By: Ryan Stuart
In any war story, but especially a true one, it's difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way. -Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried1
People aren't supposed to look back. I'm certainly not going to do it any more. I've finished my war book now. …This one is a failure, and had to be, since it was written by a pillar of salt. -Kurt Vonnegut, introduction to Slaughterhouse-Five2
A lot of veterans are disinclined to tell war stories. They rightly say, "You wouldn't understand. You weren't there." Tim O'Brien, author of The Things They Carried, seems pretty convinced that you can't tell a true war story. Kurt Vonnegut was equally convinced: it took him years and many, many drafts to write Slaughterhouse-Five, and you can see his estimation of the book in the preceding quote. Yet they both told war stories (about Vietnam and World War II, respectively), as have thousands of others in history.
So why tell war stories? Why read them? And who has the right to hear them?
Phil Klay has taken a stab at this difficult subject in Redeployment. It's a lot easier to say what this book isn't rather than what it is: It's not a Marlboro-Man, swashbuckling, heroic tale of manly courage. It's neither a play-by-play nor the dissection of a battle. It's not a bitterly satiric takedown of war. It's not even The Things They Carried, which was a more earnest book than this one. This book is dry as a desert, but it has an emotional subtlety and range that is unusual in published war fiction. Klay does his best to tell all the truth, but he tells it very slant, which may be the only way to get at the reality of such unfathomable circumstances.
The short stories that Klay tells cover many types of people not generally found in a war book until now: the guy who spends his entire tour behind a desk in Baghdad's Green Zone; the mortuary man; the chaplain; the soldier who got out of the Army, went to college, and can't decide whether he misses Iraq or not. The perspectives and points of view vary, too, from men who've been on the business end of a rifle or the targets of IEDs, to others who were never in the military at all. Klay wrote about his book: "People sometimes talk about the civilian-military divide, but there are also radical differences in the experiences of different Marines in different jobs who were in different places in Iraq at different times. The veteran experience is not a unified experience."3 Except for the complete absence of women's viewpoints, Redeployment offers a kaleidoscopic illustration of the U.S. experience in Iraq within this specific slice of time, following the 2003 invasion.
In the title story, "Redeployment," a Marine ponders shooting dogs. Sent home from Iraq to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, all he can think about on the flight is (the unofficial) Operation Scooby, during which his unit shot a lot of Iraqi dogs. He finds it difficult to reconcile his Iraq reality of danger and stress and intense alertness with his homecoming reality of air conditioning and shopping. What is more, his own dog, he discovers, has become covered with tumors since he left home.
Following this story of two realities, Klay takes us into Iraq. The piece called "FRAGO," for example, is a secondby-second narrative of an operation to clear a building of suspected IED makers. "After Action Report" is a surreal tale in which one soldier takes responsibility for another's kill. "Bodies" tells the story of a Marine who works in Mortuary Affairs and is trying desperately to come to grips with what the flesh means—his own, his ex-girlfriend's, the bodies of the dead.
"OIF" is, I think, a story about words, and what flimsy vehicles they are for telling war stories. None of the flood of acronyms in this piece gets explained—if you don't know what one means, you can't understand the events. If you're not in the military, every seventh or eighth or tenth word is fundamentally in a foreign language.
"Money as a Weapons System" is told from the point of view of a Foreign Service officer, not a soldier. This story reads like satire—Catch-224 updated—but the reader gets a queasy feeling that the absurd events it relates (having to do with a water treatment plant, a women's health clinic, and a senator's push for baseball) might in fact have happened.
"In Vietnam They Had Whores" is a deeply disturbing rumination at the nexus of eros and thanatos. "Prayer in the Furnace" is about a chaplain trying very hard to do right, but ultimately unable even to do good, and his helplessness in a cyclone of suffering. "Psychological Operations" brings us a returned vet who is trying to get at the truth of his experience while talking with a fellow college student. Like the combat soldier in the title story who was unable to overcome his survival reactions in a stateside shopping mall, this speaker can't stop manipulating his listener long enough to simply tell his truth.
"War Stories," which centers on a disabled vet burned to disfiguration after an IED attack, is about trying to speak— and trying to listen. "Unless It's a Sucking Chest Wound" describes a vet who has graduated from law school and is about to go out and make a lot of money, but who finds himself continuously returning to his memories of Iraq, unable to feel in his current life the sense of shared purpose he had there. The final story, "Ten Kliks South," is a war story at a remove—an artilleryman's first kill, which he is unable to witness because it's so far away. This story closes with a deeply moving homage to the fallen.
I think there must be a lot of truth in these stories because they are told with such raw clarity and a deep—what's the word I'm looking for: ambivalence? frustration?—as if the author were scratching hard at the paper, trying to make the thing come out right. Klay takes no position on the moral rightness or wrongness of the war, only on the effects of the deeds done in the context of a war, which, I think, might be the only honest way to approach the experience. Klay said of writing the book: "Not trading in unexamined cliches turns out to be devilishly hard," but I believe that he succeeded. Ultimately, the book is a deeply felt and beautifully written interpretation of a chaotic, fragmented, sometimes surreal, sometimes appalling, and very human war experience and its sequela.
So why tell war stories? Why read them? And who has the right to listen? The latter two questions are easier to answer than the first. People read war stories for the same reason they read any story: to understand some aspect of human experience. Klay said:
"What we think about war says a lot aboutwhat we think about America, about American politics, about citizenship, about violence, and about masculinity. It says a lot about what we think about people in other countries and our responsibilities to them as human beings. It says a lot about what we think of death, and sacrifice, and patriotism, and cruelty. It says a lot about our limits as humans, our ability to endure and our abilityto break. It says a lot about the stories we tellourselves so we don't have to examine what we think about war too closely."5
Whether any given war, or any act within it, is "good" or "bad," people will continue to start and fight wars, and end them, and send the soldiers home. Those of us who don't participate can't understand any of these aspects of the
human tapestry if we don't read the stories. And we can't come to any meaningful moral conclusions about warfare if those who have experienced war don't write about their experiences.
Again, why write war stories? Most veterans don't do so out of some abstract duty to readers, or for setting records straight, or to record history. Serious writers write because they are trying to make sense of their own experience. Writing is a way of getting one's arms around an experience—maybe to hold it close, or maybe to strangle it—in order to let it go. I think this is particularly true of people who write war stories: there is an urgent need to master the experience. As Klay put it: "What I wanted to say, what
I felt the need to write, it was important for me to say it now."6 It's certainly not the only way to come to terms with deep emotion, but for centuries, writing has been a very effective way of leashing the demons that are born from extreme experience. So why not write? You—yes, I'm talking to you, reader: Why not put your experience on paper? What have you got to lose? It's only a little time, a little ink. Your work may be a small, private journal, or it may be a huge bestseller; that's up to the time you want to put into it and the gods of commerce. But you will, like readers of war stories, come to better understand this particularly fraught and difficult aspect of your own, very human experience. As Tim O'Brien said: "All you can do is tell it one more time, patiently, adding and subtracting, making up a few things to get at the real truth."7
About the Author(s): Ryan Stuart is the layout and design director for CTX and one of Goodreads.com's Top 100 Reviewers.
1. Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1990), as excerpted in "Tim O'Brien Tells a True War Story," Lapham's Quarterly online, n.d.: http://www.laphamsquarterly.org/voices-in-time/tim-obrien-tells-a-true-war-story.php
2. Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five, or the Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death (New York: Delacorte Press, 1969).
3. Phil Klay, interview by The Short Form, n.d.: http://www.theshortform.com/interview/phil-klay
4. Catch-22 is a classic anti-war novel set at a Mediterranean air base during World War II. The term "Catch-22" has entered the American lexicon as an ironic reference to an unsolvable logic conundrum. See Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1961).
5. Klay, interview by The Short Form.
7. O'Brien, The Things They Carried.
Veteran's Writing Project: http://veteranswriting.org/
Writers Guild Foundation's Veterans Writing Project: https://www.wgfoundation.
Veterans Writing Workshop: http://www.veteranswritingworkshop.org/