Reading Philip Klay’s Redeployment has helped me to think anew about our annual, modest rituals of honoring our veterans on November 11. Klay’s collection of a dozen short stories about soldiers fighting in Iraq and coming home from battle has been nominated for the 2014 National Book Award (Fiction Category) and is part of a wave of exciting fiction about the gulf wars. I added the book to the reading list for my 21st Century Fiction class this semester; we spent two full 160 minute class periods on seven of the 12 stories. Students liked the book and found it very revealing. To provide a wider lens for examining the book, we screened The Ground Truth, a 2006 documentary that presents interviews with a host of Iraq War veterans about their basic training, their life in the combat zone, and their readjustments to civilian life. I also read evocative passages from Kevin Power’s 2012 lyrical novel The Yellow Birds, which was also nominated for the National Book Award.
American fiction writers from Twain (essays on the early days of American imperialism) and Crane (The Red Badge of Courage) through Heller (Catch 22) and O’Brien (The Things They Carried) have always led the way in the presentation of the real horrors of war, the often flimsy reasons why we fight, the war profiteers, and the frequently awkward reception of the American public for returning veterans. Klay’s work continues this tradition of speaking truth to power. To read this collection of stories is to gain a special insight into the mind set of today’s soldier in the volunteer army. It will also lead us to be critical of the buzzword heroes in the invitation to attend Lewis’s Veterans’ Day observation: “Join Us as We Celebrate Our Nations Heroes.” It may get us to think twice about automatically yielding to compulsory patriotism as a soldier is reunited with his loving family at halftime of a professional football game. (See my blog on Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.)
Klay is a Marine veteran who served in Iraq during the surge. Almost all of his narrators are soldiers of lower rank who thoughtfully tell their stories, sometimes to a particular audience embedded in the story and sometimes directly to us. In many ways this book is about how soldiers craft their personal narratives and use these stories, some unadorned, some embellished, some pure invention, to have an impact on listeners who are ill-informed about the nature of fighting and about the Arab cultures in which the American military operated. Most of his narrators are humble men who know they have made it through because the IED over which their armored vehicle rode failed to explode. They are also reflective, intelligent men who are more than capable of grasping the complexity of military life and Iraqi society, and thus refrain from offering sweeping theories or instant remedies. Their humility does not stop them from satirizing the career-minded martinets who direct operations and have unwarranted optimism about military success.
A sergeant tells the story of how he guides a recent arrival who has made his first kill to put the event out of his mind and to focus only on the cobbler dessert in the mess hall. A strong-willed PFC shares with us a small act of deception: in the after action report he identifies himself rather than his psychologically fragile comrade as the trigger-man who took out an insurgent. A member of the Mortuary Affairs Division returns home to find that his girlfriend has abandoned him and, at a reunion of high school acquaintances, he spins out a story about his treatment of a fatally burned soldier. When a listener says that the story makes him respect the story teller, the storyteller says that his intention was to disgust the listener rather than solicit his admiration. One narrator provides an account in which his decision to humanely put down his infirmed pet can be read as a necessary corrective to the many Iraqi stray dogs who were part of the collateral damage.
If you accept the idea that these stories accurately reflect the lives of Iraq war veterans, then you have to conclude that their motives for enlisting rarely include a burning sense of patriotism or a belief in American exceptionalism or even the ability to list the freedoms that they are protecting. Some of the battlefield superiors exhibit behavior that indicates that their careers in the military is the best way to get and maintain a sense of manliness, but this equation is not shared by the men further down the chain of command. Some soldiers join to honor their fathers and to uphold a family tradition of service. But others, like an Egyptian Copt in one of Klay’s stories, apparently have joined to spite their fathers. One of the boot camp drill instructors mocks the recruits for their gullible response to the slick military recruiting propaganda and to the evocative bumper-sticker slogans. He cynically tells them that the persuasive slogan should read: “You won’t be able to afford college without it.” What is worth fighting for is often no more than devotion to the members of a small platoon, especially its more vulnerable members. What drives them is the knowledge that each day spent battling insurgents in maze-like cities or engaging in some public works project in the countryside brings them one day closer to a return home. None go AWOL but it’s not as though they haven’t thought about making their separate peace.
Klay’s soldiers recoil at the notion that they are heroes, exemplars of valor and bravery. It’s not just their modesty that leads to this denial. Most struggle with the possibility that they are closer to monsters than angels. Most know that they have been trained to be unreflective killing machines and that they have done bad things that will trouble their conscience. The heat reading scope that enables the soldier to assess the vitality of an enemy body on the ground is a useful technology but it doesn’t reduce the guilt of a young marine whose first killing enables the section to reach 100% (every soldier has killed). Soldiers at home testify to the involuntary disruptive thoughts and images that are barriers to healthy re-assimilation. One common trope is that of the accidental victim. In a war where combatants blend in with the civilian population, the 13 year old kid with a stick is misread as an Al-Qaeda member with an AK-47. Or an entire village is defined as collaborating with the enemy and thus is expendable if progress to the next city is to be made.
Another trope is the returning vets experience with an American public that is ill-informed at best and indifferent at worst. It is excusable that the citizen will have a difficult time grasping the stress of combat and the boredom of the time in between. What is hard to fathom is the public’s confusion about whether the war is still going on over there or the discovery that the citizen knows nothing about the Sunni and Shia sects within Islam. In the age of the all-volunteer Army, few Americans know military personnel or feel the impact of military service on their family life. In an age in which the public responds favorably to calls for lower taxes, few are aware of the enormous costs of conducting foreign wars and maintaining a global military presence. Little is asked of us other than to continue to be good consumers. Both MSNBC host Rachel Maddow in Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power and former Army officer Andrew Bacevich in Breach of Trust: How American Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country bemoan the stark and destructive disconnect between soldiers and citizens.
“Home,” a story by George Saunders in his much praised The 10th of December (2014) could very well have been included in Redeployment, Mikey, a troubled vet, returns to his dysfunctional family. Throughout the day, he has encounters with individuals – the cop who is evicting his mother, a family friend of his affluent brother-in-law, a shopper in a convenient store – who thank him for his service. These hollow words fuel his irritation. These words are about as meaningful as a yellow ribbon tied around a tree. They are empty gestures designed to assuage the small measure of guilt for lack of concern. The use of the word hero to describe men and women who don’t see themselves as particularly heroic tells us more about those doing the honoring than the honored.
The sentiment of many of Klay’s narrators is articulated by Rory Fanning is a recent TomDispatch essay called “Why Do We Keep Thanking Our Troops?” [Fanning is the author of the recently published Worth Fighting For: An Army Ranger’s Journey Out of the Military and Across America.] He recoils at the way that the Pentagon, despite its recent record of military failure, aggressively uses public spectacles like NASCAR races and country music award shows to ballyhoo the accomplishments of American soldiers.
He saves his biggest outrage for the narrow selection of the honorees and for the decontexualization of the memorializing ceremonies. He wonders whether in addition to heaping gratitude on the kid from rural Kansas or the Hispanic woman from the barrio we might also want to honor all of the soldiers and operatives that fought in the small scale interventions in places like Lebanon and Grenada. And should we not also honor the heroic proxies that we have funded to fight in dirty wars where American generals didn’t want to go? It won’t happen. The less known about CIA coups and the arming of the Mujahedeen, now our enemy, against the Soviets in Afghanistan, the better for citizens in the United States of Amnesia. In a recent Salon essay David Masciotra says that at a time when our freedoms are not truly imperiled, we should call heroes those dissenters who want to throw a big monkey wrench into the military-industrial-congressional complex.
He wants Veterans Day to more than a shallow observation of the protectors of our freedom to shop and drive 75 on the Interstate. Better that the time that we spend in saluting the flag and singing patriotic songs be spent in a deep discussion about the role of the American military. I would add that another useful exercise would be reading Phil Klay’s revealing fictional portraits, not of cardboard heroes basking in ephemeral ceremonies of praise but of complex human beings caught in hellish situations that will haunt them as long as they live.