend is against the war.

The longest stories in “Redeployment” are “Money as a Weapons System” and “Prayer in the Furnace.” “Money” is told by a young State Department worker who has come to Taji, on the Tigris River, to try and reopen a water treatment plant because the local water is a mix of E. coli, heavy metals and sulfuric acid.

Instead, he is expected to start a youth baseball team because a congressman’s constituent has sent uniforms. “Money” reads like early Tom Wolfe, where everybody’s motives are suspect.

“Prayer” is told by a chaplain stationed in Ramadi. He spends his time organizing the care packages of candy and jerky sent to “Any Marine” and trying to offer counsel. “God always offers forgiveness to those who are truly sorry,” he tells one visitor. “But sorry isn’t a feeling. It’s an action. A determination to make things right.” The man replies, “A lance corporal don’t have the power to make anything right.”

The chaplain’s ineffectualness leads to a crisis of faith until he realizes that Christ only promised we don’t suffer alone. “We are all part of a long tradition of suffering,” the chaplain says. “We can let it isolate us if we want, but we must realize that isolation is a lie.”

Lies figure into many of Mr. Klay’s stories. “Memories lie,” one Marine says. “Walking down the street I smell something, and the day remembers itself for me.” Another admits: “There’s a perversity in me that, when I talk to conservatives makes me want to bash the war and when I talk to liberals, defend it.” In “Redeployment,” Mr. Klay does neither. He just tells it as he saw it.

Margie Romero is communications manager at Pittsburgh Public Theater.

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