Phil Klay has been lauded as the Tim O’Brien of his generation. That is to say, a chronicler of the US war experience. Klay’s debut short story collection Redeployment takes us into the world of the Marines, volunteer chaplains, and foreign service folks who served in Iraq. The men and women who deploy and re-deploy. Who say we had contact, when they mean we were attacked and we shot back. Marines who say oo-rah and move on.
Like Lance Corporal Suba and his bunkmate Timhead. They have just come under fire and Timhead has killed an Iraqi child. He doesn’t want to admit it so Suba claims the kill.
Sergeant Major came over to the MP area while we were debriefing. I guess she’d heard we had contact. She’s the sort of sergeant major that always call everybody “killer.” Like, “How’s it going, killer? “Oo-rah, killer.” “Another day in paradise, right, killer?” That day, when she walked up, she said, “How’s it going, Lance Corporal Suba?”Phil Klay, “After Action Report” in Redeployment (Penguin 2014)
I told her I was great.
“Good work today, Lance Corporal. All of you, good work. Oo-rah?”
A Greek chorus
According to the Marine Corps Training and Education Command, oorah (no hyphen) is a term unique to the U.S. Marine Corps. Its origins and meaning vary from “let’s kill” to the sound “Aarugha” a submarine makes when it dives, dives, dives.
Like most of the characters in Redeployment, Klay is a Marine who fought in Iraq. The first 4 stories are action-packed, with fucks and military acronyms flying this way and that, amid IED, sniper and suicide bomb attacks. These characters use oo-rah as shorthand for hello, you OK or WTF.
LT says drop the fucking house. Roger that. We go to drop the fucking house.“Frago”
Klay uses the first person narrator in every story of Redeployment. Coming off the heels of The House on Mango Street, I was disoriented. Is the gu who works Mortuary Services in “Bodies” supposed to be the same guy under fire in “Frago”?
Midway the collection, Klay’s intent becomes clear. He’s trying to build a Greek chorus out of all the various sorts of people who showed up in Iraq. The soldiers in the direct line of fire, yes, but also the guys who make it back home alive.
Up close and personal
For me, Redeployment loses steam about the halfway mark. The middle stories focus on characters slightly outside the war theater. A Foreign Service Officer hands out baseball uniforms to Iraqi kids in “Money Is a Weapons System.” A chaplain struggles with reporting a possible abuse of power in “Prayer in the Furnace.” Given that this is Iraq, these characters are relatively safe. They carry no weapons. Danger lives outside the camp walls.
Klay might intend this to be a break in the action for the reader, a kind of literary R&R. But I don’t care about the chaplain. I want to know what’s going on in the head of the grunts. They see the chaplain as a safer alternative to the psychologist at Combat Stress, who they call the wizard. No Marine wants to be seen as the walking wounded.
Nor do they want to be told they have PTSD though they do and they know it. Combat vets mock the kind of therapy-by-theater advocated by trauma specialists like Bessel van der Kolk.
“I’m tired of telling war stories,” I say, not so much to Jenks as to the empty bar behind him. We’re at a table in the corner, with a view of the entrance.“War Stories”
Jenks shrugs and makes a face. Hard to tell what it means. There’s so much scar tissue and wrinkled skin, I never know if he’s happy or sad or pissed or what. He’s got no hair and no ears either, so even though it’s been three years after he got hit, I still feel like his head is something I shouldn’t stare at. But you look a man in the eye when you talk to him, so for Jenks I force my eyes in line with his.
In my ongoing quest to unlock the mystery of a successful short story collection, I dissect Redeployment. What holds these stories together? What gives them further meaning when read as a whole? The clue lies in the title and the stories that bookend this collection.
In the opening story, a Marine has finished his tour of duty and is now on his way to his wife Cheryl and his good old dog Vicar. He should be delighted, right?
When I got to the window and handed in my rifle, though, it brought me up short. That was the first time I’d been separated from it for months. I didn’t know where to rest my hands. First I put them in my pockets, then I took them out and crossed my arms, and then I just let them hang, useless, at my sides.“Redeployment”
When the Marine reaches home, his wife asks him how he is, which the Marine interprets to mean, are you crazy now?
The closing story, “Ten Kliks South,” also features Marines on their way back stateside but these Marines didn’t survive their wartime. They come home in caskets to American flags and silence.
Redeployment won the U.S. National Book Award in 2014. It is the decision a Marine makes to go to war over and over again until someone or something steps in to stop you.
8 December 2022 | Karen Kao