So it’s 50 percent boredom and 49 percent normal terror, which is a general feeling that you might die at any second and that everybody in this country wants to kill you. Then, of course, there’s the 1 percent pure terror, when your heart rate skyrockets and your vision closes in and your hands are white and your body is humming. You can’t think. You’re just an animal, doing what you’ve been trained to do. And then you go back to normal terror, and you go back to being a human, and you go back to thinking.
In the story “Prayer in the Furnace,” from Phil Klay’s Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award finalist Redeployment (2014), a chaplain fails to offer solace to a platoon whose tactics involve baiting a lone soldier into flushing out hidden Iraqis. Rodriguez, a frazzled US Marine, bookends the story, initially jittery, unpredictable and haunted, and finally scowling and mystified, during which a large number of surviving soldiers shoot themselves, unable to continue back home, irrevocably poisoned by their harrowing experiences.
Two years later, Alexander Newberry, formerly of Charlie Company, appeared in an event called Winter Soldier, organized by the protest group Iraq Veterans Against the War. The event was supposed to prove the illegality of the war, and since a Marine from my old battalion was taking part, I watched most of it on YouTube. The panel of veterans was of varied quality. Many were vague and unconvincing, and what they complained about seemed more like the standard horror of war than any particular pattern of misconduct. Newberry, however, had brought a camera to Iraq and used photos and video to accompany his testimony. He claimed Captain Boden congratulated every Marine on their first kill and told everyone that if a Marine got their first kill by stabbing someone to death, they’d get a ninety-six-hour pass when they got back. It sounded right.
Without going into too much pointless background re: the long line of precedents in the “war” fiction genre, it’s impossible not to mention Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried (Mookse review here), Michael Herr’s Dispatches, and Thom Jones’ Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine (not by any means exclusively war-centric), three relatively contemporary, prominent collections of short fiction detailing close-quarters combat experience. Although, what do I know about what makes such fiction “realistic” anyway? (As an “old joke” recounted in the story “Psychological Operations” has it, “How many Vietnam vets does it take to change a lightbulb? You wouldn’t know, you weren’t there.”) I don’t. I do think, though, that Redeployment is an impressive enough collection of stories to be spoken about in the same breath as those inarguably revered volumes.
Redeployment offers its own tour of a war’s protagonists, both in Iraq as the nightmare plays out and back in the US: demob unhappy soldiers visit garishly vivid pink trailers containing tired strippers and addled punters, and sink ambivalently into a deeply sad, tawdry oblivion; an academic political intrigue between a recently converted Muslim and an Egyptian Christian becomes a rapprochement over a tale of Iraqi death; a doomed, fumbling attempt at rekindling a corroded romance that’s desolate and affecting. There are no duds here, several excellent pieces and one standout.
That piece, “Money as a Weapons System,” will surely be anthologized ad infinitum. It’s a work of razor sharp satirical brilliance, and has a fine line in self-immolating metaphoric dialogue exchanges that say everything that need be said in quipping moment after Strangelove-esque exchange. It really does reach Helleresque levels of comic surreality and damning, gleefully-fatalistic rhetoric. The U.S. presence here is largely about empty gestures and the appearance of a certain brand of “progress.” Attempts at real improvements depend on the whim of constantly-modified agenda, all manner of backhanders and obscenely complex and bribe-heavy negotiations: an inactive water plant, handily installed with pipes that can’t cope with water pressure levels, becomes a disaster zone of hampered intentions, and merely getting water to Iraqis provides abundant Catch-22-esque queasy mirth, as Major Zima, a corpulent Norman Schwarzkopfesque caricature, interrupts his push-ups to mention a trade-off in the works, which will involve destroying everything in place and backing out of a sweetener unless they build the much-needed “pressure reducer.”
“I told them I get promoted for completing projects, which is sort of true, and that the plant wouldn’t be operational until well after I was out of Iraq, which is definitely true, and that I wasn’t going to go through with the nine-hundred-thousand-dollar open-air market one of the ministry guys’ cousins is supposed to build for us if they keep cock-blocking us on water.”
I stared at the major in awe. Initially, I had thought the man stupid. Now, I wasn’t sure if Zima was brilliant or insane.
“But,” I said, “we can’t destroy a Sunni village . . .”
“It’s okay,” he said. “For now, we keep moving forward. The Sunnis aren’t going to let overpressurized water destroy their homes. That’d be a silly thing to happen in the desert. They’ll keep track of it, even if we don’t.”
Zima’s confidence didn’t reassure me. “Do they know about the pressure?” I said.
“No,” he said. “But I put a reminder on my Outlook calendar for the week the BCT’s scheduled to leave Iraq. It says, ‘Tell Sheikh Abu Bakr that the pipes we built for him will make his house explode.’”
Baseball kits are flown in: “sports diplomacy” is the buzz “solution,” it seems. Various congressmen, entrepreneurs (G G Goodwin, the “mattress king” — “It’s like we say in the business. SUCCESS = DRIVE + DETERMINATION + MATRESSES.”) and other assorted big-hitters back home are right behind instigating social change amongst the invaded Iraqis with a few bats and oversized replica shirts, and a few photos of the local kids playing ball will sell the war nicely. It’s not about the future of Iraq: it’s about justifying the war effort with contrived examples of empowerment (widow beekeeper foundations pointlessly tick numerous boxes in one fell swoop), cultural colonization and simple, unequivocally familiar and easily-digestible images, the attempted encapsulation of which is as crazed as it is troublingly funny.
“Tell him to swing,” I said.
The kid swung as though he were using the bat to beat someone todeath, lifting it overhead and bringing it brutally down. I wanted to send that shot to G.G., but instead I showed the kid how to swing correctly and went back to taking photos. The timing was difficult, but after about twenty swings I got it perfect, the bat blurry, the batter’s face pure concentration, and a look of worry from the catcher, as if the batter had just connected with a pitch. I turned the camera’s display around and showed the picture to the Professor and the kids.
“Look at that,” I said.
The Professor nodded. “There you are,” he said. “Success.”
The one fault I can find with that otherwise flawless piece is that it demands to run to novel length: there’s so much there. It could easily be expanded to a similar page-count as Dave Eggers’ A Hologram to See the King, which it favorably resembles, the witheringly disparate culture-confrontation here bearing many similarities.
The main strength of Redeployment is its overarching desire to interrogate the implicit and exacerbating fragilities of fraught relationships in which a colloquy is almost impossible (there’s a memorable translator/professor in “Money as a Weapons System,” himself deeply opposed to the U.S. presence but nonetheless their means of communication with nationals, who he also tends to be disdainful of . . .), and which are susceptible to endless complications, internecine wrangling and misunderstandings. The mire of miscommunication echoes and compounds the unquantifiable chaos and unceasing terror: here, not only IEDs and gunfire destroy. Nonsensical pet projects, misinterpretation, assumption, subjectivity, uncertainty and futility are all incalculable, potent factors amid the incessant carnage. The madness of war, a built-in element that can be overstated in fiction (as crazy as that sounds: in order to hit hard, the writer must weigh and measure elements that don’t, in reality, yield to such apprehension), in which numbers become meaningless and an entire people become a hated entity (on both sides) with all shades of gray dialed-up to black or bomb-glared to white, must be difficult to encapsulate without resorting to cliché, over-familiar tropes or a certain kind of bruised ennui forming a prelude to mayhem. Phil Klay admirably provides us with an eclectic set of complex, believable characters, and brings off multiple voices that are empathetic and authentic. For a first collection it’s supremely assured stuff.
Redeployment surely has every chance of winning the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award. It’s up there with the best in war fiction (it’s not Hemingway, Johnson, or Jones, but it’s hardly cowed by such company) and is a considerable advance, for me, on Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds, which felt a little over-polished and attenuated, a little glibly elegiac. The havoc here seems more real, the ranging vantage points more impressively and cumulatively disorienting and disquieting. The only iffy moments arrive when, using letters and emails to bestow a kind of sweeping authenticity in the otherwise powerful “Prayer in the Furnace,” Klay becomes a little overwrought. A minor quibble, and a highly commendable collection.