In “Redeployment,” Phil Klay gives us a collection of short stories, all about the recent war in Iraq, mainly but not entirely featuring Marines who are or have been deployed there.
Despite being Marine-centered, this polyphonic collection–and Klay masterfully writes with different voices–shows the diversity of experience that Americans deployed in Iraq had: from coming under fire (“Frago,” “After Action Report”) to handling the bodies afterwards (“Bodies”) to dealing with the paperwork (“Unless It’s a Sucking Chest Wound”). There’s even a delightfully funny story about a state department employee trying to do a little good against all obstacles (“Money as a Weapons System”). There are also a series of stories about the problems of coming back home and trying to fit in with people who don’t know what you’ve been through but are more than willing to make assumptions.
In fact, while there’s certainly plenty of the things you might expect from a book about Iraq, like sand, tough talk, and acronyms, a recurring theme in the stories is not just the violence of war and what it does to you, but the way in which being a part of it makes other people see you. Klay’s Marines are acutely aware that they stand out and get attention from the rest of the populace: like very attractive women, these men find that other people come up to them to talk to them uninvited, that other people are more than happy to buy them drinks, listen to them, sleep with them, and make assumptions about them. And like many very attractive women, Klay’s Marines are ambivalent about this: while the attention is flattering and sometimes helpful for getting what they want, they become more and aware that they are objects of other people’s projections: other people see them not for themselves but as members of a special, elite caste (like very attractive women) to be used as receptacles of other people’s envy and desire. All the tough talk and objectification of others can’t save them from this, any more than drinking and sex can save them from memories they’d rather forget.
“Redeployment” is about the war in Iraq, and like most books about the war, it asks the question of “What the heck were we doing there?” But beyond that, it asks the question of “Who am I? How do people see me? Is that who I am?” Which is one of those questions that unites everyone, no matter what their experiences or what caste, elite or non-elite, they happen to occupy.