In 2007 Phil Klay was deployed to Iraq’s Anbar Province. During his six month’s serving as a Marine public affairs officer Klay gathered stories for his book Redeployment, which won this year’s National Book Award. I read Redeployment, with great interest; Klay and I both served in Iraq during the troop surge.
In Redeployment Klay attempts to make sense of the average soldier’s – “Joe’s” – experiences during and after their tour of duty. Joe was trained, or “switched on,” to fight on the frontline of a traditional mass on mass, force on force conventional war. Instead, Joe fights a war he wasn’t trained for, an irregular war where the frontline is visible only when snipers, hiding amongst civilians, kill fellow fighters and melt back into the populace; and through the remote detonation of improvised explosive devices. U.S. forces had visiting hours at the local sheikh’s house, while the invisible enemy owned the sheikh and civilian population for the remaining hours of the day and night.
Klay captures Joe’s frustration over who the enemy is in an irregular war when his characters bitterly proclaim that [Iraqis are] ‘all the same to me…they’re all the enemy’. Klay’s characters ask the underlying questions, “Why didn’t Iraqi insurgents dress in uniforms and fight a fair war, and why didn’t Iraqi’s appreciate our sacrifice?”
Joe was largely isolated from the country in which he was stationed, commuting to and from the battlefield instead of living amongst the population, eating on base dining facilities rather than living off the local economy, returning to a secure camp after a day at war. This isolation kept Joe and the Iraqis from sharing the day to day experiences that allow people to learn from and about one other.
The U.S. military’s ability to switch on deploying soldiers is rivaled only by its inability to switch off these same soldiers when they return home. Still switched on, Joes return to the States where, mentally scarred by war, they remain in heightened awareness and battle readiness, even as they experience divorce, financial insolvency and civilians who are blissfully ignorant about war.
Several of Klay’s characters sum up this post-deployment dilemma, ‘You risked your life for something bigger…You [were] willing to die for these worthless civilians [who shop], which is how America fights back against terrorists’.” While I don’t feel this way, I understand why many Joes do. In America the experience of war was and is compartmentalized; a sacrifice borne by those who fight. For much of the rest of the country war is but one headline among many, one statistic among many, and one book about wartime adventurism among many.
While Redeployment tells multiple stories and tells them well, Klay misses the mark when it comes to the tales of many returning veterans. His story about a New York University student debating his options stands in stark contrast to the real life experiences of many veterans who have been fleeced of their GI Bill benefits by private schools. Missing from Klay’s work is the story of Joes with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome who are caught up in the labyrinthine abyss of the Veterans Administration’s health care system. Also ignored are accounts of Joes who are downsized and laid-off after repeated deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
One of Klay’s characters says to another, ‘Don’t let yourself think about [the gruesome experiences of war] until you’re back to the States.’ Bad advice, in my opinion, if once Joe returns from war there’s no one who understands what he’s been through.
Still, Redeployment helps break the civil-military divide, so that when we say to a soldier, sailor, airmen or marine, “thank you for your service” we truly understand what their service and sacrifice means.