The Madness of War Told in the First Person
Review by Michiko Kakutani
“You can’t describe it to someone who wasn’t there,” says a Marine who’s served in Iraq, “you can hardly remember how it was yourself because it makes so little sense. And to act like somebody could live and fight for months” there “and not go insane, well, that’s what’s really crazy.”
In “Redeployment,” his searing debut collection of short stories, Phil Klay — a veteran of the United States Marine Corps, who served in Iraq during the surge — gives the civilian reader a visceral feeling for what it is like to be a soldier in a combat zone, and what it is like to return home, still reeling from the dislocations of war. Gritty, unsparing and fiercely observed, these stories leave us with a harrowing sense of the war in Iraq as it was experienced, day by day, by individual soldiers; it achieves through fiction something very similar to what David Finkel’s 2009 nonfiction book “The Good Soldiers” did through tough but empathetic reporting.
There are stories of heroism and kindness here: A sergeant is killed rushing to help three of his wounded men in a narrow Iraqi city alley (“Unless It’s a Sucking Chest Wound”); a lance corporal takes responsibility for a killing he didn’t commit so that his young buddy, a kid who still plays Pokemon, won’t have to (“After Action Report”).
There are also tales of sadistic violence, demented machismo and hopelessness in the face of the surreal, “Groundhog Day”-like madness of fighting in places like Fallujah and Ramadi. “What are we doing?” a soldier asks a chaplain in “Prayer in the Furnace.” “We go down a street, get I.E.D.’d, the next day go down the same street and they’ve I.E.D.’d it again. It’s like, just keep going till you all die.”
Those who make it home face another set of challenges: coping with post-traumatic stress disorder; flashbacks of the violence they witnessed and inflicted; feelings of rage, guilt and anxiety; and problems fitting back in the civilian world.
Most people in the States, one Marine thinks in the title story, take for granted a certain level of safety — they spend “their whole lives at white” — and most will never even get close to orange. You don’t get to orange “until the first time you’re in a firefight, or the first time an I.E.D. goes off that you missed.”
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