This is the first in what might become a thing if I don’t get lazy: my attempt to stage a monthly one man book of the month club.
There was a moment, maybe 50 pages in, where I got worried about Phil Klay’s Redeployment. I didn’t know if I would be able to finish it. To be sure, Redeployment is beautifully written. And his characters, a diverse lot, are all rendered in full 3D. They do brave and noble things, they have doubts and worries, and they are frequently idiots too. They are both causal agents and victims of a wildly misguided post-9/11 American foreign policy.
But I had a nagging sense that I had been here before, and that I didn’t want to go back. Redeployment is a collection of short stories about the Iraq War. And it’s difficult for me to engage with such art without thinking about the meta-discourse around such stories. I thought about the conversations that inevitably accompany the release of films like The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. I thought about my tangled twitter feed from the period when American Sniper came out. Stories about war inevitably become a popular culture proxy for the politics of war, and within this discourse, “supporting the troops” almost aways becomes an ideographic justification for equating bellicosity with righteousness. I didn’t like The Hurt Locker. And although I empathize with the troops, I refuse to support them. As the historian and retired military officer Andrew Bacevich argues, nothing good comes from such rhetoric.
But about a third of the way in, Klay’s Redeployment opens up. He begins by winking at the reader with a clever story that plays with the many acronyms of the military. (It reads like something out of a Jonathan Lethem story.) Next, he offers a satire about the role of capitalism in the rebuilding of Iraq. By the time Klay gets around to allusions of Althusser, Gramsci, and Fanon, he’s literally (literarily?) moved the reader; moved in the sense that the dozens of perspectives portrayed in this work put the reader in other people’s heads and other people’s shoes; and moved in the sense that he’s started somewhere familiar — the (dare I say cliched) narrative of the soldier who survived an IED explosion and is feeling guilty or whatever — and has transported the reader to new territory. As Klay takes you through the ways that soldiers lie to one another and to themselves, or the ways that they employ “psy ops” to mess with their enemies’ heads, he constructs distance in a Brechtian sense, moving the reader back and forth from empathy to alienation.
As Redeployment progresses, it becomes increasingly self aware. Aware of language and rhetoric, and the way that it gets shoehorned into genre, twisted into propaganda, as well as sanitized by acronyms. It appears in the smallest of ways, for example, when the narrator of one tale notes that “Marines often speak to officers in platitudes” (248). And then Klay begins to play with narrative itself, not in a Dave Eggers kind of way, but subtler. One story begins with the line, “I’m tired of telling war stories” (213). Another has a character deconstructing the heroic official story of a fallen soldier whose comrades are seeking to get him the Medal of Honor.
In the final few stories of Redeployment, Klay circles continuously around questions of media and reality. One story examines the Baudrillardian phenomenon of helmet cam YouTube videos, through which others can relive firefights in an experience akin to playing a video game. Elsewhere, Klay’s characters debate the power of film war stories to conjure jingoistic zeal and send Americans to fight. One character argues that there are no such things as anti-war films, that even movies like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket glorify the discipline and combat of the military experience. I don’t know if this character is right or not, and I’d be curious to hear Klay’s take on Fury (which I appreciated) or American Sniper (which I have not seen). I also wonder what would happen if Redeployment itself were turned into a movie. What would happen to all of its searching questions, its complexity, its sympathetic heroes and its naive fools, its denial of any easy answers, its careful devotion to the power of words?