Crueler than their circumstance

This is my review of Redeployment by Phil Klay.

A dozen often bleak and brutal stories carry an authentic ring based on the author’s first-hand experience as a marine in Iraq. Although it is deliberate in the case of “OIF”, some are too cluttered with military acronyms, either meaningless or distracting if you pause to work them out or look them up. Others which focus on the fighting have nowhere to go after ramming home the way young soldiers are trained as unquestioning killing machines, kept in this state by psychopathic officers, then swear, take drugs and get drunk to blunt their fear, guilt and confusion.

What held me more were the issues raised by the “redeployment” of the title : how these men might deal with the return to “normal” life and communicate with non-combatants.

The brilliant opening story, “Redeployment”, describes with great clarity and insight a young man’s sensations on returning home from a seven month stint in Iraq. Having been trained to function at an “orange” level of alert all the time, he cannot adjust at first to a world of people “who’ve spent their whole lives on white”. He cannot cope with walking down the high street alone, rather than in a line of men, each detailed to scan ahead at a different level: tops of buildings, lower windows or at street level. “You startle ten times checking” for the gun that is no longer there. By the end of the trip, the man is too “amped up” to drive. “I would have gone at a hundred miles an hour.”

In “War Stories”, a young man whose face has been hideously scarred agrees to be interviewed by a chilly young actress “with a splinter of ice in her heart” who wants to use his experiences for a play. She is only interested in the drama of his injury, so never discovers his pragmatic decision, being unlikely to “pull” a girl like her, to give his undamaged sperm to a bank, so that his genes can be passed on in a new life. “I’ll have some baby out there. Some little Jenks. Won’t be called Jenks, but I can't have everything, can I?”

I also recommend “Prayer in a Furnace” where a sensitive and well-intentioned chaplain’s faith is unequal to dealing with the horror which a cynical young soldier confesses to him, and “Psychological Operations” which explores the complex emotions of an American of Coptic Egyptian origins who, because of his assumed knowledge of Arabic, is sent to deliver propaganda which involves insulting Iraqi extremists to goad them into coming out to die under fire.

Less harrowing than the other stories, but chilling beneath its humour is, “Money as a weapons system” in which an idealistic man sent out on a “Provincial Reconstruction Team” learns painful lessons over the extent of corruption, tribal division and American ignorance which bedevil any serious attempt to rebuild the country.

I don’t know how cathartic is was for Phil Klay to write this, but it would be a mistake to “write these stories off” as the scripts for yet another violent war film – into which they could well be twisted. Most of them provide salutary lessons on the folly of ill-prepared engagement in Iraq.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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